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


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!