I’m sorry, U.S. Mission China

As you probably know, we are in the middle of an outbreak of a novel strain of the coronavirus. It’s causing panic in many parts of the world, and mandatorily up-rooting everyone at U.S. Mission China who is under the age of 21. Hundreds of children and parents (but just one parent from each family, since the other probably has to stay behind and continue working, with the exception of the Wuhan consulate which evacuated fully), and other people from the Mission, are going back to the US, not knowing if/when they’ll get to go back and hoping that their spouse and friends stay safe.

Almost everyone in the State Department fears that their post will go on departure status. Departures, whether authorized (you can leave) or ordered (you have to leave), can happen for many reasons, including terrorism, political unrest, violence, natural disasters, and disease outbreaks, among others.  The fear is just: departures are no fun. The uncertainty, figuring out how/if you can take your pet, the sudden change, the general confusion, the threat on your safety/life, the worry; it fucking sucks.

I feel for the Mission China families. Seeing their pain on social media reminds me of my own and brings back a lot of really miserable memories. Fleeing a country that had become home, leaving behind everything and everyone precious to you, travelling for 24+ hours alone with a 10-month old, and trying to find a new normal isn’t easy.

When we evacuated from Dhaka, I didn’t write very much about it because it was so awful. I’ll never forget nearly bursting into tears when our flight landed at O’Hare and the pilot said, “Welcome to the United States of America.” I felt like a huge weight had been lifted from my shoulders. No one here was going to try to kill me.

Little did I know how hard the ensuing nine months would be. That sounds melodramatic, but it was truly the worst time of my life.

Sure, there were some bright spots. It was nice spending time with family and watching M bond with his grandparents. We saw Nate several times and that was always wonderful. I reconnected with some old friends and shopped at Target a lot. Like, A LOT.

But, for the most part, it was horrible. I felt so alone. I had not only completely overestimated my ability to make friends, but also how receptive people in a small town in middle America would be to an outsider like myself. I tried to make friends, but, for the most-part, nothing stuck.

About five months into our departure, my mom moved to a lovely town on Lake Michigan. Once we started spending most of our time with her, I finally started to feel like myself again (although, still, no friends) and I could see the light at the end of the tunnel.

We facetimed with Nate every day. Whenever he didn’t respond, I immediately started worrying. Nothing bad happened in Dhaka after we left, thankfully, but that’s also enormously frustrating.  No one can see the future, but the fact that we would have been safe had we stayed still bugs me.

Hopefully we’ll never have to do another departure again. I’m glad that chapter of our lives is finished. But we always plan for the worst, and hope for the best.

The polarities of Foreign Service life

I wrote this post back in November of 2018 but I could never bring myself to publish it because it seemed like I would be jinxing myself. I almost published it when we were leaving Oman, but I just couldn’t. I’m glad I didn’t because then I’d think I had jinxed us. Turns out shit happens whether you tempt fate or not.

Without editing or further ado…

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.” While this quote was used by Charles Dickens to describe 1700’s London and Paris, it also applies to life in the Foreign Service. We only have about 8 months left here in Oman, and the past year has been absolutely amazing. That’s in stark contrast to our Dhaka tour, which ended up being a complete shit-show.

This got me thinking about life in the Foreign Service and all of the ups and downs. Sometimes it’s fun and fancy, full of incredible adventures, while other times it’s literally the stuff of nightmares. (Keep in mind, we’ve only been doing this since 2015, and there are a lot of more experienced voices out there than mine.) The same could be said for life anywhere, but sometimes you have to accept more risk to get more reward. Some of the best and worst times of my life have happened since joining the FS, most of them directly caused by our choice to live this lifestyle, which gives us so much, but also takes away a lot.

You never really know what you’re going to get. That’s a risk that we, as a family, are willing to take. For now, anyways.

Over the past year, we’ve done so many amazing, incredible things, and I wouldn’t trade any of it for the world. Watching M grow into a little boy who loves the water and hiking, strolls around the Muttrah souk like he owns the place, loves his nanny and his teachers, begs to FaceTime with his grandparents, and runs to the door shrieking “Let’s go on an adventure!” is absolutely priceless. We are so very lucky to have the opportunity to live in Oman, and we appreciate the good times like they might never happen again. (Fingers crossed, knock on wood, etc. that nothing catastrophic happens here over the eight months)

Then look at our experience in Dhaka: it was fine, great in fact, until it turned into a descent into literal  hell. It started with an Italian NGO worker getting shot to death outside of the grocery store that we shopped at every week and then a few months later one of the local staff at the embassy was hacked to death with a machete in his apartment. A few months after that was the terrorist attack at Holey Bakery, which resulted in the quick departure of over half of the embassy community.

Maybe I’m putting the cart before the horse writing about how great Oman has been, because things could turn on a dime. But even then, we still would have had the past 14 months of pure awesomeness. Things were never awesome in Dhaka. Our best times were spent hanging out with our friends in each other’s houses, and on vacation in other countries. We never got to experience the real Dhaka or Bangladesh.

I suppose that all of this is to say that I’m grateful for life’s upswing that we’ve had here. We’ve been lucky, and we know it. Maybe Oman was our cosmic payback for enduring Dhaka, but we are very cognizant of how good we’ve had it over the past year. Bracing for our next tour, we go into it hoping for the best. But in the back of my mind, there are thoughts about how it could go wrong and what contingency plans we’ll need. Nate will continue to always sit facing the exit in any restaurant we go to, and I’ll always be jumpy about people walking behind me.

Our family motto has been and will continue to be “Plan for the worst, hope for the best.” There’s no time like the present.

Done with Dhaka

We made it! The Dhaka chapter of our lives is over and I couldn’t be happier. What a disappointment and disaster.

We arrived in Dhaka a little over two years ago, and at that time I had so much hope and excitement for what our tour there would hold. It’s kind of incredible to look back at the past two years and how things changed. We’ve been meeting up with lots of friends, rehashing the past two years, and nearly all of them have said, “But, wait. Weren’t you excited to go to Dhaka?”

Yes, yes, we were. We couldn’t wait for Dhaka. Everything was falling into place and we were going to have a fantastic tour. I had an amazing job that fell into my lap, Athena was loving it, we couldn’t wait to travel outside of Dhaka to explore the country, we loved walking around our neighborhood, and things were great. Even if you read my old blog posts from when we first arrived, it was clear we were excited and eager to like Bangladesh.

Instead, sadly, IS and Al-Qaida gained a foothold there and things went to hell in a hand basket fairly rapidly. We probably should have listened to our friend who told us when we were initially bidding that whatever we do, we shouldn’t rank Dhaka high. But, what’s done is done.

And now it’s finally over!

The four of us go for lots of walks and we’re exploring Arlington, revisiting our favorite places in Alexandria, and spending time with friends. It’s amazing and I am enjoying it more than I would have thought possible. For now, life is good.

180 days later

When a post goes into departure status, whether it’s authorized or ordered, the departure can only last for 180 days.  After those 180 days are up, things either go back to how they were and everyone goes back, or post becomes some kind of unaccompanied.  In the case of Dhaka, it’s now partially accompanied with working EFMs only.

So, we aren’t going back.

M is doing fine, thriving, actually; I’m muddling through.

We saw Nate for 19 days in December over Christmas and it was amazing.  M immediately recognized him, probably due to FaceTime. We spent a magical 10 days in Paris and then celebrated Christmas with our families here in the good ole snowy Midwest. The time went by way too quickly and even though Nate only left in the end of December, it feels like so much more than that.

Hopefully the next three months will go by as quickly as December did.  Hey, it’s almost the end of January already!  Hurray for that. I’ll keep drowning my sorrows in wine and venison bacon (seriously, I just ate 4 pieces), and M will keep touching my iPhone screen and saying “Dada.”

Eventually this shit will all be over and we’ll be a complete family again.

Authorized Departure

This is a blog about life in the Foreign Service and to gloss over the bad parts would be unfair.  Yes, there are parties, nannies, and amazing friends, but there’s also terrorism, sheltering in place, and unexpected separation.

M and I are back in the U.S.  The State Department authorized the departure of EFMs from Dhaka shortly after the terrorist attack at Holey Bakery. We left in July, and who knows if we’ll get to go back to Dhaka. I really hope so, but frankly I’ll be surprised if we set foot in the apartment we worked so hard to make our home ever again.

It’s been nice to spend this time with family and to watch M learn to love our families so intensely.  Plus he’s getting to eat corn on the cob, rip up brightly colored fall leaves, play in the Great Lakes, go camping, and do other fun stuff.

We FaceTime with Nate and Athena every day, but this separation is taking a toll on everyone.  It fucking sucks. There’s not really much else to say about it.

So I’ll finish with a word to the wise: no matter how hot the climate of your next post, make sure you take your winter clothes because you never know what could happen.

The new normal

We’ve been back in Dhaka for over two months now, and things here are good.  We have wonderful friends that help us out when we need it, and we are incredibly lucky to have an adoring nanny (ayah) for our son, M.

M is a happy, healthy baby and he seems to have adjusted to life here as well as one could hope for a newborn.  He slept through the New Year’s firework explosions and the recent earthquake, and he usually doesn’t cry too much when we take him out (unless it’s to a restaurant for dinner, then all bets are off).

Athena has adjusted to having a baby brother, and she periodically checks on him and licks his feet.

Things changed a lot here in Dhaka while we were gone.  An Italian NGO worker was murdered right outside one of the supermarkets most expats shop at regularly, in the middle of the diplomatic enclave.  A few days later a Japanese man was killed in another part of Bangladesh.  There was a bombing in Old Dhaka, and another Italian was shot (but not killed, thankfully) in another region of the country.

So we came back to a Dhaka were we are not allowed to walk on the streets anymore, anywhere.  Movement throughout the city is heavily restricted and we can only be out during certain hours of the day.  There are police and guards everywhere.

That picture up there in the blog header?  I took that while I was strolling around on a Saturday afternoon.  That doesn’t/can’t happen anymore, and it really sucks.

Coming back was a difficult adjustment and I’m keeping my fingers crossed that the situation gets better.  In the meantime, Athena has a dogwalker who takes her out in the mornings.  She’s generally happy to see him and every time he rings the door bell to drop her off he’s petting her, so I think that he treats her well.

I was looking through the draft folder of my blog posts, and I had started writing a few posts shortly after we got back in November, but they were all doom and gloom and I never hit “publish.”  I was in a bit of a funk after we got back, and I think I knew I was being unnecessarily negative.  I mean, life is what you make of it, right?

We are making the most of our time here, planning plenty of vacations, and snuggling a lot with M and Athena.  That said, I can not wait to see the bid list for our second post within the next few months.

How to bring a dog to Bangladesh

The most stressful part of the move was, by far, figuring out how to get Athena to Dhaka.  There weren’t a lot of resources available online, and it was hard to figure out exactly what we were supposed to do.  Even so, we were lucky to have the support of the embassy and this was also a huge help.

We decided to use Qatar Airways, and we’d heard generally good things about flying with pets on Qatar. Plus, the route was the fastest available with only one layover.  (Although, if you have a small dog or cat that usually fits under the seat, note that you can’t carry on your pet with Qatar.  The only animals allowed in cabin are service animals and falcons.  Up to ten falcons, in fact.  How does one person even carry ten falcons?)  Our other option was Turkish Airways, and the internet abounds with horror stories about Turkish and pets.  So, Qatar it was.

Here’s the basic timeline that we followed:

3 months before departure: We got Athena’s health certificate and vaccination record from the vet, which we sent to the embassy, along with her rabies certificate, so we could get her no-objection import certificate from the Bangladeshi government. She also got all the vaccinations she’d need over the next few months. At this point I called Qatar Airways just to make sure we could bring our dog with us and to find out more specifics.  They asked what breed she was (the list of breeds they won’t fly is extensive), told me it would cost $250, and said to call back a few weeks before the flight.

2 months: We got Athena’s no-objection import certificate.  It said she was yellow, but she’s black, and when we asked if this would be a problem we were told not to worry.  (I printed copies of this email to take with us on the plane because I was still worried.)

6 weeks: We realized Athena’s rabies certificate would expire while we were there, so she got another rabies vaccination.  We also ordered Athena a new travel crate because her current crate wasn’t quite tall enough for her to stand up perfectly straight and still have a few inches of head clearance.  Besides the new crate, we also purchased a doggy travel crate kit, which included metal nuts and bolts, “live animal” stickers for the crate, travel tags, zip ties, and some other things.  Oh, and at this point we realized Athena would need to go on a diet.  The weight limit for a dog plus crate on Qatar is 32 kilograms, which is 70.5 lbs.  She weighed 48 lbs, and the new crate supposed weighed about 25 lbs. We didn’t start starving her, but her amount of food was decreased by about a quarter.

4 weeks: The new crate arrived and it was massive.  Like, I could fit into it if I wanted. Athena doesn’t mind going into crates generally, but she was wary of this one.  We started leaving pieces of cheese and other things in it to encourage her to go in there on her own, that worked well.  I weighed the crate at it came in at a whopping 26 lbs.  At this point Nate also called Qatar to confirm our reservation and to let them know we were bringing a dog.  They told us to call 15 days before departure with crate dimensions and Athena’s weight. The doggy diet continued.

Here is her crate along with the rest of our luggage (2 huge suitcases, 2 hiking backpacks and 2 carry-on roller bags). The crate was almost the same size as the 6 other bags.

Here is her crate along with the rest of our luggage (2 huge suitcases, 2 hiking backpacks and 2 carry-on roller bags). The crate was almost the same size as the 6 other bags.

(Also, we encountered varying levels of competence when calling Qatar to ask about bringing a dog.  Nate’s strategy was to hang up each time until a woman answered, as the women were typically more helpful than the men.  But the one time I called, a man answered and he was helpful.  So experiences vary here for everyone.)

15 days: Nate called Qatar and officially added Athena to our reservation.  He gave them her breed, crate dimensions, our flight confirmation number, and weight, and they told us to bring her to check-in desk with the rest of our luggage when we checked in for the flight, along with a health certificate dated within 10 days of the flight.  He received a confirmation email, which we printed and took with us to the airport.

5 days: We took Athena to the vet for her new health certificate and to get her teeth cleaned.  She weighed in at 42.8 lbs.  Success!!!

The day before: We took Athena to visit her sister-from-a-different-mister, Mika.  They ran around and played and then cuddled together.  We were trying to tire Athena out so she’d hopefully just rest and sleep on the flight.

The day of the flight: Athena got her breakfast, and that was her last meal before the flight, even though we weren’t leaving until 9 pm.  We went for a nice long walk on King St, and then we brought her to our house one last time while we did some last minute yard work.  We were thinking she’d enjoy the time in the yard, but it was so hot she just wanted to go inside.  She was barred from inside since the cleaners had already come, so instead she flopped down in one of her favorite shady places.

Athena by one of the many shady bushes she likes to lie under.

Athena by one of the many shady bushes she likes to lie under.

On the recommendation of my sister, who had previously flown with her dog, we also bought her a can of wet food for after the flight.  We knew she’s probably arrive dehydrated, and since she hadn’t eaten she’d probably be hungry too, so wet food was a good way to solve both those problems.  Plus, after subjecting her to over 20 hours of travel time, we wanted to show her that we do actually still love her.  Poor girl.

Before leaving, we printed several copies of her flight confirmation, new health certificate, rabies certificate, no-objection import certificate and the email stating it was okay that her color was wrong. We left for the airport 4 hours before our flight was scheduled to leave so we’d have plenty of time to check in. We took her into the airport with us, armed with plenty of treats in case she freaked out, and we checked in our luggage and then they put Athena’s crate on the scale and she hopped on in.  The whole package weighed 32.6 kilograms, which was alright with Qatar (hurray!!!).  A woman who appeared to be in charge of pet shipment came out and looked over her documents and checked to make sure the crate was big enough.  I was so glad we’d purchased the bigger crate…. whew! They photocopied all the documentation, but didn’t attach any of it to her crate. Also, we had to pay $350 instead of $250. Oh well.

After that we walked over to a special screening area, where a TSA agent inspected the crate.  Then we loaded her up, zip-tied the door shut, and she went off with a porter to wherever the dogs go to get on planes.

Upon arrival in Dhaka: We were told she’d come out by the baggage carousel, and, sure enough, eventually she did!  Her crate came out with a luggage worker holding on so it didn’t fall off the carousel.  Nate picked up Athena and her crate as soon as he could, and we were both flooded with relief.  Her little dish with water had fallen and her crate door was still zip-tied shut, so we knew they hadn’t taken her out in Doha.  We had taped a baggie with some of her food to the outside of her crate in case they had a chance to feed her, but when we arrived it was still intact.  So basically she’d been without food and water for who knows how long.  She was panting, but alert and calm, and she started wagging her tail as soon as she saw us, so we knew she’d handled the flight alright.  No one checked any of the documents we’d worked so hard to get (better that than scrutinize them though, so I’ll take it), and we basically just picked up her crate and wheeled it away to the car.

When we got to our apartment we let her have a few sips of water at a time, although she clearly could have drunk several bowls full.  She hadn’t made any messes in her crate, and she was very relieved when she finally had a chance to potty.  Athena was also really excited to get that wet food.

The following days in Dhaka: Now we are dealing with the unexpected (although not surprising) issue of doggy jetlag.  Basically, she wakes up around 3 am, jumps out of bed, and starts wandering around the apartment.  And sometimes she’ll jump back up in bed and just stare at us.

Athena exploring her new roof top.

Athena exploring her new roof top.

Overall, she is adjusting really well to life here.  Lately she’s started trying to drink puddle water, so we will have to start carrying water for her with us on longer walks.  But she doesn’t bat an eye at the rickshaws, motorcycles, stray dogs or crowds of people.

I’m sure there are details that I’ve forgotten, and I’ll update this post as I think of them!

New year, new everything

Happy New Year!

2014 was a seriously awesome year. We went on an amazing trip to Vietnam and Cambodia, Nate changed careers and became a diplomat, we found out we are moving to Bangladesh, I fell in love with running, and we spent a lot of quality time with good friends and family.

Looking ahead to 2015, I don’t think I’ve ever been more excited for what is in store.  I know it won’t be easy or fun 100% of the time, but it is going to be an adventure!

At my office Christmas party, Nate and I were talking to the head of my division, and he said “Friends don’t let friends go to Bangladesh.”

Come on, now.

I realize we’re not going to Paris, or Buenos Aires, or Bangkok, but I’m a firm believer that any given experience is what you make of it. If we go to Dhaka expecting it to be terrible, then that is most likely what it will be.  But we are excited, full of anticipation, and mostly just really happy about this next step in our lives.

A lot is happening this year.  We are going to rent out our house, move halfway across the world (which includes figuring out how to move our 45-pound dog with us), make new friends, travel to new countries, adjust to living in a completely new environment, and I’ll probably get a new job. There are lots of “new’s” thrown in, which is a little scary, but it’s a challenge that we are ready to meet.

Bring it, 2015!  I can’t wait!!!


Experiencing the DC melting pot

My office is in downtown DC, and I love working downtown.  All those things people complain about (tourists, motorcades, metro, etc), I love it all.

The views of the Capitol, Washington Monument, the Lincoln, White House, and the reflecting pond never get old and I smile every time I go by. I go for runs on the mall with a huge smile on my face simply because it’s so pretty.

Yesterday I was yet again reminded of how great it is to work in DC when some colleagues and I went to an event  in the Ronald Reagan building called “Winternational: A Global Celebration of the Season.” The event promised “a sampling of global bites,” and we’ll do just about anything for free food.

We entered the atrium, and there were at least 15 booths set up for various embassies from around the world to showcase local artisans and cuisine.  The first one we came to was Bahrain and, since I was there for the food, I grabbed a little pastry-ish-looking thing.  I chomped down on it, and it was a bit crunchier than I’d expected it to be (don’t worry, there wasn’t a dead bug or something in it).

The next booth we came to was Bangladesh!  I was hoping they would be represented since I love Bangladeshi food.


This was when I realized that crunchy Bahrainian pastry had snapped half my retainer off my teeth.

It was also when my colleague told the woman at the booth that I am moving to Bangladesh next year.  She got a huge smile on her face and wanted to talk about Dhaka, but all I could think about was my damn retainer.  Last week I spent an arm and a leg at the stupid dentist getting the permanent retainer I’d had for 20 years (yes, 20 years) removed and a new one put in.

So I just smiled faintly and pushed my tongue around in my mouth to assess the retainer damage.

I called my dentist and set an appointment for that afternoon to get it glued back on.  I figured that I could bite and chew with the other side of my mouth in the meantime.  Very few things can stop me from eating.

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I don’t know exactly what I ate, but they were both vegetarian and really good!  The triangle-shaped one was like a samosa, and I have no idea what the other fritter-like thing is called.

Other notable food offerings included plates of beef rendang (Indonesia booth), lumpia (the Philippines), amazing coffee (Nepal), macarons and decorate-it-yourself gingerbread men.

This is probably an event they do every year, but this was the first year I knew about it.  If you are in DC in December of 2015, make sure you check it out! (And don’t bite too hard on crunchy pastries if you have recently had dental work done.)

Aladdin Restaurant and Market in Arlington

Just looking at the photos as I was inserting them into this post made me hungry, even though I finished eating a fairly large lunch a few minutes ago.

Anyways, last Friday Nate and his class went to a Bangladeshi market near the FSI, and he sent me a text message with this photo:



He asked if I wanted anything in particular, and I told him to just buy whatever looked good.

Apparently “whatever looked good” was pretty much everything.

We now have enough spice mixes to feed a small army, which is a good thing because that’s approximately how much Nate eats.  Most of the boxes contain two to four packets of spice mix and I can’t wait to use them all!

Well, after the Bangla class went to the market, they went to a Bangladeshi restaurant a few storefronts down called Aladdin Restaurant.  Nate brought back some shrimp curry for me, and it was SO good.  Oh my goodness.  If this is seriously what the food is like in Bangladesh, I’m going to be in such trouble.

Nate was also really excited because Aladdin has an all-you-can-eat lunch on Sundays for $10 per person.  Ten dollars!

We decided to check it out the first chance we got, and we were not disappointed.
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There was a fried leavened bread (I think it’s called porota), tandoori chicken, potato curry, daal, cauliflower curry, spicy eggs, goat curry, and rice. I tried some of everything, and loved it all.

Then I went back and had seconds of everything.  photo 2 (2)For dessert we had this stuff that was like cream of wheat made with lots of butter, sugar and sweet spices.  I would have eaten more, but at that point I was so full that it would have ended badly.

We are pretty lucky that our first post in the Foreign Service is someplace with amazing food.  Someplace with fresh produce year round, lots of spices, and flavorful food.  I love South Asian food, and I seriously can’t wait to get to Dhaka!