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Thursday, March 31, 2011

Mistress of the House

Brandon is gone now.  He is sitting at the Dulles Airport waiting to see if his name comes up for a wait-listed business class seat, and I'm home with the children, who are in bed.  I've done this a lot lately - been home alone with the children in bed - but this time I'm not waiting for anybody to come home.

We've had a fun week together, after Brandon went in to work for the last time on Monday. Tuesday morning we took the metro down to the Mall and the girls rode the carousel.  After watching Mary Poppins twenty times, they've been obsessed with carousels.  And so we indulged them.  After the carousel we popped into the Natural Science Museum, and then visited the National Aquarium before riding the metro back home.

Yesterday we tried to brave the cold at the park, but stayed inside for fort-building instead.  That evening, my kind cousin came and babysat the kids so Brandon and I could go on a date.  We called it our anniversary date, one month early, as the likelihood of being together in a month isn't high.

Today, after packing in the morning, we took the children to a movie and then ate dinner at IHOP.  Kathleen was adamant about wanting to eat at 'the pancake restaurant,' and then had grilled cheese.  We finished the evening with dropping Brandon off at the airport.  I haven't gotten the energy up yet to clean up the house and pack.

Tomorrow I'm going to my parents' house to stay until they kick me out or I want to come back to Oakwood.  I thought about moving back to my parents' or wandering around staying at various relatives' houses, but eventually decided to stay in our apartment here.  I've gotten too old and too independent to be a long-term guest.  I enjoy having my own space to let go to rack and ruin if I so choose.

We still don't know when the rest of us will go back; the evacuation was officially extended until April 30 (our anniversary).  So until they send us back, I'll be running the show alone.  So if I don't answer calls or emails promptly (or at all), you'll know why.

Sunday, March 27, 2011

The time has come

Brandon sent me an email on Friday with the inevitable news that he is being sent back to post.  As I read the message, I was surprised by my reaction.  Instead of immediately breaking down in tears, I almost felt... relieved.  We've been waiting for this news for a month now and part of me is happy to finally just get it done with.

In a week, the part of me that will be the only parent 24/7 to three young children will probably be asking the relieved part what it was thinking.

But, there's nothing that I can do about Post's decision except to wash Brandon's clothes, cut his hair, and buy him a book (that thousand-page one) for the long plane ride back.  My housekeeper will be ecstatic, and Brandon admitted that the separation will almost be worth getting out of his temporary job in DC.

There are rumors that Post is recalling all employees within the next three weeks, and this is in preparation for the return of families.  I hope it is true, as single parenting out of a suitcase was never in my plans as a mother.  But, until that day when we're back together for good, we'll get along.  Even if it does involve unusual amounts of macaroni and cheese or chicken pot pies.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011


I've always enjoyed reading.  I remember many, many nights where my parents would walk past my room, open the door, and tell me to "put away the book."  Most nights I would feign sleep, and then pull out again to read until all hours of the night.  Family beach trips each summer were a perfect combination of swimming and reading with very little responsibility in between.  Even now, my perfect vacation centers on a beach and a book.

Obviously being a mother of three has cut down on my reading time.  My days are usually busy, and the book supply isn't very steady.  I have a secret and deeply abiding love for fantasy, young adult and regular kind.  As our earthly possessions are judged by weight, however, I can't usually justify purchasing pounds and pounds of books that I'll only ever read once.  And I don't have the time anyway.

But now that we're on evacuation, circumstances have changed.  I left Kathleen's school materials in Cairo and the easel didn't fit into my suitcase very well, so my days are much more open than usual.  So I marched everyone down to the library within the first week of our arrival, and I've been in heaven ever since.

I just finished the latest thousand-page behemoth, and my life is returning to order again.  I folded two day-old laundry this afternoon, and have returned to reading (and writing) blogs again.  My children had craft time (a first!) and stories today.  And I even vacuumed the carpet underneath our table.

But it's only a breath of air until I plunge into another book.  A lot of things about this evacuation aren't my favorite.  But I'm not complaining about the books.

Monday, March 14, 2011

One of These Things is Not Like the Other

Today is Monday, and Monday is laundry day.  Most of the apartments in Oakwood have been renovated with laundry facilities.  Our apartment hasn't, and so I get to haul the clothes down to the fourth floor to wash our five loads each week.

This morning, I picked up the same bottle of laundry detergent that I've been using my entire stay.  I haven't been too happy with the laundry facilities here for many reasons, one of them being how dirty our whites have gotten.  Brandon's been sporting a lovely ring-around-the collar that I haven't gotten rid of, and our underclothes are downright dingy.  But, that's what you get with cheaply-made, expensive-to-run laundry machines, I thought.

Until this morning, when I happened to get a closer look at my detergent bottle.

That's right, I've been using fabric softener this whole month.  Brandon laughed when I told him, and reminded me of one of his favorite SNL skits.  I'm hoping that the clothes will look better this time around with good old Tide.

Friday, March 11, 2011

Living in the Foreign Service: Evacuations

I have never been evacuated before.  I've lived through a few hurricanes, watched some bad thunderstorms, and once when I was in high school, we had a kitchen fire.  The kitchen fire happened right before the hurricane, and so we all got tired of eating out after awhile.  Until we joined the Foreign Service, my life has been wholly unremarkable.

When we joined the Foreign Service, I expected my life to continue being unremarkable, just in strange foreign locales.  When we were posted to Egypt, I knew that we would have a quiet, hot, dusty two years and then we'd leave.  I'm a little on the obsessive side about mentally preparing for things, and so I might blog-stalk you if you happen to live in Baku.  I have the FAM bookmarked on my computer, and just the other day I sat down and calculated the monthly amount of rent we would have available for training based on per-diem rates in the DC metro area.

But never in my time-wasting mental preparations, did I ever look up any information regarding evacuations.  Because that wasn't something I was worried about.  But, now that I have the information, I'll share it with you.  What good is information if it is not shared?

I think the first thing that I thought about when I realized that I was going to be evacuated was leaving without my husband.  I did know this about evacuations - everybody but essential personnel have to leave when there is an evacuation.  Actually I was wrong, because I didn't know that there are two types of evacuation - authorized and ordered.  And they don't call it evacuation - they call it 'departure,' so it sounds less threatening, I guess.

In authorized, people can choose to leave or stay.  I knew a lot of people who chose to stay, including our next-door neighbors.  An evacuation may never move past authorized. But when an authorized is called, it has to last at least 30 days.  We left on authorized.  I worried that we were just getting unneccesarily scared, and everything would blow over in a week and we'd be stuck for 30 days.  The next day, however, the 'departure' moved to ordered.  And then nobody had a choice.  Being a consular officer, Brandon is considered essential, and so he was left after all of the non-essential were gone.  Technically, he should still be there, but he was given a choice to stay or leave.  And so he left, knowing that I would be very disappointed if he had stayed.

After we left Cairo on the chartered flights with our slips-of-paper boarding passes, we were then routed from Athens like any other government traveler, which of course was covered by the government.  I even was able to get United mileage credit for my flights.

When we were in the US, we went to Raleigh, where my parents are, as our safehaven.  All evacuees have to have an official safehaven address, even if they decide to take a five-month road trip.  The safehaven address is where your per diem payments are based on.  I received 100% of the M&IE and 10% of the lodging (because I was at my parents') and the children each received 50%.  After the first month, mine goes down to 80% and the children's to 40%.  The lodging never goes down.

After Brandon was evacuated, we came up to DC, and so I had to change my safehaven location with the financial people in Charleston.  We are in Oakwood, a corporate stay apartment complex that direct-contracts with State for language training TDYers.  We're not TDY, however, we're evacuees, so I got to put our first months' rent on my credit card - all $5,430 of it.

As a result of this rent payment, and several thousand dollars of plane tickets I had purchased just a few days before the evacuation, I got to experience my first credit card refusal the night I moved into Oakwood while buying groceries at Safeway.  Thankfully, Charleston has been wonderfully swift, and the credit card company has appeased.

Although Oakwood is a furnished apartment, the kitchen has had to have some additions from Target to make it somewhat cook-able, but that's what all of that money is for.  Unfortunately, when I was packing my four suitcases (one per evacuee), I didn't know that I would be in an apartment, and didn't even pack a garlic press.  Brandon did, however, bring my knives with him when he left Cairo.

And so now we're in Oakwood, sitting tight.  Most of the questions I get are about how much longer we'll be here.  Evacuations are evaluated ever thirty days, and we've already had our first.  Obviously, we weren't sent home.  The evacuation is lifted based on certain defined parameters, called tripwires.  The evacuation is called on those same tripwires, and so cannot be recalled until they are satisfactorily re-established.

According to my understanding, the major tripwire that has not been re-established is residential security.  Cairo mission is one of the largest in the world, and so we rely on local Egyptian police to provide almost all residential security.  The police force has not been very popular because of the events in Tahrir Square, and so as yet has not been reconstituted.

When the evacuation is recalled, we have seventy-two hours to begin our return to post before the financial support ends.  All evacuees are technically allowed UAB both from post and returning to post, but there wasn't (and generally isn't) any time to arrange the from-post shipment.  We will, however, be able to have a to-post shipment if we like.

What I had heard earlier about the time limits returning to post evidently was incorrect, and I learned that we can return to post any time up to 30 days before our scheduled departure, which is at the very end of July.  So we'll have to see how things go.  A month ago, I would have been quite sure we would be returning in a few weeks, but now I'm not as sure.  It is an evacuation, after all, and nobody possesses a crystal ball.

And so that's my experience with evacuations.  It certainly is some trouble, but I feel that State has done everything possible to lighten that trouble as much as they can.  I've come to find out that living without most of one's worldly possessions for an undefined amount of time is certainly annoying, but definitely not the end of the world.  As long as I have my family, I have everything I actually need.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

How the Other Half Lives

I am a mother.  I have three children, all under five, and my children are my constant companions.  When I go to the store, they go too.  If I read a book, they keep me company. Sometimes we go to a friend's house, but they are our friends because their children are the same age as my children, and so of course the children come too.

I love my children.  I would never, ever trade what I do for anything anybody could ever offer me.  I stay home by choice, and I've never regretted my choice.  But as with any job or situation (even endless vacation), I enjoy a break occasionally.

We have some very close friends who are leaving (left) for their next post.  We've been able to see them a few times since we've been in DC, and they invited us out to dinner for their last hurrah.  Never one to turn down food, we accepted.

And so last night, on a weeknight, a very kind FS friend showed up at my door.  We had had a rough day, and I was happy to see her.  I was wearing makeup, dry-clean only clothes, and heels.  And so with a smile on my face, I left my children, and picked up our friends.

We dropped by Main State to pick up Brandon, and worked our way over to one of those trendy restaurants that have red velvet couches instead of seats and strange artwork that looks like somebody paid too much money for it.  As we were walking from the fifteen-dollar parking garage amid the other crowds of evening diners, I felt like an adult.

I am always an adult - nobody but adults should have any business having three children - but I'm usually an adult existing in the world of people under three feet tall who can't wipe their own bottoms.

But as we sat at dinner, sipping chipotle hot chocolate, sharing around plates and plates of tapas with lamb sliders and artichoke tarts and chocolate-sauced crab cakes followed by a five-course dessert, I returned to a world that I don't visit very often.  Instead of talking about bunk beds, we talked about the security of Libyan oil fields.  Nobody made mention of their friends from the playground, and instead juicy gossip about State was passed around.  No plans were made about the park.  But we did talk about traveling through Europe and eating ourselves silly.

This morning, I've already mediated at least five disagreements.  Edwin is sitting my lap, trying to call China on my cell phone.  And that's okay - it's the life I've willingly chosen.  I do, however, enjoy a quick vacation to the other side every now and then.

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Baltimore Aquarium

When we were here in 2009 for language training, Kathleen was two and a half and Sophia was a year old.  The first warm day in March, we decided to go have some fun and take the girls to the National Zoo.  After taking the Metro and walking up to the Zoo (never. again.), we walked around for perhaps forty-five minutes before the girls gave up and we hiked back.

We realized after the Zoo that small children have no appreciation for anything beyond swings, french fries, and swimming.  And so we haven't bothered going anywhere more interesting than a felucca ride since.

Kathleen is now four and half, fully verbal, literate, and interested in things beyond her own special world.  Sophia is happy to be interested in whatever her sister is interested in.  And Edwin, well, he is the third child and so gets hauled around against his will.  So when my Aunt Kathleen (whom Kathleen is named after) called so see if we would like to come with her and Uncle Bruce to the Baltimore Aquarium, Brandon and I looked at each other, took a deep breath, and agreed.

We started our morning at 6:30 and loaded the children up with french toast, whipped cream, and strawberries, then drove up to Maryland to pick up my aunt and uncle where we made use of seven of the eight seats in our Pilot to drive together to Baltimore.

We got there just in time for the 11:30 dolphin show, where the girls were enthralled and even Edwin got in the spirit and clapped with everyone else.  Sophia was disappointed, however, to learn that no, she could not ride the dolphins.  After that, the day continued on quite enjoyably.  We even got to say hello to Nemo and his father, and finished our day with the aquarium's amazing, three-floor 360-degree tank.

The girls had their very tall great-uncle to pick them up whenever they liked, their Aunt to talk to them, and I have a few times when I got to hold Brandon's hand and nobody else's. Afterwards, we went back to my aunt and uncle's house for takeout Chinese for dinner.  On the way home, everyone was asleep within five minutes.

Now that we've met and enjoyed our first all-day outing, I'm excited for more explorations with my children.  Just maybe not for a few weeks.

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Yesterday I went to Target.  While wheeling my children through the aisles I picked up a can opener and a bread knife.  Last Saturday I purchased a mixer and cookie sheets.  On my previous trip I bought small cups and bowls, an immersion blender, washcloths, a pizza wheel, mixing bowls, a pizza pan, and clippers.

I already own all of these things.  Due to our present circumstances, however, they're halfway across the world, and I won't be seeing them anytime soon.  In the meantime, I still have three children and a husband to feed and take care of.  And so every time I go to Target, I pick up a few more things that I already own.

We have now been evacuated for over a month, and living in Oakwood for just over three weeks.  The initial trauma of the evacuation is over; we're in no danger, we have a safe place of our own, and we've even established routines.  The immediate dislocation of evacuation is finished.

But now comes, in some way, the harder part.  This is the part where we wait, and while we wait we set up a semi-permanent, but ready to go with three days' notice, lifestyle.  Every time I think about buying another piece of household equipment, I wonder if I really need it.  Could I get along for the next few weeks without a garlic press?  Probably.  How about the next few months?  It would be more annoying.  But which do I have in store - weeks or months?  Which is more important - money or sanity?

After traveling between Egypt and the US several times, I feel like I've developed a split reality - third world and first world - that I can switch between in the blink of an eye.  Sitting in the Cairo airport, waiting to board a plane, I'm in a third world country.  But when I step onto that Lufthansa plane with its pleasant German flight attendants, I'm back in the first.  No problem, no dislocation.

I find the same developing now - evacuee and typical American mother.  I take my children to the library and they agonize over which books to take home.  We go to Costco and eat samples of crab dip.  But then I think of what we were doing just over a month ago - riding a felucca on the Nile.  I look at the emerging flowers and anticipate spring and warmer temperatures.  But will I be here for spring?  Or just skip it entirely and head back to Egyptian summer?

Who knows?  At this point, nobody.  And so life continues - the first world American one.  For now, anyway.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

The Difference Between Boys and Girls

When I was pregnant with Edwin, and a fellow mother found out that he was a boy, I almost always heard some comment to the effect that 'boys are just different.'  I wasn't sure what that mean, as nobody was every able to explain themselves to any satisfaction.

Now, after I have a boy, I understand.  A few days ago, the girls came to me, giggling.  They had gotten the window crayons, and used them for 'lip polish.'  "Now we're beautiful, because we're princesses," Kathleen told me.

Edwin has a stick.  He eats lunch with it.

It's the first thing he finds in the morning.

And even when he's cooking with Sophia, it's with the stick by his side. 

Teddy Roosevelt would be proud.