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.

Sunday, June 27, 2010

Leaving Sierra Leone

I know it's been a very long time (or as my Dad would say, "A helluva long time"), since I updated my blog. Several of you have even personally written me, asking for an update so here we go. If I get too long on this one, I will supplement it with Part 2.

First of all, Africa changes you. No doubt about it, my memories from Sierra Leone are strong and searing, and I am having some trouble adjusting to life in the developed world again. But I'm getting ahead of myself. First a few facts, since I have not written for several months, and many of you might wonder what has been happening in the interim.

In March, our temporary Ambassador left and the other OMS had already left, so that left the running of the Executive Office to the DCM and myself. We had already been without a Political Officer for many months, so the Embassy staff was getting thinner every day. I felt like an old-timer, as the only Americans who had been there longer than me were the Public Affairs chief and the Information Management Chief. Everyone else was new or had left the Embassy. That left a lot of work to just a few people. I worked overtime from January until the day I left. I actually worked six hours of overtime on Saturday and left on Sunday. I never got another chance to get out of Freetown, which I desperately wanted to do. Seeing only the capital city is not the best view of a country.

I took a trip to Dakar, Senegal in late March for a two day training seminar on our new Employee Performance software. I had to give a presentation for the whole class and it was very well received, which was rewarding. Tagged on to the end of that trip was a 5-day trip to England. (More on the special purpose of that trip a little later in this Blog...if I remember). I had to fight like crazy to get one day off (it was Easter break so we had two paid days off and the DCM did not want to give me the one day off to bridge the gap), but finally he blessed my leave. I think he realized how much effort I had given to the Embassy over the past months and the training was very important to the Embassy. In this OMS position, it's very clear that training is a complete luxury; especially at hardship posts and small posts and African posts--all of which applied to my particular situation. No hardship post can spare a person and no hardship post can afford to pay for training. Well, if you are in a different division, with different funding, then they throw money at you to attend training all over the world. I don't understand how the local Sierra Leone staff almost ALL attended training and I could not get any training at all. I guess that's just the way the system works.

After Easter, I focused completely on packing out my apartment and getting my office ready to hand over. My replacement was not going to arrive until after I had departed, so basically that meant I had to create new files for her, create a book of duties, clean out all my old stuff, pack my office stuff to be mailed to Germany, and fit all that in between packing boxes at home and working a full time job. It was a very busy and stressful time.

The best part of that time was having friends host going away parties for me. I had a "Pink Lady" dinner party with my running group (in which everyone had to wear pink clothes), a Pink Lady farewell cake at the last Hash run (the cake was almost the size of a banquet table and everyone loved it.....although the frosting has a very funny story attached. The frosting was bright pink and I had two giant pieces of the cake over the span of a couple of days. Apparently the food coloring in the frosting was quite strong and, well, believe it or not you can produce pink poop!) The Embassy staff was too busy and too preoccupied to plan a party for me, so I arranged my own. By the time I invited everyone, it was the week before I left and everything had been packed out of my apartment. Being so adaptable, having no dishes or plates or food, didn't stop me. I catered some of the food, used up the supplies in the pantry, gave away all my open alcohol and even was creative enough to use a pretty shower curtain as a tablecloth, since everything in the apartment was white and bare and the party needed some color. Everyone had a great time. I invited just the people who really meant a lot to me--including the local staff at the Embassy. I took lots of pictures, gave a speech and had others say a few words about me. It was very touching and I was not the only one who shed a few tears.

I left Freetown on a Sunday night at midnight. Well, the flight was supposed to take off at midnight, which meant I had to be picked up at my apartment at 7pm. Unfortunately, the computers and the air conditioning at Freetown airport both chose to go haywire at the same time, so after arriving at the airport at 8pm, I had to wait in sweltering heat until 2am for my flight to take off. It was not the ending I was hoping for, but it did give me a chance to call those people I never got a chance to say goodbye to in person. All part of the adventure.

I took a flight from Freetown to Denver to attend Angela's PhD graduation ceremony at UC Boulder. It was culture shock from the first minute I landed in the United States. I could not get over little things like being able to drink water from the tap and all the streets looking so clean and all the people appearing rich and well dressed. I could not get over all the shiny cars, the affluent society, the lack of diversity. It was wonderful to see my family (and my special significant other), and they helped shelter me from too much civilization. Good thing I was not driving a car at this time; in fact, I have not driven a car since I left Freetown. Wow.

I am now in Washington D.C. for German language training. Adapting to life as a student and life outside of Sierra Leone is a whole new topic, and worthy of a new blog, which hopefully will be forthcoming a lot sooner than the last one. More on that in the days to come.

For those of you who stuck with this long blog until the end, the trip in April to England at Easter was to meet the family of my very special new man, Lee. He has not specifically been mentioned in this blog before, but I want to say that we are very happy together and despite the calamity of distance and long separations, we are forming a strong bond. You will be reading about him in blogs to come, I'm pretty sure of that.

Hope everyone is well. Enjoy life, and no matter what, make the best of things. We only get one ride--make it a good one.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

People Contact & The Ability to be Generous

I went home to the U.S. over the holidays for the first time since I arrived for my posting in May 2008. I had been to Thailand and England between then and now, but that was vacation and a totally different experience. It was quite amazing to be landing in New York on Dec. 16 and think to myself, "Wow, I'm in my home country." My first thoughts were of how organized everything looked--even from the air. The U.S. is patch-worked into these neat little boxes of industry and residential space and every square inch of land seems to be developed. In Africa, it's a hodge podge of development--if there is any development at all. Everything is disorganized and scattered and broken and dusty. The U.S. is gleaming and clean and sanitized. But that is not what this blog is about, really.

Over the holidays, I was surrounded by loving family and friends and I had a wonderful time. But I realized something. Apart from my family, I really didn't have much contact with any other people. I cannot tell you any funny stories about clerks in stores or random people on the street because I didn't have enough contact with them to remember them. It seems in the U.S. that people are pretty isolated from each other. Maybe it's because everyone has enough money to be self-supporting so people don't need each other. Maybe it's because Americans value their privacy and don't readily engage with people they don't know. Here in Africa it's totally different. I can tell you that even for a person like me who has only been here 18 months, I have lots and lots of people who know me and greet me every day. In the morning my housekeeper Mariama comes each day at 7:00. We discuss what will be prepared for dinner that evening and if I want to bring anything for lunch at the Embassy. Sometimes she even makes me breakfast (like crepes on the patio) before I go to work. I have human contact from a wonderfully warm person right at the start of my day. Today for instance, Mariama informed me that Adama--our good friend who had her first baby last Friday, was sad and hungry. Apparently the people she stays with have not been making meals and she does not have enough food to eat to make breast milk for the baby. I gave Mariama some money (about $8.00) and told her to take the day off and go to Adama's and cook for her. She later told me that she made food for Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, and Saturday. Quite a long way to stretch $8.00. I had the opportunity to be generous in a way that I never would have in the U.S. Adama called me later and thanked me over and over for my kindness.

On my drive to work, I know almost all the people who live on the roads I take. They all wave and give me a big good morning smile. Some of them even know my name. There is a group of ex-combatants (child soldiers from the recent civil war --who have grown into young men now) who live (probably more like hang out) on a stretch of road near a restaurant I frequent. Each time I drive by, they call out my name "Miss Becky" in excited tones and wave enthusiastically. I first met them through a Lebanese friend of mine who gives them a small bit of cash every now and again (about $2.50) and also gives them large bags of rice a couple of times a year. His father started the practice because the Muslim faith says you should help the poor. So now I help them too. I didn't really take much notice of their familiarity, but recently when I was driving by, I had a new Embassy employee in the car with me. When we drove past, they called out my name and waved wildly like they had just sighted a movie star and my new employee turned and said, "Does the whole town know you by name?" Not quite, but I'm working on it.

All this got me to thinking that it's going to be much different at my next post--Berlin. I'm going to be in the middle of a big city, I won't speak the language and I will be just another anonymous white person among a crowd of urban professionals. We will all look and act alike and no one will take much notice of each other. This is sort of the feeling I got when I was back in the U.S. I never thought of our culture as aloof before, but after being in warm, friendly, small-town Freetown, I can see the vast differences. I think I prefer it here. There is so much cultural diversity and people really go out of their way to be a part of your life--if you let them. I love it here and I'm really going to miss it.