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.

Cheat Meal

When I first got to Manila, another expat said it was about 6 months before he was invited into a Filipino’s house.  HA only took me 3.  I work on the local economy, which means I have become friends Filipinos.  This is something that, from my understanding, is not the norm.  The athletes at Primal Ape CrossFit work in a variety of fields, including as a chef at People’s Palace (whoops, still haven’t made it there, gotta get on that).  The Chef was discussing the cheat meals he likes with a coach and decided best to share in the meal.  So, he invited a group of us over for the perfect cheat meal.

Guacamole, Turkey Tacos, Korean Fried Chicken, Fish Tacos, and Chocolate Chip Cookies


The meal was amazing, I’d never had Korean Fried Chicken, but I would like to have it again.  I think I laughed so much during the night that it almost offset my overly full stomach.  Some wigs were even busted out, I’m thinking maybe I should chop off my hair and dye it green?  

  

As I get to know everyone here, it makes the new country feel a bit more like home.  Everyone has been very welcoming, regardless of the fact that they know we won’t be here permanently.  So here’s to many more fun nights  (and cheat meals!) I’ll close with a picture of Xena just because.  

Are You Homesick?

Last night I was asked a question that I hadn’t really asked myself, “are you homesick?” I sat for a second before answering because I hadn’t been asked this very genuine question yet and I was grateful to be able to give an honest answer.  Yes.

Although we bid Manila high because of how welcoming people are to Americans, the warm weather, and the fact that you can get almost anything you want here, it’s still different in many ways.  Just like everyone back in the States, I commute in traffic, go to the grocery store, eat out, drink on weekends, and take my dog outside.  Yet, each thing presents a unique challenge, one that would be comical as a traveler, but hit me a bit harder when I realized, this is home – at least for now.

I already wrote about the adventure that is driving in Manila.  To be fair, the novelty still hasn’t worn off.  I follow all the rules at in the States and for the first time I finally get to drive the way I would want, without the worry of pissing someone off and having them get out of their car to yell at me.  On the other hand, the commute is draining.  I can’t somewhat mindlessly get to my destination like I could in the U.S., all attention is on the road.  I will, however, miss the lights when I get back.  They count down the green, yellow, and red lights, how do we not have this yet?!

Unlike the U.S., my trips to the grocery store never seem quite complete.  We used to shop for the week at a single store, now it seems like we can hardly fill up a grocery basket and have to swing by 2-3 stores.  You can get almost everything, but there are some hard to find items as well.  For instance, I got extremely excited when I found a tiny thing of arugula, a staple of mine at home. Once we got home, I couldn’t just whip up a salad, first I had to soak the arugula and veggies in vinegar for 10 minutes.  It was so delicious and comforting though.  The vegetable/water problem also presents a dilemma while eating out. Can I order a salad here? Do I think the ice cubes are from filtered water too?  On the plus side, I can have all the mangos, papayas and other tropical fruit I’ve never heard of that I want.  Blender is in the mail to make some delicious tropical fruit drinks for some poolside relaxation.  As if this wasn’t relaxing enough.

There are so many stray cats and dogs that I’m nervous to take Xena out, even once she is fully vaccinated.  I’m also missing out on the neighborhood dog parks to make friends.  We have a dog run nearby, but it doesn’t seem to get much use.  I have been told that on the weekends people gather on High Street in the Fort with dogs.  Will have to check that out after the last vaccine.

It’s the little things that make me miss the U.S. a bit, but I know that with time I’ll get adjusted, make more friends, and lose the homesick feeling.  Right now I’m still in the getting to know people better phase, but another EFM and I have a plan for socializing during the day once summer transfer season has come to an end: Balcony Club.  The townhouses where I live have balconies off every floor, but when on earth will I use the balcony off my guest room?  I’m not going to make coffee downstairs and walk it up the stairs just to drink on that balcony, it’s both inconvenient and a bit small compared to the main balcony.  See the difference?

Well, with Balcony Club, we will pick someone’s floor specific balcony and have a drink there.  It will give us all an excuse to make the balconies nice, take advantage of them, and get to know each other.

There are also things here that I will miss when I leave.  A huge help has been vet house calls.  I text the vet the problem or update and he texts back with a time to stop by or a solution.  Plus, it’s cheaper than the states – house visit, medicine, stool sample, inner ear sample, and microchip added up to about $60.  Also, a helper.  We will have someone starting in July who will cook and clean.  I know I sound spoiled, but I despise household chores, so this is a big win for me.  I’ve been told she makes more working for us than she would on the local economy, so I guess it’s not a horrible gig for her either.  She will also look after Xena while I’m at work.  Lastly, the travel.  Though I haven’t taken advantage of this yet, I know it will be amazing.

One thing I’m undecided about is the signs, some are inappropriate but hilarious, others are Taglish (Tagalog and English) and thus, entertaining.  

Are You in the Cult?

Though it only happened once, I have legitimately been asked this question.  To be fair, I am part of “the cult,” which is more commonly known as CrossFit.  While people often use the word to critique CrossFit, the “cultish” atmosphere is what made me feel a sliver more comfortable picking up my life and moving across the world.

My CrossFit journey started in 2007 when Danny at CrossFit Sonoma County had a dream to open a box, or CrossFit gym. My first workout of the day (WOD) was Fran.  It was a grueling 10 or so minutes of work, and I was hooked.  Back then there were only a handful of us, all of whom were Danny’s friends.  We worked out in the back room of my old gymnastics gym from 9-10pm and as you can see below, we had some fun.

Xfit Old Days

I left for college a few months after staring CrossFit, but every winter break I would come back and workout at the box.  By then Danny had rented out his own space.  With that space came a big community and no more 9pm classes – I suppose that is a bit late.  Though I wasn’t a CrossFitter at that time, everyone in the community always welcomed me for the month that I was home.  As a bonus, I returned to college every year in shape for lacrosse preseason.

Fast forward 2 years after graduation.  After constant discussions about joining a CrossFit box, Mark told me I needed to shut up or do it.  I chose CrossFit Balance in downtown DC.  My year and a half there changed my time in DC.  The community they built and the coaches’ knowledge drastically exceeded my expectations.  I found myself surrounded by people who share my love of working out and my love of beer, generally in that order.

Why is all of this important? Well, because what I have learned over the past 8 years is that the support I receive from CrossFit goes beyond the doors of the box.  I have truly become part of a global community.  When we looked at the bid list I googled CrossFit boxes in each city – it exists nearly everywhere.  I did this because I knew that no matter where we wound up I would have a group of people who would welcome me and make a new place feel a bit more like home. I reached out to Primal Ape CrossFit prior to my arrival because it was recommended by another FSO.  I have not been disappointed, the space is amazing (picture below) and so are the people.

Joining Primal Ape has helped immensely with my transition.  I now have a daily workout time to help set a schedule and even a job offer.  Without it I’m not sure how long it would have taken to establish a routine, especially since I would know even fewer people in Manila.  I didn’t leave my community back home either, the coaches and athletes have offered to help with programming for me, discuss classes and coaching, and even visit.

On the surface CrossFit is a workout regime meant to get people fit for anything life throws at them.  Yet, the willingness to pay upward of $150 per month speaks volumes about the fact that it goes beyond a general workout class. After college we lose that feeling of being a part of something like a soccer or baseball team.  CrossFit makes me feel like I’m on a team again.  In the end, it is the highly critiqued “cult-like” atmosphere of CrossFit that makes it a great match for the constantly moving lifestyle of an EFM…or someone who travels on business often, or wants to be a part of a team, or wants the strength to be able to pick up grandchildren, really, anyone, because everyone is always welcome.  Maybe we’re not so cultish after all.

MAAC, FACT, and Farm

It’s been a busy couple weeks as I near the end of my time in DC.  I got to compete in the Mid Atlantic Affiliate Challenge (MAAC) last weekend.  It was a long, but fun weekend.  Balance gym showed up with something like five teams, the balance van, a couch, and some mats.  Clearly we rep our gym hard and have a good time.  My team (two guys and two girls) placed 15th out of 60 or 70 teams.  Plus, we all looked pretty badass. 

 

 I was lucky to be able to take some time off for the FACT course – Foreign Affairs Counter Threat course.  As stated in the description online, it provides defensive driving training, firearms familiarization, information on emergency medical care, etc.  While I am hopeful I never have to use what I learned, I was glad I took the course. It was fun, there was useful information (not just for post) and I got to know some of Mark’s colleagues a little better.  If you’re a spouse and you can take the course, I say go for it!  If nothing else, you’ll have a blast with the cars.

As a bonus, during fact training I received the email that I passed the Crossfit Level 1 Trainer exam!  One tiny step closer to hopefully finding a job in Manila.

In the not so fun world of saying goodbye, we had to drive our beloved truck, Fred, home to my aunt’s lavender farm, Blue Skye Lavender.  You can see him below looking fabulous as I hug him goodbye.  We have had him on loan and will miss him dearly, but know he is home at the farm.  I’m not so sure I will know what to do when I get to Manila and have air conditioning, automatic windows, and a radio – mind will be blown.

  

We had quite the adventure at the farm.  We put the boat in the water to take a little trip out to the island and as I was driving it over to the dock I heard a thud. I looked back to see the wheels from the boat trailer rolling away.  Apparently the springs had broken and the axel became detached.  Mark did wind up fixing it, but it was not easy.  After his stressful day of working we got a last trip out to the beach, followed by a fantastic crab dinner.  

It’s sad to say goodbye to one of my favorite places, the farm, as you can see, is a beautiful and relaxing place.  Luckily it will be there when we get back for more adventures.  Hopefully adventures that don’t include the boat trailer breaking…

  

Next up exams and pack out.  Here’s to my last couple weeks in DC!

Wait, what?

If you’re like I was, you know essentially zip, zero, zilch about the foreign service.  You know that whole diplomatic immunity thing?  Well, that’s what Mark gets because he is a Foreign Service Officer, or Diplomat. I, on the other hand, get a diplomatic passport without the painful process of a long application because I’m what they call an Eligible Family Member (EFM).

There are lots of blogs out there that talk about A-100 Class, so I won’t bore you with a description of that.  I’m also still not entirely sure what they do in A-100 class.  I’ll just tell you the not so juicy details of how we found out we would be moving to Manila.  During the first or second week of A-100 the class gets a list of cities around the world – not countries – which taught me I really don’t know geography.  You bid places high, medium, and low, but there’s a restriction on the number of posts you can put in the low category. Needless to say people try to strategize, who knows if that works, because every post is on the table.  Technically when someone joins the FS they commit to worldwide availability.

After weeks of waiting everyone in A-100 and their families come to an auditorium for a “fun” ceremony to find out where exactly they’ll be headed: Flag Day.  I woke up fairly nervous that day, then again it was also my last day at my job before starting a post-bacc program.  Looking back, ending my job the same day as flag day sounds like a recipe for disaster.  Luckily, Mark’s good friend joined me at the ceremony which calmed my nerves almost completely.  It could have been catastrophic though, because the two of us were little scoundrels standing in the back of the room narrating each post.  A flag would pop up on the screen and Mark’s friend would either inform me that I would really want to go there or that it would be HORRIBLE.  He then realized countries could be repeated and it may be disastrous to tell me it would be a crappy place to live only to find out that’s where we’d be headed.  That thought only stopped him for about two flags though.  Thankfully every time the Filipino flag came up he told me I’d be happy there, so our debauchery didn’t end in misery.  Once we couldn’t joke about how tremendous or awful places would be flag day was a bit less interesting. I spent the remainder of the time thinking about the fact that I don’t know many flags.  In case you’re wondering, this is what the Filipino flag looks like:

images

So, I’d say flag day was a success – mostly because of Mark’s friend.  I had forgotten that we ranked Manila high, which means I probably wouldn’t have realized it was a good thing without the narrative.  I’d have spent the reminder of the ceremony googling Manila.  Actually, I did do that, but only to research the awesome beaches.  Seriously, google it, there are over 7,000 islands.

So there you have it, that’s why we’re headed to Manila.

Hello world!

With packout a little less than two months away I thought I’d get this blog thing started.  I’m hoping this will help me keep in contact with people back home or at least let them know what I’m up to across the world.  So, here goes.

The question I get asked nearly every time someone finds out I’m moving…”What are you going to do in Manila?”

Answer: TBD

One thing is for sure though, I’ll have more fun than Mark.  HA! He has to work all day, but I get to workout, volunteer, try to find a job in a new country, apply to grad schools for physical therapy, get in-home massages, pedicures and manicures, get a PUPPY, meet new people, travel, and relax.  I guess I have lots to do.

Until then I’ll be trying to make a dent in my DC Checklist and saying goodbye to friends and family.