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Sunday, April 29, 2012

Going Native

I have been doing a lot of shopping lately. It’s a tough job but someone’s got to do it, right? Most of it’s been the usual new-in-town research - going to different stores to see where I can find the stuff we need. I can’t find everything I need in one place, so I have shopped all over - at neighborhood stores, bazaars, malls you name it… I’ve been told that it’s a good idea to cover your shoulders while you are out, so out of respect for Indian culture I’ve bought a few kurtas (tunics) to replace most of my sleeveless tops. If I buy something for me, I usually get a little something for each kid and the husband as well but Her Cuteness was growing unhappy because I was buying ethnic stuff for me and the usual T-shirts for her. She too wanted ethnic stuff, and especially baggy pants. She saw them first in the movie “Jab we met” a few months ago and has wanted them ever since. So I’ve been on the lookout for baggy pants for her and a top that would go with them. I tried a bunch of stores at the mall but there were slim pickin’s in ethnic clothes for girls and especially her size for some reason.

Until Friday, when our sponsor’s wife took me to Sarojini bazaar, which is a heaven for those looking for bargain clothes. It was still a little tricky to find things her size but I was able to get her baggy pants and a top. She had to wear them to school the next day.

Here she is modeling her new Indian outfit for me and Chutney at the school bus stop:

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Saturday, April 28, 2012

New Header

It was about time! I know you were all thinking, it’s been more than a year since they’ve had the baby and she’s still using a picture without the little one in it. Bad mother! Well, the little one was technically in the picture, only not visible, because he was in my belly at the time but that’s neither here nor there. I wanted to change it and I made several attempts at taking a good family picture that included the newest member of the family but I didn’t like any of the pictures we had. Picky, picky!

Plus, the dates of our arrival to India changed, so the old header was wrong on too many levels and today I decided to change it, even though I am not crazy about this picture. It’s better than what I had before but I’d still like a picture of the family because this blog is about the family. But until I take the perfect picture, this will do.

In case you were wondering, the picture for the header was taken at a local Unesco World Heritage Site, called Qutub Minar, which we visited yesterday. I will write a separate post about Qutub Minar and our visit there, so stay tuned.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

The Homes of Vasant Vihar

Vasant Vihar is the neighborhood where our temporary housing is located. I take our daughter to and from the school bus stop, which is a 5-10 minute walk from our place, so I have been out and about in the neighborhood and couldn’t help but notice how awesome many of the homes are. I have been drooling over them twice a day for 10 days now, so I decided to share my favorite ones. Many of them are multi-family homes in which perhaps people live with their extended family. Some have servant quarters, some do not. Most of them have terrific balconies, terraces or both, which I absolutely love.

Some have more traditional lines:

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Others incorporate classical elements such as Grecian columns, rounded balconies, wrought iron gates/fences and the like:

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Others still, are more contemporary and incorporate a lot of glass and some kind of wood (perhaps teak?) in the exterior:

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Then there are those that look sort of Art Deco-ish:

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Last but not least, is one that’s covered in marble, I mean all of it, including the fence (it’s kinda hard to see in the pictures, so you’ll have to trust me on that one):

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I made a point of not taking pictures of the embassies and embassy residences, because, those are always nice. The houses pictured above are just people’s homes. Perhaps not ordinary people’s because I hear a lot of extraordinary people (such as members of parliament and other officials) call Vasant Vihar home but still…

Not every house in Vasant Vihar is like those above though. Some are a lot more modest, including the one we live in. I am not supposed to show pictures of the exterior of the house where we live for security reasons but here’s one that’s very much like ours (maybe even a little nicer):

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They tend to be older and maybe only a couple of stories tall (each story is one apartment). But real estate is very expensive in Delhi (more than most cities in the US) and a lot of the smaller, older home are being demolished to make room for newer , taller buildings:

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Of course, someone has to do the demolition and construction. Who do you think? Women working in sarees, that’s who. I say that only half-jokingly. Women do indeed seem to do a lot of the hard work. I often see a bunch of men standing/sitting around while the women are working. Now, there may be a reason for that. Perhaps they are supervisors or whatever, I don’t know but it’s certainly noticeable.

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Those people can’t really afford to live in Vasant Vihar, so what do they do? They build temporary slums, close to the construction site where they work and live there. It ain’t pretty and I feel rotten every time I walk by their makeshift “homes” and see how they live but that’s part of life here and this is what it looks like:

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Kind of unrelated but what’s also part of life here, are the cows - walking down the street in the middle of traffic or relaxing peacefully somewhere. They are sacred and no one bothers them:

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So there you have it – a walk around our current neighborhood.

Saturday, April 21, 2012

India Gets a New U. S. Ambassador

And for the first time, the U.S. Ambassador to India is a lady and an awesome one at that! Ambassador Powell was confirmed on March 29 and arrived in Delhi on Thursday, April 19.  She has served in India several times before and has a lot of experience in the region. She has served in Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Nepal and speaks several of the regional languages. Paul and I had the pleasure of meeting Ambassador Powell in person while we were in language training. She was in a Hindi refresher course and set up a small meeting with the people who were learning Hindi at the time and preparing to go to post in India. I was so tempted to blog about it at the time but she wasn’t yet confirmed, so I had to curb my enthusiasm. It was a very informal meeting and we got to ask her questions and learn about her vision and priorities. She seems like a very knowledgeable but also very humble and unassuming person. Having met her, I can’t help but think that the U.S. – India relationship will benefit from her vast experience. Paul is very excited to serve under her and if I am lucky and get an offer from the Foreign Service, I may get to work on her team as well, which would be fantastic.

Interestingly, the current Indian Ambassador to the U.S. is also a lady, Ambassador Rao. The current U.S. Secretary of State (Hillary Clinton) and the current president of India (Pratibha Patil) are also women. Which made me think how wonderful it is to have such capable, distinguished ladies serve in some of the most important posts in the world and what terrific role models they are for young girls considering careers in public service.

Welcome back to India, Ambassador Powell and best of luck!

Ambassador Powell and Ambassador Rao share an embrace (Photo: U.S. Department of State: Bureau of South and Central Asian Affairs.)

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Seen around Delhi…

I had some more errands to run today and as I was walking along with the stroller and the kids, my eyes were drawn to the following scenes:

Urban monkey - just chillin' on someone's fence.

An urban monkey, just sitting on a fence, chillin’.

We’ve seen several of those now but we’ve been warned that they can be vicious. Apparently they bite, steal food and generally do their monkey business all over the place. As I walk around, I see people leaving their windows and balcony doors open all the time and then I see the monkeys and I wonder what’s to stop the monkeys from going in the open window and trashing the place? Who knows? They are protected and revered though. Kinda like the cows. I am pretty sure it has to do with Hanuman, the Monkey God, who helped Ram save Sita from Ravana. (If you are not familiar with the story of Ram and Sita but are curious, you have to watch Sita Sings the Blues on youtube. It’s based on the famous Ramayana story but it’s hilarious!)

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A construction woman carrying sand on her head, in a saree.

We see women like her often. I am fascinated by them and their colorful sarees. To me sarees still represent a special, fancy piece of clothing, so to see women doing hard physical labor in them seems unusual. I now know sarees can be as fancy or casual as you want/need but still…  There were four men around her when I asked if I could take a picture of her. I asked in English and the guys didn’t realize that I knew some Hindi, so they were talking for a while about whether they should charge me for the picture or not. They didn’t ask for money in the end though.

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A street tailor, sewing happily under a tree.

I liked this guy. He has this small, one-man-show operation going and probably doesn’t make much but he seemed so happy. I asked if I could take his picture and he gladly agreed.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Elephant in the hood

I took our daughter to the school bus stop this morning and as we were waiting, whaddayaknow, we see an elephant walking down the street. I didn’t have a camera on me because I didn’t expect to see anything unusual but now I know better.

The bus picked Nia up and Max and I took a cab to go get a sim card for my cell phone. I took a while because I had to provide all kinds of information in order to get a sim card. They wanted two copies of the passport page of my diplomatic passport, two copies of the visa page, two passport pictures, address, etc. I was quite puzzled by that but was told that the Government of India is collecting that information as part of their antiterrorism efforts. It is related to the Mumbai terrorist attacks in which bombs were detonated using mobile phones. The Indian Government wants to prevent something like that from happening again, so they collect info from anyone who buys a cell phone or a sim cards. Who would’ve thunk?

But be that as it may, the cab waited for us and took us back home. As we were riding back, around the corner from our house, I see the elephant again. I was ready this time. I asked the cab driver to drop us off there and camera in hand, we went to see the elephant. It was in front of the Embassy of the Dominican Republic. There were a bunch of people. Several kids were taking a ride on the elephant. Someone from the Dominican Embassy had rented the elephant for the day because his sons were visiting and because people do these kinds of things here on special occasions. They saw Max and I and asked us if we wanted them to take our picture with the elephant. How did they know?

So, here are a couple of shots of Max’s first close encounter with an elephant.

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Monday, April 16, 2012

Overweight? No way!

That was our reaction when the day before we left for India, the packing company called to tell us that our HHE (household effects – shipped to post by sea) were overweight. And not by a few pounds. Overweight by a whopping 1,100 lb!!!

How was that possible? A few weeks before our pack-out, we had a guy from that same packing company come and give us an estimate of the weight of our stuff. He said all of our stuff was between 5,000 and 6,000, meaning that even if we shipped everything we owned to India, we’d still be under the 7,200 limit by about 1,000-2,000. The estimate seemed a little on the low end to me but what do I know. I am not a pro, he was. So we trusted him. We also told him that we were planning on buying some things from Costco but he said that as long as we don’t go crazy, we should be OK.

We did go to Costco and bought this:

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I’d say that’s no more than 200 lbs and some of it went into our UAB, a separate shipment that goes by air, so it doesn’t affect our HHE weight. We also put some of our furniture (a zero-gravity chair, a few bookcases, our daughter’s bed, our dining table) in long-term storage. So, we shouldn’t have been overweight. But we were.

Needless to say, it was not a pleasant surprise. With a million things to do the day before our departure, now we had to drive to the packing company’s office in Sterling, VA to play Tetris, the Foreign Service edition. I was also quite ticked off because we thought we were going to be under based on the dude’s estimate, so I didn’t pack things that I could have easily left in long-term storage separately. I had things that I wanted to donate, such as classic books, which are available for free on the Kindle and kids clothes. I was planning on putting them in long-term storage. But after the misguided low estimate, I put them in HHE, thinking I would donate them in India, where there is a greater need for books and clothing. Yeah…

So, anyway, to Sterling we went and this is what the facility looked like:

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Great big boxes and boxes and boxes of stuff.

Here are our HHE boxes:

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We had to open them (with the help of the packers) and pick out the things we were willing to leave behind. We were short for time and the packers, understandably, didn’t want to go through everything. This is what it looked like in the end:

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The smaller pile in the back (top right corner) is what we left behind. We were looking for heavy things we wouldn’t miss much – furniture, books, bikes and the like. Then the stuff was weighed on a large scale and when it hit 1,100 lb, we were done. It took about an hour but it taught me a valuable lesson: experts can be wrong, so you have to be prepared for that (especially if you have a gut feeling they are off) and pack accordingly.

Next time, I’ll set the things we can live without aside. I’ll be there when they are packed to ensure they are packed separately and label them so I can easily identify them and pull them out, should the need arise. And when our HHE gets here, I will immediately donate all the stuff I meant to, so we are not over when we leave India.  It would be nice if the packers could tell you as you are packing when you have reached the limit but that may be too much to ask for…

Saturday, April 14, 2012

India, you had me at Namaste!

Last you heard from me, we had just passed our Hindi exams. What followed was a couple of weeks of craziness that included a trip to New York for Paul’s consultations, pack-out, moving to temporary housing (Oakwood Falls Church), getting USDA certifications for the cats, a serious allergy attack on the part of Nia (featuring an unplanned visit to her doctor and the use of a inhalator), last-minute get-togethers with friends and family, cancelling accounts for cervices we no longer needed (including breaking our T-mobile contract without a penalty fee, yey!), a cleaning “party” at our old apartment, dealing with our HHE being overweight and the cats missing from our reservations and multiple trips to various stores to buy stuff and more stuff. Somewhere in there was also Easter, which we almost missed but yeah, those were two stressful weeks and I don’t want to think about them right now, so let’s set them aside for another post, shall we?

Back to the trip to India. It started out like this:

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What you see above are two kids, two cats (in the turquoise/black carriers to the right), two adults (one of which behind the camera), 12 suitcases, a stroller and a car seat on their way to New Delhi, via Frankfurt.  As you may have guessed, getting to the airport with all of our travel paraphernalia was not trivial. We had to hire a whole van just to fit it all. We fully anticipated to have to pay for our second checked bags and have to expense them later but because of some loophole rule we didn’t, so yey for that. Two of our carry-ons also were deemed too fat to fly in the cabin, so they went cargo, which was painful at the time because we had to do some repacking but made things easier in Frankfurt.

Our total travel time was about 20 hours – first flight was eight, the second almost seven with a six-hour layover. It’s a long time no matter how you look at it. The kids slept some and whined quite a bit. Here’s a picture of them snoozing on the second flight.

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Paul and I dozed a little bit here and there. I don’t sleep well on airplanes in general. The leg room, or lack thereof, just kills me. The cranky kids don’t help either. I may have gotten 3 hours of shuteye total this time around. 

But I am delighted to report that our trip was generally uneventful and neither the kids nor the cats had any accidents during the flights. Amen to that! I know any mom out there would understand my happiness because any time we don’t have to deal with what I call the 3 Ps (pee, poop, puke) is a reason to celebrate. I was particularly worried about Chutney and the two furry little ones because that was their first time flying internationally but things turned out OK. Paul thought I had completely lost it when he caught me googling “how to diaper a cat” before the trip. I was seriously considering doing it because you do not want to be the person whose cat goes stinky on a long and crowded flight. So, while I did not diaper the cats, I totally diapered the bottoms of their carriers, just in case. Which we did not need, because the little furries crossed their little legs for about 20 hours and just didn’t go – amazing, no? They did meow occasionally (but then again, so would I had I been in their situation) but there was so much other noise on the plane on that I don’t think anyone noticed.

We had heard that Lufthansa had a pet lounge in Frankfurt and were so going to use it to feed the cats and let them go potty but were laughed at when we asked about it. Gone due to cost cutting, perhaps?

So, we finally landed Delhi just after midnight on 4/13, as in Friday, the thirteenth (gasp) and were reunited with our 12 bags. Nothing was lost – yey! As we made our way to customs, we were greeted by this:

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Namaste to you to, Delhi! Lovely, don’t you think?

Then, we got to go through the Diplomats/Officials line, where we were the only ones.

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I am pretty sure we were supposed to show a bunch of paperwork that took us days to collect to some very important officials about our cats, but no one noticed them and no one stopped us, and before we knew it we were out the door. But no worries, we have the paperwork and are ready to give it to whoever needs it, should they inquire. Just a quick note about the Delhi airport: it’s very nice – big and new, built for the Commonwealth Games in 2010. There was no “sleeve” for our plane and we had to take a shuttle to the airport but other than that, I was very impressed by the facility.

Our social sponsor, who is a wonderful man, was there to meet us with two vans. We loaded up our stuff and he took us to our temporary housing. That’s right, we are in temporary housing because our permanent is not ready. We are not sure how long it’s going to take for the permanent to get ready or where exactly it will be but it looks like it won’t be on the compound (Sad smile). Our temporary housing is in a neighborhood called Vasant Vihar and is about 6 km from the US Embassy. Vasant Vihar is often described as one of the “poshest” areas in Delhi. (I’ve never used the word posh before because it seems rather snobbish to me but everyone’s using it here.) It’s very nice, with a lot of embassies and embassy residences in the area. It seems pretty safe. Our temporary apartment is a three bedroom/three bath in an older building. It’s not palatial but it’s nice. It’s about 1,000 square feet, which is smaller that our last apartment, which was smaller than our not-so-big-house in Florida but we could live in it, if we have to. It would be tight but not impossible. It is furnished and the furniture we all get is Drexel Heritage, which couldn’t be further from my preferred style of furnishings but it is what it is and I have decided to make it my design challenge. Here are some pictures, in case you are curious. These were taken before we were assigned to the place. They swapped the one single bed for a crib for Max per our request.

Kitchen Dining RoomLiving Room

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I am not going to spend a lot of time describing the place because it’s our temporary housing but interestingly it is going to be one of our Hindi classmate’s permanent housing. We were a little surprised when we found out that we’ve been assigned to the same place but she doesn’t get here until the end of May and the hope is that we will be in our permanent place by then. Rumor has it that we will be in an apartment that’s a little larger and is located in the West End neighborhood, which is between Vasant Vihar and the Embassy (about 5 km from the latter).

We haven’t seen much of Delhi yet but can’t wait to explore more. After a couple of hours of sleep, Paul went to work on Friday and we met him on the Embassy compound for lunch. The compound is lovely. There’s a pool, a baseball field, bowling alley, a gym, daycare, playgrounds, a health unit, a travel agency, a hair salon, a restaurant, and a commissary (a store with necessities mostly from the US – many of which are very expensive but nice to have nonetheless). We ate at the restaurant, which was very nice. We also did some shopping at the commissary. I was greatly relieved to find Nutella and wine at the commissary. Those are important items in our shopping basket and I wasn’t sure if they’d be available. Nutella is also available in grocery stores outside the commissary but we hear that good wine is hard to find and/or very expensive. The commissary has a pretty decent cellar. The alcoholic that I am, I drink a glass or two of wine a month, but I grew up around wine and if I don’t have it in the house, I start to hyperventilate. So, there’s Nutella and wine, which means life is good.

We hung out at the pool today and met a bunch of people we knew or had heard of as well as people we did not previously know. There are two Bulgarians in the US diplomatic community and two more teaching at the American Embassy School. Nia made fast friends with a few girls. Chutney didn’t get to go in the pool because his mommy had forgotten to pack swim diapers for him and he was not happy about that.

Our sponsors have been terrific in helping us get used to our new place and the city. Since we don’t have a car yet , they’ve been driving us around in theirs. Their driver is wonderful. Wish we could find one like him. I got to use my Hindi with him a little bit and he was very happy.

Within hours of our arrival (and possibly before that) word got out that there is a new diplomatic family in the neighborhood and we have been getting people stop us in the street, on the compound and ring our doorbell offering to be our driver, nanny, housekeeper, gardener, cook, what have you. It’s a little overwhelming. I know Delhi is a huge city - the largest in India according to the last census in 2011 – about 22 million. Many of its inhabitants are poor and need the work to feed their families and we’d gladly hire a good person but how do you know if a person is good? We will probably need a driver and a housekeeper but having never had help in my life to date, I am a little nervous about the process of hiring and using the services of household help.

We will more than likely use the referrals of the people from the embassy community because this way we’ll have at least some information about the people we are letting into our house, even though we hear there is a whole system in which the help refer each other to prospective employers and when a person lands a job, they owe whoever helped them get the job a finder’s fee of sorts, which may be as high as the first month salary. Pretty crazy, if you think about it, but what these people are making working for families from the embassy community is more than they would elsewhere, so they are willing to do whatever it takes…

Anyway, last night we took a walk to Priya Market, a shopping area that’s about a 15 minute walk from our apartment.  It was nice to stroll around the neighborhood and look at the houses, some of which are very fancy, much nicer than our building. Every building has a guard in front, who sits in a booth all day and makes sure there’s nothing suspicious going on around. There are a lot of people hanging out in the streets, mostly males. There are a lot of hawkers and beggars, especially at intersections and around shopping areas. Many of them are young kids, which breaks my heart. A lot of women work in construction and many of them work in beautiful-looking bright-colored sarees, which seems so strange to me. We are still getting used to the whole driving-on-the-other-side-of-the-street. We have to be extra careful crossing the streets with the kids because looking both ways is the reverse and traffic is just insane. You literally take your life into your hands every time you cross a street. Many drivers don’t stop for anything. They just honk their horns and keep going.

But I am rambling. I need to go out and take pictures, which may take me a while because now when we go out I have Max in my hands and he’s been very clingy, which makes taking pictures kinda impossible. I like what we have seen so far – warts and all. But what country doesn’t have warts? Both the US and Bulgaria certainly do but that doesn’t mean I love them any less. Delhi seems nicer than I expected, most of the people we’ve interacted with have been very friendly and helpful and we can’t wait to see and experience more, so stay tuned.

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Done with Hindi, for now… Plus, a review of language learning at FSI

(Warning: long post)

Both Paul and I passed our Hindi exams last Thursday and got the scores we needed – 2 Speaking/2 Reading. It is a relief because we can get on with our lives now and pay attention to the all things we’ve been ignoring for months (like kids, bills, the tax man, what have you… just kidding).

It’s actually been surprisingly hard to relax after the exams. The first three nights following the exam, I kept waking up in the wee hours and would catch myself flipping Hindi word flashcards in my head, wondering about genders and trying to put together sentences. Must have been half-asleep because it would take me a while before I’d realize that I don’t have to do that anymore. Try falling asleep after that…

But the exams are done and I thought I’d do a review of learning Hindi at FSI. As an  FSO spouse and one in the process of joining the Foreign Service myself, I have to say that taking any class at FSI is a priceless opportunity to learn more about the FSO lifestyle, meet people and get some rad FSO skillz at no charge! It is fantastic that the State Department offers that to spouses. It works on space available basis and there are no guarantees but I highly recommend it to any spouse interested in working at an US Embassy/Consulate.

That said, the language program at FSI is intense and efficient. Is it perfect? No, but it does deliver results. We started Hindi in early September and we knew almost nothing – 30 weeks (7 1/2 months) later, we can read, write (however imperfectly) and converse on a bunch topics, important and mundane. Here’s how it works:

First of all, it is not an immersion program because it happens in the US but it’s as close to it as possible without physically being in the target country. There are immersion trips that you can take but they are at your expense and just didn’t make sense for us at this time because we had an infant. Besides the language classes, which in our case were from 7:40 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. every day, we also had field trips and Area Studies. Those last two are intended to complement language classes by introducing us to a number of topics related to our language such as regional history, politics, diplomacy, culture etc.

We went on field trips with our language instructors on average a couple of times a month and we visited sites around the D.C. area where we could practice the vocabulary and grammar we were learning. Sometimes we got to talk to native speakers (visits to Indian stores and restaurants). Other times we just practiced with our teachers on various topics (government at the Capitol, celebrations at the Cherry Blossom Festival). In addition we had a couple of opportunities to participate in Indian/South Asian festivities (a wedding, Holi).

Area Studies was a weekly occurrence (separate from language class). For us it was every Thursday afternoon and on those days we had one less language class. We attended Area Studies together with the students going to other parts of India, as well as Pakistan, Bangladesh, Nepal and Shri Lanka. Although the material was not always presented in the most student-friendly format, overall we learned quite a bit in Area Studies. We visited a mosque, a Hindu temple and a Sikh Gurudvara (temple). We had presentations/discussions with diplomats and businessmen from the countries we were going to as well several representative of the US Government and NGOs, specializing in topics of interest to our class. We also watched several good movies relevant to the topics discussed.

But back to Hindi. So, when Paul and I started Hindi, we knew almost nothing. I said almost because I played with Rosetta Stone a little bit before we started Hindi class. About four months into it I hit a wall and found it impossible to continue on my own. Plus, our son was born around that time and that was that.

The pace at FSI is so intense that by the end of our first week of class, we had covered almost as much as I did after working alone with Rosetta Stone for four months. That is not to say that Rosetta Stone is useless. It is actually a very good complement to class, however, we were so busy that that after a couple of months we literally had no time for it, which is a bummer because I liked how it helps you reinforce what you learn in class.  Anyway, about three weeks into Hindi class, we knew how to read the Devnagari (Hindi) script. We didn’t yet know what we were reading but because Hindi is a phonetic language, we could read pretty much anything. It was a neat feeling.

We started in a group of nine students. After we learned to read, we were split into groups of two or three people each, which was a little scary at first because we had gotten comfortable with the larger group but it was good because we could move faster through the material. We had a couple of advanced students in our larger group, who were alone in class, which is great in a lot of ways but also very stressful, because you are always “it”, so you usually have one less class per day than those in groups of two or three.

In Hindi, we had a different teacher for each class period. Our teachers sort of specialized in different aspects of the language. For example, one would always do reading, another always does drills, a third does speaking, etc. So each day we would work with four or five different teachers. That is not the case in every language taught at FSI. I know people studying Spanish as well as others studying and teaching Bulgarian and they have one instructor teach for a few weeks. Then a different instructor comes and teaches for another few weeks. There’s no specialization. Each teacher teaches everything. I am not sure why there’s a difference in the different language departments. There are plusses and minuses to each arrangement but in the end of the day, I don’t think it makes much difference in the outcomes.

After we learned how to read in the first month, we devoted 2-3 months to grammar, some speaking and some reading. Here I have to say that the Hindi grammar is pretty involved and differs significantly from English (or Bulgarian for that matter.) In my opinion (my husband and most of our classmates agreed) there is not enough time devoted to practicing the various grammar points and constructions. We felt that the practice time was not enough to learn the new grammar to the point where you use it correctly without thinking about it. But I think that’s a function of the limited time we have to learn the language.

Sometime around month 4 we started reading newspapers and developing more detailed verbal narratives. That was done within a topical context and the first topics were weather and crime/terrorism. Perhaps because those were our first topics we ended up spending a lot of time on them. At this point we had a little over a month left in Hindi. The last month was brutal. We raced through a whole bunch more topics like politics, health, human/women’s rights, child labor, economy, education, pollution, etc. Of course, each topic came with a bunch of new vocabulary and keeping it all straight became a tremendous challenge.

I want to mention that learning a language at FSI is pretty unique and we were given more resources than we could possibly use in the time allotted. That’s a blessing and a curse. When I studied English in Communist Bulgaria all those years ago, we had very little available in terms of resources and I can see that having more resources does make a difference. On the other hand, when your time is so limited, there’s only so much you can use but I guess it’s better to have more than you can use than not enough, right?

Among the resources FSI provides to language learners is something called Learning Consultation Services. These are voluntary but I don’t see why anyone would not use them. After all, you never know what will work for you. So, Learning Consultants provide group classes on various aspects of language learning (tips on how to handle grammar, vocabulary, reading, speaking etc.), as well as personalized advice in which you fill out a bunch of surveys and are provided with advice based on your answers. The beauty of it is that it is tailored to your learning style and the suggestions are specific to how you prefer to learn. One problem with it is that it works better for some styles than others.

For example, Paul and I took the tests, got our results and then had a meeting with a Learning Consultant. Our objective was to learn how each of us can maximize the resources available for optimal learning but also how we can learn together. In the process, we found that we are very different learners. We kinda knew that because we have very different personalities but had somehow managed to live together for quite a while without killing each other. We did however, have a hard time working together as far as Hindi was concerned. FSI actually makes a point of separating spouses during language training, which is probably a good thing. But it was after class that we had issues. That’s because I am an extrovert that needs to talk through everything in order to learn it and Paul is kinda the opposite. He likes to review things on his own and think everything through quietly. So, meeting with the Learning Consultant was good for us because she helped us realize that we are both ok but in different ways (and that I need to back off and let Paul be, which I did, reluctantly).

We also found that I am a more traditional learner and I was more or less ok with a lot of written homework and rote memorization, while those things didn’t work so well for Paul. He likes to learn by casually conversing with the teachers and there were more limited opportunities to do that. So, even though there are a variety of specialists at FSI, who provide a lot of information to help you learn, it is still more useful for traditional language learners. If you prefer more of a free-style approach, you may find it harder to adjust to language learning at FSI.

That said, we both managed somehow to come out of the process mostly unscathed and are here to tell you that you can too.

Best of luck!

 
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