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.

A little explanation

This is a little explanation for those readers who are trying to understand why they can’t read one of our blog posts with “Protected” in the title (Hi Mom).

There is a lot of information about our life that is “sensitive but not classified.”  I’m not 100% sure what the policy is about what I can share yet so I have decided to put a password on some of our blog posts.  This will protect the information from casual readers but not from serious hackers.  The information is what I would put in a personal email so it’s not that secret.

If you would like to read a blog post that is protected send me an email or put something in the comments and I will send you the password.

Logistics

The logistics of this adventure are crazy.

First, I need to pack for the week long drive with the boys to Washington D.C.. All that stuff has to go into something that I can easily carry in and out of hotel rooms. Next I need to pack most everything else I’ll need during my 5 or 6 months of training. Some stuff I’ll bring with me in the car. I’m trying to limit what comes with me in the car to 2 suitcases since that’s what I’ll be flying out with to our first post. The rest of the stuff will be shipped via air freight. I get 250 pounds shipped via air courtesy of my new employer but it won’t come until September-ish. 250 pounds sounds like a lot but I’m filling it up fast. I have more stuff than I realized. The next pile of stuff will be shipped via slow boat to our first post, where ever that may be. And then finally I need to make a pile of stuff that will go into long term storage. Erin will get the privilege of dealing with the last 2 piles when she moves out at the end of training.

Going through all my stuff has been an interesting exercise. I have questioned every thing that I own. I found out that I have a lot more clothes than I thought. This mirage of metrosexuality is caused by 2 things. First, I don’t grow out of my clothes like my kids do. And second I hate clothes shopping so much that I have not thrown away clothes that are clearly uncool or so I’ve been told by my 14 year-old daughter who knows everything. I have rid myself of some stuff but I’m sure more needs to be left behind.

So far I’ve been talking about my stuff. We also have to decide what to do with all of our stuff. Luckily we really don’t have much beyond furniture, house and vehicles. Most of the furniture will go into long term storage unless our first post is unfurnished then we get to ship a whole lot of stuff. The cars will most likely be sold. We can ship one car overseas.  So if we can, we will ship the Sequoia, but it’s old enough that it probably won’t be allowed into most countries. Selling my truck will be painful….

Our house pains me the most. It is a crappy time to sell a house. We would not get what we put into it. So it looks like we will keep the house and rent it. No one I know has good stories about renting. I will also have a hard time dealing with the inevitable damage caused by tenants who do not treat the house as their own. I have an emotional tie to this house and I don’t want it treated badly… even though we probably will never live in it again.

I like the idea of living without so much stuff. I’ve been frustrated at all the unused mystery items hiding in drawers and boxes. Was I really going to use the second half of that notebook from college? My tax returns from 1996 gave me quite a chuckle. I didn’t have much stuff back then. I didn’t have much of anything. Looks like I’m returning to 1996 style living. It’s a circle of life kind of thing.

Like I said, I like the idea of living without so much stuff.  We’ll see how I do when the idea is reality.

My First Blog Post Ever!

I am now a blogger!

It seems fitting to start this blog at the same time we are starting our new lives in the Foreign Service. Many people have asked us why we are doing this crazy thing, so I’ll just start at the beginning.

When I was a little girl I was completely fascinated with the life of my cousin Kristen who lived overseas. When I was 15 my parents and I spent a month with Kristen and her family in Holland and other European cities. From that first trip abroad I developed a desire to live overseas. In college I met a girl who’s father was in the Foreign Service and who’s family was living in Greece. I was so jealous! I knew that that was the kind of life I wanted.

Years later, I married a man who also loved to travel. Jason and I met as Mormon missionaries in northern Italy. When we were engaged we went to my brother-in-law for some financial advice. He told us that we needed to decide if we wanted to be “doers” or “havers” because most people can’t be both. Jason and I both knew immediately that we wanted to be “doers”. And most of the “doing” that we wanted was travel. Through the years we have been able to travel a good amount with Jason’s work, mainly to Europe. And we have traveled as a family in the US a lot, but it hasn’t been enough.

Early in our marriage, I told Jason that he should check out the Foreign Service and he thought that I was crazy. We had hoped that we would have opportunities to move overseas in the private sector, but that just never happened.

Then about four years ago, Jason checked out the Foreign Service and realized that there were jobs he qualified for with his background in computers. In September, 2008 the State Department announced that they were accepting applications for Information Management Specialists (IMS). Jason spent the next two months preparing his application and submitted it at the end of November. At that point, this was all a bit of a pipe dream until early April, 2009 when Jason was contacted by the State Department and asked to go to Washington, DC for an interview. In late April he flew to DC for his oral interview. When he called at the end of the three hour interview and told me he had passed I began to think that this dream of entering the Foreign Service might actually become a reality. Our family spent much of the summer of 2009 having extensive medical evaluations. Then Jason’s background check began. Jason has lived what most would consider a squeaky clean life. We have lived in the same town for 12 years and Jason has worked for the same company for 11 years, so the background check went smoothly. Our claim to fame is that the gentleman who was doing Jason’s background check was doing then-governor Jon Huntsman’s (current US Embassador to China) at the same time.

On August 15, 2009 we were informed that Jason passed the final suitability review and had been added to the IMS registry. This marked the beginning of the excruciating waiting period. When a FS candidate is added to the registry, he is basically in limbo. He has been deemed qualified for the position, but he hasn’t been accepted unless he receives an actual invitation to join a training class. Jason had, at this point, done everything he could do. It was all in the hands of the State Department. We had great hopes that he would be called off the registry and offered a position. However, we had to go on with our regular lives. Unfortunately, we never felt that we could plan our lives out more than a month or two, just in case he received an invitation. Frankly, neither Jason or I function very well in an environment where we feel our lives are in limbo. (I’m beginning to believe, though, that FS lives are full of limbo and we had better get used to it.) After 10 long months of waiting, on June 14, 2010, Jason received the email with an invitation to join the August 2, 2010 class. Needless to say, we are overjoyed!

One week from today, on July 25th, Jason and our two boys are leaving for the long drive from Utah to DC. Our two daughters and I will join them on July 31st. We’ll spend three weeks in DC together, after which the kids and I will fly back to Utah to start school here. We’ll then begin the long period of seperation while Jason receives training. We expect to be sent overseas sometime between November and February.

Since we started telling people about our impending changes in life, we have received many questions. The most common are:

Q: What will be your first post?

A: We don’t know. We could literally go anywhere in the world, from Tijauna to Santiago to Johannesburg to Hong Kong and everywhere in between. If there is an embassy or consulate there we could go there. And honestly, we love the idea of going wherever the government wants to send us. Wherever we are assigned to, we will be thrilled to go.

Q: When will you know where you are going?

A: We should receive our first assignment on August 17th.

Q: Since you have both lived in Italy and you both speak Italian, do you think that you will end up there?

A: No. It would be a dream come true for us to return to Italy, but chances are, we will never be stationed there. We’re not doing this to get back to Italy. And we are very excited with the prospects of learning to love new cultures and new languages.

Q: How do your kids feel about this?

A: It depends on who you ask. Our 14 year old is excited. She loves to travel and is quite adventurous. However, she wishes she could finish the upcoming school year in Utah and then move. That’s not going to happen. Our 12 year old is not happy that we are doing this. Our 10 year old and 6 year old are fairly oblivious to what this is going to mean to them. However, we have done a lot of research on the effects of expat lives on kids and the information is overwhelmingly positive. Kids tend to do very well in this environment and anyone we have ever talked to that grew up overseas would not trade it for anything. We know this is going to be hard, but we are thoroughly convinced that it will be really good for our family in the long-run.

Q: What are you doing with your house in Utah?

A: For the time-being, we are keeping it and renting it out. If the housing market in Utah picks up, we may sell it in the future. Or we may just keep it.

Q: How long is each post?

A: The first two posts are two years each. After that they are generally 3-4 years.

Q: How long are you going to do this?

A: At this point, our plan is to do it for at least 20 years. We gotta get that government pension baby!

Q: How do your parents feel about you doing this?

A: They would rather we didn’t do it. They would rather we stayed in Utah forever so they were never far from their grandchildren. However, Jason’s parents spent 3 years in Japan as newly-weds and my parents lived in Rome for 3 years in the mid-90’s, so our parents get it. Even though they aren’t crazy that we are leaving, they understand and are supportive. For that, we feel blessed.

Q: Why on earth would you leave a great job, a great home in a wonderful community and your families to do something so crazy?

A: This one is harder to answer. Part of it goes back to my brother-in-law’s question when we were engaged: Do you want to be “doers” or “havers?” We want to be “doers.” We really aren’t that attached to our house and our things. We want to have experiences. Life is short and at the end of it we want to be able to look back with great satisfaction at our adventures. Jason said that after attending my father’s funeral in 2006 he started thinking about his own funeral and decided that, as things were, it would be pretty boring. Also, we want to give our children the world. We want them to have unique experiences that will make them appreciate the world they live in. We want them to learn new languages and new cultures. We consider this a great gift we are giving them. Furthermore, Jason and I are at our best as a couple when we are out of town. I know that that sounds strange, but we travel together really well. It’s a passion that we both share. Finally, we are excited about giving something back to our country. We’re proud Americans and we are looking forward to representing and serving the United States abroad.

One last note for my first blog. Anyone who knows me very well knows that I am a very spiritual person. I rely heavily on the Spirit to guide me and I believe in the power of personal revelation. I know that this is what we are supposed to be doing. I know that we are being divinely directed on this path. I have had a couple of very spiritual experiences regarding this decision. I also know that with the help of my Father in Heaven, I can do hard things. I know that this change is going to be hard, but I’m completely convinced that this is what we are supposed to be doing. That kind of assurance helps to eliminate doubts and fears. I’m not afraid or even nervous for our future. I’m excited! I can’t wait! And I’m ready for this grand adventure to begin!