Don’t Take it Personal

I’ve been singing Monica’s “Don’t Take it Personal” (so easy to sing along…It’s just one of them days, that a girl goes through) all weekend. It was just one of those weekends where I was up and then down over everything, big and small.

First, the weather has been super frustrating. We had a few days of sunny warmth, then came rain, then came the wind. The wind here is no joke, I’m not sure I’ve talked about it much but it can ruin your plans, and even your weekend. We wind up stuck inside because the wind is blowing so hard it’s really unpleasant going outdoors. Abby is a very dramatic child and she will run up to us, with tears in her eyes, that we have to move all of her outdoor toys to the garage or else they’ll blow away. Sometimes JR goes along with it, other times he tells her to stop being silly, of course her toys will be fine. Unfortunately we were wrong about the new little slide we put in our backyard, because it slammed into our fence and spent several days laying in two pieces in our yard. Sopo put it back together but it blew over again yesterday so we’ll see how long that thing actually survives out there.

When it’s not windy or rainy (or both) it’s been cold. Like really cold. The kids’ rooms were down to 64 degrees for a few nights. You might think we should turn on the heat, and you’d be right. But there is some weird quirk with our heating and cooling system where you have to submit a work order and ask the Embassy workers to come out and turn off your heat and turn on your AC at the start of the summer. It was getting warm at the beginning of May so we went ahead and did that, and now it appears we jumped the gun a bit. JR pulled a few space heaters from the garage and we plugged them in around the house. Mostly I wanted to warm up the kids’ bedrooms, but I was too paranoid to leave them on upstairs overnight. So this morning – when they both treated us to early wake-ups at 4:30 and 5am (why God, why?) – their rooms were 64 and 63 degrees. Not ideal.

JR is a control officer for a VIP this week, which means a significant amount of extra work for him. A control officer handles all the details of a visitor’s trip – they coordinate motorpool and attend all the meetings, they prepare briefing binders with all the necessary memos and background paperwork, they pick up the visitor at the airport and escort them to their hotel and to all events, and they’re on call for anything that might come up at the last minute. I wasn’t surprised when he told me he had to work late Friday, but my intentions of making pizza went out the window and I thought we should just order in. Apparently many others had the same plan because Dominoes said it would be a 2 hour wait. Back to Plan A of making pizza myself (although Sopo was still there and very kindly offered to make the dough while I played with the kids.)

When JR made it home that night, he said there had been last minute changes to all the paperwork and the binders weren’t completed correctly, so he would need to go back into work Saturday morning. In addition to driving to the Azerbaijani border to pick up the visitor and take her to her hotel that afternoon. Awesome. William and Abby have been waking up earlier and earlier, and when I first heard William Saturday morning, I reached over to shake JR awake and say my favorite words “your turn.” But he was already off to work. By the time he got home later that morning, I was already over the whole day (at 9:30am!) and told him we would most certainly be ordering Baan Thai (one of my favorite delivery places here, one of the few that can consistently find our house and we can order in English) that night for dinner.

I realized while he was gone that we were going to run out of William’s formula. His formula has been a constant issue for us since we returned to Tbilisi. He seems to be reacting to something in the Similac and Target versions we have tried, so we finally found a German brand, Hipp, and a specific type of hypo-allergenic formula that seems to work for him. We usually have to try a few grocery stores and pharmacies to find it, and then they often only have two boxes at a time. A box lasts about 3 days. So now it’s Saturday night, it’s POURING down rain, and I have to run out to the grocery store as soon as JR gets home because we need formula. I went to Goodwill, the German grocery store closest to us, and they didn’t have it nor did the pharmacy. You know the feeling when you run out to the store to get ONE THING, and they don’t have it. I was so frustrated – over the weather, over everything.

We finished up the formula we had left and I ordered a few different brands/types on Amazon, and Sunday morning sent JR to Carrefour hoping he’d find a few boxes. He texted me that they had 8! I instructed him to buy them all. He actually left a few just in case some other family was running around in the same predicament. Now we’re at least set for a few weeks.

It was not my  best weekend. We had another work event, spouses included, on Sunday evening which wound up being quite enjoyable but it was just a tiring weekend. But in an effort to end on a good note, all that rain led to these beautiful rainbows!

Frozen

No, this is not a post about letting it go or sisterly love.

Sorry.

It’s about my current EFM (eligible-family member, that’s what I am as JR’s spouse overseas) employment situation. While we were on our maternity med evac, I interviewed for and was offered the position of CLO Coordinator at the Embassy. I’ve wanted this job basically since I learned it existed and I cried when I opened the email. Granted, I was 57 weeks pregnant and an emotional time bomb, but the point is, I was super excited. The Community Liaison Office (CLO, get it?!) is tasked with things like welcoming and helping newcomers adjust at post, providing crisis management and support services, acting as a liaison for spouses and family members interested in employment and schools, planning events for the Embassy community, and being a general source of information.

We had a wonderful CLO when we arrived in Kosovo (cheers to you, JBF!). It was our first post and in many ways, we were clueless. For me, I was anxious to feel settled and to start working as soon as possible. The CLO was helpful in sending out job announcements, discussing possible opportunities for other community involvement in Pristina, and they had weekly events that we could participate in to get to know the city and people. As soon as we learned we were headed to Tbilisi, I immediately emailed the CLO here. I asked to be added to their newsletter and weekly mailing lists. Both of those include advertisements for nannies and vehicles, which allowed us to line up a nanny and a car before we had arrived at post. I also reached out to ask about employment opportunities, and the CLO wrote back right away with information about the types of positions that would be available when we arrived.

Transitioning to a new post and home is not easy for me. In the Foreign Service, some of life’s most stressful events happen not only all at once, but repeatedly every few years. Moving to a new country, where English is definitely not the main language, establishing a new home, starting a new job (or being without a job), making new friends – it’s a lot. You are living in a brand new place, but often only in your temporary housing, you don’t have most of your things, no car (super fun when you need to install a 30lb car seat to take your child anywhere – and then you made it to the grocery store in a taxi but you STILL have the 30lb car seat to deal with), not even knowing how to find a grocery store or a Diet Coke (spoiler alert, they only have Coke Zero here). While others may land on their feet faster, I rely on the CLO office a lot in the beginning, and their support has made a huge difference for me and I want to pay it forward.

I’m super, super excited about this new opportunity. But there’s a REALLY big catch. Perhaps you recall that the new President signed a Federal Hiring Freeze on January 23, 2017. This freeze has major implications for current and hopeful federal employees, and it’s also a pretty big deal to us EFMs. It can be extremely challenging to find an Embassy position as an EFM. At our current post, there are more spouses who want to work than there are available jobs. Financially, it would be really hard for us to continue in this lifestyle if I were not employed. Mentally and personally, I want to be working. I like working. I’m lucky that my current/old position is allowing me to stay on until things are resolved. It’s mutually beneficial because they can’t announce the vacancy for my position or hire for it until the freeze is over. But others here are waiting and waiting and WAITING for a job. And it sucks (sorry Mom, I know how you feel about that word.)

EFMs provide critical support to our Embassy missions around the world. It saves the government a big chunk of money to hire someone who is already living here as opposed to paying to move an officer here. It’s also impacting spouses and families in ways I hadn’t considered. There are several posts that are unaccompanied – meaning they are considered too dangerous for families to live there. An exception can be made in some situations for spouses who obtain an EFM job at the unaccompanied post. In those instances, the spouse can live and work with the officer at the post, so it’s no longer unaccompanied. For people who had these plans coming up in the next few months, everything is on hold for them until the freeze is lifted. This could mean the officer will depart for the post as arranged, but the EFM/spouse can no longer go because they no longer have a job. Or a place to live. Oh and they’ll now be separated from their spouse for an unknown amount of time.

To bring it back to how this is directly affecting me and my fellow EFMs at this post, we are all in a crappy state of limbo. Waiting for the freeze to end, waiting on security clearances, waiting for jobs to be posted, just waiting. Our current CLO coordinator is departing at the end of April. She has one part-time assistant who will be leaving in June. Those positions – and a second assistant – cannot be filled until the freeze is over. The work they do is particularly important during upcoming transition season (starts in May because many FSOs with children try to move during the summer to be ready for the next school year) and if we were to face any type of security or crisis situation here.

I can’t put into words how frustrating and disappointing this situation is as a whole. We are constantly reading news about major threats to the State and USAID budgets. I want to yell – do you not know what kind of work is being done here and why it’s so important? Even our top military leaders think cutting funding is disastrous and would threaten citizens at home and abroad.

I don’t know that anyone is listening, though. To be more productive with my frustrations, I’ll include these links that explain the issues further (and far better than I can). If you only have time for one, please click on the first as it’s super short and really explains how much the State department does with such a small amount(1%. One teeny tiny percent!) of the federal budget.

So until next time, I’ll just be waiting for the thaw.

What do the U.S. Department of State and the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) do for the American people? With just over 1% of the entire federal budget, they have a huge impact on how Americans live and how the rest of the world perceives America.
https://www.state.gov/r/pa/pl/2017/267416.htm

State department funding is critical to keeping America safe.
http://www.cnn.com/2017/02/27/politics/generals-letter-state-department-budget-cuts/

Trump’s Cuts to USAID Would Imperil the United States

A helpful breakdown of foreign aid.
https://www.washingtonpost.com/graphics/world/which-countries-get-the-most-foreign-aid/

 

No really, what do you do?

what-would-you-say-you-do-here

JR has been with USAID for over 4 years now (and recently received a promotion!), yet I’m pretty sure our friends and families still don’t know what he does. Which is normal, my sister is a chemical processing engineer (I think?) and she’s explained it to me a few times and I’m just like, oh mm hmm, I see! When really I do not. At all. I’m also at a different job with an agency I’d never heard of before I applied, so it stands to reason that no one has a clue what I do either.

JR is a Contracting and Agreement Officer for the United States Agency for International Development (USAID). USAID is an Executive Agency tasked with promoting democracy, economic growth, and peace and stability in developing countries around the world (I stole that directly from their website. Citing my sources and all that jazz). He’s part of the USG’s Diplomatic Corps, otherwise known as the Foreign Service, which USAID’s website explains as:

Through their dedication, technical skills, and creativity, Foreign Service Officers (FSOs) drive American foreign policy towards its objectives of global peace, stability, and prosperity. USAID FSOs are responsible for developing and managing foreign assistance programs that encompass   economic growth and trade, agriculture and the environment, education and training, democracy and governance, stabilization and conflict mitigation, global health, and humanitarian assistance.  USAID FSOs work in close partnership with the governments and people of more than 100 countries in five regions of the world, with private voluntary organizations, universities, private businesses, trade and professional associations, other donor governments, faith-based organizations, and other US government agencies. They assess country needs, prepare strategic plans, design and evaluate programs, oversee budgets and contracts, and report on results.

friends transponster

Specifically, JR has the legal authority to solicit, negotiate, award, and possibly terminate any agreement that USAID enters into in a given country. In order to do his job he has what’s called a warrant that allows him to obligate money on behalf of the U.S. government. Since the U.S. government is the largest purchaser of goods and services in the world (by far), the process of obligating money on its behalf is heavily regulated. Another way to look at it is that he’s a “business advisor” for the government and ensures compliance with federal contracting laws.

Here’s a very generic example: If USAID had funding for a new education program, such as sending students to the U.S. for master’s degrees in economics, they would need an implementing partner to manage the program. First, they would announce that they have this program and that U.S. or local organizations can bid on it if they wish to be chosen to run it. Then USAID would review all the bids, make sure everything is compliant with legal regulations, and then select the best implementing partner/bid for that particular program. Someone at USAID also has to oversee the implementing partner to ensure they are managing the program correctly and make any necessary adjustments to the contract/agreement. This all includes a lot of paperwork. JR has the legal responsibility for all of those components.

So that’s JR’s job in a nutshell. Makes perfect sense, right?

mark 2

We will spend most of his career overseas, although we may be posted to DC at some point for a 2 or 3 year tour.

My job is Program Coordinator for the Defense Threat Reduction Agency (DTRA) in Tbilisi. If you are like me and had never heard of DTRA, you might be surprised to learn that DTRA is a pretty large agency just outside of D.C. with almost 2,000 employees. Here’s a snapshot of the main objectives of DTRA:  http://www.dtra.mil/About/WhoWeAre.aspx.

In Georgia, DTRA supports Embassy objectives including Euro-Atlantic integration, international cooperation, and peace and security measures.  One of the biggest areas of work is the Cooperative Biological Engagement Program. Basically, the U.S. has a strong interest in ensuring that Georgia understands best practices in biosafety and security, is prepared to handle infectious diseases or outbreaks, and enhancing international research partnerships. You can read more here:  http://georgia.usembassy.gov/embassy_offices_andotheragencies2/defense-threat-reduction-office.html

Like my job title says, I coordinate. We have visitors and contractors from the U.S. and they need assistance scheduling meetings with Georgian officials and people within the Embassy. I also attend the meetings and report back to our office on what is happening and any action that we need to take to facilitate things. One of my first tasks was the opening of a boat basin in Batumi, funded by DTRA. It was a large-scale project so we had high-level Embassy representatives attending and I was responsible for contact with the front office of the Embassy, coordinating the schedule, and writing up the speech and press information for the event. I’m learning new things all of the time and I really enjoy the work.

My position is specifically for EFMs (eligible family members – typically, spouses or partners of foreign service officers). At any given post, I can apply for all of the EFM positions that seem to fit my interests and background. It’s unlikely I’ll be hired as a divorce attorney, but I hope I can continue to find interesting work while we live overseas.

So… that’s what we do.

And just like that

Our tour is over and we’re leaving Kosovo.   It’s been a wonderful two years.  We have made great friends, explored new places, and even expanded our family.  I really had no idea what to expect when we started this adventure, but this was a good tour for us and although there have been challenges, we will miss Kosovo and we are very thankful for our time here.

Some of my favorite pictures and memories from the last two years.

first weekDinner at Tiffany’s our first week in Pristina

albania 1Berat, Albania with Amy

 

rugovaRugova Gorge

singingKaraoke at Pacific Rim.  Don’t stop Believiiinnnnnnn’!!!

santorini 2

santorini 3santorini
Santorini, Greece

paris vaux

new years 2 new years
Paris, Vaux le Vicomte, and ringing in the New Year at the Sacre Coeur

first picWelcoming Abby to the world

lake ohridWine tasting at Lake Ohrid, Macedonia

shelbyI’m not sure I can call it a highlight, but I can’t skip over Shelby (and I have an update to share soon!)

croatia 1 croatia 2 croatia 3croatia 4
Our wonderful trip to Dubrovnik, Croatia with my parents

elephant Abby’s first Halloween

 

family 1 family 2 family 3 family 4
Spending precious time with our families and Abby’s first Christmas

romania pic
And one last picture of our awesome road trip last month

Lamtumirë, Kosovo!

Our next assignment!

A few hours after I hit publish on my last post, JR received notice that more positions had been assigned.  We quickly opened the document and searched for our last name – and we were THRILLED to see that we are headed to our first choice post: Georgia!

Not this Georgia georgia

But this one Tbilisi_sunset-6

We’ll be living in Tbilisi, Georgia located at the crossroads of Europe and Asia.  The bidding process was a bit stressful and difficult for us.  As early as this summer, we started to get a general idea of which posts would be likely to have openings for JR’s level and position.  A list was released in August, but only employees currently serving in CPC posts (critical priority countries, such as Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq, or Yemen, that are one year unaccompanied tours) were eligible to bid at that time, because one benefit of serving in a CPC is priority bidding for next cycle.  So, although there were quite a few places on the list that looked good to us, we knew we had to wait and see which spots remained after the priority bidders were assigned.

Our official list came out in October, and we had two weeks to submit our bids.  Prior to that, JR had been in contact with some of the posts that interested us, and we were doing a ton of research, looking into things like the job details for JR, salary (different at each post because of differentials like cost of living and hardship), spousal employment, language requirements, if malaria medication was required, safety, housing, quality of life, etc.  We created a very detailed spreadsheet that listed all of those things, and more, and then used various resources to fill in the blanks.

JR had to bid on at least 3 and no more than 8 positions.   He had to bid on one CPC, one post in Africa, and one priority country (Haiti, Bangladesh, Liberia, among others).   Needless to say, we had many difficult discussions about how we wanted to rank the posts and which posts we should try to avoid.  Ultimately, we were able to agree and we felt good about our chances of being assigned to one of our top spots.

Then the real waiting started to set in.  Lots of rumors and talk about who was assigned where, when we might find out, past stories of people getting unfortunate assignments – it was nerve-wracking!  We also thought we would know by the first week of December, and then there were multiple emails about how we might have to bid ALL OVER AGAIN in January, although thankfully that is not the case for us.   Knowing we are scheduled to leave Kosovo in early May, it’s been challenging to not know which continent we will be living on in six months, whether or not we’ll need to be in DC for language training, and so many other things.

BUT – this story has a very happy ending because we are so excited that we will be working and living in Tbilisi.  We have heard great things about the mission and the work being done there, and we think it will be a good fit for our family. Neither of us have visited Georgia before so we are incredibly excited to explore a new country and region!

315_9822TbilisiGeorgia

 

It’s almost time to bid

In this crazy life we’re living, it’s hard to believe we’ve been calling Kosovo home for more than a year (well, a little less than that for me due to my maternity med evac stint in the US) and that our time here will end next summer.  And even though that is still a year away, it’s almost time to bid on our next assignment.

JR’s bidding process is probably different from State Department FSOs, so I can only speak to how it works for us.   We will receive a list of available positions and their locations, along with the length of each tour.   Most tours are four years.  Some locations, such as Kosovo, are considered hardship posts and are two year tours.  Finally, there are a few one year unaccompanied tours (UT), in locations that are considered too dangerous or unstable for your family to go with you.

We knew when we joined that JR would have to complete at least one UT during his career.  It’s really tough to think about spending a year apart, and it’s even harder to try to figure out when it would be best to do this.  Now, while Abigail is too little to remember him being gone?  Or when she is older and could Skype with him and look forward to his visits home?  Right now, we don’t feel ready to face a separation.  If we’re forced to, of course we’ll deal with it, but don’t expect him to pull a Katniss this bidding cycle.

katniss

Currently,  we’re in a weird waiting period because although we have some idea of what positions will be open, we really don’t know for sure.  All we can do is think about what factors are most important to us, and what locations might be a good fit.  And we also have to prepare ourselves to wind up somewhere unexpected and possibly undesirable.  Try as I might, I’ve been unable to convince anyone that the Bahamas or France are developing countries in need of US support.

Our considerations for bidding this time around are a bit different than last time.   We have Abby to consider, and if we end up at a 4 year post, she’ll be starting preschool there.  So now we find ourselves researching preschool options all over the world.   Two other major concerns are safety and medical – specifically with regard to malaria.  Malaria is a serious threat in many of the countries that we may serve in, and we would need to consider the risks of having Abby take anti-malarial medication daily for several years.  I’ve done a small amount of research on this already and we are very concerned about the possible long-term side effects.

Another major factor for us is the availability of spousal employment.   Many countries do not have bi-lateral work agreements that would allow me to find work on the local economy.  In countries where that may be an option, it’s unlikely that I would have the requisite foreign language skills needed and it’s also likely the pay would be significantly lower than what I would have recieved for the same job in the States.   Ideally, I’d like to find work at USAID or the Embassy.  I enjoy my current position in the Public Affairs office and it would be great if I could do something similar at our next post.   Another option is to consider some type of telework or web-based job.   I honestly wouldn’t know where to start.  And knowing myself, I would prefer a job that gets me out of the house and interacting with people on a daily basis.
Right now it’s a big guessing game.  Which posts might be open, who wants to go where, and which countries will be on the list we turn in for assignment?  As Tom Petty said, the waiting is the hardest part.

 

 

 

Sweating the small stuff

Yesterday I was catching up with a good friend from home (who shall remain nameless but is hopefully in labor!) and telling her that my boss had approved me working part-time for a few months to allow me to transition back from maternity leave.   She asked how that would impact the nanny (it won’t, we’re still keeping her regular hours and I’ll just send her home early most days) and whether or not we’ve asked her to clean or help around the house.  I was explaining that  I wanted to keep our housekeeper, so for now we’ve only asked the nanny to  help with baby stuff – bottles, her laundry, and straightening up toys and books.  I realized, to a non foreign service person, I sounded maybe a bit spoiled.

If only she knew where my night went after our chat.

JR and I went to dinner at one of our favorite places that just reopened, Pacific Rim.  We ordered a large bottled water, and the server brought out glasses with ice and poured them before we could say anything.  Now, normally I wouldn’t really think much of this, but as I was catching up on missed e-mails yesterday, I read an updated notice about the water in Pristina – reiterating that the tap water is not safe to drink.  And I think it’s safe to presume that the ice was made with tap water.  I wound up not drinking any of it, and JR just poured his water into a glass without ice.  I told him that the revised guidelines recommended bleaching raw fruits and vegetables, to protect from contamination.  Bleaching produce is not uncommon for FS folks living overseas, but I’ve certainly never had to do it.

While we were at dinner, he mentioned that his office offered him the chance to do a TDY (short-term work in another location) out of the country next week.  He was willing to pass it up, but it’s important that he has these opportunies for professional development and growth.  I told him he should absolutely go, and I would make do.  But I didn’t say it without reservations.  In my head I was remembering how difficult it was when he was in DC for two weeks, and that was while I was not working and had tons of family help around.   As it is, he is tentatively scheduled to make two  2-week trips back to DC in the near future without us. I know many, many people face separations from their spouses and families, but I hate it.  Sometimes I want to yell “I didn’t sign up for this!”  Except we did.

After dinner, we made our way home and started the bedtime and bath routine with Abby.  Our main bathroom (we have a second toilet in the laundry room) was again covered in ants.  Right beside the toilet and the bathtub.  I was so annoyed and disgusted.  Now, if I lived in Ohio, I would have immediately gone to Kroger or Walmart to buy Raid and ant traps.  Alas, not an option here.  In fact, I’m not certain where they would sell ant killer, and I also have doubts about my ability to purchase that on my own.   I’m afraid I’d buy something not safe for use indoors, and that’s not a risk I want to take with the baby and our cat in the house.  JR helped me hose down the bathroom (literally, we used our detachable shower head and sprayed all the ants down and into the drain on the floor) and we called it a night.

This morning, I had to visit no less than 3 different rooms in our house just to try to straighten my hair.  Some of our electronics can be plugged directly into the wall with the help of a small plastic adapter, making the prongs fit.  Other items must be plugged into a transformer, which is a heavy, unweildy box that sits on the ground.   Our house came with 4 transformers.  Those have served us reasonably well so far.  We use one in our living room for our TV, computer, and other electronics.  One in the kitchen for our toaster, blender, and other kitchn applicances.  There’s also the one in our bedroom which I use for my blow dryer and straightner.  We never really used the 4th one, although we moved it into the baby’s nursery assuming it would come in handy.

Well, it would come in handy if it worked.  The US plugs don’t stay in, they fall out or hang there precariously, causing whatever is plugged in to shut on and off constantly.  It seemed unsafe (not to mention incredibly annoying) so we moved that transformer out of Abby’s room and swapped it with the one in our bedroom.   Let me tell you how frustrating it is to try to do your hair when the applicance turns off every 5-10 seconds.  Eventually, I gave up and went to the kitchen to get that transformer, carried it to the bathroom, and used it there (ants and all).  I had to carry it back to the kitchen so I could use my toaster, which I can’t even keep on the counter anymore, because we now have a drying rack and bottles taking up valuable real estate in the kitchen.  If JR and I were picking our own apartment, this kitchen would not make the cut.

My one wall, 3 small countertops kitchen.

IMG_1065IMG_1067

Don’t get me started on trying to cook and prepare food with the limited space, but this morning all I wanted was some %$&* toast!    Assigned housing is a part of life in the FS.  I’m sure at some posts this is considered a really great kitchen, and for others it’s definitely on the small and inconvenient side.  (It’s important to add here that housing is one of the benefits that we receive in the FS, and JR feels very strongly that we should not complain about things we receive for free.)

As with everything in life, there are good things and bad, and you have to learn to take it all in stride.  I hesitated to post this, because the majority of the time, we are happy here and thankful for all of the opportunties that JR’s job brings us.  But I figure everyone is allowed to have a grumpy day, right?

And I always have JR to send me things like this.

britney