One Year Away From DC

One year ago I enjoyed my last day in DC.  I had already packed out of my house and was loving life at the Fairmont Hotel in the West End. I woke up on that last day, probably a little hungover from the night before, and met a friend at Baked and Wired in Georgetown for breakfast.  We walked over to the Key Bridge Boat House and took out paddle boards to the middle of the river to watch the DC flyover.  After the flyover ended, we headed to lunch on the waterfront, I met my aunt for dinner that night, and  I finished off the evening at Sauf Haus to say bye to friends. 

Today I find myself on a plane to Sydney, Australia. I woke up, took my puppies out, and grabbed an uber to the airport.  I was lucky enough to win a free trip the Singapore for the Under Armour “Test of Will.” We had our briefing yesterday and the three others joining to compete in the test of will emphasized what a big deal it is for me to compete at Regionals, so the rep from Under Armour met me at the airport with a bag filled to the top of Under Armour Swag!

Two very different days, so what has else changed in the past year?

House

DC: 1 bedroom + office English basement apartment with patio and yard

Manila: 2 bedroom townhouse apartment

Neighborhood

DC: Up and coming neighborhood.  Walking distance to public transportation, restaurants, bars, and an awesome coffee shop. 

Manila: Secure compound in somewhat dodgy neighborhood. Walking distance to…a 7-11?

Commute 

DC:  5.5miles to American University – 35 minutes by bike up the biggest hill in DC ugh

Manila: 2.2 miles to Primal Ape CrossFit – 45-90 minutes by car

Social Life

DC: Trivia and/or happy hour during the week, out at bars or house parties on weekends

Manila: Social life revolves around gym and my workout schedule, very minimal drinking

Gym

DC: 1 hour CrossFit Class 4-5 times a week

Manila: I don’t even want to know

Household Chores

DC: Dishes daily, work together to do full clean every week or so, laundry almost daily

Manila: None, I’m a complete slob and live in a house cleaner than DC, thanks to a helper 

Vacations

DC: One major trip per year, small trips for long weekends

Manila: Busuanga, Bohol, DC, Thailand, Boracay, Baguio, and Australia, with Singapore, El Nido, Korea, Malaysia, and DC on the horizon

Free Shit

DC: No one is giving me jack shit for free, except maybe some beer and Jameson at Sauf Haus

Manila: Trip to Singapore and a bag of athletic gear from Under Armour

Under Armour Airport Delivery for Regionals


Let’s see what changes the next year brings. 

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Eligible for Unemployment

I have to give fair warning, this post will be very dry.

I was reading blogs with Eligible Family Member (EFM) tags and stumbled across one of my favorites.  A post from a few days ago really struck home for me, and has prompted me to write this post.

While that may seem like a crazy thing to say, particularly at a spouse orientation, I was not the least surprised.  Spouse orientation was an interesting day for me, and I assume for many other spouses.  First, let me explain the backstory.

Prior to spouse orientation, most of the information EFMs receive is from the spouse, who receives the information from the State Department.  During the application process, the applicant is given packets about the FLO.  The FLO was set up because EFMs had to accept unemployment as part of the trailing spouse position and they wanted that to change.  They wanted the State Department to acknowledge that EFMs are generally well educated and have rewarding professional lives. They want to continue to have careers throughout their time abroad. Furthermore, without work, it can be a tough transition, leading the direct hire to seek other employment so his/her spouse can lead a happy, fulfilling life.

Anyway, the direct hire receives all the information about the FLO, the Global Employment Initiative (GEI) and the Expanded Professional Associate Program (EPAP).  These programs all sound fantastic! They pass this on to the EFM and accept the job as a diplomat.  This brings me to the spouse orientation.  This is the first time a spouse is invited to learn about life abroad as an EFM.  This is when dreams are shattered.  I was told that the best thing to do when moving to a new post is to either telework or pick up a hobby – like writing, photography, or guitar.  I had just quit my office job and couldn’t think of a hobby that I liked enough to give me fulfillment for the rest of my “professional” life.  They mentioned that spouses love getting coffee, or often find joy in learning new recipes.  With each new suggestion, my heart sank a little deeper.  It’s clear why I’m not entirely surprised that a C-suite executive spouse was told to try running a daily bake sale.

The most useful portion of the spouse orientation was when an EFM came in to discuss his experiences at his past couple posts.  Finally, I was given an honest and direct answer.  He said something along the lines of, it was lonely at times. I was working full time prior to our departure so I couldn’t learn the language.  I had a hard time getting around, and an even harder time meeting people.  I applied for a job at the Embassy, but I never got it.  You’ll find it’s very typical for only a single job opening to become available when you’re at post and everyone wants it.  If you do get that job, you often have to wait about 6 months for the security clearance. That being said, I’ve never regretted my decision to come along.  For every hard day, there’s something amazing I’ve learned, plus I’ve lived and traveled to some pretty cool places.

Later in the day, I was presented with the statistics regarding family member employment.  I was quite displeased, for two reasons.  First, 60% unemployment seems fairly high, and didn’t give me much hope for finding a job.  Second, this includes spouses who are employed full time, part-time, and “as needed.”  My opportunity for regular employment started seeming less and less likely.

I tried and tried to find some more honest answers online through blogs, but came up fairly dry.  Mostly because a lot of blogs are written by EFMs with children, so it didn’t seem to fit our situation.  They filled their days hanging out with toddlers, meeting other parents from school, volunteering, working at the Embassy, or enjoying early retirement. Finally, I was put in touch with a friend’s friend, who is also an EFM in her mid twenties, with no children.  She told me that the saying tends to be, assume you’ll be unemployed, finding employment is a bonus.  Don’t expect it to be in your career field, and if it’s at the embassy, it will generally be administrative in nature.  So, I learned that the GEI hasn’t been as successful as I had hoped.

The most immediate, and easiest, fix I can see for the short term is to include reliable internet as a utility.  Housing and utilities abroad are covered by the State Department, but internet has not been added to the list of utilities.  This means that internet is not set up in the house upon arrival.  This would be fine in the United States, but abroad, it can take 2-3 months for the internet to be fully installed, and in those places, it’s generally very unreliable.  These does not provide EFMs with a very good chance at teleworking.  If it were included as a utility and the fastest provider was used, EFMs would have an infinitely better chance at teleworking as a career from post to post.

With all that said, there are, of course, some very big pros to this lifestyle.  Some people do not want to work and certainly will feel no shame in deciding not to apply for a job.  Household help is affordable at many posts, money is provided for each school age child to help cover the costs of the expensive international schools, and housing is provided.  It is a great opportunity to travel, experience new cultures and find new interests or better develop old ones.  While the career may not be traditional, through part time jobs, volunteer work, some full time positions, and hobbies, it can still be a very rewarding life.

So why have I bothered writing all this, especially since I have a job?  I wished that I had found this type of information before we committed to the lifestyle.  While it probably wouldn’t have changed my decision, it would have been nice to have made the decision based on the truth.  I am very grateful that the FLO, CLO, GEI, EPAP all exist, I just think there’s a long way to go and until we get there, the truth should be made more public.

The Fridge that Travels

Remember how I talked about pack out way back in early May?  Well, all that stuff that we packed out finally arrived at our house this week (I shouldn’t say finally, 2.5 months is a pretty standard amount of time to wait for HHE).  Aside from two missing shoes (which we hope will pop up in the next few days) everything arrived in good shape from the long trip by sea.

Prior to Thursday, I thought that I could live really well without all my stuff.  I still think I could live without most of these things, but I’d rather not live without a couple items.  It hasn’t been the clothes or shoes that have made it better, but the little things that make it feel a bit more like home.  We had the provided bookshelves and TV stand removed and replaced with our TV stand, bookshelves, and most importantly, our beer fridge.  After we put together the living room, I walked in to see the minifridge and thought to myself, wow, now it feels more like home.

  
I haven’t had to live with white walls and loaned furniture since college.  Back in college, I’d unpack the specialty tea mug I was gifted, slap my San Francisco poster on the wall and call it home.  I wish I had thought back to that, but next time I won’t dismiss the little things that make a house a home – a mug from a wedding that also reminds me of where I grew up, the reward from winning a kickball tournament on the mall, and the little mug that traveled to college each year.

  
I’m still waiting on facilities to come hang up posters (we have concrete walls, so we can’t do it ourselves), but the fridge and mug that traveled have made a world of difference already in feeling less homesick.  It’s also nice that our 50″ TV, Ikea bookshelf, Ikea stand, and mini fridge don’t look like a grandmother picked them out!

When it Rains, it Pours

I’m not trying to be depressing, just stating a fact about rainy season here.  When it rains, it pours.  It’s madness.  When I first arrived, it would rain for about 20 minutes and I thought to myself, “wow, rainy season isn’t that bad.”  I was questioning if rainy season had actually started.  Now I know, it hadn’t.  I also know that rainy season has officially started.  I wish I could video the extend to which it rains, but I don’t want to go outside.

I have learned to be very grateful for two things: my high clearance vehicle and a somewhat covered deck off my room.  There was about 1 foot of water on the road when I left work earlier this week. As all the low clearance cars were stopped and debating if they should go or turn around, my jeep plunged right in.  Then I got home and had to take Xena out.  She hates rain.  So, we decided to let her out onto the patio to pee.  Okay, maybe a little gross, but the ground gets wet and washes it away, I don’t have to get drenched (which takes only 5 seconds of standing in the rain), and I don’t have to deal with a drenched dog.

Rainy season does bring about cooler weather though.  The gym felt cool, going outside in the morning means not carrying Xena from one grassy patch to another so her paws don’t get burned, and I’m not sweating after 1 minute of being outside.

All this talk of Xena (follow her on instagram at xenawarriorboxer) and I haven’t posted any new photos of her.  She’s grown a LOT!  When we got her she was about 10lbs, now I think she’s about 20.  She’s fully vaccinated and can explore the world. We go to puppy school once a week on Fridays and she has gotten better, but there’s still a long way to go.

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She gets VERY excited to see dogs, and plays the way boxers do. Unfortunately, most dogs don’t appreciate her play style.  Poor girl, she will calm down eventually (right? In like 4 years…) Until then, I guess it’s soccer balls and big dogs for her.

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We are all looking forward to some beach time in dryer weather and family visits at the end of rainy season.  In the meantime, we’ll be outside as much as possible between rain showers.