CLOs in KL

A few weeks ago I traveled to Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia for a week long Community Liason Office (CLO) training. It was my first trip to Asia, and the first job training I’ve had in a very long time, certainly the first since JR joined the Foreign Service. There were 19 other CLOs and the whole week was wonderful. The group leading the training did a fantastic job of keeping things interesting, and I have a ton of great new ideas (now I just need to find the time to implement them) for Tbilisi. I also feel like I made 19 new friends!

It was a long journey to KL, with two interesting things that happened just before we landed. With no warning or preamble, a voice on the intercom announced  “Carrying drugs into Malaysia is a federal crime and punishable by death.” Alrighty then. Images of Brokedown Palace flashed through my mind as I imagined a lifelong prison sentence in a foreign country, with no Kate Beckinsale to keep me company.

A few minutes later, another unexpected announcement: “In accordance with local laws, the flight attendants will now walk through the cabin spraying insecticide.” Um, okay? I covered my face and hoped for the best.

Once I reached my destination, it was pretty smooth sailing. The days were packed with training and then some scheduled evening events, and when we didn’t have something organized as a whole group, smaller groups broke off and made plans for dinner, shopping and sight seeing. I had a great time and enjoyed the chance to do something new and different. Here are some pictures from the trip.

Although it was only a week away from post and I met so many amazing people, it was probably the longest I’ve been away from my family. Traveling solo was fun but I was ready to go home!

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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/

 

Halloween fun

We had the best Halloween weekend here!  JR and I haven’t lived in a neighborhood with Trick-or-Treat-ers in a few years, so we were really looking forward to passing out candy and taking Abby around to a few houses.

We started the weekend with trick-or-treating at the Embassy.  Sopo, our nanny, dropped Abby off in her costume all ready to go with braids in her hair. She does the BEST job with her hair.  I don’t know what kind of Jedi-mind tricks she uses to make Abby sit still, but I have no such luck!

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Blurry but cute!

Abby was immediately interested in putting all candy in her mouth, wrappers included.  She was displeased when I took the candy away, so in a quick attempt to appease her, I handed her a fun-size Twix.  JR was quick to point out that I’d made a huge mistake.  Chocolate everywhere.  Not a good plan when you a) are carrying your child around in your work clothes and b) need her costume clean again the next day.   We didn’t take any pictures of her chocolate-covered face, but once she had her first taste of that sugary goodness, she was hooked.

The CLO did an amazing job organizing the event.  There were over 150 kids, most offices decorated and passed out candy, and they had games, food, and activities for the kids as well.

Saturday was the neighborhood trick-or-treat.  JR and I had considered a few different costume ideas, ideally something that wouldn’t cost much and was easy.  As always, my mom helped with a package that included some granny clothes from Goodwill and a very classy nightgown in a 2XL to help us pull off our family costume:  Little Red Riding Hood, her grandma, and the big bad wolf.

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We realized Abby might be afraid of the wolf mask, so we had it sitting on the counter for a few weeks and occasionally took turns trying it on.  She was not into it at first but by the weekend she didn’t seem bothered at all!

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It was so much fun seeing everyone dressed up and spending time with our friends and their kids.  After we passed out candy for a while, we walked down to a friend’s house for snacks and a special Witches Brew beverage while the kids played.  When I commented that I didn’t think I Abby received any Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups, my friend E handed me her very last one, stashed in her pocket.  That’s true friendship.

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Little Red Riding Hood, worn out

Can’t wait to do it again next year!

Catching up

I had a wonderful visit with family and friends in Ohio for almost 2 and 1/2 weeks.  Unfortunately, I didn’t take many pictures – the only ones I took were of the delicious food I enjoyed! I joked with my mom that I spent most of my visit napping and eating. It’s not really a joke, because that’s basically what happened.

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Before I left for Ohio, we celebrated our first Thanksgiving abroad with some of our good friends. We had turkey, mashed potatoes, stuffing, pumpkin pie, and so much more. We were even able to watch the Macy’s Day parade and some football so it actually felt pretty similar to being at home!

The next day, I woke up early to catch my flight(s) home. As soon as I landed in Newark, I could smell the McDonalds. You don’t realize how much you miss it until you can smell it, and my nose led me to a large order of fries and a fountain Diet Coke with no ice. Pure bliss! Plus, I was able to use my debit card for the first time in months, which felt super exciting. That same debit card would later get me into trouble at Target, Old Navy, Sephora, and various other places. What, it’s Christmas!

Thanks to my Mom, I was scheduled for a doctor’s appointment while I was home so I could meet my OB (selected by my Mom, of course) and have another ultrasound. Everything went well, and my mom and sister were able to see the baby and we took pictures and video for JR. They showed us some images in 3D which frankly alarmed me, but I was assured the baby will look better in person.

Lest you think that JR spent that two weeks pining away for me in Kosovo, he was actually in Bangkok for work. I like to think he was still pining a bit. I’m trying to convince him to do a guest blog and write about this trip, but considering how motivated I’ve been to blog myself, this is looking less and less likely. To summarize, he stayed safe during the protests and he enjoyed all of the markets and local vendors.  His suitcase was 22lbs overweight on his return flight because of all the presents he brought back!

Now that we’re both back home (home is such a funny word to me right now, because I feel like I have a few homes!), we are back to work and getting ready for Christmas. JR excels at wrapping presents and traditionally wraps his own once I put them in a box, so he’s been hard at work on that. Our CLO office and friends here have planned several fun holiday events. So far we’ve had cookie exchanges, a silent auction, a door decorating contest, and an Ugly Christmas Sweater competition on Friday. Also, one of our friends is having a Winter Solstice party tonight, so we’re headed over there shortly.

I can’t believe Christmas is next week!   I mentioned we have a lot of presents, right?

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City Bus Tour

This morning I took a break from this:

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To go on a city bus tour set up by the CLO. We were scheduled to meet at the Embassy where they had a van ready to drive us around to point out restaurants, shops, and other points of interest. Our first stop was the Green Market, which is a fairly large open air market where people sell everything from fruits and vegetables to clothes and extension cords.

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Next we wandered into what might be considered the bridal district of Pristina.

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We drove around some more and passed by the library, which has a rather unique look. I realize you can’t see the building all that well, but that’s because we were in a moving vehicle. And because I’m a terrible photographer. I’m working on it.

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And no tour would be complete without seeing Bill Clinton Boulevard, and the statute of Bill Clinton.

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Yeah, not my best photos. After the tour, our little group decided to stop at the new commissary that was just opened at the Embassy. They have a lot of frozen meat, cheese, and GARLIC BREAD (JR, stellar husband that he is, brought some home for me on Monday, and it was delicious.) Anyway, it’s a small store but it has a lot of great stuff and it will be really useful when we don’t want to make a trip out to Bondsteel.

Okay, back to unpacking!

Rugova Gorge

This past Saturday we went on a CLO-sponsored trip to Rugova Gorge, which is near the Montenegro border. CLO stands for Community Liaison Office, and they coordinate family events, trips, and other things to do in the area. Sort of like the social chair for the FS.

The drive to Rugova was beautiful. As soon as you get outside of Pristina, the mountains and scenery are so nice to see. But it’s still unnerving the more you drive up into the mountains, at least for me. The windy roads, steep inclines, and when the last few miles of the road is actually just a dirt path, I start to worry about getting stuck. Or falling off the side of a cliff. Or both, even.

We had a group of about 16 people, and most people were planning to take a 90 minute hike to a lake. Others who didn’t want to hike could relax at the restaurant and drink wine. Tough choice, right? I did want to see the lake, but the hike was classified as difficult. Still, I did start with the hikers, and I lasted about 5 minutes. It was straight up hill, no warm up, nothing! I had flashbacks to a hiking trip I took with my family to Coopers Rock, West Virginia. It did not go well. I’ll spare you the details, but at one point I thought I would never get off the mountain. (Krissy and Kristen, I bet you two are having flashbacks right now!)

So, I threw in the towel and parked myself at the restaurant. It was nice, I chatted with some new people and read my book. JR did the hike and he said it was great, so thanks to him we have some pictures to share!

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