Thursday, August 1, 2013

Sometimes Heartache

There are a lot of good things about this foreign service career; you get to travel the world, you get to meet interesting people, you get to help people in small ways that can make a big difference.  But today I ran smack into a really stark downside to this career and no matter what kind of spin you put on it, it sucks.  Sometimes you really miss your family.  Sometimes you miss them so much, your insides hurt and your head aches and your heart breaks.  There are times you cannot see your family when you want to.  This is especially difficult when big life changes happen to the people you love and you cannot be there to help them or share what they are going through.  It's definitely a huge sacrifice to serve your country while being inhibited from serving your family.  It's a choice I always knew was there, but I pushed it away and tried not to think about it.

My Dad got sick about 4 months ago.  My Dad has been healthy his entire life.  He worked several jobs when I was young to make ends meet, volunteered for over 25 years on the Rescue Squad, built all our Christmas presents out of oak and took care of my Mom and the rest of us, including the grandkids, whenever a car broke down or someone needed help moving or lifting or hauling.  He drove cross country from Minnesota to Arizona every year for 10 years so he and my Mom could spend the winter months away from the snow and enjoy the sunshine.  My Dad was indestructible until he got sick.  Now, we talk on the phone every night so I can see how he's doing and what he's eating and hear his voice.  But it's not the same as being there.  I am so glad for the closeness of our calls because it's giving us a chance to share time with each other.  I know calling is the best option we can arrange for the moment, but I can't wait to get there and see him and my Mom in person.

And then there is my daughter, Angela, who is having her first baby in about 7 weeks.  My first grandchild is about to be born and I have not yet had the chance to see my beautiful daughter pregnant.  Yes, we skype and yes I get to see her happy glow, but oh how I wish I could give her a hug and pat her growing belly and share the special joy that binds a mother and daughter together during this milestone of life.  We have had some lovely talks about pregnancy and birthing and parenting and we have even had some great moments remembering her childhood.  But I still can't wait to get there and see her in person.

I'm planning a visit home soon because life is filled with priorities and being overseas reminds you what is important in life, and the people you love are at the top of the list.  Price of a plane ticket home?  About $1100.  Being with family?  Priceless.  Pick up the phone and call someone you love, or better yet, if they are close by--give them a hug.

Friday, May 31, 2013

Africa.....Round Three

Well, folks, we have moved again.  When I joined the foreign service five years ago, I never thought I would have served in four foreign countries in those five years. My first assignment (2008-2010) was  Freetown, Sierra Leone.  My first hardship post and probably the most poverty stricken country of all, it created my best memories and my longest lasting friendships.  I always say if I survived Freetown, I can survive anywhere.  Next stop was five months in Washington, DC, which, after two years in Africa, felt like a foreign country.  Language training was challenging and unorganized, but I muddled through.  Let's just say that taking the oral text on the last day of class was probably the hardest thing I ever had to do besides giving birth,  Next time I will take all 5 months of the course instead of joining late due to "needs of the service."  Not having language skills at your future post hurts you for the duration of your assignment.  Note to new readers:  If your position is LD (Language Designated) TAKE the full language training.  You will never regret it.  After DC, I spent a year in Berlin.  What a cold year that was.  I didn't write much because I was very busy at work and very busy on the weekends visiting Lee, who lived 7 hours away.  In summer 2011, I was invited to work for Ambassador Rowe in Maputo, Mozambique.  It was thrilling to be back in Africa again--back to the warmth of the people and the weather.  We made so many good friends there.  I still cannot believe we were only there 18 months.  But during that time, we lived our lives to the absolute fullest.  

Insert interesting paragraph here:  One of the great benefits of foreign service life is sharing your overseas experiences with family and friends.  We invite people to come and visit us and a LOT of them actually come!  People living in the United States tend to be fairly sheltered when it comes to traveling.  I know I was NOT a geography guru before I joined the foreign service.  I want people to experience other corners of this vast world--to see new things and to have empathy for other cultures. How can you really learn those ideals and values if you don't actually spend time in country?  CNN can only go so far.  I really believe if we understand each country more, then we would have a better chance to create peace and harmony.  In Mozambique, we had our dear friends Cathy and Ro and Jim visit us for nearly two weeks.  We had my niece Lynn, visit for three weeks, and we had my niece Amy and her husband Chris visit for over a week.  But the absolute outstanding visit of all was when we invited my daughter and Lee's daughter to visit over Easter vacation and somehow we ended up hosting 6 guests all at once! Then, after taking those 6 guests to three foreign countries in five days, we topped off their visit by GETTING MARRIED!  We not only showed them the unique culture of South Africa, Swaziland and Mozambique, but we shared the wedding customs of Maputo by having our very own wedding on the beach.  The photos were stunning, the kids had a great time and I like to think we sent 6 mini-Ambassadors back to the U.S. to tell their family and friends what Africa is really like.

Which brings me to my current posting:  U.S. Embassy Banjul, The Gambia; my third African post and also my third hardship post.  Lee and I have been here a month now, and have formed a few impressions and had a few interesting exchanges with this little, tiny country that is almost totally enclosed within the country of Senegal on the west coast of Africa.  Antidotes to follow in my next blog, as this one seems to have grown to a length not originally intended by the author.  

Keep living life to the fullest, challenge yourself to learn new things, smile at strangers and look forward to my next blog involving seashells and cow manure.  

Tuesday, July 31, 2012

A Good Saturday

People often ask me how I chose this job and why I stick with it.  True, there are many downfalls—such as missing your family members, missing out on family events and not having access to normal American products like Zip Lock bags and chocolate chips.  But sometimes I experience a day that makes all the hardship worthwhile and reminds me why I signed up for this job.  Sometimes everything goes right and I remember why I joined the Foreign Service and how lucky I am.

July 28 started like any typical Saturday in Mozambique.  Sunshine flooded into our bedroom window from the lovely Indian Ocean view just in front of our apartment.  Unfortunately for Lee, he was unexpectedly called away to a Hash Running Club meeting, but that left me with some alone time which I used to putter around our kitchen.  Our kitchen is spacious and beautiful—the best kitchen I have ever had the privilege of living in.  We have granite counter tops, an abundance of white cabinets (including two lighted units which we use to show off our beautiful Polish pottery), ceramic tile floors and lots of windows.  It’s really a dream kitchen and it costs nothing.  Foreign Service pays our rent and all our utilities.  This is a benefit I don’t take for granted and it allows us to live a lifestyle that we could not enjoy if we lived in the United States.  Speaking of benefits—we also employ a maid and a cook.  We hired the maid as soon as we arrived because it is sort of the “thing to do” when you live in a hardship country.  The salary for a maid is so low that it becomes an act of service to help employ people in your host country.  Our maid is very nice but speaks only Portuguese.  We have a difficult time communicating with her but our house is immaculate.  She cleans everything, washes and irons all our clothes, meets the repairman when necessary and generally takes care of us.  I don’t want to disclose her salary but suffice it to say that her monthly income probably does not exceed what it would cost you to go out to dinner three times a month.  We recently hired a cook two days a week.  Lee was a bit resistant to this idea at first, but our cook came highly recommended.  She is absolutely a master in the kitchen.  She is originally from the Congo and speaks several languages, including English.  On her very first day, I tried to buy apples because I heard she made an excellent apple crisp, but I could not find any apples at the local shops.   I hunted around the kitchen for some random ingredients and I came up with cream cheese and eggs.  She had the brilliant idea to make a cheesecake.   It was delicious.  I felt like I had died and gone to culinary heaven—and it was only her first day.   Anyway, back to Saturday.  I organized the cabinets and enjoyed listening to the birds singing on the patio outside. 

Before Lee returned home, I decided to have a manicure and pedicure.  The salon is located at the edge of a park, which is right next to the ocean.  I can sit in my manicure chair and view the lovely trees and the ocean.  Because it’s winter here, the temperatures are a bit cooler which makes it an ideal time to have a wedding.  Apparently, this park is an ideal place to take wedding photos because there must have been 25 wedding parties all gathered in the same place!  Finding a parking place was quite a challenge, but I got to sit in my chair inside the salon and watch all the lovely African brides and their bridesmaids and wedding guests taking photos for about two hours.  All you girls out there know how fun it is to see lots of pretty dresses and happy people getting married.  In Africa, things are much more colorful than in the United States and this definitely applies to weddings.  I saw bridesmaids in bright green neon dresses and I do mean NEON green!  There were also bridesmaids dresses in purple, red, and yellow—all the colors of the rainbow.  Each bride had at least two flower girls, two ring bearers, and a host of people to hold up her gown as she trailed around the park.  The whole experience was a treasure to behold and the manicure and pedicure turned out well too. 

In the afternoon, Lee and I did our usual Saturday run with our Hash Running group.  The Hash has chapters around the world—there may even be a Hash club where you live.  There is a group for walkers and a group for runners.  This week, the distance of the run was about 8k. The run took us through a small village where local kids ran along with us, shouting encouragement and laughing and chasing each other.  The kids were mostly barefoot, wearing tattered and dirty clothing but their sheer joy at running was exhilarating to behold.  At the end of the run, the group meets up to have a few beers, sing silly songs and generally supports each other through social interaction.  Our running club is the closest thing we have to a family overseas.  Everyone in the group is wonderful; we celebrate each other’s birthdays, joys and hardships, and we call upon each other for advice and help whenever we need it.  The members are from around the world—all of us away from home and we share similar experiences of life in the diplomatic or foreign employment world.

After the beers and the singing, some of us go out to dinner together.  This night, about 10 of us went to a local pizza restaurant.  The food was delicious—you actually can get a good pizza or pasta dish here in Africa.  Some of us had a few more laughs in us, so we went to a bar around the corner to continue the fun.  Lee and I had not been to this bar before and we both really liked it.  It was a small, cozy bar; sort of like a neighborhood bar.  They were showing 1980’s videos from VH1, so if you can imagine a bunch of people from around the world (including local people) singing their hearts out to U2 and Madonna and George Michael and Whitney Houston, then you can imagine what a great ending it was to my Saturday.

As we drove home, I thought about what it’s like to live in Mozambique and how the things I experienced were unique to living overseas.  I spent time with people from many different countries and I’m proud to say that many of them are my good friends.  Each day I live here, I experience the rich culture that is Africa and only when you live here can you understand how vibrant and different is is from living in the United States.  Come visit and find out for yourself.  Open your world to new experiences.  You never know what adventure awaits you. 

Monday, October 17, 2011

And Suddenly Everything Changes

Another long pause between writings and lots to tell. In fact, life has changed for me in more ways than I could have ever imagined when I started this blog. Let's start in chronological order order, shall we?

Oct 2010-Oct 2011
This past year in Berlin has been challenging, to say the least. Not so much because it's Berlin--I don't want to fault this beautiful city. But the job just was not for me. If you are considering applying for a EUR posting, do your homework. The culture of a large European embassy is vastly different from other places in the world; namely Africa, which was my only other experience. Ego plays a huge role in EUR and if you don't have one or don't want to cultivate one, you may find it dfifficult to fit in. The embassy community is large but mostly sheltered; there are so many things to do that people don't bond--consequently there is not much of a sense of community. The Generalist/Specialist chasm is wide and pervasive. Consider carefully what you want to get out of your posting before choosing where you want to serve. I didn't mind working very long hours but being thanked would have been appreciated. I have heard many of these same comments from other OMSs posted in EUR, so it's not just my single experience that I'm trying to convey. When I first found out I was going to Berlin, my DCM in Freetown said something like, "Oh, you are going to Europe, hmmmm." Now I know what he meant. --Enough said.

A few good lasting memories from Berlin:
*My language skills have improved dramatically. I can now hold conversations easily and comfortably. I jokingly admit that I finally got the hang of speaking German just as I'm about to leave.
*I have made a few truly wonderful friends. Sahar and I met on one of my many weekend 5-hour one-way train journeys to visit Lee. She is from Egypt, highly educated and laughs easily. We started talking when the train first rolled out of the station and didn't stop for five hours. Lee and I have met Sahar and her friends for dinner (she speaks German, English, Arabic, French, and probably another language I forgot). She offered to give me German lessons and I went once; only to find out that the other student in the class was fluent and I felt too overwhelmed to try it again. But our friendship came at a time when we both desperately needed a friend. Being in the Foreign Service affords amazing opportunities for meeting exceptional people--take those opportunites and you will never regret it.
*Lee and I toured Europe a bit--not as much as we would have liked, but enough to get a taste of Europe. We spent a weekend in Milan, Italy, two weekends in Poland, several weekends in England visiting his family, a weekend in Prague, Czech Repbulic when Lee presented at a military conference, and a week in France doing nothing but playing tennis and getting to know Lee's family.
*As for Germany itself, it's a multi-cultural place filled with all things German. However, people speak English at the Christmas markets and Berlin itself is filled with tourists. I walk to work every day--which was an experience for someone versed in driving a car. My little VW Polo sat idle in the parking garage almost the entire year. I would say my saddest memory of Germany was our trip to Bergen Belsen Concentration Camp. You can never feel the hush and the sadness of a place like that unless you are standing on the actual ground where so many people suffered. All I could think of was, "Man's inhunanity to man."

July 2011
On the 4th of July, I received a call from the Ambassador of Mozambique. Her staff and I had done a bit of corresponding and they wanted me serve at Embassy Maputo. The phone call from the Ambassador was welcoming and professional. She offered me the job as her OMS and after much discussion and thinking and planning with Lee, we agreed to curtail in Berllin in order to accept the new assignment. They wanted me there as quickly as possible, since the position was vacant, but Lee needed to get his details sorted out first. He had applied for redundancy from the British Army and would not be notified until Sept 1st if he was accepted. The very soonest he could be free to leave the army was middle of October. All sides agreed that it was barely acceptable and we went forward waiting for the news.

Sept 2011
On Sept. 1st while we were on holiday in France, Lee got the call that he had been selected for redundancy--early retirement. After 33 years in the Army, he was free to leave. He was now free to join me and we would not have to be apart anymore. Long distance love is hard, but not impossible. We were both elated that we finally had the chance to be together in the same place. I jokingly say that from now on, the furthest I want to travel to him is from the living room to the kitchen!

Sept. 17, 2011
We went to Poland on a whim. We had been there before and loved it and decided to spend my birthday weekend there. On Saturday night, Lee gave me loads of little presents and the very last present was a box of Belgian chocolates. I was a bit hesitant to open them--since we had just eaten a sumptous meal--but he kept insisting. I finally opened the chocolates and tucked inside was an engagement ring! I was so surprised! I have no idea how he acted so normal all day, but he tells me now that he was going crazy inside waiting to ask me. That night we called all our family to tell them the wonderful news and I have the huge international roaming cell phone bill to prove it! We don't have any firm plans on a date or a place for the wedding yet. Too many things are happening all at once, but we will let you know.

Oct. 17, 2011
The movers just left. They have packed up most of my apartment and will be back tomorrow to finish. I had not even unpacked all the boxes from Freetown and now they are being shipped back to Africa. Lee and I are really looking forward to serving in Africa again. There is a certain flavor and earthiness about it that you cannot describe to anyone who has not been there. If you get a chance to visit, go. If you need a recommendation, ask my childhood friend Cathy who visited me in Freetown--she came for two weeks and loved it.

We will be in Maputo in early November and I will write when we get settled. For now, know that the world is a vast place that deserves exploring. There is a new opportunity around every corner, even if it's in your own backyard. Reach out to someone; get out of your comfort zone and live life to the fullest.

Becky Boo

Sunday, July 31, 2011

Counting Pennies

I know I have not written a blog for a while, but this posting has not exactly gone as planned. (More on that later.) In the meantime, I came to the realization that one must have enthusiasm if one is going to write a blog story. Today I finally I mustered enough energy to write.

Everyone is watching the world financial crises especially closely these days. Working in the Economic section in Berlin has given me a birds-eye view of all things involving numbers, percentages and ratios. I have learned new words such as bailout and haircut (and I don’t mean the thing you get at the barber). Not only is Greece failing but Portugal and Cyprus are not far behind. The financial state of my own country is becoming more abysmal and confusing with each passing day. Here in fiscally solvent Germany, the U.S. is enjoying an ever increasing reputation as being financially and politically moving in the direction of stupid. Why can’t our lawmakers make a decision? Why can’t someone stand up and do the right thing? I don’t have answers to these questions but I do have a theory about why Germany is so financially successful. It’s my own theory, formed over several months of living here and enhanced by momentary lapses in patience. When they say, ‘Necessity is the mother of invention’ I say, ‘A blog is born of frustration.’ Allow me to explain.

Germans love coins. Well, they may not love coins but they have a lot of them and they use them diligently. The Euro currency contains the following coins (largest to smallest in value):

2 Euro
1 Euro
50 cent
20 cent
10 cent
5 cent
2 cent
1 cent

Compare that to the U.S. currency most commonly used:

25 cent
10 cent
5 cent
1 cent

A quick glance will show you that living with the Euro means you have twice as many coins to carry around. If you remove the U.S. 1 cent (more commonly referred to as the penny) from the list, you will see the Euro coinage ratio increase even further. I removed the 1 cent piece from the U.S. list because people in the U.S. don’t really care much about a penny. You see pennies on the ground all the time and people don’t even bother to pick them up. People toss their pennies into the charity jar at the counter or tell the clerk to “keep the change” because they don’t want to bother with pennies. I have seen people in the U.S. deliberately throw pennies on the ground just to rid themselves of the extra bulk in their pocket. A penny has no real value in the U.S. anymore.

While Americans practice penny pitching, fiscally-secure Germans practice penny pinching. People treat their Euro pennies as valuable as bars of gold. In fact, all coins are treated with the utmost respect. How do I know this? Because at the cash register, customers spend eons of time counting the exact number of coins it takes to reach the exact amount over an even Euro. In fact, since the Euro is a coin and so is the 2 Euro, the customer actually counts out his reckoning from the nearest 5 Euro; all in coins. I have seen customers at the grocery store take out their tiny leather coin purses and dump what looks like a months’ worth of change into their hand and then carefully and methodically count their Euro coins. This procedure is not a problem for the store clerk; they expect it. This labor intensive practice is also not a problem for any other German standing in line. Secretly, they are all waiting so they, too, can rid themselves of as many coins as possible when it’s their turn. Being an American, however, I am steeped in the rules of efficiency over the rules of solvency. Anyone who would dare count out 99 cents in coins at the peril of everyone else waiting in line is someone we would admonish with furtive glances. We avoid this cultural no-no like the plague. Any customer taking longer than his allotted 25 seconds per transaction gets an evil glare from everyone waiting behind him.

Last night, during what I anticipated to be a quick trip to my neighborhood grocery store, I experienced the entire gambit of German coin counting and coin receiving. Because I was in a fairly long line wearing very sweaty running clothes and carrying my favorite order of fried rice, I had a lot of time for observation. About four people ahead of me, the woman paying for her groceries counted out penny after penny with such care I thought she must have been saving them for years and had formed a personal relationship with them. The next person in line had very few items and thankfully only about 10 coins to count out. The two customers directly in front of me created a whole new set of problems; this time for the clerk. The customers were young people who spoke a foreign language (probably tourists visiting Berlin for the day) who only had very large paper money notes. When the first order came to 20 Euro and 1 cent, the clerk asked if the customer had 1 cent to go with the 50 Euro note. Unfortunately, the customer had no change whatsoever. The clerk let out an audible sigh and grudgingly counted out the proper coins and gave them to the foreign tourist. The next tourist had the same problem; no coins to offer. The clerk could hardly believe it, two customers in a row with no coins! The clerk rolled his eyes and looked to the other Germans in line for support, as if to say, “Can you believe someone has the audacity to empty my cash drawer of all coins?” The foreign tourist knew there was a problem and kept apologizing in English.

Then it was my turn. By now I was certain everyone in line could smell my disgusting running clothes and I knew my once hot fried rice was no longer anything close to hot. I wanted to complete my transaction as quickly as possible and go home. Unfortunately, I too, had my difficulties. Since I had come to the store directly from running, I had only brought a 5 Euro note with me. Paper money is light and does not weigh you down when you run, nor does it jingle in your pocket—something I cannot tolerate when I run. I had carefully calculated the cost of my 4 items to ensure the total amount would be less than 5 Euro, When the clerk rang up my items, I realized the small bottle of water I thought cost .69 actually cost .98, The item must have been miss-marked. This oversight threw off my calculation and I ended up 11 Euro cents over budget. What a dilemma! In the U.S., someone in line behind me would have offered the 11 cents, but not in Germany. In the U.S., one could have even expected the clerk to write off the 11 cent loss and let me have my items in order to save from having to do all the over-ring paperwork. Not so in Germany. The clerk called the store manager to “bring the key” and the manager placed her magic key in the register to un-ring my last item, thus reducing my total amount owed to 4 Euro 17 cents. Of course, now the clerk had to give me more of his precious coins from a cash drawer already depleted by the foreign tourists. I felt a small measure of satisfaction as I jangled my way home.

When living in a culture different than your own, sometimes you learn to live with the differences, sometimes you lose patience with the new practices, and sometimes you just smile and feel happy that you discovered a new theory; in this case, The Theory of Penny Economics.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

For Women Only....or guys who want a laugh

Ok, ladies. If this does not make you laugh, then you have never worn "dress up clothes."

In the foreign service, one has to move to various locations around the world. At one post you may be wearing the least amount of clothing possible and your very next post might be in Siberia. This, of course, makes for a drastic change in wardrobe contents. Take for instance, panty hose; also known as stockings, nylons or in German, "shrumphosen." It would have been useful to know this word before venturing out to the mall to buy some, but that comes later.

My last post was Sierra Leone, West Africa, where the average temperature is about 85 degrees. There was no need for panty hose or any other form of clothing that would cling to your body when the humidity matched the temperature. I had a closet full of sun dresses and flip flops. I managed to wear nice dresses with a suit jacket and heels to the Embassy, but only because of the very American air conditioning system that no one else in Freetown enjoyed. But panty hose? I didn't own a pair. Because I lived in Texas prior to Sierra Leone, my panty hose collection has pretty much been void for the past 20 years.

Now I'm in Germany, where it's a good day if it doesn't rain. The fall temps feel chillingly like winter and then I remember it's nearly November and of course, nearly winter. I look sadly at my flirty summer wardrobe and wonder if I will be able to put together anything decent and warm and professional for my first day at Embassy Berlin. I select a black skirt, long sleeved top and a suit jacket. I add a few pearls and I'm ready to impress. Hmmmmm, what to wear on my legs with the temp around 45? Oh yes, panty hose! I remember I brought a pair along for church in Minnesota and they are somewhere in my suitcase that has yet to be unpacked. With a bit of searching, I find them and pull them on. They look great! Then I notice a BIG hole/run in them that just about coincides with the hem of my skirt. I wonder and wonder if I might be able to pull this off, but then think it's not worth the hassle of worring about my wardrobe on such an important first day at work. I find a pair of black slacks and put them on over the panty hose and they look ok. Of course, I think the pants are too form fitting to be wearing to work but at this point in the morning, I just need to get out the door and I hope my pearls will cover any wardrobe mistakes. That was Chapter 1 of Panty Hose Saga.

I decide to go to the mall after work to buy panty hose for day two at the Embassy, and thus begins Chapter 2 of Panty Hose Saga. I went to the supermarket and saw a display of normal looking panty hose in little cardboard boxes. I picked up one of the boxes and looked at the sizing....what in the world? The sizing was something like 36-38, 42-44 and 46-48. I chose the middle size and took them home. The next morning as I put them on, they went up past my waist and felt about as saggy as you can get. I had to wear them anyway because I had no other choice. The whole day I kept pulling them felt like they went up to my chin.....and hoping no one noticed the wrinkled parts around my ankles. Ugh, I could not wait to get home and throw them away.

The next day I went back to the mall and this time I bought TWO pairs of panty hose so I would have a back up in case something went horribly wrong. This begins Chapter 3 of Panty Hose Saga. The first pair had cute little designs on them so I felt like I was in Paris when I put them on. The size was right but they were a bit itchy. My Dad says one must "suffer to be beautiful" and this day I fit the bill just right. When I got home, there was a huge hole where my toe had poked through (sorry guys, if this is too graphic for you), so I threw them away too. The second pair I bought that night came with a special shopping experience. I decided to go to a proper shop and ask a proper sales lady for help. I tried asking her in German, but I didn't know the word for panty hose. Finally through exagerated gesturing, I got the idea across and she said, "Oh, you want Schrumphosen" and led me to the proper display. I thought Schrumphosen was a funny word so I kept repeating it both because it was fun and because I wanted to remember it. I chose a size and brought it to the counter to purchase. There was a group of business men also at the counter and for some reason they thought it was funny that I was buying Strumphosen. They kept repeating the word and talking to the clerk and everyone was snickering except me because I could not understand a word they were saying! Now guys, tell me you have at least seen your girlfriend or wife buying panty hose and it wasn't cause for joking around. Anyway, I was wishing the clerk would put my Schrumphosen in a plain brown paper wrapper so I could get the heck out of there. Finally I escaped to the privacy of my apartment.

Chapter 4 of Panty Hose Saga finally has a happy ending. I wore the final pair today and they were....perfect! The size was correct, the elastic was actually present so they didn't fall down and they felt great. Best of all, they held up the whole day so I can also wear them tomorrow!

So the next time you Ladies slip into a pair of panty hose, thank your lucky stars that you (a) know your size, (b) know the word for panty hose and (c) don't have a boyfriend or husband who thinks panty hose should be purchased under cover of darkness!

Sunday, July 11, 2010

A Comedy of Errors (OR Banking 101 in the Foreign Service)

This story begs to be told (and in this context begging was almost required), even though there are groceries waiting to be put away (and the fact that there are groceries at all is a miracle in this story), and the added facts that I still have an hour of German homework calling out to be finished and I ran a hard 45 minute run tonight and my dinner is burning on the stove and it's now 9:55 pm and I've had exactly one meal today. All that going on and I still feel the burning necessity of telling this story so others of you might be saved the humiliation of stumbling into the minefield of good credit vs. one tiny (seemingly harmless) mishap.

Where to start? Well, let's start with the financial details--namely mine. I like to keep things simple. I have one debit card and one credit card. For the past several years that has seemed ample enough. I can easily track things and don't have to weed through mountains of monthly credit card statements. In Freetown, business was conducted on a strictly cash basis, so I used my antiquated check book to write a check for cash every few weeks and paid for everything in cash. If I wanted to buy something online, I used my handy-dandy debit card. I hardly ever used my credit card and that significant fact will play a huge part later in this saga. A few more details--I have good credit; my credit card currently has a zero balance and a fairly high credit limit. My checking account is healthy too and by that I mean it usually has a couple of zeros to the left of the decimal point. My financial portfolio was not always this rosy, but I have worked hard over the past few years to get things in shape and I'm proud of that.

Next up is the silly little mishap. I was taking a friend to the airport and we were in a bit of a rush. As I was getting the cash out of the machine with my debit card and simultaneously checking the departure schedule, I haphazardly forgot my debit card in the machine. I have never done that before and I have been banking since before most of you reading this story were probably born. By the time the flight left and I realized my mistake, of course my card was long gone. I dutifully called my bank to report the lost card and they informed me that they would happily mail me a new card in "7-10 business days" along with the PIN code another "five days later." Geez, I thought, what am I going to live on until then? How am I going to get money? I knew I had about $25 dollars cash in my wallet and that certainly would not last for 10 days. Then, eureka, I remembered my long lost credit card. Surely that could help me out in the interim.

I breathed a sigh of relief, merrily dusted off my long-forgotten credit card and tested it out at a few places around town. I didn't make any large purchases--just a movie ticket, some juice at CVS, and drinks with my old manager. When I tried to refill my Metro subway pass very late last night, the machine didn't seem to like my card, but I chalked that up to a fickle subway machine and didn't give it another thought.

Today, I stayed home all day diligently doing my German homework until I talked myself into going for a 45 minute run. I have had too many days off from running lately (and frankly too many donuts and whipped cream lattes) and so running was a huge effort. I was assigned to bring snacks to my German class tomorrow so I decided to combine running with a stop at the grocery store on the way home. I don't have a car in DC, as is the case for most foreign service officers between assignments. My Africa car stayed in Africa and I will most likely buy another car when I get to Germany. In the six month interim, I'm car-less. The grocery store is on the way home from running so it saves me a few steps. I got all the groceries and I was looking forward to going home and eating a late dinner. Then all hell broke loose.

Hell breaking loose looks something like this: You are standing in line at the check out counter in sweaty running clothes after a hard run and you hand your credit card to the clerk and after she runs it through the machine she says, "Your card is declined." In my story, I am completely stunned so I ask her to try the card again, since I know full well that there is plenty of credit on my card to purchase $34.00 worth of groceries. She tries the card again with the same result, "DECLINED," and this time she says it loudly enough for everyone in line to hear it. Of course I am mortified. She asks me if I have another card to try, as if I carry a whole wallet full of cards for this very purpose. I'm in my running clothes and I want to shout that, of course, I don't have any other cards with me....I'm, in fact, traveling light. For a brief moment I consider asking the manager if I can take my groceries home and come back with an old fashioned check but as the manager comes over, I realize that there is no way in this modern credit abusing age that he is going to let me take home $34 worth of groceries on my good name alone--and I'm sure my sweaty running clothes didn't help my image. I ask the manager to please hold my purchases and I will come back with a check. He looks at me completely annoyed and I can see he does not believe me and curses me silently for all the hassle I am causing. I limp out of the store and head home, empty handed.

As soon as I got into the door of my apartment I got on the phone to my credit card company and for once I only had to be on hold for 6 minutes instead of the 22 minutes I had to be on hold last week when I changed my address. The operator started asking me all sorts of security questions about my account and that really surprised me. Why should my credit card company care about my tiny purchases over the last few days? I soon found out. Apparently because I hardly EVER use my credit card, when the credit card company noticed my purchases, they put a hold on my account because they suspected someone had stolen my card. Apparently, if your credit card practices are such that you are frugal and responsible and do not normally USE your credit card, you will not be ABLE to use your credit card until the company verifies that you have simply changed your routine and your card is NOT the victim of theft or fraud. The credit card operator called it, "Monitoring your account, for your protection." I asked her if she realized the humiliation her company had caused me when I was unable to use my credit card. She said, "Oh don't worry, when you go back to the store, your card will work because we re-activated it. The store will understand because it happens all the time." I wanted to yell back, it does not happen to me all the time.

So, to make a really long story a little shorter, I hiked back to the store, stood in line to wait for the manager and he had to ring up my selections all over again. He grumbled the whole time and he even said, "Well, you took so long to come back that I didn't think you were coming at all." I reminded him that I had to walk each way and apologized for my inconvenience. He certainly did not have that understanding attitude that the credit card operator promised. I resubmitted my credit card and this time it worked. I packed up my now even more precious groceries and walked home.

So, be sure you have a back up credit card, or maybe even call your credit card company in advance and notify them when you intend to change your credit card habits; or you might find yourself on your long-awaited exotic vacation in Jamaica with a credit card on HOLD. Welcome to life in the foreign service and learning new life lessons all the time.