Saturday, December 9, 2017

Adding a Tiny EFM

So life gets in the way, and I've been bad about posting travel stories/pics lately. But there is a pretty good reason - aside from moving to DC and starting to learn Indonesian. I'm pregnant! Most readers of this blog already know this from real life or Facebook, but I thought I'd share a little bit of my story here. I find out every day there are more and more women considering this path, and I know I wanted to soak up as much information as possible as I made the decision and started the journey. 

I've always known I wanted kids, and I always said that not being married/partnered wouldn't stop me. But actually doing something about it is a long way from thinking about it in the abstract. I had arbitrarily set a timeline of 'mid-thirties' as when I would start seeking other options even if I wasn't with somebody. Then I thought maybe 40 sounded like a better idea, but I think that was fear/comfort with my current lifestyle talking. Then I realized that after Beirut I had the opportunity to bid on somewhere that would enable me to be a single mother, and the more I started thinking and researching, the better it sounded. And then I started talking to people. Around this time I learned the term 'single mother by choice' (SMC or SMBC) and realized there's a whole (global) community of women like me. And there are even a fair amount of them in the Foreign Service. Several of these women were kind enough to share their stories and give advice and support. And when I talked to friends and family I also found unwavering and unreserved love and support and encouragement. Getting assigned to Surabaya was the icing on the cake, and it was time to start moving from thinking to doing.

One FS SMC I spoke with shared her experience going through the process overseas, which I had not previously considered. I had initially thought I'd come back to DC and start the process while in language training. But the more I looked at logistics and finances, the better option seemed to be starting earlier. I started talking to several clinics in Cyprus, which is a fairly popular destination for assisted reproductive options and an easy trip from Beirut. I worked with an OB/GYN in Beirut to do all the preliminary testing and decided to start with IUI (intrauterine insemination), which is less invasive than IVF but also has lower success rates. Given my age and test results, it was a gamble whether it would work (it always is, really), but it was considerably cheaper and worth a try. So last spring I flew over to Cyprus and had a leisurely week's 'vacation' while going to the clinic daily for monitoring. This is the week that my laptop died, so it ended up being the end of a lot of my writing and blogging until I PCSed this summer too). I had the procedure on Thursday, flew back to Beirut that night, and settled in to wait. 

Ten days later I went to Prague for the long Easter weekend, which helped break up the two week wait. I will eventually write about that absolutely perfect weekend. I had promised myself not to take a pregnancy test until two Thursdays later, but I gave in the night before. It was a line test, and at first glance it looked negative, no second line at all. I got disappointed and sad and resigned. But then I looked at it in better light and saw a visible - but still quite faint - line. Cue lots of Googling. I didn't take another test that night but slept fitfully and with a bit of hope and excitement. I took two tests first thing the next morning. One more line test and a digital readout test. The line test was a clearer second line than the night before but still faint. The digital test said in unmissable bright letters: Pregnant. Wow. I went straight to the health unit and had them draw blood for an HCG test and proceeded through the day in a fog. The test came back that afternoon - definitely pregnant. But I was only four weeks along, and there was lots of ground to cover. Two more HCG tests in subsequent days showed that the levels were more than doubling appropriately, so I set up the first OB visit. At six weeks I got to see the developing embryo, but there wasn't yet a heartbeat. But a week later there was. And baby kept developing appropriately over the coming weeks. I got great OB care in Beirut (and more sneak peeks via ultrasound than I would have in the United States, which was a nice bonus for a worried first time mom). I had a rough first trimester - fatigue, nausea, lack of sleep, etc. - but I was so darn happy to be pregnant.

At the start of my second trimester, I PCSed and flew back home. While some of the icky symptoms went away, I still had a lot of being sick. But it was great to be around family and have time to relax and take daily naps as needed during home leave. I strongly recommend this approach to pregnancy! The ensuing months have been filled with alternating feelings of excitement, complete fear and anxiety, and more excitement. I am so glad I've been in language training over the last few months, as the schedule still allows me some flexibility (especially getting to OB appointments), and, while intense, it's less stressful than my previous job. Physically this has been a tough pregnancy with some curveballs, but I'm thankful that everything with the baby continues to look great, and I've got a wonderful medical team. 

I've taken all the classes, bought all the stuff (most of it completely unnecessary, of course), and made all the arrangements for post baby. But now it's time to know and accept that my ability to control everything is about to go out the window and to learn to embrace that. I've been surrounded by extremely positive people - both about my being an SMC and about all things pregnancy and birth and childrearing and breastfeeding and all the good and bad - and know that this support system will make the coming weeks, months, and years possible and wonderful. I love that I have friends and colleagues who will indulge my questions and give me honest - but not terrifying - answers and stories and who don't fall into the judge-y, my-way-or-you're-a-failure parent category that seems so prevalent these days. I hope to be the same. Here's to these final weeks (days?!) of waiting for my new EFM and the many adventures ahead!

(And if you're considering becoming an SMC and want some advice/stories - please feel free to reach out. We all need allies!)

Monday, August 7, 2017

Belgrade Day 1

This winter/spring is a very busy time in our office as everybody takes their R&Rs and preps for a significant transition this summer (more than half our FSOs PCS this summer), so I decided to take advantage of a few days with everybody else in the office and fly to Belgrade. I've been wanting to visit ever since I learned there were direct flights from Beirut for pretty cheap prices. And while an ID renewal almost-kerfuffle made it so I missed out on the $225 tickets, $300 for tickets is still pretty great. The only catch is the timing: the flight from Beirut leaves at 4:00am, which pretty much ensures a night of no sleep. The return will be similarly brutal, arriving at 3:15am on a day I need to work.

I arrived into Belgrade on time at about 6:00am, sailed through immigration, picked up my bag, and met my transfer within 30 minutes of landing. There wasn't much traffic, so I was to the hotel by 6:50 and able to check in early. After a quick shower I caught another three hours of sleep before meeting my tour guide at noon. I debated whether to do a tour this afternoon, but I am so glad I did. The rain held off for 90% of our walking tour, and even then we broke up the heavier showers with a few taxi rides to different areas of the city. I had a really great afternoon and learned a phenomenal amount about Belgrade, Serbia, and the sights we visited. Plus, I got lots of ideas of places to return to (and photograph in sunnier weather) on the final days I'm here.

We started out in Republic Square (and its statue of Mihailo Obrenovic riding a horse) admiring the fascinating architecture on surrounding buildings and walked down Knez Mihajlova, a crowded pedestrian shopping and cafe street. This led us to Kalemegdan Park and then Kalemegdan Fortress, where we spent almost two hours exploring. The layers of history in Belgrade a bit overwhelming: Neolithic,  Celtic, Roman, Goth/Hun, Slav, Byzantine, Bulgarian, Serbian, Hungarian, Ottoman, Austro-Hungarian, Yugoslav, Serbian, with lots of back and forth between them and not necessarily in this order. And Kalemegdan Fortress showcases many of these layers, from the original Roman walls to the Austrian well to the medieval ramparts to more modern buildings. I won't even try to unpack it all here. But there was fascinating history in every corner as well as countless monuments to famous figures. To top it off, the views of the confluence of the Danube and Sava rivers are remarkable. Even with the gray gloom of the afternoon it was picturesque.

This was my first glimpse of the Danube in almost sixteen years. I spent summer after my freshman year in college teaching English in small villages in Hungary and Slovakia. Several weekends I met up in Budapest or elsewhere with friends in the same program, and many of those days and nights we spent traversing the Danube or ended up sitting on its banks, talking long into the night. So I associate the Danube with those carefree, endless summer days and nights.

We visited two of the churches in the fortress complex - one dedicated to the military and the other for Saint Petka.  The military church (Ružica Church) had phenomenal chandeliers made of repurposed bullets, swords, and other weaponry. I didn't get photos, but they were quite remarkable and attractive. Saint Petka's church is neo-Baroque with impressive mosaic frescos and a sacred spring. After some final meandering we exited the Kalemegdan park area and walked by the French and Austrian embassies before visiting St. Michael's Cathedral, just opposite the Orthodox Patriarchy and museum.

The rain started at this point, but we were ready to head across the river to Zemun. Part of 'New Belgrade', Zemun hosts a number of communist-era housing blocs that are familiar to any visitor to Eastern Europe, but the old town is marked by narrow, winding streets and smaller Austro-Hungarian style houses with red roofs. We started in Gardos at the Millennium Tower (1896) and then walked down several sets of winding stairways to the banks of the Danube. Part of the way we walked down with a man who made polite conversation with my guide. He said goodbye and turned into his home. Turns out it was a famed Serbian actor, Dragan Jovanovich!

We walked through the Zemun open green market and browsed a few cafes along the Danube before getting another taxi to go to Skadarlija for a late lunch. Near Republic Square, this cobblestone pedestrian street is lined with Serbian cuisine restaurants with names reminiscent of British pubs. It's also a bohemian area, home to many artists and writers over the years, similar to Montmartre. We chose Tri Sesira (Three Hats) largely due to the live traditional music accompaniment. I tried the tourist favorite Karađorđeva šnicla - rolled pork stuffed with cheese and breaded. It was delicious but heavy. It was also dinner. The rain intensified as we returned to my hotel, and I said goodbye to my fabulous guide. She was knowledgeable, had great English, and really tailored the sites to my interests. Over lunch we realized we're almost the same age and chatted about our families and childhoods. Absolutely lovely. 

It's now 8:00pm and I need to get ready for tomorrow's trip to northern Serbia!

Kalemegdan Fortress

The Danube!


Looking to the Danube

Fortress walls

Lovely bridge



Possibly the outside of the military church if I remember correctly

Perhaps St. Petka's church (outside)


Dinosaur-themed play area at the fortress

French Embassy

Orthodox Patriarchy

Millennium Tower

View of Gardos, Zemun, and the Danube from Millennium Tower

Millennium Tower


A gray but lovely day on the Danube


August

It's a lovely, cool August day in New Hampshire. I'm on home leave and loving the break from work and stress and alarm clocks. The cats are happy to be back here in my parents' house, and we're all enjoying catching up with friends and family.

The absence of posts is partly because my laptop died in April and I didn't get a new one until I got home in July. I could write on my iPad (though I didn't much), but I couldn't put up photos. So now I'm slowly working through thousands of photos from trips to Belgrade, Cyprus, Prague, and London as well as final adventures in Lebanon. More stories to come as well as a more newsy update. Lots has changed in the last few months, and there are some amazingly exciting adventures to come. We head to DC soon for extended training, and while I'm sad to leave home after a blissful summer, I'll be ready to reconnect with that lovely city and more great friends (and restaurants).

I hope you're all having wonderful summers wherever in the world this August finds you.

Sunday, January 1, 2017

The Adventure Continues...

Now that it's officially 2017, I've been paneled, and I've started thinking ahead to the next transition, it's time to share my bidding story.

I lucked into Beirut early in my first mid-level bidding experience and had a handshake two+ months before my colleagues (this job was on the Now list). The few weeks of bidding was stressful, but it didn't last too long. This time, I was encouraged that the bidding cycle was shortened to 'only' six weeks. I can now tell you six weeks is still about four weeks too long. This is particularly true since bidding really started more than a year before with stalking the projected vacancies. I knew there should be good jobs at my absolute dream post (we all have one or two of them) and at several additional close-to-dream posts, but a lot can happen before handshake day. And a lot did, but I'm happy to report that I accepted a handshake on what ended up being my top bid for the cycle.

Several of my colleagues were bidding mid-level for the first time this year, and we formed a support group of sorts, using the slogan "bid with balls". Basically this meant that anytime any of us started to consider putting a 'safe' bid on the list, somewhere we didn't really want to go but probably had a shot at getting, we reminded each other to be strong and go for the jobs that made our hearts sing. I am very happy to say it worked (we all got handshakes on our top bids), but there was stress along the way.

Having formalized my skill code change to consular earlier this year (did I announce that yet?), I was only looking at jobs in Consular Affairs (CA) and overseas. Beyond that my top criteria were learning a new language, going to a 25% or higher differential posting, going somewhere the cats could come, getting a challenging and fulfilling job, having easy options for domestic help, and having some semblance of quality of life. Plus nice housing, decent cost of living, and good availability of fresh foodstuffs. Not being too picky, right?? Even with this seemingly insane list, I had a pretty full (and, in my opinion, realistic) list. My top three bids were in two posts in EAP (East Asia/Pacific), followed by one absolutely amazing opportunity in WHA, and an exciting and challenging job in AF. I would have been ecstatic at any of these posts in any of these jobs, even though my absolute dream job (see above) fell off the list early on.

I had early consultations with CA and interviews with several posts (two of them consultative staffing positions requiring Post concurrence on CA's pick for the job, and one of them to learn more about a job that I had not considered but completely fell in love with), and all went well. A week before bids were due I spoke again with CA who asked if I'd picked up on the warm fuzzies (yes, technical term) given off by my top bid. I had, and it boded well that CA confirmed my interview impressions. Their advice was to keep my bids as ordered unless I didn't want that job, and they confirmed I didn't need to add any bids (woohoo!). This is as close as you can get to an indication you'll get a handshake on one of your bids prior to submitting the final list. There had been some hand wringing in previous weeks as I'd tried to weigh which post was my top choice. And I ultimately realized that I would absolutely LOVE any of the top five and would grieve for the other four no matter which job I took. So I went with my initial top choice as the top bid and steeled my nerves. And then I hemmed and hawed and debated and consulted friends and mentors and family and slept on it more nights than I can count. And then I decided exactly the same thing.

The week before handshake day I received not one but two air kisses on my top bid. (I think the second one was a mistake.) My "bid with balls" colleagues both received air kisses on their top jobs (and others!). We were cautiously optimistic. Cautiously optimistic does not, however, mean free of anxiety.

Monday, October 31, 2016 was Handshake Day. CA told bidders early on that handshakes would only start going out after OOB in Washington. So instead of waking to an exciting handshake email, I would have to make it through the whole day. Long story short, I finally got the email about 4:45pm and very happily accepted a handshake on...




Surabaya, Indonesia!

After a year of language (Bahasa Indonesia) I'll head to the Consulate General in Surabaya as Consular Chief. I'll also get to oversee the Bali Consular Agency. So, so, so, so excited. Start making your travel plans now!

Monday, November 21, 2016

Weekend in Cyprus

Over Columbus Day weekend I took the 28 minute flight from Beirut to Larnaca, Cyprus. My dad spent time in Cyprus while in the military, so I've always wanted to go. Because it's so close to Lebanon I've been putting it off, but with my time here quickly drawing to a close I decided it was high time to go. The flight there was full of merry-makers going for a weekend of partying, but once I left them behind the vacation could begin. It took longer than I would have liked to find the rental car shuttle, and the car they had was a little bigger than I would have liked, but before long I was on the road. I decided to spend the weekend in Limassol at the only IHG hotel in the nation (which did the trick of pushing my status one tier higher - well done 2016 travel!) and do day trips from there.

The hotel was lovely, and I had a blissful dinner at the Italian restaurant off the lobby that night. I intended to drive to Nicosia on Saturday, but I was exhausted. I slept in, had a lazy day of reading, and then spent the late afternoon swimming in the Mediterranean. The hotel was right on the beach and had a beautiful swimming area. The water temperature was just this side of perfect, and I had a lovely swim and float as the air temperature dropped with the sun. Room service and catching up on Netflix made for another splendid evening, and I went to bed early to get ready for adventure the next day.

Sunday I drove from Limassol to Nicosia and found convenient parking in the Old City. Driving the very narrow old streets with so many pedestrians was a bit nerve-wracking, but it worked out well. I ended up quite close to Ledra Street and made my way to the crossing point into Northern Cyprus, the Turkish-controlled section. The lines weren't terrible, but the sun was beaming down, which made waiting a little less comfortable. I crossed into the north with no issues and optimistically changed some money into Turkish lira. I needn't have bothered - the streets closest to the crossing were filled with knock-off clothing shops, and I didn't see any places that seemed a good choice for lunch. It was fairly quiet on this side. I made my way into the courtyard of a mosque just after the thuhr prayer call and discovered that the full camera battery I'd checked that morning was now depleted. So I have a total of two photos of the Turkish part of Nicosia's old city and none of the Greek side. After some time wandering around I headed back to the Greek side and looked for a lunch spot. I chose a busy chain-like restaurant that seemed to have more locals than tourists (thought what did I really know?) and had a fantastic pork souvlaki and grilled halloumi cheese. It hit the spot.

After some more wandering on the Greek side I made my way back to the car and headed south to Limassol. I thought about heading to the old part of town for dinner but ended up choosing the Italian restaurant again - the grilled calamari was spectacular, as was the spinach ravioli.

Monday I got up early, checked out, stored my luggage, and had a quick breakfast. Then I joined a day tour to go into the interior of Cyprus and see a few sights. The tour guide was quite gregarious; the group was less so. Our first stop was Lefkara where we visited a very touristy lace and silver shop. The prices and hard sell were unappetizing, and I don't think anyone bought anything. We headed into the Troodos Mountains and eventually to Kykkos Monastery. The monastery had some lovely mosaics and views of the tomb of Makarios, the first President of Cyprus.

Just before a lunch with many different mezzes and some great vegetarian moussaka we headed to the highest point in the country, Mount Olympus at 1951m. The final stops were a winery for tastings and Omodos for sampling dried fruits and walking around. The tour was great for seeing several different parts of the country, but it wasn't fantastic. It was a good last-minute option, and it definitely filled up the day.

Still, I had plenty of time before I needed to leave for the airport, so I had a smoothie and snack at one of the hotel lounges before hitting the road. The drive back to Larnaca was fine, though the rental car return process left a whole lot to be desired. Not a great experience. I checked in and somehow had a business class seat booked, which was a nice surprise. I grabbed one last pork souvlaki and some halloumi cheese to take back and got ready to board. Business class was lovely, even if the flight was only 28 minutes, and I got my bag and got home pretty quickly after landing. One extra treat - the following day was another holiday! I hadn't been able to find a flight back on Tuesday so decided to just do the weekend and enjoy one extra day off. It was a nice way to re-integrate into normal life.




Mosque in TRNC Nicosia

Street scene in TRNC Nicosia

View from my hotel room. This sheltered swimming area was perfect!


Villages nestled among the mountains.





Mosaics at Kykkos Monastery


Kykkos Monastery



On the hill above is the tomb of Makarios.


Orthodox church standing tall in a village.


Views from Mt. Olympus



Sunday, November 6, 2016

Flashback: Namibia 2005 - Damaraland and Swakopmund

(Part two of this Namibia flashback. I realize I didn't have a lot of detail so anything in parentheses is my addition now. This leg of the trip was less about animals and more about archaeology and geology. I am truly amazed by some of these sights now and really want to go back and see them again.)

Leaving Etosha we drove into Damaraland and camped at a remote bush camp for the night.  We saw Bushman engravings from 5000 years ago, a petrified forest with pine trees preserved for many million years, and strange rock formations called organ pipes that are 130 million years old.  

(We visited the petrified forest near Khorixas, Damaraland's capital, and then moved on towards our gorgeous desert camp - Abu Huab Desert Camp.  From there we visited Twyfelfontein, home to stunning rock paintings and carvings. The site was declared a UNESCO heritage site two years after my visit, in 2007. I have only the foggiest memories of this visit, but looking back at the photographs I am absolutely blown away by the detail and the breadth of the scenes depicted. I need to go back and visit again. This blog series is inspired, in part, by an article I read recently in National Geographic Traveler magazine - that I can't find online - about a visit to this area. I hadn't looked at these photos or reflected on this part of the trip in many years, and the article got me curious.)

(At the petrified forest we saw some great examples of the endemic-to-the-Namib-desert plant Welwitschia, which are essentially living fossils. It's quite common to find plants over 1,000 years old or up to 2,000 years old. Amazing, really.)

Yesterday we drove to the coast and visited the Cape Cross seal colony.  80,000 female and cub seals on only a few acres.  The smell was awful (though I didn't throw up this time!).  There were lots of fights, lots of barking and braying, and lots of cute poses.  The jackals were around and you could see seal carcasses strewn about. 

Last night I stayed in a backpackers in town, though I have my own room.  After a week camping it feels great to have a bed!  We went out for seafood last night, which was delicious.  I had calamari.

Today was the penultimate adrenalin rush, though.  I went skydiving!!  I did a tandem jump from 10000 feet with a 30 second freefall at 220 km/h and a five minute float to ground.  It was actually far less scary than I imagined and perhaps the most amazing feeling ever.  With bungee jumping I always was terrified, but this was far more natural (if you can believe it).  We flew over the dunes and the ocean, and the scenery on the way down was exquisite. 

(How do I have no photos of this adventure??)


Anyway, those are the highlights.  I have hundreds and hundreds of photos of course.  We are having a last seafood dinner tonight, and then tomorrow I go back to Windhoek by bus and then fly to Cape Town. 


Scenery en route to Khorixas

Oh Namibia and your dirt roads!

Welwitschia plant.

Pieces of petrified wood

Petrified log.


Good examples of the petrification.


More welwitschia.

Rock engravings from 5,000+ years ago.
Giraffes, antelope, etc.


Wikipedia tells me this is one of the more famous slabs called Lion Plate. 

Scenery around the petroglyphs.



The Lion Plate. Notice the lion has human toes. Giraffe, rhino, birds, and other animals abound.


Footprints captured in the sandstone.

Giraffe, gemsbok.

Sea lion! Evidence of contact with people by the seas. 



The engravings are so exposed; it's amazing they've survived so well.

Animals as well as lots of human and animal footprints.


And now human footprints as well.

Penguin! More evidence of outside contact.


Setting up camp at Abu Huab.

Our trusty transport for this trip.

Abu Huab Desert Camp
Main building at the camp


Organ Pipes geologic site

120million+ years old, formed during the breakup of Gondwanaland








Scenery en route to the coast




Seals!

Cape Cross seal colony
Each black speck in the water is a seal.


Lots of little babies while we were there.


Rock snuggles are the best, apparently.
Lots of nursing babies.


More nursing, more rock snuggles.




So many babies!

This was one of my favorites.

Lovely slumber.

Posing for me.

Her better side.

Fight!

More swimming seals.


Nursing baby.