Thursday, December 31, 2009

Droppin balls

Happy New Year from Kabul!

Sunday, December 27, 2009

Welcome to Kabul, Part III

Hello again! I am back amongst the living, finally over my cold and recovered from a llloonggg week at work. Today we continue on with Part III of Welcome to Kabul. As always, stop me if you have questions!

Food
Food and clothing….my two biggest concerns about packing for Afghanistan. Actually, when it came to food, concern probably isn’t a strong enough word. Scared, is more like it.

When Nick came home on leave in September, he came armed with horror stories about the food choices I’d soon be facing. Cheese & pepperoni-stuffed fried meatballs. Hash browns and bacon for breakfast every day. A fried food bar at every lunch and dinner. Everything processed and packaged and reheated and sitting on a warmer tray and NO FRESH PRODUCE!

I was pretty sure that I was going to starve.

So I panicked over what to pack in our consumables. Some items were obvious: healthy snacks, because food was only available in the dining facility (hereafter referred to as the D-FAC) during meal times. Low-calorie drink mixes because I don’t like tap water, and I knew that I’d need to drink a lot given Kabul’s altitude and dry climate. Basic items that we could use as a base for a variety of dishes, such as rice, pasta, plain tomato sauce, dried & canned lentils/beans. And of course, enough Kashi Go Lean to get me through at least a few months. Ok, who am I kidding? I packed 13 boxes; if I eat Kashi for breakfast every day, this will only last me about 6 weeks!

But there was no way for me to pack enough food to be able to eat every dinner (and most lunches) at home and not have to face the horror of the D-FAC. So I did my best to pack a variety of foods so that we could take a break from D-FAC food when necessary, and then tried to ready myself to eat some really unappetizing meals.

What I found upon arrival in Kabul is both better and worse than what I expected. First the bad news:
  • Nick wasn’t lying; there really is a fry bar at every lunch and dinner. Onion rings, potato logs, chicken wings, chicken tender, pepperoni-stuffed deep-fried meatballs. I find it pretty easy to resist, because none of it is good (except for the potato logs), but unfortunately fried food – even bad fried food -- is one of Nick’s weaknesses. He’s been pretty good about restraining himself, but I can’t imagine what it’s like to have to resist a buffet of one’s ideal comfort foods day after day.

  • Wait, yes I can. The D-FAC offers a sundae bar at every lunch and dinner, with soft chocolate chip cookies and caramel brownies making a regular appearance on the dessert menus. I’m clean for the ice cream and cookies; I caved on the brownies once. All I can do is try to avoid making eye contact with any of it, and remind myself that the taste is not worth the waist! And considering that I’m consuming more alcohol than usual (not too much – just more than I do in DC because there’s not much else to do here), I have to be careful of my empty calorie consumption.*

*I know that all this talk about calories makes me sound really vain, but weight gain is a serious concern. It’s not like I can run out to Macy’s if my pants start feeling tight. Going a size up is not an option. I have the clothes that I brought with me, and that’s all. So please excuse me if I seem to be obsessed with calorie intakes and workouts and such.

  • I find the main courses offered at 9 out of 10 lunches and dinners completely inedible. Square salmon fillets in a gelatinous cream sauce. Ick. General Tso’s chicken, with lots of breading, sans the chicken. Gigantic ick. Hamburgers swimming in what I can only imagine is dirty hot dog water flown in from NYC hot dog carts. A starch of some variety of fried potato, or rice and/or pasta with some sort of butter/gravy/cheese sauce. Various “meat in sauce” dishes that rack up an impressive 350+ calories per 4 oz serving. I don’t want to even think about the sodium content. I just can’t stomach it. I can barely even stand to look at it.

  • There are sandwich fixings, but the bread is always stale.

So, I’ve been sticking to a vegetable and starch-heavy diet. My lunches and dinners are pretty consistent: plain rice with whatever’s being offered as a vegetable side -- which is always cooked to death -- on top. Green salad. One potato log. I’m seriously lacking in protein; I try to boost my protein intake at breakfast to compensate. I’ll have cereal with a whole juice box of soy milk and a hard boiled egg. A buttermilk biscuit as a mid-morning snack…..Ok, there’s no protein in that. But it’s super yummy. My Kashi Go Lean cereal, once it arrives, should also help me to compensate.

So, with all that said, it’s hard to imagine how there’s a good side, eh? Well, I’m happy to report that it’s not all gloom and doom. Although that’s hard to write after the lunch I just had. Nick and I both ended up staring glumly at our plates, picking at yet another green salad and sandwich lunch. With reheated marinara sauce as a side of "tomato soup." Tomorrow they'll throw frozen veggies in it and call it "vegetable soup." But I digress.

Right. The good news:

  • The salad bar is open for every lunch and dinner. It’s not a great salad bar; the leafy greens are limited to either iceberg or romaine lettuce (I already have an intense craving for some dark kale!), the choice of toppings is meager and repetitive, and the produce isn’t always particularly fresh or tasty. But at least it’s clean, healthy food. Which is more than I can say for the entrees. There’s also a small selection of whole fruits available for snacking. So although it’s not my ideal diet and eating salads day in and day out gets awfully boring, I’m not going to starve for lack of edible food. And hey, I’m probably doing a good job of getting in my 5 servings of vegetables per day.

  • The food at the locals’ cafĂ©, called Brothers, is pretty good, and makes for a nice alternative to D-FAC lunches. Fresh naan, chicken and beef kabobs and sour yogurt sauce sound like a simple meal, but after a string of salad and marinara sauce lunches, they just about add up to a 5-star dining experience.

  • There is a decent (but expensive) Thai restaurant and a pizza joint over at Camp Eggers, where we can go on Fridays for lunch. And there's a pizza joint over on the ISAF compound, where we can go for a long lunch on work days.

  • There is a grocery store on the compound. It's small and the selection is limited, but one can usually cobble together a decent meal whenever the D-FAC food becomes unbearable. There’s a selection of frozen meats and seafood (although I won’t risk trying the seafood in a land-locked developing country), and a limited selection of produce. We can get some real cheeses – although they’re of rather poor quality, but at least they’re cheese and not “cheese food product” – as well as fresh bread, usually French baguette. Unfortunately it’s all rather expensive. A tiny bag of flour (maybe 5 cups worth) is $6! A tiny round of poor-quality brie, about 3.5” in diameter, is $7. So although it’s nice to get a break from the D-FAC food, cooking all our meals at home is a bit cost-prohibitive.

  • The Americans here have a remarkable ability to procure special items and to improvise with the ingredients they have on hand. Our meals over Christmas are a perfect example.

1. For Christmas Eve dinner, I wanted to give Nick as taste of home for the holidays. That meant putting together a Polish dinner. So I started keeping my eye out for polish foods to pop up at the D-FAC. I lucked out when the D-FAC had sauerkraut out (trying saying that 5 times fast!) on the salad bar for Wednesday lunch. I boxed up a whole container and stuck it in the fridge. I didn’t luck out with polish sausage (D-FAC has it every once in a while), but Nick bought some beef sausage from the grocery. I bought milk, eggs and flour (at great cost) from the grocery store, and using some instant mashed potatoes from our consumables shipment and shredded cheese and onions from the salad bar, made homemade perogies. So, with a little ingenuity and improvisation (a wine bottle makes an excellent rolling pin in a pinch) we ended up with a lovely, home-cooked meal.

Showing off our perogie fillings

Stuffing the little beauties
Praying that they won't fall apart when boiled

Mostly homemade Polish dinner for two!

2. Every Christmas morning, Nick’s mom makes an egg and cheese casserole for breakfast. Again, with a little improvisation I was able to give Nick at least a taste of home for the holidays. We bought the bread, eggs and milk for the casserole at the store; the meat, cheese and veggies for the filling came courtesy of the D-FAC breakfast and salad bars. I used the leftover bread to make some French toast (topped with syrup from the D-FAC), and again we ended up with a lovely, home-cooked meal.

Breakfast casserole, fresh out of the oven....

...and ready to eat, with a side of french toast


3. The piece de resistance was Christmas Dinner for 17; really, it was a sight to see. One of our friends had the foresight to order some extra turkeys when the call went out for Thanksgiving orders; I think the order went in over the summer. The appetizers and side dishes were all potluck. It was truly amazing to see what people were able to cook up. Here’s the menu:
Hors d’oeuvres
Port wine cheese ball (carried from the States) w/ crackers
Pizza crostini
Pumpkin-cream cheese spread w/ crackers
Nuts and dates
Pretzels
Hot buttered rum and mulled wine

Dinner
Roasted squash soup
Green salad
Turkey, w/gravy and stuffing
Mashed sweet potatoes
Garlicky and cheesy mashed potatoes
Quinoa and black bean salad
Rice and olive casserole
Mixed bean casserole
Corn bread
Cranberry sauce (from a can, my favorite!)
Homemade brown bread
Honey and ginger glazed carrots
Cheese and roasted pears (a Southern dish that I couldn’t quite bring myself to try)
Enough wine and beer to float an aircraft carrier

Dessert
Homemade chocolate-chip muffins
Homemade apple and pumpkin pies
Caramel-pecan torte (insanely delicious, like a gourmet Snickers’ bar)
Homemade chocolate cake
Homemade spice cake
Homemade cookies
More wine, buttered rum, mulled wine, and Irish coffee
We sat at proper dining tables, with proper tablecloths, ate from proper plates and with proper flatware, and drank out of proper glasses, including proper wine and water glasses. Everything was mismatched and cobbled together from various kitchens and it was absolutely perfect.

Seating for 17!

A smorgasbord of deliciousness

Making it work: no gravy boat? Coffee pot of gravy it is!

I need desserts!

So, although one does have to be creative, improvise with limited equipment, take advantage of the food offered at the D-FAC, and plan ahead for any meals requiring special ingredients (like the turkeys), making a homemade meal isn’t entirely impossible.

So, like I said. The food situation is both as bad as and better than I imagined. I’m not going to starve, but I do find myself drooling over cooking blogs and day dreaming about all the good food we’ll eat on our first vacation. We’re looking at two weeks in Singapore and Malaysia in February. We’ve heard that both are foodie paradises, especially for people who like adventurous eating, and now our mouths are watering with thoughts of giant bowls of laksa, fresh seafood on a stick, handmade noodles, rotis of endless variety, and miles of hawker carts offering Chinese, Indian, Indonesian, Middle Eastern and Malay food. And to satisfy our Western cravings, maybe we’ll even stop in to a McD’s. But only if Nick is a good boy.

In the mean time, we'll get by with a combination of D-FAC food, Camp Eggers Thai and "cook what ya got" potlucks.

Oh, and to all of our family and friends: please DO NOT read this entry as an appeal for care packages full of delicious goodies. You all sent us such wonderful Christmas/Hanukkah packages that we are fully stocked on snacks and sweets. We're running out of food storage space, and we still have our big consumables shipment coming! So thank you so much for thinking of us, and we'll give a shout if our chocolate and dried sausage supplies start to run low. To Mom X and Mom M: please DO read this entry as an appeal for more lemon soup and dried sweet potato, respectively. Love you!

And I’m spent. It looks like my report on what Nick and I do on our downtime will be pushed back again, saved for yet another (and hopefully final) instalment of Welcome to Kabul. I wish I could say that I’ve saved the best for last, but……really, there’s not much going on here. We work, we eat, we workout, we watch seasons 1-4 of How I Met Your Mother on DVD. I’m sure that living in Kabul sounds exciting and exotic, but really it’s not.

But I’ll save that discussion for another day.

Until next time, here's wishing all of you lots of health and happiness in 2010!

Saturday, December 19, 2009

"Post"ponement

I am sad to announce that "Welcome to Kabul Part III" has been postponed due to author illness. I'm suffering from a major cold of the runny nose/watering eyes variety, and can't even keep my hands out of the tissue box long enough to type this sentence. In fact, I've sneezed 3 times and used up 4 tissues since I started typing.

I'll be back once I'm no longer surgically attached to the tissue box and I've come down off of my antihistamine-induced high.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Things that make you go boom

This morning a suicide car bomb detonated near the Heetal Hotel, in the same neighborhood as the US Embassy. But not particularly close by. Nick and I are fine. All US government personnel are fine.
I have to say that I'm kind of glad that's over with. The waiting for my first bombing, I mean. For me, the worrying about unknown events is usually worse than the events themselves (see: Kabul packout). Now I just have to experience an earthquake and my two biggest "unknown" Kabul fears will both be "knowns."

Monday, December 14, 2009

Welcome to Kabul: Part II

Seeing as no one suggested any specific topics they wanted to see addressed in Part II, I’ll just plunge right in. Feel free to stop me at any time for questions!

Clothing
When I was getting ready to leave for post, one of the most common questions that people asked of me was about what I would have to wear. Would I have to wear a burka? Keep my head covered at all times? Wear a suit every day?

I too, was very worried about my wardrobe and packing the proper clothing. Nick was nice enough to connect me with a female colleague to whom I could direct all of my clothing-related questions. Of course, this was after I asked him to find out what sort of dresses I needed to bring -- would I need a black-tie gown, or would nice cocktail dresses be ok? -- and he responded with “Yes, you need nice dresses.” Great, very helpful! I definitely needed a woman’s help to answer all of my “lady questions.”

Heather was kind enough to fill me in on how many suits I would need (no more than two), the office dress code (pants or long skirts, ¾ to full length sleeves, no cleavage – HA! Like I’d ever have trouble with that!), the deal with head covering (not necessary inside the compound; polite to do it when traveling in Kabul or meeting with Afghans), etc. She also told me that I would need to get a few long tunic tops to wear when I leave the compound, but that I could get them from one of the markets here. I haven’t purchased any yet, but neither have I had the need for them. Thus far my only off-compound experience was for a meeting with one of our implementing partners, and they’re staffed by Americans.

So, what do I wear every day? Well, I’m still waiting for my UAB shipment to arrive, so all I’ve got to choose from at the moment are the clothes that I carried with me on the plane. My standard outfit for the office is heeled boots, black pants, long cardigan or other sweater over a long sleeve shirt (lots of layering; it’s starting to feel like winter) maybe a scarf, earrings and tada! I’m dressed. When I’m hanging out at home I wear whatever I want; same goes for when Nick and I venture over to friends’ homes on our days off. Like I said, it’s getting cold here, meaning I’m wearing lots of layers. So dressing modestly isn’t really something to which I have to pay conscious attention. The only time I wear anything “revealing” is when I’m at the gym. But the Foreign Service Nationals (FSNs, i.e. Afghan staff), all leave the compound by 6 PM or so (many leave much earlier); I’m not usually in the gym before 8 PM, so exposure’s not really a problem.

My job
As previously reported, I was hired as a communications officer for USAID’s Office of Economic Growth. So what I should be doing is preparing reports, briefing materials, success stories, etc. about USAID’s economic growth programs. If you’re interested, you can learn about our work on the USAID Afghanistan website.

However, that’s not what I’m actually doing at the moment. My current tasks are calendar management, document management and answering the phone. Why? Well, it turns about that the Mission Director’s assistant would be going on leave for 6 weeks just as I arrived, and I was the only person available to cover for her.

So, here I sit, in central command; the new girl, who has no clue what’s going on or how things work or who people are or even how to place a simple phone call. Luckily I’m not completely new to the task of being an administrative assistant; I spent quite a bit of time at the World Bank providing support to Bank staffers of various levels. Had I not, I’d be completely in the weeds here. Wait, no that’s not quite right. What’s beyond the weeds? Maybe the highway….yeah, that’s about right.

Had I not had my Bank experience, covering the USAID Mission front office would have been like strolling into traffic on the NY State Thruway while blindfolded and being squished by a semi.

So, I’m managing to hold my own. I ask lots of stupid questions about how to work the phones, how to use Outlook (the Bank uses Lotus Notes, and the switch has been tricky), where I can find office supplies, what printer should I use, which ambassador to call to schedule a meeting on water projects……you know, the typical questions you ask when starting a new job.

The Security Situation
I know that everyone is worried about mine and Nick's safety. My little story about being stranded at the airport temporarily probably didn’t make you feel any better.

First, let me reassure you that as long as Nick and I are on the Embassy compound, we are safe. Or rather, we’re about as safe as we are when we’re in DC. On any given day in DC, there’s always the risk that we could get run over by a bus (increased by our reckless bike riding habits, I’m sure), or mugged, or what have you. But as long as we’re doing routine activities, we don’t think about the danger too much.

It’s the same way here. There’s always a chance that a rocket could fall on the compound (lessened by the terrorists’ lack of targeting systems), or that we could be squished in a building collapse during an earthquake (lessened by the fact that the USAID office building is made up of a connected series of pre-fab containers). But for the most part we go about our routine inside the bubble of the US Embassy compound and don’t register the dangers on a conscious level.

It’s only when we change up our routine – travelling in Kabul, making site visits, taking a helicopter trip to Bagram, etc. – that we really feel at risk. And even then we’re well protected by the security teams.

So I hope that none of you – and I'm looking at YOU, friends and family – are lying awake at night worrying about Nick and me, fretting about us wandering around Afghanistan, with danger and bad guys stalking our every move. We’re safe. And we kindly ask that you redirect all of those worries and prayers and good wishes to thoughts of the USAID/government staff in the field, and our military personnel on the front lines. They need your positive energy more than we do.

Wow, that’s a lot of writing. Looks like there will be an unexpected sequel to fill you all in on the food situation and on how Nick and I spend our downtime. I think I shall call it Welcome to Kabul Part III, or It's a Greasy & Repetitive Life. Maybe – if I’m in the mood to live dangerously – I’ll throw in a few pictures to give you all a peek into our lives here. And if I feel the need to be really dangerous, I'll attempt to wrangle Nick into writing an entry in the near future.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Welcome to Kabul, Part I

I know I know. You’re all mad at me for not providing daily posts about my transition into life in Afghanistan. Please accept my most sincere apologies for the media blackout. However, the delay was intentional. I was waiting until I had:
  1. made some progress on overcoming my jet lag, at least to the point where I stopped napping at 4PM and getting a burst of energy at midnight. I'm still getting hungry at random times, but it's manageable.
  2. gained both some perspective on and a broad view of life here in Kabul
  3. managed to clear my thoughts of the alphabet soup that comes with trying to learn a whole new set of bureaucratic acronyms. Really, it’s like learning a whole new language!

After just about a week at post, I think I’ve managed to accomplish items 1 & 2. Item 3 is going to take a while. A VERY LONG WHILE. But I feel I've reached the point where I can give you all that update* you’ve all been waiting for. I have a lot to cover, so I’m just going to organize this topic by topic – apologies for the lack of a cohesive narrative.

*A quick disclaimer: due to security risks, I have to be careful about how much information I share about life on the US Embassy in Kabul. Topics like layout of the Embassy compound and daily movements are particularly sensitive. I will provide as much general information as I can, but I won’t be able to go into a lot of detail on many subjects.

I’m also not going to be able to share many pictures, as photography is not allowed inside the compound. However, a quick search on google shows that this rule is not exactly enforced. I’ll try to post photos when I can, but this is just a warning photographic evidence of our life in Kabul will likely be sparse. I'll try to make up for it with links to photos that are already out on the Internets, as well as lots of photos of any trips Nick and I take.

Enough with the warnings. On with the show!

The Compound
The Embassy compound has two sides, with a road running between them: the Embassy side, and the CAFE side. CAFE stands for “Compound Across from the Embassy.” Catchy, eh? The Embassy side has the Embassy buildings, obviously, and also the apartments, the tennis court, the pool, a small store, and some hooches. The CAFE side has the USAID offices, the small grocery/supply store, and some more hooches. ISAF headquarters (International Security Assistance Force, i.e. NATO), some other embassies, and the Presidential Palace are also in the neighborhood.

Kabul City
Thus far I really haven't traveled beyond the Embassy walls, so I don’t have much to say about the city itself. I can, however, comment on the weather and the quality of the air.

The air here is bad. BAD BAD BAD. There’s a kind of haze that hangs over the city at all times; at first glance it looks like the mist that hangs over the lakes and forests in the Adirondacks in the summer. But unlike the Adirondack mist, the pollution mist never burns off. It’s just there. ALL. THE. TIME. On good days the mist clears enough so that the ring of mountains that surround Kabul is visible. On really good days one might even catch a glimpse of some snow-capped peaks. On bad days, the mist makes it impossible to see the buildings across the street.

"What is in this mist", you ask? I don’t think you want to know the answer. But here’s a link to a photo from Afghan Magazine that will give you some visual evidence so as to inform your guesses. And for those of you who want a somewhat scientific discussion of the problem, here’s a nice NPR article.

The weather at the moment is not unlike DC weather. Chilly, but not freezing (although it feels winter-cold today), with lots of rain that has arrived in temporary showers of various lengths and intensities. It snowed a little yesterday, although it didn’t stick.

Our Apartment
Nick and I are lucky enough to be living in one of the apartments on the Embassy side of the compound. The apartment is quite cozy, and given that it’s about the same size as our condo in DC, we have little trouble sharing the space. It’s a one bedroom apartment, with living room and kitchen, and it even has space for a small dining table. The bathroom is much larger than in our condo, so that’s certainly an upgrade! The apartment comes mostly furnished, with a couch, arm chairs, dining table, queen size bed, dressers, major kitchen appliances, lamps, TV/DVD player, various side tables etc. The only furniture we’ve brought from home is our coffee table. Other items brought from home include some small kitchen appliances, floor lamps, folding chairs for extra seating, linens and towels, cookware, place settings, computers and stereo. Compared to life in the hooches, we're living in modest luxury. Compared to the living conditions out in the field, we might as well be living at the Plaza!

On a sad note (those of you who are friends with me on Facebook will already know this story), we are sans TV at the moment. Quick backstory: Nick arranged the TV setup so that the cable ran through his mega-desktop computer and displayed on the mega-LCD, HD, 26” monitor we bought just for this assignment. Ok, back to the sad part. On Friday afternoon Nick and I were watching a DVD, when all of the sudden smoke started billowing out from the back of the computer monitor. The monitor went kaput, and now we’re left without the pleasures of TV or Nick’s video games. We’ve called Vizio tech support, and fingers crossed they’ll just send us a new monitor without too much fuss.

Living in the apartment block is kind of like being back in a college dorm. Except with private bathrooms and more guns. Case in point: some of the apartment doors are decorated with white boards. There’s a laundry room on each floor, and people will move your laundry aside if you’re not quick on draw getting it out of the washer or dryer. It’s kind of loud in the hallways on the night before the start of the weekend (Thursday nights here, given that we have Fridays off based on the Muslim calendar). And the food in the dining hall is of questionable quality and provenance.

Ok ,that’s all for Part I of my overview of life at the US Embassy, Kabul. I’m hard at work on Part II; topics for that post will be my job, what Nick and I do on our down time, the safety situation, the food situation, and my sartorial habits. I may also include a "Day in the Life" section. If you have any specific questions you want answered, post them in the comments section and I’ll try to answer them in Part II.

Back to trying to sort out the acronym soup....

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Stage 2 completed

I've arrived safe and sound in Kabul. I'll wait until I've settled in and can report back on the job front to fill you all in on the details of the trip and my first impressions of Afghanistan. But here are two random bits to keep you entertained in the until I have more to report:
  • It really is a small world. On my flight from DC to Dubai, I ended up sitting next to an Afghan gentleman who used to live in Delmar. He now lives in Clifton Park.

  • The bureaucratic snafus continued to the bitter end. For some reason I was left off of the Embassy's airport pickup list, and the motorpool left the airport without me. Moreover, the expediter wasn't looking for me -- because I wasn't on the list -- and wasn't waiting where I had been told to find him. So I was essentially stranded at the Kabul airport. Luckily a nice Kiwi diplomat noticed I looked lost and bewildered and came to my aid (he was the one who told me that the Embassy cars had left); he very kindly found the Embassy's expediter for me. Being left behind was a bit scary, but given the government's track record, really I'm not surprised that something went wrong.

Saturday, November 28, 2009

Stage 1 completed

Just a quick post to say that I have arrived safe and sound in Dubai, which looks like a giant shopping mall. My hotel is nice, and I enjoyed a lovely, fresh dinner, my last for a while. The flight was long and bumpy, and I realized that the World Bank spoils its employees by always having them fly business class. But I was able to catch Julie and Julia and the most recent Harry Potter. So all was not lost.

Bedtime. Just one more sleep and then this long, long, strange trip is OVER!

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Q & A 3

I find myself answering the same questions about Kabul over and over. I really don't mind, but what this tells me is that I haven't done a good job keeping everyone up to date on the latest developments. I shall now attempt to rectify this situation. Enjoy!

1. What will you be doing in Kabul? What's the job situation?

Really, all the credit for this one goes to Nick.

Way back in April, when all this first started, I was offered a position in the State Department's Joint Visitors' Bureau (JVB). This office is responsible for coordinating dignitaries' visits, handing out welcome packets and hooch keys, etc. The job would have involved lots of administrative and event work, exactly what I was trying to move away from.

Nick worked his butt off for me. He networked with staff from all over the Embassy and the USAID mission. He sent out my resume. He let people know that I was interested in doing more, that I am capable of doing more, and that I have skills that would be useful in a program office. And lo and behold, it worked.

So, I'm quite happy to report that I will be going to Kabul to serve as a Development Outreach and Communications Officer (DCO) in the USAID Office of Economic Growth (OEG). I don't yet know what kind of work I'll be doing, although I'm guessing there will be a lot of writing.

2. When are you travelling, and what's your route?
I'm travelling this coming Friday. Because Nick and I listed DC as our home city, the government requires that our travel to post start in DC. Right now I'm in Albany to spend Thanksgiving with my family. On Friday morning I hop a Southwest flight from Albany to Baltimore. I'll spend Friday afternoon puttering around DC doing some last minute errands before heading to Dulles Airport in the evening. Then it's a long haul flight to Dubai, a Saturday night stay in a hotel, and finally a quick flight to Kabul. If all goes to plan, I'll be in Kabul by Sunday afternoon....that's Sunday morning for all you east coast folk. And with any luck, Nick will be able to finagle his way onto the welcome wagon, and will be waiting for me when I step off the plane in Afghanistan.

3. Where will you be living while in Kabul?
Like most US government employees in Afghanistan, Nick and I will be living on government property. More specifically, we'll be living on the Embassy compound in Kabul. We lucked out and managed to get an apartment, so we'll essentially be living in a space very similar to our home in DC. I'll be able to write more on this once I actually see the apartment.

4. How can I get in touch with you while you're in Kabul?
I'll have internet access both at the office and in the apartment. So there will be blog posts, and you are always free to pass along a message in the comments. Some of you have my email address and/or are my friend on Facebook, and those will continue to work as well.

Just a reminder that Kabul is currently 9.5 hours ahead of the US east coast, so please don't panic if there's a delay in my responding to your message. If you don't feel like figuring out the time in Kabul yourself, I've installed a handy-dandy little clock on the right-hand side of the blog. Put it to good use!

5. What sort of vacation time will you get?
Yeah, this one is a little tricky. Nick and I have actually been hired under different leave policies. Quite convenient, eh? Yeah, they implemented a new policy 15 days after Nick arrived at post.

First, a quick primer on the two different types of leave offered to US foreign service staff in Afghanistan. The first type is home leave, otherwise known as R&R. The second type are regional breaks, called RRBs. For home leave, the government covers the cost of our flights to DC and back. For RRBs, the designated regional rest stop for Afghanistan is Delhi, India Dubai. We aren't limited to just going to Delhi Dubai; we can buy tickets to any destination in the world. However the government will only cover the cost of those tickets up to the cost of two roundtrip tickets from Kabul to Delhi Dubai.

Anyway, as provided by the old leave policy, Nick gets 2 home leaves and 2 regional breaks per year, not to exceed a total of 65 days spent out of Afghanistan. Under the new policy, which still limits my days spent out of the country to 65 per year, I can take 2 home leaves and 3 regional breaks. OR, I can trade in all of my regional breaks for a third home leave. No matter which option I choose, I end up with one more leave than Nick gets. I'm thinking that I'll take the 2 home leaves and 3 regional breaks, and use the 'extra' regional break (which will be sans Nick) for a little girls' trip with my sister. I've heard the Dalmation Coast is really nice. What do you say, Jo?

Well, that about wraps it up for this post, my last while I'm in the US. I'll try to get a quick post up as soon as I arrive in Kabul, although I'll warn you now that my first priority will be to SLEEP, my second will be to my circadian rhythm aligned with Kabul time as quickly as possible, and my third will be to enjoy being back in the company of my husband.

I wish everyone who reads this blog -- family, friends, and strangers alike -- a very happy Thanksgiving. And a special happy Thanksgiving to my poor Nicky, who is spending the day alone in Kabul. Just three more sleeps to go, honey.

Catch you all on the flip side!

Saturday, November 21, 2009

The Great Kabul Packout of 2009, or How I Came to Worship Post-Its

It started with the apartment looking like this:






It ended with the apartment looking like this.



In between, it looked like this:



I'm not in the mood to compose a good Regents' style blog essay (for all you non-NYers, that's the standard argument-support-support-conclusion essay format) on the packout. Ergo, a few random thoughts on the big event.
  • Packing out isn't fun. Packing out while sick is just unfair.

  • DC-area drivers seem to be as incapable of reading parking signs as they are at reading traffic lights. I put out three "Emergency No Parking" signs to reserve the street parking in front of the house more than 3 days before the packout. Thursday morning saw two cars and a jeep parked in the reserved zone. One car was there all day. The moving truck couldn't park, and instead spent the whole day taking up the bike lane and part of the traffic lane on Vermont Ave.

  • I called Parking Enforcement at 9:30AM to come ticket the cars. As of 11AM they still hadn't shown; at this point 2 out of the 3 cars had escaped. Parking Enforcement finally arrived at 3pm to ticket the one remaining car. The fine? A whopping $50 bucks. Totally not worth the half hour I spent on the phone getting Parking Enforcement to come out.

  • Nick and I have a lot of stuff. More than it would seem possible to fit in a 650 sq. foot apartment.

  • I think I shall create my own religion dedicated to the worship of Post-It notes. These wonderful little bits of paper were the key to making this packout manageable. Ergo, they were the key to my keeping hold of my sanity. I labeled everything; things that were to go to Kabul, things that were for storage, things the movers shouldn't touch. It was clear and simple and didn't require me to try to be in all places at all times to keep track of what was going where.

  • The other key to my sanity during the packout was my wonderful Toad. I thought I'd need her to help me keep on eye on the packers. Turns out there was little actual work for her to do. But it also turned out that her real task was just to be good company, and to keep me from pacing in circles, hovering over the movers and nervously wringing my hands for hours on end. I love you Toad; couldn't have made it through this without you.

  • My entire wardrobe -- shoes and all -- weighs in at about 220 lbs.

  • I don't know what sort of magic they put in those Mr. Clean Magic Erasers, but it must be a very dark and powerful magic. For it removed even the blackest of scuff marks from the walls. I'm talking black; you don't spend nearly three years wheeling two bicycles in and out of the house without making a more than a few good scuff marks. But they were no match for the Magic of Mr. Clean.

  • When one's dryer vents back into one's apartment, said apartment will yield a galloping horde of dust bunnies, no matter how often one dusts and sweeps. Also, the dust bunnies will mate with human hair -- especially long hair from the head of a female -- to form mutant hair bunnies. Terrifying.

  • Hold a garage sale or Make a massive donation to Goodwill?: one of life's great questions. It's nice to get the money from a garage sale, but sometimes the time saved by just bringing everything to Goodwill is more valuable. Nick and I better be able to take a big, fat tax deduction for all the stuff we've donated to Goodwill. But even if we can't, it still feels good to be rid of all those excess belongings. On to a better and more useful life!

  • I was in such a fog of sleep deprivation and illness that I completely forgot to tip the movers. Still feeling guilty, and still trying to remedy the situation.

  • It is possible to become emotionally attached to houseplants. Also bicycles.

The packout was big. It was scary. It was a looming behemoth of a task that brought me to tears several times in the weeks leading up to the big day. I didn't know what to expect. I had no experience using movers or moving an entire household. I wasn't sure if I was doing the right things to prepare. I wasn't sure if I was bringing the right foods and clothing. I worried that our belongings would be sent to the wrong destinations. I didn't want strangers going through our belongings, and I didn't want them to move things around so that I wouldn't know where everything was. I thought I wouldn't be able to get through it.

But I did. And it wasn't so bad. It turns out that the concept, the idea of the packout was much, much worse than the packout itself. So many thanks to those of you who listened while I worried and fretted and whined about how I had to manage the packout all by myself. With your support I did do it by myself.

And the next time, it won't be so big and scary.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

How much do I love my husband?

Enough to tackle the most vile mess I have ever seen.

Nick's beloved grill will be joining the rest of our belongings in government storage. Nick is a grillmaster; the grill has been put to extensive use in the nearly 3 years we've lived in the condo. I have voraciously devoured countless meals of expertly grilled veggies (my favorites!), squeaky cheese, and meats of various types.

I would gladly forfeit all future grilled meals, if only for the reason that I refuse to ever do this again.

As a supplement to the Great Kabul Packout of 2009, I present, the Horrifying Grill Cleanout of 2009. The first time the grill has been cleaned since we bought it!


The starting point. The lid should be silver.
And yes, that is food stuck to the grate. And some grass.

The 1/2 inch layer of charcoaled food that lined the inside of the grill. I was actually able to pull this out in chunks with my hands.

Pulling out the charcoal. You can see a pile of it on the brick in the background as well.
Yeah, the gloves were toast after this.

Letting the degreaser do its work.

It took a good two hours, but the task is done. The grill still has a thin layer of grease covering it, but at least all of the charcoal and rancid food bits are gone.
I love you Nicky, and I love your cooking. I really do. But....never again, ok?! :-)

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Going out with a bang

Yes, this is yet another post with a trapeze video. Be sure you have your sound on.

Tonight was my last trapeze class for the foreseeable future. After making my return on Saturday, I decided to let that trick be and try throwing a layout. I've only worked on my layout for a few classes, and tonight was my first time throwing it to the catcher.

And look what happened on my very first try.....

video

Not a bad way to go out.

Thank you Brian, Bret, Mike, Meagan, Robin, Beth(s), Stephanie, Dara, and all of the rest of the staff and crew of "regulars" at TSNY DC. I really don't know how I would have made it through the past 6 months without this.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Success!

It's not the cleanest of returns, but I made it!


video

Friday, November 13, 2009

On the other hand

A while back I posted an entry listing five things that I won't miss when I leave DC. If you recall, most of what I will not miss involved tourists.

Today -- my last day at the World Bank -- I have been thinking about all of the things that I will miss about DC when I leave next weekend. I guess I'm feeling a little reflective at the moment. It's a nice change from the all-consuming panic I've felt for the past week or so, compliments of the upcoming packout.

Thus, in no particular order....

1. Running on the National Mall
I don't really like running, but at least DC offers some beautiful views to keep me entertained while slogging my way through a 4-miler. Running doesn't seem so bad when one can stop and admire the sunset silhouetting the Washington Monument.

Also, the people watching on and around the Mall is of the highest quality. As annoying as they might be when clogging the sidewalks or riding the metro, sweaty tourists are really quite entertaining to observe when out on the street.

2. The Sunday morning Farmer's Market
I suspect that the sadness I feel about my final visit to the Dupont Circle farmer's market (likely this coming Sunday) has more to do with my concerns about the quality of the food in Kabul than any specific attachments to this market. But I'll list it anyway.

As a creature of habit, I take particular comfort in getting up every Sunday, rain or shine, and seeing how much I can get at the market for my weekly budget of $20. In the summer the tomatoes -red, green, purple, yellow, and zebra-striped -- are drool-worthy. In the winter I stock up on apples (how insanely good have the Honeycrisps been this season?! ) root vegetables and winter greens, and at least once each fall I try squash to see if I've overcome my dislike of it. No change so far. But as long as the sellers keep stocking it in abundance, I'll keep trying.

After living a mostly vegetarian lifestyle since Nick's departure, with the bulk of my meals being made with fresh produce from this market, I think I will find the switch to the Kabul diet of processed, meat-laden foods quite a shock to my system. In all honesty, as much as the delays in my departure for Afghanistan have been frustrating, I do apprecite the opportunity they gave me to get my fill of fresh summer produce. I'm sure I will spend many of my mealtimes in Afghanistan dreaming of fresh kale, ripe heirloom tomatoes, dribbly apples and sweet potatoes with dirt still stuck to their skins.

3. My bike
I love my bike. I love how much time it saves. I love that with it I find myself going to parts of DC that I wouldn't otherwise visit due to their lack of public transportation (Georgetown....not that there's anything all that great in Georgetown, but at least it's somewhere to go). Whenever I'm asked for advice on living in DC by a recent transplant, I always tell him or her to make getting a bike a priority. When my old bike was stolen I was completely lost. I couldn't fathom how I would manage without it; I was going to lose a whole 40 minutes out of my day just walking to work! Without my bike I feel slow and inefficient. It will be a sad day when I have to put it in storage. That will be one of the last things I do before leaving, because I can't see how I can get all of my errands done without it.

4. The restaurants
You name the cuisine, DC probably has it. Italian? Of course. Japanese? Yes. Belgian? In abundance. Ethiopian? Ghanian? Slavic? Scandinavian? Nepalese? Yes Yes Yes Yes.

And if you can't find it in DC, you can probably find it in the VA or MD suburbs. Although Nick would argue that there is one cuisine lacks proper representation in the DC area: Chicago deep-dish pizza. Nicky, you can remedy that one when you win the lottery.

And Maryam and Pauline, I fully expect you to keep me up to date with additions to the DC restaurant scene. That means pictures and description from first course to last. For the next 1.5 years, my 'dining out' will be limited to living vicariously through you two.

Which reminds me, I need to get to Lalibela one more time before I leave.

5. TSNY DC
I don't know how I would have made it through the past few months if not for the welcome distraction of trapeze and silks classes. Yes, they cost a pretty penny. But it gave me something to focus on and look forward to during the lloongg months of silence from HR. It's been so long since circus has been part of my life. But from my experience at the rig in DC, I know that I need to find ways to keep it in my life. If Nick and I stay with the foreign service this may be tricky at times. We'll just have to be creative, and strategic in our bids for posts. Hey, Jamaica has a USAID mission and a Breezes resort with a trapeze! It could work.

6. Friends & Colleagues
I'm keeping it short and sweet here, to avoid hurting any feelings. Thanks to those who have made my time at the World Bank the great experience that it was. Thanks to those who have been part of mine and Nick's time in DC. Thanks to those of you who have gone out of your way to keep me entertained for the past 6 months. Keep in touch all.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Timelines

Because inquiring minds want to know.

All dates confirmed unless otherwise noted.
  • November 13: my last day at the World Bank
  • November 19: government packout of the condo
  • November 20ish (tbc): driving up to Albany
  • November 26: enjoy Turkey Day with family and dog
  • November 27 (tbc): fly from Albany to DC, stop by State Department for final rabies vaccine, depart for Kabul
Swimming as hard as I can to keep my head above water. Current life question: How in the world did Nick and I manage to acquire so much stuff, and how did we fit it all into 650 sq. feet?

Monday, November 9, 2009

Murphy's Law

As if my life wasn't complicated enough at the moment, on Friday night our laptop decided to up and quit on me. It's in the hands of the Geek Squad now; fingers crossed they can bring it back to life they just called -- it has a bad hard drive and is toast and they might not be able to recover our files. Panicking over the possible loss of our honeymoon photos.

I had more to write, but now I can't even think.

Monday, November 2, 2009

We can't be shut down...well, yes we can

It was your typical Thursday night in Wonderland. Tweedle Dee and Tweedle Dumb decided to throw an immovable feast to celebrate a quadrilateral birthday, and invited every clam in town. Crammed in, we cranked the music, opened the beverages, and then opened the window. As the party rolled on, so did the Absinth Jell-O shots served by the Cheshire Cat. After a few hours the party was at full tilt and spilled out into the hallway. The shots turned from little cups to trays with spoons, but at that point we were down to grape Jell-O which are not as good but hey, no one complained.

Around midnight I decided to indulge a bad habit and have a cup of tea and a breath of fresh air with the Mad Hatter. With beverages in hand, we retreated through the rabbit hole to the back of the apartment complex. Just as we hit the foyer, the Queen of Hearts appeared, looking seriously displeased. The Queen had heard the ruckus from upstairs through the open windows, and the sound ricocheting off of the building across the way only amplified the noise. Hiding our tea behind our backs, the Queen questioned the Mad Hatter and I about the party, given an update of the grave situation in Wonderland, and were told to ‘shut it down.’ After the Queen departed we took the ‘blue pill,’ wheeled around and climbed back through the rabbit hole. We hit the feast at full speed; the Mad Hatter closed the windows and I turned off the music. We updated everyone on the Queen’s request. There was slight pause, and then the party disbursed.

The next day the Mad Hatter and I became the heroes of the day; without our intervention, the Queen of Hearts would have climbed through the rabbit hole to view the feast in person, and most likely would have shouted "Off with their heads!" And then the Tweedle Dummies would no longer be with us in Wonderland.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Fall 2009, Part I

Nick's First Home Leave

Meeting Claire for the first time


Cheering on the Spartans

Hanging with the boys
Taking in the sights....

...and tastes of NYC


Visits with family....


...and friends.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Never in a million years

If it didn't feel real before, it certainly does now.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Peek-a-boo

In case the lack of visual evidence has you thinking that Nick and I have constructed this whole Afghanistan thing as an elaborate ruse.....




PS: Thanks to those who left messages. It's funny to think that we have readers other than family and friends!

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Headcount

Might I be so rude as to make a small request of you all?

I'm curious to know how many people are following along with this blog. And although I'm fairly computer savvy, I can't for the life of me figure out how to get a hits count out of the Google blogger tools. Maybe that's not a feature.*

Anyway, I would be most grateful if each person who reads this would make his/her presence known by noting their visit in the comments section. You can be anonymous, you don't even have to write anything. Just leave a mark to let us know you were here.

*Edit: I figured out how to add a hits counter, so now the headcount will be done automatically. But I still want to get an idea of who's reading. So please still leave a mark!

Cheers all!

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Forward Motion

I know. I know. I owe everyone a post on Nick's home leave. I have pictures and video and stories...and absolutely no attention span to do anything with any of it. I'll get to it soon, I promise.

In the mean time, here's the big update I promised. I'm sure you guys have been waiting for this with baited breath ever since my little teaser post yesterday. Right? Right? *crickets*

So, I'm going to Afghanistan. For realz. In November.

After months and months of delays, bureaucratic hurdles, and a few weeks of zero communication thrown in for fun, the process of getting me out to Kabul seems to have landed itself on the fast-track express. Not TGV fast, but fast enough that I should be in Kabul well in advance of Thanksgiving.

I'm not sure how it happened. Maybe Nick's less-than-subtle hints that the difficulties we were experiencing could lead him to reconsider his commitment to serving a second year were finally taken seriously. Maybe we just happened to make contact with the right HR person, one with all the answers (or at least the ability to direct us to the people with the answers. And hey! Sometimes she even asks the questions for us, because that's her job and what she's expected to do! What a novel concept. {Thank you, thank you, thank you Michelle! Special thanks to Seetha as well, who's been a steady help throughout}). Whatever the reason, I can finally say that as of September 24th, we've been making significant progress.

Of course it wouldn't be the government HR without a little last minute bureaucratic fun, right?! Nick found out on Monday, September 28 that if I wasn't on his orders by the end of the fiscal year -- that is, by Wednesday, September 30! -- we would suffer dire consequences. Cue several days of panicpanicPANIC. But, I'm not yet on his orders, and so far nothing dire has happened. No delays, no additional red tape. Keep your fingers crossed that it stays this way!

So we find ourselves back to the familiar task of jumping through the government's hoops, except now it's different. Now when we jump, we actually move forward. Last week I jumped through the medical clearance hoop. (There's a funny story in there about having 1.5 hours to eat in between the end of the 24 hour fast for Yom Kippur and the start of the 12 hour fast for my blood tests, involving bipolar behavior caused by drastic swings in blood sugar. But I digress). We're waiting for the results, but we assume that everything will come back ok. No reason that it shouldn't. Once I get medical clearance I can be added to Nick's orders, which will release funding, which will open many, many of the doors that currently stand in my way.

Right now I'm jumping through the diplomatic passport and visa hoops, involving lots of forms and back and forth with various HR folks and some problems caused by lack of funding, as metioned above. But here too I am making progress.

Additional evidence of said progress is that I'm booked for my mandatory trainings. The first one (Oct. 19-24) is the FACTS course, where I will learn all about super fun stuff like how to triage bombing victims, how to identify an IED, and what to do if the car I'm riding in/driving comes under attack. It's like something out of a James Bond movie, except without the special effects and with actual cars -- which I will be driving -- and actual explosions.

Confession time: I do not do well with situations that require split-second decisions. I am a compulsive researcher who needs to examine a problem from every angle and who dreads giving the wrong answer. As a kid I used to panic whenever I didn't know the right answer to my Alphie Doll's question (anyone remember Alphie? The little quiz robot?) or when the timer on Perfection was running out and I didn't have all the pieces in place. It was the pressure of the countdown and knowing that I didn't have as much time as I wanted to think everything through that killed me. I think my experience on the driving course will be just like that, except instead of deciding on where to put puzzle pieces, I will have to decide whether to ram the terrorists' car blocking the road or throw my car in reverse and hightail it out of there. While imagining I'm being shot at. *gulp*

Every guy I talk to thinks it all sounds super awesome!, to which I respond that I am currently accepting volunteers to dress up in drag and go in my stead.

The second course (Nov. 2-6) is the Afghanistan familiarization course. I think I can handle that one. Assuming there's no driving.

After I complete both trainings I'll be authorized to head to post. The only obstacle that will remain will be the packing. For those of you wondering about the outcome of the great 90 day packout deadline debacle, it turns out that we can plead our case to the government to get a 90 day extension on the original deadline (hooray for clear answers from Michelle!).

I don't think that the term "packing" adequately captures the task that lies ahead. I think I will call it "logistical task of DOOM." Getting this task organized is rather daunting, and I'm having trouble finding the most efficient way to get it done. I have to sort our belongings into 5 piles and dispatch as necessary, according to destination: Kabul, government storage, Uhaul storage, Albany storage (aka parents' house), garage sale/Goodwill/trash. And then I have to hold said garage sale. And tranport the Uhaul pile to said Uhaul storage. And bring the Albany pile -- including my car -- to Albany. And then shop for 6 months' worth of Kabul-bound consumables. While in DC without my car. And while taking my trainings. Crap.

Somewhere in this jumble I have to extricate myself from my job at the World Bank (I'll save that story for another post), get the apartment ready to be rented, disseminate our wedding photos, shop for additional work clothes, celebrate my dad's 60th birthday (yay!), keep up with my workouts, make the rounds to say goodbye to family and friends, fill up on vegetables and unprocessed foods, and squeeze in as many trapeze and silks classes as possible.

So to conclude this post using proper blog style (tie everything back to the start of the post), I will say that if you're looking to wag a finger at me for being late with a post about Nick's home leave, please reread the paragraphs above. I think they collectively qualify as a valid excuse, no?

The end is in sight, folks. We're plowing ahead; in fits and starts and maybe a little bit unsteadily. But at least we're achieving forward motion.

Monday, October 5, 2009

Yipee!

I had a great silks class on Saturday, finally performing two tricks that I'd been stuck on for a while. Luckily I had someone document one of those moments for posterity.

That's all for now. A big update is on its way, so stay tuned......




Sunday, September 27, 2009

Truly a Fan

As I am writing this, it is 2:30 AM in Kabul -- or 0230 hours if you are in the military -- and I am up watching the Chicago Bears game. I am in full Bears' regalia : jersey, hat, and boxers. It took me the first half of the game just to find a way to watch the game, but was finally able to tune in using a wonderful program called sopcast. (Quick pause for a shout out to my brother Frank. Thanks for the Slingbox; though it failed me this time I am sure it will not do so in the future.)

All I can say that life in Kabul, like football, is a game of inches. I slowly crawl my way through work, tackling the tasks that come my way. Some days I need to dig deep just to make it through, but like a battered and bruised running back I make it into the end zone. The only sad part of my day is that my number one cheerleader is 6000 miles away and 8 and half hours behind and all I have waiting for me in my hooch at the end of my day is nice bottle of Scotch and a pipe (and yes I am pretentious). But I am surviving.

Anyways, short post...the Bears are a point ahead of the Seahawks and my midnight beer is getting warm.

Go Bears

Monday, September 14, 2009

Hiding Out

I'm just popping in to reassure everyone that we're still alive. Nick's visit has been wonderful and weird and stressful and fantastic....and far too short. Just a few more days and then he gets back in the big tin that will take him away again. We've had wonderful visits with family and friends, eaten lots of good food, and enjoyed some much needed alone time. I'll be sure to post all about it after Nick heads back.

In other news.....The Powers That Be (henceforth referred to as TPTB) have decided that I am not a threat to national security after all. My clearance was approved on August 18; of course it took them two weeks to let us know!

We have no other information regarding my move to Kabul: no timelines, no information on next steps, no confirmation that the job they offered way back in April is still available. We've emailed HR four times in the two weeks since we were informed that my clearance had been approved, and have yet to receive any sort of response. I have a feeling that this is going to drag on for so long that by the time we have everything lined up for me to go, Nick's tour will be over.

At any rate, there's no need to worry that one day I'll be here and the next day I'll be on my way out of the country. The transition won't happen quite that quickly. Once I receive word from TPTB that everything is set for my departure, I'll give my 2 week's notice at the World Bank. Then I'll have to complete two weeks of mandatory government training (which I can't do until I leave the Bank, as I have very few leave days saved). So there will be at least a month of lag time --probably a little bit more -- between when TPTB clear me to go and when I actually get on the plane.

So no panicking -- you'll have lots of warning before it's time to plan my going away celebrations and bid me farewell.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Everything old is new again

Nick is home, and I wish I could say that it's just like old times. Except it isn't. I'll elaborate more when his visit is finished and I can write about it with some perspective.* For now I'll just say that I think that in the three months that he's been gone, we've both fallen out of some of the good habits we developed over 3 years of living together. Some naughty habits have reared their heads as well.

But good things, not-so-good things....in the end they don't matter. All that matters is he's here.

*Edit: No one panic. I'm fine, Nick's fine, we're fine. I'm just mulling over the differences between living with him and having him home for a short (but wonderful!) visit after a long absence.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

10 hours to go, and counting

The kitchen counters are clean and shiny. The bathtub drain and bathroom floor are hair-free. I moved my stuff off of his dresser, and put away all of the toiletries that had migrated to his side of the bathroom counter. My laundry is put away. My “to do” piles have been removed from the kitchen counter. I wanted to wash the bathmats and sheets, but a broken dryer means those chores will have to wait (hopefully just until Friday evening). My car is clean, and my hair is freshly cut (holy cow it grew out quickly).

The fridge and pantry are stocked with everything I think Nick might want: fizzy water, good cheeses, lamb kielbasa, good milk, and olives. The fridge is nearly exploding with fresh produce from the farmers’ market: spinach, tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers, snap peas, onions, eggplants, corn, green beans, nectarines, blueberries. Nick said he’s been missing fresh produce; I will restock at the Dupont market on Sunday if need be. Tomorrow I will pick up some fresh bread.

The plane and train tickets for Chicago/Lansing/NYC/DC are purchased. I've made hotel reservations in New York, and bought our tickets for “The 39 Steps” and “Hair”. I spread the word about the DC shindig. I've booked appointments with the Sears repair man (for the dryer) and the contractors (getting estimates on replacing our windows). I scheduled our couple’s massage (wedding gift), our dinner at Minibar, and a flying trapeze lesson. The “honey-do” list is getting long, and is posted on the fridge.

I can't think of anything else to do.

I’m ready. I’m not ready.

I can't wait.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Deadline shmeadline

Well, August 18th has come and gone. It has now been 91 days since Nick left for Afghanistan, and we are officially past the 90 day deadline for having the movers return to complete our pack out.

We haven't heard a peep from HR. Not a single word about a single one of our many questions. Nick pursued several different avenues while trying to find out what we're supposed to do with our belongings, about whether we'll be able to have the movers return once I'm added to Nick's travel orders (TA) or if we'll be responsible for the cost of packing our stuff and the 2 years of storage. All we got in response was one gibberish email that didn't answer the question....and then silence. Going on 3 weeks of silence.

Here is what Nick asked:
I am still waiting on details regarding my spouse accompanying me to post. But when she is assigned, what is the policy for having the movers come and pack her out and put the rest of our household-effects into storage, especially since it will most likely be 90 days after my pack out?

Here's the gibberish:
If after we see the original TA – we will see if it needs to be amended to bring your wife to post...With travel orders/TA packers cannot come and pack her out – think back the process you had to go through not to long ago yourself – paper work had to be in place before any pack out or communications with packers could take place.

Um.....ok?

Nick is hearing whispers from the HR office in Kabul that they've received notification of my clearance. But we've heard many whispers from HR over the past few months, and have learned not to believe anything they tell us until we have written proof in our hands.

At first I took comfort in the thought that we are having such a tough time with HR because of Nick's position. He's not really in the foreign service, and he's with USAID, who seem to get the short end of the support-for-overseas-posts stick anyway (at least compared to what State Department employees get). Then I came across this post on The Perlman Update, and discovered that we could be in for a lifetime of HR frustrations.

I'm curious: in large organizations, does HR ever function well?

Sunday, August 16, 2009

There's a hole in my hand

The only kind of circus injury I don't like....



Friday, August 14, 2009

Q&A: 2

Presenting the second installment of this semi-regular feature. Your burning questions answered!

1. How is Nick doing?
Nick is doing pretty well. He's had rough days here and there.

2. What exactly is he doing over there?
Something with data? Databases? Which maybe involve some international donors?

I really have no idea. Nick and I technically work in the same field, but the US Government and the World Bank speak completely different languages. I'm sure he does something fun and awesome and super-rewarding, but you'll have to ask Nick for the specifics.

3. How's he handling living in a hooch?
Funny thing that. Nick actually had to move out of his roomy double hooch into a regular single hooch. HR put him in the double hooch at first because they thought I'd be coming to Afghanistan right away. But I'm not there yet, and another couple arrived at post and needed the hooch...and so Nick was sent on his way.

His new hooch is a cozy, one room box, with bunk beds. He told HR that he can't have a roommate because he's got two peoples' stuff and needs the top bunk for storage.

I think that Nick's move (and the apparent shortage of housing for couples) does not bode well for our living situation once I am in-country. Married and sleeping in bunk beds? Fun times.

4. What's the status of your security clearance situation?
It seems that the investigators finished their work and submitted the final report some time in early August, although I don't have concrete proof that this has actually happened. Assuming that it has, we're now waiting for the adjudicators to make the determination as to whether I'm a threat to national security or not. The target completion date is August 28, but I've heard that the target date doesn't mean much.

5. Were you able to get an extension on the deadline for packing out your apartment?
We don't really know what's going on there. Nick emailed HR asking whether we would be held to the original deadline (90 days from Nick's date of departure = August 18th), or if the deadline would reset once his travel orders are amended to include me. We didn't get a clear response. We emailed again asking for clarification, but our contact had moved jobs. Nick has now emailed another person, and we're still waiting for a response.

At this point, I'm ready to just let it go. If we are held to the original 90 day deadline, it's too late to do anything about it. Not only do I think that it would be impossible to get the movers scheduled on such short notice., but there's no way I can get all of our stuff --including all of my belongings that have been living in storage in MD for the past 4 years -- ready for a pack out in 3 days.

6. Is the Embassy holding the job for you?
No clue.

7. When do you think you might be going over?
No clue.

8. Have you received any help or support or even just clear information from HR at all?
I think you can guess the answer to this one.....

9. What's Nick's daily life like?
I've been urging Nick to write a "day in the life" post. I hope that he'll get around to it soon, and then he can tell you all about it in his own words.

But here's a brief idea of my understanding of his daily life: wake up, call wife, go for a run, shower, icky breakfast food, workity work work, icky lunch food, meetings meetings meetings, icky dinner food, video games, talk to wife, go to bed.

10. When do you get to visit?
Ah, the $10,000 dollar question. Nick will be in the US from August 28-September 17. We're trying to make it so he can visit with everyone, but his schedule is pretty tight, and we might have to save a few of you for his next visit. Here's the plan thus far:
  • Aug 28-Sept 2: Washington DC
  • Sept 2-4: Naperville, IL
  • Sept 4-7: Lansing, MI
  • Sept 7-10: NYC
  • Sept 10-13: Washington DC with Chris & Jill (Attention DC folks: We'll be having a little get together on Saturday, Sept 12. Details coming soon!)
  • Sept 13-17: Washington DC

Thursday, August 13, 2009

The return of Circusliz

In my last post I promised to share how my efforts to deal with Nick's absence are good for the economy. In my attempts to fill up all of my free time (and I have a lot of it, too much for my own good really), I've developed a new addiction -- well, an old one really, just with a new outlet.

Circus is back in my life.

I might as well just hand my entire bank account over to TSNY DC. But right now, circus = therapy, so I'm willing to pay up. And like I said, good for the economy blah blah blah.

Here's a quick glimpse of the return of Circusliz.

This is me on the silks, one of the few aerial acts I never had chance to try in my earlier circus life. Don't let the picture fool you; I'm not very good. But it is a good challenge, a fantastic workout and a lot of fun.


It's also somewhat painful, in a Spanish web kind of way. Here's the burn I got on the back of my leg from doing an inverted descent, ie. sliding down the silks while hanging upside down by one leg. My first circus injury in 7 years, and I wore it with pride!



Continuing on with the injuries...here's the massive bruise, nasty scrape, and swollen ankle I received during my first flying trapeze class, courtesy of a wonky Birdie to the catcher. (The straight line across my ankle is the bruise, not a shadow. It was bizarre!)

I haven't flown in 7 years; I haven't flown to a catcher in at least 9 years! It. Was. Awesome. And again, I bore my injury with pride and excitement.

It's a sickness, really.

For any of my DC friends who are thinking of giving flying a try: you won't walk away from your first lesson looking like this. I promise.

My college/circus friend Chrissy stopped by on her way to West Virgina where she's working as a circus coach for the summer. She took this gorgeous picture of the fly rig at its outdoor location in downtown DC. It will be moved to an indoor location at the Navy Yards in the fall, so that the school can stay open year round.


I'm not posting any pictures or videos of me on the flying trapeze yet. Nick's never seen me fly; I'm signed up for two classes while he's home on leave, and I don't want to ruin the surprise.

But just in case you need additional proof that Circusliz is back, feast your eyes on the guns.

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Catching up

Clearly I have been lax in my blogging duties. It's not because I've been lacking anything interesting to say; it's more of a motivational issue. I've been having a hard time committing to and completing anything. It's as if the limbo of not knowing if I'm leaving soon or not has permeated to all other aspects of my life. (Update: my background investigation is complete, and we assume that the investigator submitted the report to the adjudicators. Now it's all up to them to decide my case). Work, blogging, writing wedding thank yous. I am just kind of...waiting, in this very unfocused, hazy, and impatient state. It doesn't make for good self-reflection; trying to put my jumbled thoughts into some sort of logical order is difficult without patience. And since most of what I want to share in this blog is self-reflection...well, you get the idea. I end up pretty unsatisfied with every word I manage to eke out.

Anyway, after giving up on yet another unfinished blog entry, I suddenly recalled that I never finished sharing our experience with Nick's pack out. And my next thought was "Hey, storytelling doesn't require any self-reflection!" The get-out-of-jail-free card. So without further ado, I present The Great Pack Out 2009.

BEFORE
Here's what the apartment looked like the night before the movers came. I have no idea how we managed to get the pullout couch open for Chris. We could barely walk in the apartment with it just as a couch! We had to put the coffee table in the kitchen to open the bed. Missing are pictures of the piles in the hallway, the bedroom and under the breakfast bar.




DURING
May 20. The movers arrived at 9:15AM on the dot, with boxes, tape guns and piles of packing paper in hand. They were led by Robinson.


They came, they saw, they packed. Witness the efficiency of their operation. Apologies for the shaky camera work. I was sitting on the counter in the kitchen, since there was no where in the apartment to stand except for the bedroom. This makes me give serious thought to hiring movers for every future move, even if we're just moving around the corner. Forget U-haul.
Also, forget Chris and that damn slinky (you can hear it in the background). As if my nerves weren't completely fried already. That stupid slinky noise was so soothing. I escaped to the office pretty quickly.


video


AFTER

It was all done in a little over 1.5 hours. The boxes were packed, loaded into containers, and driven off to languish in a DC warehouse for a few weeks (I hope you all still remember our entries about the household goods drama. Our blog's not that long!) We were still left with a mess, but a much smaller, much more manageable mess. To be honest, I'm still digging out. Nick will be the first to admit that he didn't do his part to get the house ready to be completely packed out (assuming I get clearance one of these days). So I've been trying to sort through what he left behind, guessing at whether the random computer bits and tools he left scattered around are important or just more junk.

But even though Nick's pack out didn't magically transform the condo into an uncluttered Eden, at least we were able to walk around our living room:




Chris flew back to Nashville that afternoon, and Nick and I spent our last evening together at a midnight screening of the new Terminator movie. Guy and Avery were there too. Aren't I a nice wifey to have given up my last evening alone with my husband so that he could watch a crappy movie with his bromance buddies?

Nick left on May 21. I took the day off from work, and we spent our day running some last minute, not-so-minor errands. There's nothing like waiting until the last minute to go through the State Department's checklist of "Things to do before departure." We found we did not have: extra copies of Nick's passport, extra copies of his travel visa, extra copies of his travel authorization, extra copies of his medical clearance....you get the idea. We also filed important paperwork at home, like the condo documents, and made an attempt to sort out the random junk Nick was leaving behind. We rode our bikes to and from our errands, we held hands as we rode, and we lamented how much we would miss doing inconsequential stuff like riding our bikes around DC while holding hands.

Then it was one last look at the condo, one last photo together, one hot walk to the metro, one quick metro ride, a chocolate snack courtesy of Guy, and then Nick was gone.

I'll pick the story up from there in my next blog entry, which will include a little self-reflection, and some honest insight into the life of a foreign service spouse during an unaccompanied post. Here's a preview of what will be discussed: how my attempts to close the the Nick-sized void in my life by throwing money at it are good for the economy.