26 November 2010

House Help in the Foreign Service

If you are are considering the Foreign Service, no doubt you relish in the idea that your middle-class bureaucrat salary might afford you a great deal of house help in many posts.  I certainly do.  From an early age my two practical benchmarks of success were: 1) paying someone else to clean my house, and 2) having an office big enough for a couch where I could sneak in a 20-minute nap for lunch.  #2 is still far off, as I could probably touch one elbow to each side of my interview window in Santo Domingo -- without stretching.

Anyway, this post is about house help, and now that I have a few months under my belt of being posted abroad maybe I will add a few blog posts in the near future.

Right, house help.  I read other blogs that described the need to train house help to follow an American style of cleaning, organizing, shopping, child care. etc.  I thought, that make sense, but it can't be too bad.  Well, I'm not saying it's bad, but it certainly is frustrating, and above all else a cultural adjustment. In the Dominican Republic most everyone in the middle class and up seems to have at least one house "empleada" who comes several times a week to help with the house work. Some salaries I've heard are down right pathetic, amounting to less than 150USD per month for a full-time live-in maid.

Being all for human rights and a good living wage, but also having recently graduated from law school with some hefty debt, we ran the family budget number and determined that we could get away with hiring a full-time live in maid.  Sweet! We also figured we could pay her a good wage by Dominican standards, at least 50% higher than what a Dominican family would pay her. Pay her well, as she'll be happy; and we'll be happy, I thought.

First attempt: crash and burn.  Within a month she was asking for more money, insinuating that she was doing a lot more work than in her old job and we ought to pay her more. (In retrospect this appears to be a common Dominican cultural trait - I think the consensus is it can't hurt to push the boundaries a little.)  Having worked for other American families, her work was outstanding.  But - and I hate to put it this way - it was like she had been spoiled. Her previous employer had been a man with a small child, no pets, and a wife who was out of the country a lot.  After that first appeal for more money, things got awkward.  Every week or so, there was a petition for more money for some reason or another. She would stand in the kitchen and stare at us when she didn't have a particular task.  She lost her keys and I had a little voice in my head wondering if their was an ulterior motive.

I think what happened is that Dave and I are entirely unaccustomed to having help live in our house.  It's hard to have someone in your house all day, nearly every day when you have a work relationship.  We offered her one of our extra bedrooms instead of the service quarters because it was nicer and air conditioned.  As a result, our only private space was our bedroom, and even not that during the day.  Both of us are solidly middle-class, maybe towards the upper end, but have never experienced having live-in help.  Ultimately, it became too much.  We ended up letting her go, and have subsequently hired someone who comes three days a week.
Certainly, I miss the comfort of knowing I only had to walk my dog twice a week.  I miss that I didn't have to raise a finger after dinner to clean the dishes.  I love my husband dearly, but her seriously shirks disk duty after dinner. *Sigh* Our new empleada is extremely efficient too, but a little slow to pick up our preferred methods of cleaning and organizing.  I am happy to say we are still paying a good wage by Dominican standards.

The next challenge for us will be considering a nanny.  Dave and I have gotten out for an evening a total of twice since we've gotten here, and it may be that as I settle into my life as a Foreign Service Officer, I will need the ability to attend functions on short notice.  There are invitations for representational events that come around for that evening, or the following evening, which right now I fell dis-inclined to take.  Since I'm the newbie no one cares much, but there will probably be a point where I need to start going to these functions; and I would like to get out and meet people outside of the visa interview setting.

My heart panics a little when I think about having a near stranger come to live with us and care for my son. But it is hard to find a good babysitter, since nannies are the standard here -- or the housekeeper sometimes keeps an eye on the kids.  If Dave decides to start working, we will probably recruit someone, but the process and the potential pitfalls still scare me.  Our first experience with a live-in was awkward, at best.  At least next time, we will have our list of lessons learned. At least one Senior Foreign Service Officer has assured me, "You get used to it."

31 July 2010

Ready for the Dominican Republic

Tuesday we leave for the Dominican Republic.  I am happy to say that Spanish class is a thing of the past, and the Consular training flew by in six short weeks.  Highlights included a visit to the DC Medical Examiners, numerous mock visa interviews, and some crisis management that gave me the chance use those high school drama club skills!

Somehow I managed to get our visas, submit the paperwork to ship our car, arrange for pack-out number two, figure out what Dave needed to ship the pets, and check-out of FSI and Main State without screwing something up.  There were a few moments where we were close to fouling up the whole process.  But we made it, and I hope nothing has been forgotten.  Here are my tips:

1. If you car is registered in Virginia, or in any state that has electronic titles, it may take several weeks to several months to get a paper copy.  Luckily were were able to use something called a title transcript that cost us 25 dollars and was accepted by the shippers.

2.  Know the restrictions and rules on shipping pets to your country of destination.  Like the back of your hand.  I'm not kidding.  We spent hours and hours making sure we were right about the regulations so we could straighten out our pet shipper.  She was confused about what was required for the Dominican Republic and the airlines.  It would have cost us an additional 300.00 dollars if we did it her way.  The main hang-up was the USDA certificate of health and whether or not we needed a countersignature.  We didn't, I think.  Mostly it is needed for the European Union.  Although we checked with the US Embassy in the DR, the DR's own Embassy here in DC, the agriculture service in the DR and the airlines, the shipper still insisted.  I hope we are right.

3.  Another note on the dogs: if your dog is taller than 10 inches and it is summer when you fly, remember that almost all airlines will not fly warm-blooded creatures if the temperature is over 85 degrees.  We decided to ship the dogs as cargo to avoid potentially being grounded while we wait for the temperature to fall.  It is a little scary because it means we are leaving before them, not traveling with them, and have to hope that they arrive safely in one piece.  And it is more expensive.  But I'd rather not be late for my first day at the Embassy because it was too hot for the plane to take off.

4. About the pack-out.  There are a lot of things you can take with you to a new post, even if it is not a consumables post.  If you only plan to ship 5,000lbs of stuff, take the opportunity to buy non-perishable things like dried spices, shampoo, kids toys, etc. Usually the allowance is 7200lbs to post.

You'll likely hear from me more now that we are actually getting ready to depart to post.  However, the rumor is that we often start business at the Embassy as early as 7:00.  Yesh.  We'll see how motivated I am to blog at the end of the day.


24 May 2010

So much to do, maybe enough time?

Well, we're about 2 months out from becoming ex-pats. It's crazy. On one hand I'm so excited to leave this city and country behind and start our new life, but on the other I'm kinda nervous. I mean, will I like life in Santo Domingo? Is my Spanish good enough? Will I find a job I like? Will our house be nice? Will I make friends? All un-nerving questions, IMHO, because I won't really have a support network over there (with the exception of the wife and kid, of course). Though it's doubtful, I could end up hating the Diplomatic lifestyle all together.

We have about 342,579 things to get accomplished before we leave, and about that many things to do when we get there. A lot of them are meaningless busywork, some are extremely important, and all of them have to get done in order for our transition to be a smooth one.

Some examples:

1) Arrange for vaccinations for us and the dogs.
2) Arrange for boarding and transportation of the dogs, as they will not be traveling with us.
3) Purchase international auto insurance.
4) Arrange for shipment of our vehicle.
5) Arrange a date for pack-out (This is the process by which the Gov't places our stuff into boxes, then into crates, then onto boats, then ships it to us. This can take 2-3 months.).
6) Buy our plane tickets to the D.R. via Puerto Rico.
7) Say goodbye to our families and friends (with an open invite to come visit us).
8) Arrive in the D.R., get our bearings, settle in our new house.
9) Arrange for cable, internet, phone, and mobile phone service. Preferably all with one company.
10) Hire house help.

The list goes on. Unfortunately, since I am not in full-time training/class/obligations, I am going to be responsible for most of this. It's funny how our roles have reversed since my wife got this job. She used to handle all of the finances and busy-work (since she's more detail-oriented), but I've kind of sidled into that role as of late. I don't think my wife has a clue to our bank account's balance now (except that it's a little lower than we'd like).

We also have lives: my son and I are going to Cape Cod for 12 days in late June, my wife and I are going to a wedding on July 4th weekend, my wife has to go out to Seattle to scatter her Mom's ashes in Puget Sound, etc. All of these factors make the task of moving overseas particularly daunting. Why does the adventure of a lifetime have to be SO MUCH WORK?

I have given myself the task of parsing down our belongings here in temporary housing. I can really only think of like 10-12 items that we've acquired since November as "indispensable." The rest will be sorted into "keep" or "toss" and dealt with accordingly. Then we need to look at winter clothes... do we bring them with us to a place where the lowest EVER recorded temperature was like 70° F. Don't think I'm going to be needing that wool jacket or my stockpile of wool sweaters. North Face shell is coming with me b/c it's the most waterproof jacket I've ever owned. Might need that during rainy season.

What I'm really looking forward to is the return of my audio gear. Those of you reading this who know me know I loves me some stereo gear. I've been without my stereo set-up for 7 months now, and I still have like 5 months until I see it again. These little Klipsch speakers I'm using now are quite good for computer speakers, but I really want to listen to my vinyl on my vintage gear again. I can't wait.

Overall, I'm beginning to feel a little impatient and a lot nervous about our move. Mostly, it's about the little things, but the big picture is looming in the wings. I think we're all tired of being in this "holding pattern." Getting a set departure date will help, but I still see myself freaking out a little until we land safely in Santo Domingo. Come on August... I can't wait to see you!

29 April 2010


We applied for our passports last week. It was, well, an adventure. We went to Main State with another family in the hopes that the kids would entertain one another. That definitely worked, but neither of them (both being about 2) have mastered their "inside voices" yet.

Process is this:

1) Fill out application (2 if, like me and Aidan, you don't already have a valid passport).
2) Print application, BUT DO NOT SIGN!
3) Print your TM-1.
4) Try to find all of the documents you think you'll need (i.e. birth cert(s)., SS card(s), marriage certificate, etc.). Put everything in a folder the night before, pray that you remember it the next day.
5) Go to Main State for pictures. Wait in unbearably hot room for your name to be called. Take photos, receive pictures.
(Detour) Get wife's commission certificate from HR. Get hopelessly lost in the process.
6) Go to passport office, get in line.
7) Realize you don't have sufficient copies of all of your documentation. Frantically make copies on copier helpfully located in passport office.
8) Corral young child from making the bureaucrats' lives any more painful.
9) Complete oaths, signatures, payments, child wrangling, surrender your documents (i.e. birth cert[s].) until passports are ready for pick-up.
10) Wait patiently for about 2 weeks.

That's pretty much it. It's stressful with a family, but I'm sure a breeze for single or childless folks - much as it is in all facets of life.

1 more week, and my son and I will have black passports. It's getting a lot more real.

Hasta luego.

19 April 2010

The Foreign Service Lifestyle

First, a huge "Disculpenos, por favor" for the lack of a post in what, like 4 months now? Busy could sum up our current life right now.

Spring has sprung in D.C., and with it so have departures. Seems like every week someone we know leaves for faraway lands. Last Thursday we said farewell to our across-the-hall neighbors who were very helpful in our initial assimilation into Oakwood and the FSI life. They're off to Costa Rica, and you can follow their adventures here.

Early next month, one of my few friends from FSI is leaving for Madrid. Some of Joanne's friends are departing soon as well, and well, we're all going our separate ways. I'd like very much to stay in touch with all of them, but I'm going to assume that will be difficult. Thank god for Facebook and Skype.

We're getting a lot closer to our departure date. I just received an email from Joan saying that she's going to propose 8/5. If that's accepted, we'll get our travel orders forthwith. Well, as forthwith as the Federal Government is capable of. She's going to do a couple of consultation days in Puerto Rico (during which Aidan and I may join her), and then it's off to our new home for the next 2 years. Stress levels for me are way high right now, and I believe they will continue to be until we've been living in the DR for a couple of months. There are so many logistical things to take care of that it's kind of daunting for me. Joanne traveling with me will make it a LOT easier, but uprooting everything, going to a country where little English is spoken, and starting over is a big deal.

Luckily, Joan is progressing through Spanish at a rapid clip, having a little trouble with the subjunctive and its uses, and I have dropped out of full-time FSI Spanish, choosing instead to self-study at home, get a mentor (or two, as is my fate), and volunteer at the Hispanic Committee of Virginia to keep improving my Spanish. At the HCVA, I hope to give one-on-one counseling to Latino immigrants who are starting their own businesses in areas such as advertising, marketing, employment issues, etc. That will be a good lexicon for me to become familiar with.

That's about all for now... more to come as we figure out this upcoming change.


17 December 2009

The Color Commentator

This is the moniker my wife has given me w/r/t this blog. And apparently she thinks I suck at my job, as she was harassing me the other night for not posting enough. Know what? She's right. I need to be more a of Jerry Remy to her Don Orsillo than a Tim McCarver to her Joe Buck.

See, in baseball broadcasts, you have the play-by-play guy and you have the color guy. The play-by-play guy is matter-of-fact, calling the game as he sees it. This is Joanne. She's going to describe what getting thru A-100 and language training is like. How hard it is to join the Foreign Service. What a pain-in-the-ass the Security Clearance is. The color guy, on the other hand, is supposed to come up with factoids and anecdotal stuff to enhance the normally-boring straight description of the game. He brings up stats, injects humor, and otherwise provides little trinkets of information that wouldn't usually be available to the casual fan. I'm the color guy, and I've been asleep in the booth for the past few innings (a lot like Harry Caray used to do).

So here's a maelstrom of trivial and anecdotal information compiled thru detailed scientific research which I hope you will find interesting and useful. (No animals were harmed in the making of this list)

1) The basic kitchen setup at Oakwood sucks. SUCKS. You get really basic stuff (plates, glasses, silverware, some utensils). You also get a knife block containing six of the world's dullest knives. If you like to cook, bring your own gear and put the crap that passes for kitchen equipment here in the closet until you leave. You may thank me later.

2) Our apartment doubles as a sauna. Or a greenhouse. We face south and are on the top floor. When the sun shines, the temperature in here easily goes up to 85+ degrees. Opening the window does nothing. Opening the balcony door does too much. Joanne likes to joke that I'm secretly in training for life in the D.R. (it's a tropical freaking island). I don't find the humor in sweating all day every day while home. Still trying to find a solution for this.

3) The two supermarkets closest to Oakwood FC are atrocious. Dirty, poorly stocked, and just unpleasant to shop in. This, however, doesn't prevent me from shopping there. While both are under a half mile away, it takes 15 minutes to get to them. So going much further to a nice supermarket is a little unreasonable, especially when I typically have a small child in tow.

4) The existence of the Eden Center in our back yard is awesome at every moment of the day except between 5:45 and 6:00 a.m. when the garbage trucks come through and make a hell of a racket. It never fails to wake our son up. Not cool.

5) Snow. Seriously, Virginians. You don't have to panic and go to Target and buy 3 scrapers, a snow shovel, 2 emergency blankets, 10 chem lights, 3 gallons of arctic-grade windshield fluid, Coleman stove, and a huge honkin' car emergency kit for your car when 1-2 inches are forecast. A Southern friend told me, however, that it's not the apocalypse until all the bread and TP are sold out with the threat of some flurries. There's snow in the forecast for the weekend, better stock up.

6) Parking spaces. They're tiny. Cross into the District or MD, and they regain their normal width. In VA, however, they're about 6" narrower than in any other part of the country. This is truth.

That's all for today, I guess. I'll try to keep up with this blog a little more and wow you with more Tales from NoVA.

06 December 2009

We are off to the Dominican Republic!!

Flag Day, 2009.  Flag day is a tradition in the Foreign Service Officer orientation class.  It's truly an amazing moment.  Some people jump and cheer, others suffer temporary shock -- regardless of how they ranked their assigned assignment.  One of my orientation coordinators share this fantastic story (paraphrased):

"I ranked H-- at the top of my list. First, actually.  No one else wanted it as much as me.  I told my friends that's where I was going.  I told my entire family.  On flag day they held up the H-- flag, paused, and called my name.  Suddenly, my heart sank.  I felt like my life was over." 

In all fairness, the day does define an FSO's destiny for the next 1-3 years.  In the extreme, it can be the first step in a life-long connection with your post.  After they held up the red and blue flag of the Dominican Republic and called, my name, I felt numb.  By the time I sat down I was already calculating how my family would like it, what it would mean for my language training, and what this meant for my career.  It's silly, but the State Department admits it likes to hire "planners," so I think this is a normal reaction for many of us!!

My conclusion:  Gee, if the State Department wants to send me to a tropical paradise for two years, where the weather is warm, the fruit is plentiful, and my son can be fluent in Spanish before he is 5-years-old, then I'll take it!  I mean, look at the pictures on the official country homepage!

Dave has decided he wants to track down the Boston Red Sox in the Dominican Republic.  David Ortiz, aka "Papi," is from the DR and has a children's foundation that helps fund pediatric critical care: http://www.davidortizchildrensfund.org/.  He's also considering working for the embassy, or maybe just hanging out in a hammock with some Dominican rum.  The way I see it, he has a little equity coming to him from supporting me through law school. 

Tomorrow I start Spanish language training. The introduction to language training they gave us in A-100 "freaked me out" a little bit.  I imagine I'll be fine, but the speech they like to give goes a little like this: "So, if you majored in a language in college you probably got to a 1+ score according to our system.  You might have made it to a 2 if you were really good.  We're going to take you from a 0 to a 3 in six months."   Wow.  And wow.  Well, I'm just grateful that learning a language is part of my job.  They're actually paying me to do this!!!!  Yipee!!!  (Jealous, anyone?)