Soliciting Advice from Foreign Service Parents

Dear Foreign Service parents (or any parent out their who has moved a child out of the country):

I need your advice.  How have you prepared your children for Foreign Service life?  How do you prepare them each time you change posts?  What has worked for you and what hasn’t?

I would appreciate any and all advice you could give me.

A huge thank you in advance!

Erin

Is My Husband Wise or Just Cheap?

When Jason and I were dating and engaged, he worried that our financial backgrounds may have problems meshing.  His father was a rancher, my father was an attorney.  In his mind, I came from a rich family and he did not.  He worried about what it would mean to marry what he considered a rich girl.  Truth is, I didn’t come from a rich family.  We were comfortably middle-class.  But it’s true that I never worried about family finances growing up and apparently he did.

So Jason and I married and I like to believe that he was pleasantly surprised at how conservative I was with my spending habits.  My philosophy on money is this:  I have never worried about finances, so why would I want to put myself or my family in a situation where I have to start worrying.  No possession on earth is better than a good nights sleep; therefore, I never want to lose sleep over money issues.  So, yes, I try to be careful.

The one financial decision we have always agreed on is that we would NEVER put anything on a credit card that we couldn’t pay off that month.  So far, that’s worked pretty well for us.

Notwithstanding, my self-proclaimed “carefulness” with spending, there have been incidents in our marriage where I have accused my husband of being cheap.  Here is one example:

When I was pregnant with our oldest child, Jason and I went on a campout with our church group.  Jason had a few basic camping supplies from his Boy Scout days; so, with one small exception, we were fine for one night in the mountains.  That exception was that we didn’t have any camping pads on which to sleep.  So as we were loading up the old Jeep Wagoneer I suggested we stop by Wal-Mart on our way to the mountains where I had recently seen camping pads for as little as $5.00.  At this suggestion, Jason basically accused me of being high maintenance and insisted that camping pads were an extravagant luxury.  Needless to say, his pregnant wife spent a pretty miserable night on the hard, cold ground.

If you think that this is the first time I have brought this up since the initial incident, you think way too highly of me. I bring it up all the time.  I think we can all agree, that on that particular day, Jason was CHEAP!

Fast forward to 2004.  We had been living in our second home but felt that we needed something a bit bigger for our growing family.  So we started the search for a new home.  We had a price range in mind and I had seen a number of homes that I felt we could afford, though a new home would stretch us more than we had been stretched previously.  I had basically decided on a home that was at the higher end of our price range.  I knew that Jason was a little uncomfortable with the cost of the house, so I agreed to look at a home that he had found that was well below the cost of the homes I had been looking at; in fact, it was about half the cost of the house I had chosen.  When Jason and I went through the less expensive home, we both felt that this was our home and we immediately put an offer on it.  We moved into our current home six years ago this month and it has been a great home.

When we were doing the financing for our home, Jason felt that we should take out a loan with a five-year arm.  Mortgage companies were really pushing arm loans back in 2004 but we knew that they were a bit controversial.  When I expressed some concern about the loan with Jason he told me not to worry, that he would have the house paid off before the five-year arm expired.  I trusted him.  Well, he didn’t pay off our mortgage in five years.  Instead, he paid it off in three and a half years.

So, my husband may be cheap, but here’s the truth.  His thriftiness has put us in a position where we are able to go into our new life as poor government employees with no debt.  We’ll be able to keep our home in Utah without worrying about a house payment while we’re overseas.  We’re not rich, but we have enough of a nest egg to pay for our kids college, church missions and weddings.  I’ll never drive a Mercedes, but we’ll never have a car payment either.  Had the family finances been left up to me for the 17 years of our marriage, we would probably have multiple car payments and a big mortgage.

So, I pose the question:  Is my husband wise, or just cheap?  Well, today one of our church leaders counselled us to pay off mortgages as fast as possible, and my heart swelled with gratitude for my cheap husband.  Maybe wisdom and cheapness can co-exist in one person.

Single Parenting

Today marks the longest space of time that Jason and I have spent apart in our 17 year marriage.  Before this, the longest was last spring when Jason went to England, Bahrain and Egypt for work.  That time he was gone for 16 days.  Today marks 17 days.  And we have another 12 days before he’s coming home for a short two-day weekend.

Going into this I knew it would be hard.  I use military families as my inspiration.  If they can do it for a year and a half, I can do it for four months.  I feel weak and whiny saying this, but it’s really hard and I’m truly not cut out for it.  There is a reason that the Lord intended families to have a mother and a father.  I knew that before, but boy, do I have a testimony of it now.

Confession time:  I have been a really cruddy mother these past 17 days.  My temper is short, I yell a lot, and I’ve actually seen red a couple of times.  I speak to my children in a way that I would never speak to another human being because anyone else would order a padded wagon to come pick me up and take me away.  Luckily, my children don’t yet know the number to the padded truck hotline, but it’s probably just a matter of time before they figure it out.

I’m used to having a husband who, ala Superman, swoops in when I start getting frazzled and saves the day.  He knows when I’ve had it and I need a little Time Out.

Husbands as good for other things as well, as I’m coming to appreciate.  They’re good for back tickles, taking out the garbage, and long talks in bed.  Mine is also very good at computer tech support.  He is so good at tech support that I literally have no idea how to even download music onto my IPod.  Nor can I change the ink cartridge on the printer or look up our checking balance on the internet.  I can see I have now crossed the line on my confession and readers are probably beginning to think I’m somewhat dim-witted, so I’ll stop now.

After my father passed away, my mother started saying all the time, “Make sure you give that husband of yours a hug every time you get the chance!”  Well Mom, you’re right.  I haven’t hugged my husband nearly enough and I wish I could give him a big hug right now.

I also wish I had a longer temper and a shorter fuse with my kids.  I wish I were one of those mothers who only spoke to her kids with a sweet, angel voice and only said loving and positive things; but unfortunately, I’m not.

I’m trying, but I have a long way to go.

Freedom of Assembly

Last weekend TV personality, Glenn Beck, held a rally on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. I hadn’t heard much about it but I wanted to see any kind of gathering in such a historical place. The news mentioned there could be some tension or if I was lucky–violence. I’ve never been a very political person but what else am I suppose to do in Washington D.C. by myself? So off to the metro I went.

The sidewalks were pretty full from the Foggy Bottom metro station to the Lincoln Memorial, but not overly so. It wasn’t until I got right up to the monument that I got a good view of the crowd. Regrettably, I arrived just as Sarah Palin was finishing her speech. I suppressed a tear and climbed the steps of the Lincoln Memorial.

From the top steps of the Lincoln Memorial
From the top steps of the Lincoln Memorial

The view was brilliant! There was a lot of debate in the news about how many people attended the rally. I didn’t count them all, but there were a lot! Both sides of the reflecting pool were packed. Both lawns outside the line of trees next to the reflecting pool were packed as well. I left the Lincoln Memorial and circled around to the South. I hoped I could find a way back to the reflecting pool so I could see the stage. There was no way I was going to make it. It was standing room only from the tree line to the water.

The crowd in the tree line near the reflecting pool
The crowd in the tree line near the reflecting pool
More of the crowd in the tree line

I didn’t catch much of the speeches. Most of what I heard gave me the feeling I was at a religious revival. The crowd seemed to receive the messages well.

I continued to work my way back through the crowd to the Washington Monument. The crowd started thinning out by the time I reached the big lawn between the Washington Monument and 17th Street. By thinning out I mean I could actually walk up the slight hill without stepping on anyone.

The crowd on the lawn in front of the Washington Monument
The crowd on the lawn in front of the Washington Monument

I hiked up toward the Washington Monument and took this picture of the crowd.

Looking back toward the Lincoln Memorial
Looking back toward the Lincoln Memorial

By this time I was getting way too hot and decided I needed to relax with the greatest gift of Western civilization, so I walked over to the National Gallery of Art to partake of air conditioning. It was truly wonderful and made me proud to be an American.

Sadly, without my wife by my side I did not appreciate the fine art in the gallery. Fine art is always better with Erin around. I did like this painting. Evidently some people think it is pretty good.

The Alba Madonna
The Alba Madonna

I must admit going through the art museum by myself did have its advantages. The biggest being I could leave whenever I wanted. So I exited the building onto Constitution Ave. I looked up 6th Street and saw a large crowd of people gathering in the distance.

Rev. Sharpton's March
Rev. Sharpton

I’ve been buried in my new job and I haven’t watched the news for a long time so I had to ask a security guard what was going on. He told me the Reverend Al Sharpton was holding another rally at a local high school. I guess they were not too happy with Mr. Beck holding his rally on the anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King’s “I have a Dream” speech.

See if you can pick out Rev. Sharpton in this photo.

The Rev. Sharpton is in there somewhere
The Rev. Sharpton is in there somewhere

The crowd was a lot more lively than Beck’s crowd. They were shouting slogans and singing songs. It was moving to hear, “We Shall Overcome.” I decided to fall in with the marchers and see where they were going since this was as close to a civil rights march of the 1960s as I’m ever going to get.

It was a great experience and wonderful to see my fellow countrymen peacefully gather together and express their opinions. In that moment I was not moved by any individual message. I was moved my nation allows such gatherings and grateful that each rally was peaceful and honorably executed.

The Method to the Madness

After we got the list of possible Foreign Service assignments we were given a few days to research the different cities. We then turned in an ordered list broken up into High: meaning we would really like to go there, Medium: we’d be ok with going there and Low: we really don’t want to go there. In theory my Career Development Officer matches up our preferences with what the State Department needs. Most of the time people get something in their High list, but this is not guaranteed. We’ll find out our assignment on Tuesday.

Some people might be surprised why we ordered the list the way we did. I am surprised. But as we did the research we found oddities that pushed down certain cities and other tidbits that pushed other cities up.

First I’ll start with the Low list. It was the easiest to compile. These are the places where there are no accredited high schools and are more dangerous or severely underdeveloped.

Low

17. Dushanbe, Tajikistan

The former ambassador to Tajikistan spoke to our class. They were without water for 6 months. The water they did get was brown. Plus, being neighbors with Afghanistan doesn’t help.

16. Cotonou, Benin

No accredited high schools and lots of voodoo.

15. Freetown, Sierra Leone

No accredited high schools and lots of diamond smuggling, which could be cool if you don’t get shot.

14. Ashgabat, Turkmenistan

Turkmenistan has good schools and is much more developed than Tajikistan, but still not in a good neighborhood.  Iran is a stones throw away.

Now for the Medium list. This list was hard to order because we would be happy to go to any place on this or the High list. But there are some definite drawbacks with some of the posts.

Medium

13. Quito, Ecuador

I’ve heard many good things about Quito. The main drawback is that it is unfurnished. This means once you get there you are given an housing allowance and a few months to find a place to live. You then get to furnish the place. We don’t want to deal with that our first time out. We also hear the crime rate is extremely high.

12. Paris, France

Placing Paris so far down on the list has surprised a few people. But Paris is another post that is unfurnished. We have heard that Paris is a hard place to live with kids. However, I would not cry if we got assigned to Paris. The bread and chocolate would make up for a lot.

11. Guayaquil, Ecuador

This post is furnished, it has good but small schools and it’s in Ecuador. The weather is not as nice as it is in Quito but it’s close to the ocean and the jumping off point for the Galapagos Islands.

10. Chengdu, China

Chengdu has schools up through the 12th grade, but the high school is very small, like under 20 students. We could live here cheaply but I’m not excited to live in the polluted cities of China.

9. Frankfurt, Germany

All of the housing is concentrated into one compound called, “Little America.” While this would be nice for the kids, it’s not why we joined the Foreign Service. Beyond the housing Frankfurt has great schools and in a great part of Europe. It would be very expensive however.

8. Kampala, Uganda

Uganda was higher on my list, but Erin was not very excited about it. It fell even more after I told her about the bombings in July. Uganda has good, but smaller schools and is close to all things Africa. It does have some routy neighbors that make traveling outside the capital dangerous.

7. Beijing, China

Beijing would be Erin’s first choice. There are great schools and our ex-governor is the ambassador there. Maybe we could suck up to him at church. It is also the cultural center of one the most important countries in the world. However, it is one of the most polluted cities in the world. Most days you can’t see across the street and we’ve never been especially fond of respiratory illnesses.

6. Canberra, Australia

Canberra has good schools but they use a different system and we hear getting the credits to transfer is a pain. We also hear that Australia is really expensive for poor government workers. Other than that Canberra would be awesome!

Now for the High list. This list was hotly contested because we had several great cities to choose from. We wanted to choose carefully since you usually get something from your high list… usually.

High

5. Taipei, Taiwan

Taiwan is like China but without all the communism. It also has really great schools that will keep our kids busy. Our travel would be limited since it is a small island and flying 6 people anywhere is expensive. But it would be great for our kids to learn Mandarin at an early age.

4. Berlin, Germany

The weather in Berlin isn’t the greatest, but the history is awesome. Berlin is actually a smaller post than Frankfurt and the housing situation is much better. There are several good schools to choose from and we could easily travel to the rest of Europe. It would be expensive.

3. Brussels, Belgium

Good schools, culture and travel options make this a great place. There are also 3 different U.S. missions in Brussels that would make work interesting. Learning French would be great for our kids. Brussels would be very expensive.

2. Bratislava, Slovakia

Bratislava is in Eastern Europe but is 45 minutes from Vienna and 6 hours from Italy. The schools are on the small side at about 200-400 students K through 12. It will be a little less expensive than living in Western Europe but traveling to some great places would be easy. This would be a great place to ease into this new way of life. It’s Erin’s first choice.

1. Nairobi, Kenya

My Mom is not excited we put this first on our list. The embassy was bombed several years ago and carjackings are common. We would live in nice houses that are guarded 24 hours a day and are surrounded by razor wire. Nairobi is a large city with areas you definitely don’t want to go to. But it’s in Africa! Come on! How fun would that be? It’s got safaris, the beach and a new (to us) and interesting culture. We spent some time with a girl who just graduated from high school there. She loved it and painted a great picture of living there. She got Cecily excited about going there. It’s a medium-sized post that would be good for my career and since it’s a hardship post that would stretch us. And who wouldn’t want to learn a little Swahili?

All of our reasons are probably wrong and most of our assumptions will most likely go out the window, but it’s my story and I’m sticking to it.

Foreign Service Spouse Training

Today Jason completed his 7th day of training with the Foreign Service. The State Department offers classes for the spouses of their employees, so I’m trying to take advantage of the training while the kids and I are in DC for three weeks.

For the past two days I have been privileged to attend the Securities Overseas Seminar. I now know way more than I ever wanted to know about the numerous ways that terrorists want to kill me as an American citizen and part of a diplomatic mission. The first day I learned all the different ways my family and I may be under surveillance, as well as what to do if I come upon an explosive device.  I especially enjoyed the briefing on the various ways the Taliban and Al-Qaeda may choose to gang rape me and my children.  The carjacking briefing was fun too.  Today I learned about espionage and how to tell if a spy is trying to get classified information from me.  I also learned about weapons of mass destruction and how to handle anthrax laced letters and various chemical, biological and radiological agents. The hostage survival briefing was especially fun. Finally, if my kids or I develop Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, I’ll know where to go to seek treatment.

So basically, besides the benefits that the Foreign Service offers its employees such as free housing and private school tuition, we have the added benefit of potentially dying in really interesting ways.