Sunday, December 26, 2010

Guess who lost a wallet again...

Well, the Diplomat has gone and done it again! He lost my wallet. I just don't get it--frankly, it takes a skill to be able to lose wallets and similar possession at the rate he does it. This past Thursday it suddenly turned out that there were no classes that day. After debating whether we should spend the day with our beloved child, with a fair dose of parental guilt we took Son to daycare (which was open) since we had decided to go out to see a movie. Well, that parental guilt went a bit away since when we got to the daycare we saw a whole bunch of VERY guilty looking parents also bringing their kids and quickly slinking away in the misty Arlington air. Then we got back home, went back to bed and re-emerged a few hours later ready for a lunch and a movie date. I gave the Diplomat my wallet to keep in his pocket. After the movie, he sped away to ... yes, you guessed it, play tennis and I went to pick up the precious Son from daycare and spend quality "mommy and me" time with him. And then I discovered I am missing my wallet. 36 unanswered phone calls to the Diplomat later, I realized that he had lost it. After I picked up Son, I decided to check the one place that I thought I might have a shot at finding the unfortunate wallet--the movie theater. Son and I went there, and miracle of miracles, some saintly patron had found and turned it in. It was a Christmas miracle! Overjoyed, I bought us movie tickets and we saw the highly educational and intellectual movie Yogi Bear--Son's first movie ever! Armed with a pizza and a complimentary cup of water, Son sat down in my lap patiently for one and a half hours watching the inane movie. I am proud of him.
We have just landed in coldish Northern California where we are visiting the Diplomat's sister and her family. I love coming here since they are so much fun, plus her cooking is fabulous. There is one small fly in the ointment, however--inexplicably, she keeps her house's temperature at a freezing 60 degrees, while I keep my apartment at 90ish. The difference has been the subject of endless family jokes and I have gotten used to walking around her house wrapped in multiple blankets like an ancient dervish.

We are off to lake Tahoe tomorrow to ski. Woo-hoo! Merry Christmas everyone!

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

On privacy, crappy customer service and depressing Bengali movies

What happened to privacy in one's house is all I want to know?? I love Son to death, but I do draw a line and that line goes right in front of the bathroom. Lately, Son has picked up a new awesome habit which goes like this. Every time I decide to visit the facilities at home, I try to clandestinely slink out of the room I am in and even more quietly sneak into the bathroom for some one-on-one time with Mother Nature. I happily pick up a magazine or whatever defining intellectual reading material lies there and just as I am about to enjoy my privacy, I hear the hasty patter of little boy feet and two seconds later, I hear the following, "mamma...mama...mammmaaa.....maaaaaammmmaaaaaaaaaa" all conveyed playfully underneath the crack of the bathroom door. Next, I see a few tiny fingers showing from there. A few seconds later, a couple of cars gets shoved inside but in a few seconds their owner starts screaming demanding the cars back. With a resigned air, I get up, open the door and am greeted by a beaming face and a happy voice which promptly and loudly announces to the world, "Mommaaa pooped!" Um, well...I love that child!

Now, let me tell you about an awesome shopping experience I had last week. I had this brilliant idea to send our parents and grandparents a slightly cheesy 2011 calendar with pictures of Son and us. You know the type--when other people have them in their houses, you just roll your eyes, but when it comes to your kid, you think they are a piece of eternal art. At any rate, since Son's grand and great-grand parents barely see him, I thought it would be a stupendous gift, easily shipped to Bulgaria and India. I know that CVS makes that kind of personalized crappola so I promptly went to their website, and lo and behold, turns out they provide a 1-hour express service!! Now, how about that? The consumer in me rejoiced, and I almost teared up thinking how awesome America is for providing me with such excellent ways of spending my money. I promptly designed the calendar, uploaded Son's best pictures in it, and three hours later sent the Diplomat (who seemed like he had nothing better to do and was just loitering around the house) to the CVS across the street to pick up the masterpieces. To my utter dismay, he came back rather quickly and told me that he found the photo guy at CVS amidst Son's pictures , looking lost and baffled. Apparently he said that he did not have the time to finish the calendars that night, and not even sure about the following morning. The consumer in me was horrified. After a choice of unladylike words, I let it go. The next day, around 12, I went to CVS to get the finished product. I found a rather flaccid-looking gal behind the counter, wearing unnecessarily festive antlers attached to a tiara on her head, who informed me that the calendar service was a new thing there, and no one there has been trained to do it. Brightly, she offered to make me some albums instead. After I stifled an urge to smack her antlers, I reservedly asked for the manager. He appeared from behind, wearing a T-shirt and a massive skiing hat, and confirmed the distressing info. Visibly agitated (to think of it, I might have been near screaming), I asked why they offer the service, take the money for it but then do not perform the service. He passionately assured me that they will do everything in their power to provide me with the calendars and he would call me by 5 pm with new info. I stared him down with my best blood-curdling look and told him that I am still unhappy and that he should make me whole somehow. He sighed and refunded me all the money I had paid. I brightened up considerably. A couple of hours later, I got an email from CVS that cheerfully informed me that my order has shipped. Unwisely, I presumed that it was sent by the manager and went to CVS again! He saw me enter the store and I swear, he was about to run. I told him about the email, he was rather puzzled and told me it must have been sent by the automatic CVS email system. I almost took a fake wreath from nearby to choke him with it, but took a deep breath, turned around and left. An hour later, he called me to say the calendars were done--they had sent them to a different location.
The moral of the story--when you are about to order some seemingly awesome service online, call first to see if it is too good to be true. Cuz it could be.

Today was our last day in Bangla class for the year. Our lovely Bangla teacher let us a watch a movie, and to celebrate the festive occasion I suppose, chose a particularly grim and depressing Bengali movie, which included a murder by a crazy person, a suicide, a sad love story and a horrible forced marriage. At least there were a bunch of friendly cute goats in the movie. Happy holidays!

Saturday, December 18, 2010

A Very Bangla Week

This week has been the perfect illustration of what they call at FSI “no progress day,” meaning day for practice and no new material. For the Bangla class, this week was devoted to the obsessive practice of our Bengali song for the end of the year party for the SE Asian division of FSI, which was yesterday. If I may humbly say so, we were a smashing hit. Maybe it was because we gesticulated wildly during the singing; maybe it was because we seemed so eager and honest and folks felt sorry for us; maybe it was because we were dressed so awesomely in the picturesque sarees and Punjabis of our teachers and I wore the full splendor of most of my Indian jewelry. Whatever the reason, people kept coming to us afterwards to tell us how great we were.
The highlight of the day was the brief speech given by the director of the division, who baffled us with the following statement, “Some people make comments about the way we teach languages at FSI, but in the words of the director of language studies at Georgetown—‘at school, we have ‘Language education,’ at FSI you have—‘Language training.’ The difference is the same as between sex education and sex training.”

On Wednesday, a couple of other FS wives came over for a playdate—we had a bit of Kir Royals and gossiped. Oh yeah, our kids also had a playdate—naturally, I wanted Son to shine in his best, which he naturally did not, fighting and screeching for every single toy the other kids wanted to play with. Sometimes, I feel like the Beast Master dealing with him. I am sure a LOT of moms will the sentiment.

Also, I am still in adjudications. I call every 3 days to check on my status, and the annoyed rep on the phone in an ill-attempt to hide her irritation, keeps telling me tersely, “Um, you are STILL in processing!” The problem with that is that the invitations to join the March 2011 A-100 class at FSI will most likely go out right after the holidays and I really wanted to be part of that class. If I want to join the Diplomat in a timely manner in Dhaka, I need to be done with all my training around June-July. That means that by then I have to:
1. finish Bangla
2. complete the consular training class
3. complete the A-100 class

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Love Thy Neighbor

I find it tough, though. we have two neighbours--one to the left and one to the right. The one on the right smokes disturbingly cheap cigars twice a week. The stench permeates in our apartment through our balcony door and not even Febreeze can help get rid of it. I welcome the cold weather--he has reduced his cigar smoking to once a week.
The neighbor on the left has another bad habit--he/she tends to bang on the wall when Son wakes up and cries at 2 am in the morning. Now, I get the sentiment--no one likes to be woken up by a hysterical child at 2 am. I personally don't. I, however, do not appreciate the expression of that sentiment--the person clearly does not have children or otherwise he/she would have known full well that there is little I could do about it. Perhaps he/she thinks I enjoy the experience...The problem is that it is affecting my disciplining methods--I am a firm believer of letting a child cry it out rather than sitting in the room and trying all tricks known to motherhood to make the child sleep. With a neurotic childless wall-banger as a neighbor, I get nervous and afraid to apply my true and tried methods.

This past Friday we were informed that next Friday the entire South East Asian section at FSI will have its own holiday party, at which all students have to make a 10 minute presentation of their country. A very deluded person from the Bangla section decided that we should sing a popular Bengali folk song that playfully discusses the merits of Islam and Sufism. The song is presented as a clever banter between a man and a woman, and while I am certain it can be a delight for the initiated aficionados, we, the FSI students with barely 3 months of Bangla under our belts, face the following problems:
1. The Bengali lyrics are old-fashioned, poetic and very difficult
2. The music is particularly ornate and contains a million twists and turns.
3. None of us look like accomplished Bangla folk singers.
4. None of us can can play the tabla or any other instrument for that matter. We will have to do with a tambourine, which I can only imagine will contribute immensely to our Earth-shattering performance.
5. We have only 4 days to practice, with one hour per day.
I will inform you of the results in due time.

My midterm progress evaluation is coming up this week on Tuesday. I had an especially un-progressing end of the week, failing to understand simple yet unpalatable passages about Bangladeshi education (our topic for the week) and to share unintriguing information about my own educational past (our daily speaking training involves endless discussions of our past experiences; as a result, we all learn something new and unexciting about the others every single day). Thusly, I have devoted this weekend to entertaining Son and revising piles of Bangla words. I am having a blast.

Monday, December 6, 2010

The Famed "Diplomatic Clause" in leases

Since my last post, I got several questions on the so-called "diplomatic clause" in house/apartment leases. This, folks, is simple--since many diplomats tend to stay in DC for short, rather irregular periods of time in between posts, if they choose to live outside the warm, loving embrace of Oakwood housing and rent themselves something on their own, they need to be able to get out of their leases quickly. As the uninitiated might imagine, few landlords are openly ecstatic about this state of affairs and tend to get cranky when said diplomat starts packing up his cats, African bongos and Islatic antiques after only 6.5 months in the property. Thusly, smart folks have come up with the "diplomatic lease clause" to get themselves out of such pickles. I enclose a couple of sample diplomatic clauses for your convenience:

Sample #2
Diplomatic Lease Provisions

If any tenant or their spouse is or becomes a member of Foreign Service of the Department of State, the tenant may terminate this rental contract on 30 days written notice to the landlord in any of the following conditions:
a. If the tenant receives permanent change of station orders to another area.
b. If the tenant is separated from the Foreign Service.
c. If the tenant has leased the property prior to his/her arrival and subsequently received orders of reassignment, including TDY orders for sixty days or more, to other than the local geographical area (50 mile radius).

Tenant shall not be liable for rent after the 30 day period, and the landlord agrees to release the Tenant from all obligations under the lease, including, but not limited to, any obligation to pay rent through the original termination date. Any monies paid by the Tenant as the last month’s rent is not part of the security deposit and shall be refunded, or credited and prorated to any rent due before the new date of the termination of the lease, without further notice.

If the lease was signed before this diplomatic clause was signed Landlord and Tenant agree that $1.00 paid by the Tenant to Landlord is adequate consideration for this change in the lease.

Sample #2

Diplomatic Release Clause

For active duty military personnel and government employees, it is
understood, agreed, and convenanted that if Tenant is transferred 35 miles or
more, (radius) from the location of the Premises or is prematurely and
involuntarily discharged or relieved from service/employment, Tenant shall
have the right to terminate this Lease, as provided herein, and the
termination shall not be effective until 30 days after the next rent due
date. Tenant shall deliver to Realtor/Agent/Landlord a written notice with a
copy of the Tenant's transfer or discharge orders or letter from the
appropriate supervisor, whereupon Tenant shall vacate and surrender
possession of the Premises to Landlord within said termination period. Such
notice by Tenant shall have no force or effect unless it is accompanied by
the rent for the final month of the tenancy, and a copy of Tenant's transfer
or discharge orders.

So, you can try and sneak any of these in and see how your potential landlord will stomach it. Note--if, in addition to your diplomatic lifestyle idiosyncrasies, you also own a large dog, a hairy cat, a boa, a massive Tibetan coffee table, Chinese decorative dragon, and a huge ficus, I would recommend that you first try to sneak in a clause about the flora and fauna in your life before even attempting to discuss a diplomatic escape clause. Or just go live in a hut in the Arlington forest and prepare for your next hardship post the real way! Good luck either way.

MASSIVE LEGAL DISCLAIMER--please keep in mind that the two lease clauses above do not in any way or form represent legal advice nor have they been intended to be given as such advice. They are presented here merely as a convenience and a reference point and I take ZERO responsibility for their content. You are allowed to sue Fat Cat should your landlord manage to find a loophole in the text one day but I cannot guarantee any court appearances--he is simply too fat for that.

Friday, December 3, 2010

Let Them Eat Cake!

Every Thursday, the Asian languages students are treated to a riveting lecture, called Area Studies. None of them can wait for the moment to come, I can assure you. I have chosen not to partake, for um, let's call them personal reasons. This past Thursday, the lecturer decided to give them some real-life experience to prepare the Fledgling Diplomats for their lives at post and told them they would be going on a field trip to the Washington Islamic Center on Embassy Row. I decided to join them as the Diplomat assured me that it will last only 2 hours tops. At 12 pm, a bunch of bundled up, mildly excited Fledgling Diplomats merrily climbed an oldish-looking bus, which would take us to the Center. Since we are clearly the coolest, the Bangla bunch sat at the back. Half a mile away from the FSI, a strange odor started permeating the bus. It smelled suspiciously of bad exhaust fumes, and lo and behold, turned out that the bus was leaving a large cloud of darkish fumes behind us, which were also slowly permeating the rear of the bus. Soon, the situation was intolerable, and amidst clouds of poisonous smoke, we yelled at the driver to stop. In a few minutes, coughing and breathing heavily, we were hastily on our way back, and since it was starting to get a bit late so some of us clever folk in the back started plotting our escape once we were back at FSI. But the bus driver was cleverer! He took us to the back of the FSI, entered the garage area, closed the gates behind us and told us to get into another bus. There was no way to get out of there—the only way out was onto the bus or climb the fence. Drat! With a deep sigh and resigned air, we are climbed on the bus and went to the Center, where after an interesting talk with the Imam, we stood sheepishly along the walls of the mosque to stare at the faithful responding to the afternoon prayer call. I think I can speak for all when I say that we all felt very stupid, watching people kneel over in prayer for over 15 minutes. As you can tell, our lives at FSI are super interesting!

I also wanted to mention that I am getting a bit worried over the Diplomat’s sweet tooth. He reiterates on a daily basis that he is concerned about his weight and takes vows of sugar abstinence to be broken about 45 mins later. After Thanksgiving, we had a quarter of pumpkin pie and a quarter of apple pie left, which I was slowly enjoying. To my horror, the following night I saw the Diplomat sitting in front of the TV with all the pies piled up on his plate, garnished with a generous helping of whipped cream. I politely asked him what he was doing and, with a pained expression, he told me that he prefers to eat everything now so that he is not tempted later. He also pointed out that the whipped cream was low-fat. The problem is that the following night, faced with a sugarless fridge, he decided that he would go to the deli downstairs and procure condensed milk to mix with some bananas for a semi-healthy evening snack. Few minutes later, he was back with a very guilty expression and after some interrogation, confessed to buying a large box of ice-cream. Which he ate alone.

And while I am on the subject of food, let me tell you about a recent lunch trip we made to the Cheesecake Factory, that epitome of American gluttony. Since I am also obsessed with my weight as most of my friends know (and roll their eyes behind my back about), I decided to go lightly and order an salad. I went to the entrĂ©e salads page and while perusing the impressively large selection, saw that the heading above the bottom three salads read, “weight conscious—all salads under 590 calories.” Wait, what???? How can a salad be ABOVE 590 calories in the first place? Hmm. So, I decided to get a “lunch size” salad with the dressing on the side (typically all the calories are in the dressing) to allay my fears. Soon, the waitress came back with a plate that measured at least two square feet, onto which there was a mountain of lettuce and other salad-related accoutrements about 1.5 ft high. Faced with the mount K2 in salads, I balked and my face lost color—then brightly told her that I had asked for the “lunch” size, and she, just as brightly, assured me that WAS the lunch size. 20 mins later, feeling a bit nauseous, on my way to the restroom, I saw the full portion on someone else’s table—the plate took most of the table, and what was even more shocking, it was mostly empty and its happy owner was gobbling down the last pieces. No, we did not have cake that day. We were lucky to be able to roll back to the car, go home and fall into deep, calorious sleep.


As I mentioned in my previous post, I have been asked by some readers to remove the addresses of some of the Oakwood properties --they felt I should not be disclosing where FSOs live in Washington, DC. While I feel that that information is freely available both on Oakwood's corporate site as well as on a Facebook page maintained by the State Department HR office and opened to anyone without moderator approval, I have obliged. However, some of your comments contain references to those addresses and I am unable to delete the references without erasing the entire comment. Since the comments contain great info, I don't want to erase them entirelly. Therefore, I appeal to commenters to edit/re-post their comments without the exact building addresses. I thank you so very much in advance for your effort!

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Housing/Living arrangment while training at FSI

And as promised, some (way too) detailed information on housing during training at FSI. This is a freakishly long post, so brace yourselves! This is what happens:
One sunny/snowy VERY happy day, you receive the long-coveted State Department letter in your email, titled enticingly—“Salary Offer.” Whoaaaa, you think, this is rather awesome. You burst into a spontaneous dance for a while, yelp in excitement from time (much to your cat’s irritation) and finally decide to open the precious email only to be blinded by a myriad of colors, fonts, italics, bolds, underlining and flashy yellow backgrounds. The part that is of particular interest to us lies at the bottom and it tells you that they have contracted with a management company to provide direct-billing housing (meaning, you pay nothing out of pocket) in Arlington, or you can choose to take a housing allowance instead, find your own place and wait to be reimbursed. It also directs you to a lovely facebook account the HR department has created with more extensive info on the subject, including pictures.
Thusly, in essence, the excited future FSO has 2 options: (1) to take the per diem allowance and find his own place, or (2) to stay at a DOS-sponsored building.

Pros of option 1: You can choose your own location, and think that you are super cool because you live in downtown DC vs. Arlington. I cannot think of any other advantages. Here are the disadvantages:
1) You get to negotiate a lease with an obtuse landlord who refuses to include a so-called “diplomatic clause” in your lease, which allows you to break your lease at any time, depending on when you have to leave for post. Needless to say, landlords are not particularly excited about the clause.
2) You pay all of your utilities
3) Need to find a way to get to FSI other than the shuttles. If you live in downtown DC, the only way to get to FSI (except for a car or bike), is to take the shuttle service from Rosslyn (first stop in Arlington) bright and early every morning, which, given the slow metro system in Washington, pretty much means that you need to get up at 5.30 am every morning to ride the metro to Rosslyn and then get on the shuttle (which is often quite late). That is what all of my classmates who live in DC do. Also, most of the FSI happy hours happen in Arlington, which means that once it is over, you have to find a way to get your drunk diplomatic butt back into town, rather than just walk home. There is another shuttle leaving from the Main State building on R street. That shuttle may be useful to you if you live someone downtown, but it starts at 8.30 am, and it takes almost 30 mins to get to FSI. Thusly, if your class starts at the crack of dawn (like all of the South Asian language classes do), then obvisouly, you can't really use it.
4) Your allowance is VERY often VERY late and you end up fronting your rent all the time.
5) Your allowance is on a sliding scale, meaning it is very generous at the beginning, thus luring you to an expensive place, and much smaller in the end (which works out just fine if you happen to go to a post with no language training and spend very little time at FSI beyond A-100s).

State-sponsored housing pros (the only con—EVERY apartment has exactly the same furnishings, so it gets a bit weird when you visit others):
1) You don’t have to worry about rent, cable, internet, utilities.
2) Every time you have ANY problem, you call the State Department liaison and your problem is taken care of.
3) You get weekly maid service (no joke!!!).
4) A lot of other FSOs live there so you get to socialize.
5) The shuttles to FSI stop right in front of the buildings.
6) The apartments are furnished.
7) All of them have pools, gyms, concierge and all kind of other perks.
8) You get free underground parking!
So, I would encourage you to consider the DOS option.

A note about the shuttle services: anyone associated to FSI can board the shuttles, whether or not they stay at a DOS-sponsored property.

One final point for the ardent cooks among the future FSO fold. My biggest question prior to coming here was—what was provided in the kitchen. In other words, what did I need to bring/buy in order to continue to live a nice cooking life? So, here is exposed truth about the “Welcome Kit” provided by DOS-sponsored apartments for a 2-bedroom apartment: sets of 6 of silverware, small and large plates and wine glasses, mugs and cereal bowls, a pile of water glasses, a set of 3 pots in various sizes, a set of 3 glass bowls and Tupperware in various sizes, a couple of baking pans, measuring spoons, bottle and can openers, a set of stirring spoons, a kettle, a toaster and a great block knife -set. There are also placemats and napkins for 4. Oy, I forgot the colander! It also has a vacuum, a (good) iron and ironing board, laundry basket as well as a water bucket and a broom! It is a bit underwhelming but a good start. If you are driving from home to Arlington, load your car with kitchen stuff you want or be prepared to do some damage at the nearby Target or IKEA. Your UAB will take a while.
This is all that comes to mind for now. I welcome any questions and will update this post as necessary. Now I am off to finish my dinner of popcorn.