Saturday, August 29, 2009

Hidden Rewards

From time to time I write about things that have some relation to Foreign Service life but are not necessarily things you would consider part of this journey. Moving around the world with no idea where you will first be assigned presents challenges and changes that you cannot imagine when you first see the email telling you you have been selected to join the Foreign Service. I guess life is a revolving process in general and Foreign Service life is no exception.

Today I delved into a project I have been avoiding for months. You know what I mean; everyone out there has a drawer or a room or a stack of something sitting in a corner that they keep meaning to get to but somehow never seem to find the time. Actually we all know the answer to why those things don't get done but we would rather not face the truth: that there are so many more fun and interesting things we would rather do with our time. Putting these tasks off only makes things worse and makes it all the easier to avoid; after all, we have created lots of practice avoiding those chores and now we are good at it. Well, for me, that task is unpacking the three large wardrobe boxes in the hall of my apartment. Now, I have lived here for 16 months and those boxes have been there the whole time. Luckily for me they are in the hallway leading to my bedrooms, so my guests have not had to witness my laziness directly. Nonetheless, it hit me the other day that in just a little over 8 months I will be packing to leave here and there is no good reason those boxes should not be unpacked by now.

So onward I went to dive into clothes I had not seen since I packed out of Austin in March 2008. What a revelation! It was as though looking through all those old clothes, I could see my life flashing before me in a wardrobe sort of scene setter. I guess I was trying to find myself for the past few years because some of those clothing choices were really ugly to be honest. For instance, I had several blouses that were orange. I don't even look good in orange. And what about clothing with color names that don't make sense? There was a cozy corduroy shirt that can only be described as the color salmon--definitely a color for a dead fish and not for me. And what about that day-glow lime green Polo sweater? Even though it was on sale, what was I thinking? You could see me coming down the road a mile away in the dark in that thing. There was some good news. I realized that most of my clothing was Ann Taylor and Polo and Gap--fairly decent brand names, so I have had decent taste even if I don't always get the color right. I purchased most of those clothes on sale or at the outlet mall because I well remember how poor I was during that time, but nevertheless I managed to look ok, despite a very tiny clothing budget. Another bit of good news was the clothing sizes I found in the boxes. Literally everything was too big for me. I tried on a couple of pairs of pants--sort of hoping I might be able to retain them and increase my wardrobe here in shopping-deprived Sierra Leone, but every single item was too large. I am happy to relate that all those miles of running have paid off because I am definitely a slimmer me than I was 18 months ago. Then there were the nostalgia items: Ryan's high school graduation robe complete with Valedictorian metals and National Honor Society sash. I had two lovely gowns; one from Allison's wedding and the periwinkle blue formal from Angela's wedding. Somehow the movers packed Laura's prom dress in my boxes and at a size 3/4 it's definitely too small for me. I found my grandmothers pink sweater that I gave her just before she died, my other grandmothers christening dress from 1905, several German dresses from Bavaria and even my old bowling shirt circa 1980. (did you know that I have bowled several 200 games and even a 600 series?) All those memories had been waiting for me and all I had to do was unpack them. To celebrate the big mess of hangers and stacks of clothes I have ready to give away, I happened to notice a wad of something in the pocket of that hideous orange stripped shirt I mentioned earlier. Guess what? I found $60.00! So to all of you out there who are avoiding that area of your life that needs doing, maybe you should think about tackling that project; you just mind find more rewards than you anticipated.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

My Friend Joan

This story actually begins in 1999. Some of you may be shaking your heads and wondering what event could have possibly occurred in 1999 that might have any relevance to Foreign Service life; much less an event that happened 10 years ago. Well, life has many twists and turns and sometimes those connections reveal themselves many years later. Such is the case in this story.

Some of you know that in 1999, I moved back to the U.S. after having lived the past two years in Germany. At that time the following events took place simultaneously: my marriage ended, my oldest daughter returned to college at A&M, my middle child started college in Pennsylvania, my youngest child started her third year of high school, I started college, and I was working full time trying to make ends meet. Needless to say, I was a bit stressed out. I read some physiological chart a while back that has you identify key events that cause stress in your life and after you list your "life changes" it tallies your score in the stress department. My score was so high I probably should have checked into Shoal Creek Healthcare Facility, or given it all up to eat bon bons on the sofa. I did neither, and it was at this time that I met Joan. I'm a fairly regular church goer (I remain Catholic despite all the people from my generation who gave up their religion long ago), and one Sunday Joan noticed me and came up to say hello. In all fairness to the story, Joan came up to me not only to say hello, but also something like, "Are you alright?" She said this because I had been crying. With all the changes going on in my life, I tried to be strong for everyone else, but church was the one place I allowed myself to break down and fall apart. Maybe I thought God would not mind if I showed my true feelings; feelings of despair and anxiety and fear. I think Joan saw this in me and walked over to say hello. I'm sure she got a lot more for her hello than she bargained for, but I was glad for the company. I felt totally alone at that point in my life and she reached out to me in a way that I knew at least one person noticed my struggle and cared about me. She gave me her phone number but I must confess I was too shy with all my troubles to call her. We saw each other at church and each week she asked how I was. I felt so glad for those meetings. Nine years later when I left Austin to take this job with the Foreign Service, Joan and I exchanged emails and promised to keep in touch. Eventually I gave her the address for this Blog, and she follows it faithfully--even emailing me her comments from time to time.

About a month ago, I got an email from Joan. She knew someone who was coming to Sierra Leone and she asked if it might be possible for us to meet. I said yes immediately and she gave me the email for "Erin." It turns out that Erin is the best friend of Joan's daughter, Sarah. Erin and I exchanged details and I offered to have her stay with me while she was in Freetown. She arrived Thursday evening and went upcountry (the term for "up to the primitive areas") for the next two days. On Saturday afternoon, she came to my house and we met for the first time. She was really nice and we got along great. We went running on the beach, and then came back for a shower. She said it was the first hot shower she had had in two weeks; as she had spent the past 10 days on a mission trip with Young Life in Liberia. I took her to an Embassy Happy Hour that evening and she met people from all over the world. The next morning I made waffles and fresh coffee and we sat around the table like family. Later on, I took her to the Tacugama Chimpanzee Sanctuary and she got to see the chimps and all the good work that Bala is doing. On the way home we stopped for fresh bread and she shopped for trinkets on the side of the road. We had a great time and she made me realize something very important; that this really is my home now. Seeing Freetown through Erin's tourist eyes made me understand how comfortable I have become here. I have a pretty good command of the Krio language and I can talk to the local people in their own dialect. I know how to drive in this crazy place. I know where to find the good bread. I'm not afraid to walk the streets and I can bargain shop with the best of them. I really like living here, experiencing the rich culture of Freetown and being with Erin reminded me of this. She kept thanking me for all I have done for her, but really I wanted to thank her for showing me how far I've come.

So thank you Joan for being my friend when I really needed one. (And I hope you didn't mind that I told your story here). Thank you Erin for trusting some random acquaintance of your best friends Mom (me) because it was great meeting you. Thank you God for the experience of being in Sierra Leone.

Life is what you make it. Make it good.

Friday, August 7, 2009

The Art of Saying Good-Bye

Life in the foreign service presents many challenges, but one thing I did not consider was all the good byes you have to face. I have been at post for over a year now, and people I know well are starting to leave. Some of them only had 1-year assignments and are now leaving for their next adventure. I only knew a few people in this category, such as the Canadian journalist who I met on a Hash run last October. She and I fell into step together and even though she was a full six inches shorter than me, we ran in the exact same rhythm. We ran into each other a lot socially over the next six months. I learned how very inquisitive journalists can be and more than once I had to refer her questions to the Political Affairs Officer at the Embassy, rather than try to answer them myself. That's another important lesson I learned this year; life at an Embassy can be a political minefield. Don't answer any questions related to the Embassy with your opinion or conjecture. Be sure you have the facts and be sure those fact are allowed to be released to the public. If you are unsure about something, err on the side of caution and don't say anything. Believe me, I got to the point where when something big happened to the U.S. in the news or in Freetown, I would make a point of calling the Public Affairs Officer and asking her what things I could say about the topic. It's much safer than to be cornered by a journalist and have to think on your feet. Welcome to diplomacy. But I'm off topic.

My best friend at the Embassy, Lynn, is Sierra Leonean. She and I bonded a while back because she is a wonderful person, a true professional at her job and because by some strange concidence, her entire family lives in my home town in Minnesota! (her family left many years ago but she stayed to finish school) Her family met my family twice when she went back to the U.S. to visit. (No it is not lost on me that she has been back twice to the U.S. to visit her family and I have not been back at all in almost two years....but she has worked for the Embassy for 5 years and has a lot more vacation time than I have.) They met at my favorite restaurant and had margaritas, took photos and talked about me. Again, I'm off topic; this time I think it was mention of margaritas that did it. Anyway, Lynn was recently accepted into the PhD program at St. Could State University. She starts classes in August. With little more than two weeks notice, I have to say good bye to my closest Sierra Leonean friend. While I wish her all the best, as she has worked so hard for this opportunity, I will really miss her genuine friendship. We have plans to meet again at Christmas when I come home on R&R to Minnesota.

My other best friend, Stephanie, has decided to leave her post at UNICEF and go back to Canada. She is tired of living the nomad life and wants to settle down and be closer to her family. She and I bonded quickly (as this life makes you do) and she plans to leave a month after Lynn. Stephanie and I shared many lazy afternoons at the beach, we ran together, attended each others birthday bashes, and had the best girls night sleep over with pizza and M&M's that one could ever imagine in a third world country. I will miss her a lot.

Most of our Embassy staff is leaving in the next 8 months. Daren, who started the same day as I, will depart for language training in November with an onward assignment to Monglia. Lindsay and Sean, who were my sponsors when I arrived, are leaving for their next assignment in Canada a little earlier than planned because Lindsay will have their first baby in December, which I'm pretty sure was planned. I leave sometime next spring-probably May or June- with 30 days of Home Leave before my next assigment. No, I don't know where I'm going yet, but we did receive our Bid List last Monday and I have been researching where to go next. I will write another post on that later. Our bids are due August 28 and we find out our assignments sometime in October. Wow, I can't believe I'm over half way through my first tour!

There is one other person who deserves mention here regarding difficult good byes. Some things are just too difficult to write about so I will save that for anther time too. Suffice it to say that this life makes you appreciate every single second of the good times and makes you miss them with complete and utter clarity when they are gone. We all have but one life to live and I plan to make the most of mine. "I'm all in" as they say.

Make it good.