CLO Training: Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia

A couple blog posts ago, I described the position I currently hold here in Baghdad. It is a big job for one person at the largest embassy in the world, but I finally have found my groove with managing the workload and am ready for the next seven months. The hiring freeze is not great – frankly it’s bad for the Foreign Service since it means that trailing spouses cannot get hired at post. Luckily I got my job back in November and am not currently affected, but if the freeze continues by the time we move on to our next assignment, I will not be able to work. Hopefully we will be able to educate this administration regarding EFM (Eligible Family Member) employment and they will thaw the freeze. However, if it continues, there will be no one to fill the two positions I am currently holding up when I leave. These are vacancies, not the creation of new positions.

Anyways…I had to preface that with the real reason I am writing this post. Training in Kuala Lumpur! Respectfully, the Community Liaison Office program requires training for coordinators and DC holds regional training overseas for those of us living away from the States. Lucky for me, I got to go for one week of training in Southeast Asia! It was a rewarding opportunity and I enjoyed every minute of it. Even though we did forty hours of training, it felt like a vacation! I made some great connectionss and spent time with a good friend, enjoyed delicious food and nightlife, and took advantage of the cheap spa services. It was awesome!

The training is good for five years, so I won’t be getting lucky like that again. I am very thankful for the traveling I have been able to experience because of this Foreign Service life.

Normandy, Chamonix, and Munich (Late Post)

The power is out on the compound now which is actually a blessing in disguise because it’s finally given me an opportunity to write my next blog post. It is quiet at the embassy since it is Saturday, the sun is brightly shining and the weather is a nice cool spring morning. It’s *rare* days like this one that make Baghdad feel like a liveable place, a normal life for those who call it home. Of course, this peaceful feeling is nothing more than wishful thinking and nostalgia for my own experiences growing up in the desert and enjoying the springtime weather reminiscent of my happy childhood, since Baghdad and the greater country of Iraq is still rife with conflict.

Two days ago the embassy played host to children who have been displaced from their homes. They are living in refugee camps and have come from cities in Iraq that have been overrun by ISIS  and other struggles. For many of them, their homes no longer exist – they have nothing to return to.

These children came and played sports, crafted, and danced with us for several hours, they ate candy and ice cream, and went home with some toys. It was a magical day for everyone, Americans included, to live innocently and carefree if only for a fleeting moment. A reminder of the peace we would like to see in Iraq.

Contrast this world against that which we experienced on R&R. I try not to take for granted the opportunities we are rewarded for our time served in Iraq – it is generous and appreciated. Our lives are not like those of the children living in refugee camps and it would be wrong not to recognize our privilege.

As part of our deal for working one year in Iraq, we are afforded three R&Rs that are each three weeks long. These breaks are indeed necessary as the pace of our work can be taxing. Many have trouble sleeping here since we are always connected to the job – for the most part, we eat, sleep, and work. So after three-and-a-half months of six to seven work days a week, David and I were ready for that first R&R. And no surprise, we went back to our beloved France, but this time we added a leg to Germany which gave us an opportunity to see Bavaria and Salzburg, Austria.

I won’t be able to write out the details of our journey because three weeks was indeed a long vacation and even we were surprised at how much time we had off. But I want to share some pictures and the highlights. It was a beautiful trip with many adventures. Alhamdullilah.

Baghdad

It’s been a little over two months since we arrived in Baghdad and we are doing okay. We are safe on the compound with a nice one bedroom apartment to seek respite after long and busy days at work. We work six – sometimes seven – days a week which helps pass the time, but also doesn’t allow for much allowance to recharge.

David and I are very relieved to be together during this assignment since for many it is unaccompanied. Most agree that the assignment isn’t so hard when your significant other is here. We are able to live a relatively normal life just by having a warm body to come home to and meals to share as a family. That’s not to say that it isn’t a challenge, just easier to cope and manage stress when your spouse is along for the ride.

I work as a coordinator in the Community Liaison Office and it is quite a big job for a Post of 3,000 – especially since I am the only one! Shortly after I arrived, my coworker left unexpectedly and I have been holding down the fort by myself ever since. My job entails several very important responsibilities for maintaining the morale and welfare here. I give newcomer briefs, resource, manage, and distribute information, organize and support events and activities, and liaise with other sections and agencies to help ensure the different communities’ needs are being met. It’s easy to say that I am the face for most people when they are looking for diversions from work.

A little about where we are located in Baghdad. The U.S. Embassy is in the International Zone (formerly known as the Green Zone) and sits right next to the Tigris River. Of course we are surrounded by high concrete walls which means we don’t get to go near the water, but if I go up to a higher floor of my office building and look out the window, I can see it glistening in the sun. It’s quite a refreshing sight. Also, when I am walking to work, I can see the tips of the Crossed Swords (two of the three). Behind our embassy is an old Saddam regime palace (pictured below). A nearby mosque outside our compound walls gives the call to prayer – a welcome and familiar sound that reminds me of Saudi.

Pollution appears to be a real problem here. Because the land sits low where we are next to the river, there is sometimes fog in the morning and the air is thick with fumes from fires and burning fuel. For a country dealing with Isis and many political tensions, it is understandable that pollution is a small concern, but I have taken a new appreciation for air quality.

Sometimes when we are out walking at night, we will hear the occasional explosion – these are far from us, but still a testament to the violence that is possible in Baghdad.

The days are short, the weeks are quick, but the months feel long. Two months down and ten more to go. In a few weeks we will take our first R&R which will be a welcome relief!

 

 

Final Thoughts on Saudi Arabia

With more than five months of Saudi Arabia in our rearview mirror, we still feel remnants of our time there all around us. We see faces that look familiar, hear voices that remind us of friends past, and taste resemblances in our food that is not as good but transports us back to local flavors that gave us comfort and joy. We still reminisce about life back there and talk about people who had an impact on us. Sometimes it’s hard to comprehend that as quickly as it began, it ended.

I recently saw a picture from one of the first two weeks of our arrival, and I look younger, naive, excited. The past two years did not disappoint.

Maybe it’s because we enjoyed our time so much in Saudi that we signed up for a third year in the Middle East with Baghdad. Sure there were some hard times, but they weren’t enough to make us lose perspective of the day-to-day satisfaction of accomplishing our goal of living overseas and then taking advantage of the travel opportunities.

People want to know what it was like to live in Saudi Arabia and I always tell them that I loved it. They ask about things that they’ve seen on tv about the culture, and most of it is true, but none of it really made as much of a difference in our life there as the people we met.

The most difficult part of Saudi Arabia wasn’t with regard to the local culture. It was with the people who couldn’t hold up to the pressures at work and on the compound. These are the people who are miserable and want everyone else around them to be miserable. Transplant them out of a country that has many restrictions on entertainment, self-expression, mobility, activities, and for a few months of the year, good weather, and place them in paradise, and they will still be the ones to complain about something. Sure I complained. About said limitations listed above and other things. But I also stayed active and tried my best to make friends and have true cultural experiences that I could take home with me. My happiest memories came from opening myself up for opportunities to happen.

Of course, being a “yes person” also meant that I opened myself up to what David and I call “moochers” and after being burned several times, learned when and whom to say no. Make no mistake, being a moocher is quite possibly the worst offense. I can handle the complainers, however, the moochers are no friends of mine. You know the people. The ones who only call you when they need you. Yep, they are rampant in the expat community. Beware.

Aside from the complainers and moochers, Saudi Arabia was one of the best things that we could have done. Learning about a new culture firsthand is the beginning of compassion. The closure of a gap. It’s what makes us not so much as different, but the same. What was hard about life was also what made it special – the people.

Most of all, I miss the friends that I made. The ladies with whom I lunched, joked, and explored. They were willing to take chances at making life better, a lesson I learned almost ten years ago which changed my attitude and gave me hope. Maybe it’s because of the desolate and barren landscape, the loss of freedom, and the tendency to feel isolated that we continued to reach out to one another to look for the amiable hand that was reaching back. It was the shared feeling between all of us that we were in it together

I know Baghdad will be similar, although amplified, and we feel that Saudi was preparing us for this greater challenge.

Just as the California desert calls me home, the Middle East desert calls me back to continue the adventure.

 

Packing for the Unknown

Much of our preparation for each move involves sorting and organizing our material things into piles marked ship, pack, storage, and give away. Before leaving Saudi, I spent much time separating items for storage and shipment. It was a similar process when we left New Jersey for Saudi two years ago, I separated our items into ship and storage and we packed our suitcases with what we would need immediately upon arrival. I even wrote a blog post about the process. It seemed pretty straight forward at the time. Sure, there were definitely things I would do differently after I realized I put too much emphasis on what I would need in air freight and what I ended up really needing those first two months, but it wasn’t too bad. So I’ve been trying to do it as good – if not better – this time around.

Ha! I should know otherwise.

Each time we move, we try to do it better. Yet, no matter the effort and thought, it doesn’t always work out that way. There are different obstacles, different Post policies, unforeseen paperwork, new lame brains on the shipping/receiving end who act like your shipment is somehow different from all the rest and don’t do their jobs correctly, and then there are the different circumstances surrounding the move. This time around, we packed out our home six months before heading to our new assignment, which meant that we would be carting around our air freight from hotel room to hotel room until it would be sent back to the Middle East. Not easy when you have one car and 500 lbs of cargo.

This air freight contains all the possessions that we will have in Baghdad for our year-long assignment – only eight boxes worth. I spent much time in Saudi thinking about and researching our move. How would the apartment be furnished, what clothes should I pack, what items would we want to feel comfortable and at home? The lifestyle will be stressful and the work will be demanding, we needed to pack as many comforts as possible.

Fast forward to present day. After shuffling items around, packing and re-packing as far back as February, I still find myself constantly reassessing our air freight. I have been emailing with contacts currently at Post who have perspective on such important matters of the heart when overseas, and I still cannot fathom what our lives will be like. There are too many unknowns still, too many variables, and such a small limit to what we can ship. I find most of my attention is drawn to the things that will bring us joy. Much of what I’ve packed has been practical, but lately I am thinking more sentimentally. I’ve printed pictures that I plan to display in my office and around the apartment, I’ve purchased new bedding and a few furnishings to bring character and life to the white walls and brown furniture, and I have been putting probably way too much thought into the food I want to ship so I can do a little cooking and baking despite the fact that there will be a cafeteria supplying us with free food around the clock.

The truth is, I am anxious for this move. This time there will be more separation than in the past. We will be separated from our beloved dog who has given us great comfort and stability with each move, and we will be separated from most of our earthly possessions which have given us consistency and familiarity in our new surroundings. If there is any reassurance in going to Baghdad, it’s that David and I will be together.

This move has been challenging and it’s still not over. I probably won’t consider it over until a year has gone by and we are once again in the U.S. reunited with Pigpen. For now, I will continue packing and sorting, putting things into boxes and then taking them out again, making lists and envisioning the unknown, anticipating another move and preparing myself emotionally for another life-altering experience. If I seem a little crazy, it’s because I’m packing for the unknown.

Home Leave

After a long transition back to the U.S. that required extensive planning and great perseverance, we are finally (relatively) settled in Virginia for three months of training.

We have been living out of suitcases for the last four months and are carting around several large boxes from Saudi Arabia which we will be shipping off to Baghdad in a couple months. The whole prospect of what we’ve been through and what we still have left to tackle sometimes feels overwhelming, but for the time being we are keeping calm and staying positive.

This blog post is called “Home Leave” because we just spent the whole month of July enjoying the beauty of this benefit that the Foreign Service enforces all employees to take between assignments. The idea is that after serving overseas for two years and before going back, your family needs to spend time in the U.S. to remember why this country is so great. We are serving the U.S. overseas after all. So we had mandatory vacation time. Yippee!

The decision to go to Maggie Valley, which is a small town in the Great Smoky Mountains of North Carolina, was made very quickly after we thought about where we were coming from and where we were going. Desert – aaaand then back to – desert. We needed some color and depth in our lives and the Great Smokies provided just that. With green trees, mountain streams and rivers, a high elevation, and rainy weather that came and went in the afternoons, we couldn’t have asked for a better contrast to our life in the Middle East.

With no itinerary or schedule, we let ourselves relax and decide how we would spend our time each day as it came. Among our hikes into the mountains and walks around the lake, we white water rafted down the Ocoee River in Tennessee, rode horses, ate some amazing BBQ and southern comfort dishes, floated in inner tubes down Oconaluftee River in Cherokee, and spent time with family and friends.

It was hard to leave such a peaceful and charming vacation, but we are grateful we had such an opportunity to explore and have fun in the mountains.

Now, once again, it’s back to work!

Around the World in Seventeen Days

Coming home after being overseas for a year-and-a-half is an emotional experience to say the least. Our second R&R (rest and recovery) for our two year assignment in SA took us around the world as we traveled from Bahrain to London to Los Angeles to Tokyo to Manila to Bahrain and then back to Saudi. We somehow survived the total air time of forty-five hours in the seventeen days journey. Why would we put ourselves through this madness? Because our family and friends mean this much to us. We would travel tens of thousands of miles to be there to hear that two of our friends are getting engaged, to find out that two of our friends are expecting their first child, and to watch two of our friends say “I do” to each other.          We spent time with family, talking about how life has changed and witnessing it in person. Walking around Old Town Pasadena we saw that some of our favorite stores and restaurants had come and gone, recognition that the time capsule we were expecting to come back to was never shut. We closed those chapters of our life when we moved away, but they were still being written without us. This realization hit me the hardest as we sat in our favorite Himalayan restaurant eating some of our favorite dishes. As David and I reminisced about this life that we once inhabited, the tears poured out of me. We have changed. Our friends and family have changed. Places have changed. Outside the restaurant was a world that we recognized but which no longer felt familiar.   

 I imagine this is a one time shock to transition through since I have never been away from the U.S. for so long. Even David had to adjust to the homecoming in his own way. We stepped off the shuttle bus from LAX to the rental car company, and the driver asked us if we had ever been here before. David not realizing the context of the question responded, “yes, we’re coming home” with a giant smile on his face. The driver gave him a blank look as I quickly interjected, “no, we haven’t.” The driver then picked up my cue and said, “okay, so you’re going to make a left at the end of the sidewalk and then another left, follow the arrows until you see the sign.” The relief and joy of being back in CA was all we could think about as we held our suitcases. The sun set over the coast casting a red glow on the palm trees.

Along with our jam-packed social itinerary, we also did quite a bit of shopping at our favorite stores and malls: Target, Bed Bath and Beyond, Trader Joe’s, the Cabazon outlets, See’s candies. Ate at our favorite establishments: El Ranchito, Santana’s, In ‘N Out, Togo’s, Chipotle, Panda Express.
 
I DROVE!!!! Everywhere I could!
In the Philippines we enjoyed sightseeing (Bonifacio Global City, Fort Santiago and Intramuros), spa services, and lots of delicious food with David’s family and relatives.    

               It was good to see everyone again.  What an amazing thing to have people we are close with all over the world.