Thursday, April 29, 2010

Counting our (mixed) blessings…

We are still very excited about Paul’s one-year domestic assignment but it came with a couple of unexpected frustrations mixed blessings. I thought I’d share our experience because it may be helpful for new officers bidding on DC positions. It has its plusses but there are some practical things to consider, especially if you don’t already own a home in the DC area or have school-age children.

First, because Paul is no longer technically in training, we have to move out of our temporary housing unit and find a new place to live. State gave us exactly a week to do that. Yeah, one week! Some realtors and apartment managers laughed at me when I called them. Not cool!

So, I have been running around like a chicken with it's head cut off trying to find a place. Ordinarily, that wouldn't be an issue as there is a myriad of housing options in the DC area but we have a child already enrolled in a Falls Church school and we didn't want to move her again 5 weeks after we moved her from her school in FL. Falls Church is a very small town and its own school district. It’s not part of Fairfax, and it’s not part of Arlington. It has the reputation of having fantastic schools. We are also almost at the end of the school year but not quite, so no one is moving. Needless to say, the pickins were extremely slim.

We were hoping to rent a nice little house or a townhouse in the neighborhood between Oakwood and the metro – fat chance! No houses, no townhouses for rent in our school district. I called every realtor that had a For Sale sign asking if the owner would consider renting – nothing. I called condo complexes – no rentals. There were only a handful of apartment complexes in our small area of interest. I called them all. Only one had something close to what we needed within our price range.

This is probably a good place to mention locality pay. Because Paul got a DC assignment and we can’t live in the temporary housing complex (Oakwood) provided by the State Department, he will get what’s called locality pay, which is 25% on top of his salary and helps off-set housing costs. This was very good news for us as we are still paying the mortgage on our house in FL and I have yet to find a job. After adding the locality pay we ended up with a housing budget of about $2,000 per month. When we first ran the numbers, I was excited. See, we came from Florida and there you can get a lot of house for $2,000 a month. In DC – not so much. We looked at a couple of very nice complexes that had beautiful two-bedrooms but at $2,500+ per month they were out of our price range, so we had to settle for the one remaining option we could afford – Merril House apartments.

It’s an old complex that has seen better days but our apartment is a three bedroom, so we will have more space for visitors – yey! The kitchen is small with old appliances and limited cabinet space but it will have to do. The bathrooms are pretty dated too but otherwise the place is not bad. It’s pretty roomy and there are a lot of closets. We also get new windows, new linoleum and new carpet, oh my!  We are happy about the new windows because that means energy efficiency but linoleum’s not my thing and I am not a big fan of carpet because it gets nasty and there’s really no way to clean it well. Plus I am not sure which is better: older carpet with nastiness built in or the new carpet smell that doesn’t go away for months. We are also going to get a washer and dryer - in our apartment- for an extra $65 per month. And we’ll have a bright red accent wall in the living room! I just keep telling myself “It’s the little things that make all the difference.”

As far as Nia is concerned the new place is terrific because it has a pool and a koi fish pond. We are thrilled about those too because we will get to use a pool that we don’t have to maintain for a change and enjoy pet koi fish that we don’t have to buy or take care of – awesome!

Anyway, we signed the lease tonight and are moving (again) on Saturday. So we won’t be homeless after all!

The second mixed blessing is that we will get all of our household effects (aka HHE), so we will get to use our furniture, pots, pans, plates and glasses, sheets, towels, books, toys, etc while we are in DC. The only catch is that it may take a while.  The earliest is a week but it could take a month or more.

That is a little less than optimal because as you may recall, when we moved out of our house in FL, we packed pretty much everything but our clothes and some urgently-needed items. Everything else went in long-term storage because we were told that we were moving into a completely furnished apartment with very limited storage.

Now we have to move into a completely unfurnished one and are looking at spending a week to a month (0r two) with no furniture.  I mean no beds, no table, no chairs, no sofa, no microwave. Not fun!

We did bring our TV, not because it was an urgently-needed item but because the movers couldn’t guarantee that it would survive the move, so we got that going for us. And an inflatable mattress. So I guess we are going back to the mattresses. Unless, I take a trip to IKEA, where I may find solutions to some of my problems…and Swedish meatballs…

But wait, there’s more - we may also be incommunicado (or should it be incommunicadi because there are three of us?) for a couple of weeks because Verizon FIOS said it would take them that long to connect our cable/internet. So, if you see me hanging around the Oakwood parking lot or playground with my laptop in tow, you’ll know why.

Monday, April 26, 2010

Flag Day

I am sorry my previous blog post was so brief but we had to literally run off after the Flag Day ceremony was over and rush to BWI because we had a 7:30 p.m. flight to Chicago, which we almost missed thanks to the horrendous DC traffic.

We just got back from a wonderful family weekend in Chicago and I have an admission to make: I am a Foreign Service( FS) blog addict. I was away from my laptop for two days and we were pretty busy with celebrating Paul’s parents’ anniversary and his mom’s birthday but I fell like a fish out of water because I was unable to read the updates on the 20 or so FS blogs I have been following religiously lately. I felt very disoriented and disconnected but this is a post about Flag Day, so let’s get to it…

So Flag Day is a really big deal for those in A-100 and their families. It was pretty formal and there were a bunch of senior FS officers present including several ambassadors. It was held at the Foreign Service Institute (FSI) in Arlington at 3:30 p.m. We had to be there an hour in advance in order to check in and get settled. Paul and his classmates had been on a tour of the CIA headquarters in the morning. They met us at FSI before the ceremony, which was held in a nice new auditorium. At the front of the auditorium on a table were the flags of all the posts. Paul and his classmates were sitting up front together but separate from the families. Nia and I were in the first row behind Paul and his classmates with a couple of other spouses with  little kids. The kids lost interest in the ceremony almost instantly and we had to find ways to keep them entertained and quiet.

The atmosphere was festive but the anxiety in the room was so thick you could cut it with a knife. The head of the Career Development Office opened the ceremony and introduced the guests. I can't speak for everyone but I personally was so nervous that I had a hard time focusing on the opening notes. I couldn’t wait for them to get to the flag part when each post is called (randomly), followed by the position and the name of the officer that got it. The officer goes to the front, gets their flag and a folder with information about the job, poses for a picture and returns to their seat.

When they finally got to that part of the ceremony, I took out my well-used copy of the bid list and started checking off the positions as they were called, not so much because I had to know where everyone was going (let's face it, I didn't know many of Paul's classmates) but because otherwise I would have completely fallen apart. This gave me something to do other than freak out, which I did anyway. And it was a good thing I had something to do because Paul was the third to last person to get called. It was so nerve-wracking to hear all of our high, medium and low bids get called one by one that I could barely stand it. The husbands of the ladies I was sitting with didn't get called until almost the very end either, so when there were only a handful posts left, we just would look at each other after every name and say, "There's not a lot left. Where are we going?"

By the time they got to Paul, I was seriously hyperventilating. The husbands of the other three ladies were called - one went to China, the other to Brazil and the third to New Zealand. All awesome posts! Even though I had the list in front of me, I was lost. That's because of the DC positions. There were 8 of them and their names were all acronyms, so I just lost track of them after a while. Instead of trying to figure out which is which, I decided to write the names of the people that went to DC in a separate area of my sheet, which I did but it messed up my tracking because I didn't realize there were still a couple of DC positions left.

Then the announcer started talking about a really cool job in DC (he didn't really do that for the other jobs) and then I remembered. This was one of the two DC jobs we had bid high. It was a high-profile one-year eDiplomacy job working with the White House and several other organizations on the launch of a new human rights website. Then I was like, "I bet this is us!" Paul looked back at me and we exchanged the "This is us." glance. Then we heard his name. He got up and went to get his flag. I jumped up and started yelling something (I don’t remember exactly what but it was something enthusiastic).  Nia, who was drawing on the floor with the other kids, heard my outburst and ran over and started jumping with me but was perplexed.

"Where are we going, Mommy?", she asked.
"We are not going anywhere, Honey! We are staying!"
That confused her even more. "We are staying? How come?"

I guess we had talked so much about going overseas that we hadn't really discussed with her that staying was an option too. So I explained to her what had happened and by then Paul was coming back with the DC flag. Nia grabbed the flag and gave him a big hug and a kiss.

And that was pretty much it. We snapped a few quick photos, thanked our CDO, congratulated our friends on their assignments and headed for the airport.

We are still absorbing the information and figuring out what's next. We are uber happy with Paul’s assignment. There were people in Paul's class that wanted to go overseas immediately but we didn't mind staying in DC for a while. We had missed it while we lived in Florida and were enjoying reconnecting with family and friends and hanging out in the area. We also have a few things that we wanted to take care of before we went overseas (like our house of Florida and some family matters) and this will give us some time to tie loose ends.

But there's a lot to do. First, I have about a week to find us a new place to live because Paul's training over in a week and we'll be "kicked out" of Oakwood Falls Church. Well, not really but they will stop covering our rent there and at $139 per day (!!!), we clearly can not afford that place. We also have to take all of our furniture and other stuff out of storage, because after Paul's training is over, they won't pay to store our things anymore. And once we are moved and unpacked, I will have to join the ranks of the millions of job seekers out there and find me a meaningful job because this is a terrific opportunity but Paul took a significant pay cut to join the Foreign Service, I had to leave my job behind in Tampa and we are still paying the mortgage on our house in FL, so financially this is a little step back but hopefully well worth it.

Oh, and I almost forgot, we get to do the bid list thing in a couple of months all over again, sans the Flag Day extravaganza. That's because they start staffing positions about 12 months before they open up and since Paul's DC assignment is one year, we'll have to start thinking about the second one almost immediately.

So, wish us luck finding a new place and a job for me and stay tuned for more drama...

Here are some pictures:

My Foreign Service Badass husband, all the flags, and Paul getting his DC flag.
flag day and Chicago 018 flag day and Chicago 034  flag day and Chicago 056

Our friends the Shows (Jason, Carrie, Mackenna and Maia – heading to Recife, Brazil at the end of the year), Nia, Mackenna and Maia, the kids drawing on the floor during the ceremony.
flag day and Chicago 021 (2) flag day and Chicago 030 flag day and Chicago 052

Everyone waving their flags at the end of the ceremony, the Swiders with the DC flag, and a picture of the Swider clan in Chicago.
flag day and Chicago 058 flag day and Chicago 060flag day and Chicago 063

Saturday, April 24, 2010

And the Swiders are going to...

... stay in DC for a year.

Anticlimactic, I know, at least as far as Flag Day stories go but we are thrilled with the outcome. I will give you the play by play in a separate post complete with pictures on Monday because right now we are in Chicago celebrating Paul's parents' 60th wedding anniversary and his Mom's birthday.

So, stay tuned...

Thursday, April 22, 2010

The Guessing Game

Tomorrow is Flag Day, the day we find out where in the world we are going to live for the next two years. We have been stressing out about it but I decided to mix it up a bit and make the last day of waiting fun. So I am asking you, our friends, to guess where we will end up.

Unfortunately, the State Department doesn’t allow us to share the complete bid list publicly but I can tell you that it includes 103 openings in 52 countries all over the world (including the US and excluding Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan). You can find a few more hints as to what countries are in the list in my earlier blog entries: Bid List and Easter and More Bid List Jitters.

So what do you think? Guess right and you get couch surfing and a dinner on us at our first post, wherever that may be…

Friday, April 16, 2010

Daddy's at a sleepover

So, Paul is at a retreat with his Foreign Service classmates in WV. It's part of their training. I guess it's a team-building, bonding-in-the-woods kinda thing. He left yesterday and is coming back tonight. Before he left, he explained to Nia that he was going to be gone overnight for work.

This morning as we were waiting for her school bus, Nia told her new best friend's dad very excitedly, "My daddy is at a sleepover with his work friends."

I thought it was so cute and so the way a six-year old sees the world that I had to share.

Wonder if they had any pillow fights?

Thursday, April 15, 2010

More Bid List Jitters

After much deliberation, we finalized and submitted our bid list on Monday 4/12, a day before it was due.  There were 103 posts on our list and 93 people in Paul’s class, so there were a few extra posts. We bid high on  57  of the 103 posts on the list, which is unusual – most people had 5-10 highs. Our medium bids were 18, and the low 28.

So, our part with the bid list process is done. It’s all out of our control now but we all know that I get a little bajigity when I am not in control. As a result, I have been in the doldrums for the last couple of days – worried sick about our first post.

Where will they send us? When would we have to leave? Would we have to learn a new language (which would be cool)? What would life be like at post? Will it be interesting? Safe? Polluted? Overcrowded? Buggy? Will we get a decent home? Do I need to worry about the water, malaria, healthcare? What about schools? Will I have to home school, which I will do if I absolutely have to but I’d rather not because want to be “nice mommy” and I just don’t think I will be “nice mommy” if I have to home school. Will there be anything meaningful for me to do there (other than home school)? Is there anything else that I should worry about?

All kinds of crazy scenarios are spinning in my head – some very neat, some outright scary. So I have to do periodic sanity checks. Read every Foreign Service blog I can get my hands on. They all seem to suggest that we’ll be just fine. Look at our bid list for the zillionth time. Did we miss anything? Will we be OK at any of our high bids? Based on our research, yes. How about the medium ones? Yeah, those will be fine too. The lows? Hmmm, those will take some serious getting used to but we can make the best of them too.

So, why am I so verklempt? You would think that I would find all this information reassuring and calm down until we find out where we are going next Friday (aka Flag Day). Not so much. Because there’s no closure until we get that little flag next week.

We talked to Paul’s Career Development Officer (CDO) last week. Very nice lady. She referred to me as Paul’s Peace Corps “souvenir” from Bulgaria. I didn’t terribly mind, in fact I thought it was kinda cute. Paul was not amused.

Anyway, Paul’s CDO was trying to sell us on Mexico. She said she served there and loved it. And don’t get me wrong, we think Mexico is a wonderful place too – we’d love to learn Spanish and experience all the culture, history and food one day. Just not now. All the drug-related violence there is making us both extremely nervous. And there are 14 Mexico posts on our list, 10 of which are along the infamous border. She told us to pick one of the border posts that we were OK with and let her know which it was, in case they need to send us to the border. That kinda sent chills down my spine but what are ya gonna do? They need to fill those spots and we have repeatedly said we are worldwide available.

Oh, I almost forgot, the CDO didn’t think we were “Paris people”! I had a total Whiskey Tango Foxtrot moment at that!!! True, we don’t speak French but that is not required for one of the Paris positions. Plus, we can so totally be Paris people! She did not seem convinced…(Mental note to self : Persuasion skills – rusty. Need to practice!)

So now you know why I am still fretting, and obsessing, and nail biting and pen chewing.

This has been a hard post to write under the circumstances but now that I have spilled my guts, I feel better. Whew!

Maybe this blogging instead of therapy thing is working after all…

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Bid list and Easter

It’s been a week since I last wrote here and with the bid list and Easter there’s been a lot of excitement in our family.

We got the bid list last Wednesday and have been obsessing about it ever since. There were a couple of surprises. Not only was Bulgaria not on the list but neither were any of the neighboring countries :-( ! The closest countries are Bosnia, Kosovo, Moldova and Russia and we’ll bid high on them all. There was a silver lining though and that was the presence of some developed countries on the list, which we didn’t anticipate – France, Belgium, Austria, Norway and New Zealand. I know these would suck badly but we’ll sacrifice and bid high on them anyway. In addition, there are a bunch of other cool countries like Thailand, China, Malaysia, Egypt, Brazil, Bahrain, Oman, etc. that we are bidding high on as well. Our low bids will go to places that don’t have schools or have serious security issues. Our bid lists are due on 4/13 and we find out where we are going on 4/23.

On Thursday, I attended the spouse training at the Foreign Service Institute in Arlington. It was really neat to see the place where Paul and his classmates are polishing their Foreign Service  Badassery. It felt very much like a college campus. The people that are in their first 5 weeks of training (aka A-100) are really easy to spot because they look like penguins in their formal attire. The remainder of the training, language and functional, is a lot more casual.

The spouse training was very informative. We had a variety of presenters that gave us advice and information on what’s ahead. There were sessions on employment options for spouses, education for children, medical concerns as well as bidding strategies. Getting to know the other spouses and hearing their stories was another nice aspect of the training.

Friday, Nia and I made kozunaci (Easter Breads) – messy but a lot of fun. They turned out pretty good considering how vague the recipe was about when several key ingredients were to be added.

Saturday and Sunday were spent coloring eggs, hiding eggs, looking for eggs, eating too much and hanging out with family and friends from Bulgaria that we hadn’t seen in a long time.

Making Kozunaci and an Easter egg hunt at our apartment complex.

  Kozunak 3-3-2010 004 Kozunak 3-3-2010 005  Easter 005 Easter 008

Coloring eggs with our friend Boryana and her boys Dante and Victor; at a playground with our University of Maryland Bulgarian friends Nevena, Hristo and Zhana and H&Z’s son Alex; egg hunt at the home of Paul’s oldest brother Ray; and my two eager students getting ready to head out to school.

Easter 012Easter 014Easter 018 Easter 027

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