Saturday, July 13, 2013

A “Tour” of Duty

Posted in Generalities at 4:44 pm by graceandpoise

One of the first things we spent time doing after we arrived and moved into our rental house in DC for a 2-year assignment at State Department headquarters was watch the Tour de France.  Now, with our 2-year tour extended by a year of language training for our next jobs, we are watching the Tour de France for the third time in this too-expensive-to-have-been-there-this-long house as we start to get organized for moving out next week.

A lot has changed over the past three years.  At work, Husband and I have both gotten promotions, and we learned a lot about how the DC side of the sausage gets made.  At home, we invested in some pieces of “grown-up” furniture, learned – or invented – a few good new recipes, and welcomed a new tiny human into our family.

So now three of us are watching the Tour de France.  Next year:  maybe more of the same in Kosovo.

Friday, February 22, 2013

Stop Poking At Me

Posted in Generalities tagged at 5:59 pm by graceandpoise

I’m told I look like I’ve swallowed a basketball.  Maybe something bigger than that.  “Comfortable” is but a foggy memory.  The half-mile walk to and from the metro for my daily commute takes way too long now, as does the walk to the store and everywhere else.  I am short-tempered, I’m feeling – and quite literally getting – constantly beat up, and I’m running on some unknown small fraction of brain-power while trying to learn a whole new language.

So yeah.  I’m feeling stupid, uncomfortable, overwhelmed, clumsy, and ugly.  I am not “glowing.”

Piled upon all this loveliness is the fact that complete strangers feel they have a right to poke their noses into my private business, and the goings-on inside my body.  And the fact that apparently I’m not allowed to object to that.  And that’s what sparks this rant.

Take one of the many recent examples:  my husband and I were innocently walking down the street on our way to a sandwich shop.  As we passed a group of people talking to one another, one of them stopped in mid-sentence and yelled out, “Ooooo, girl!  You droppin’!  Whatchoo havin’, a boy or a girl?”  Yes, seriously.  Complete stranger on the street.  Inquiring about the internal functions of my body.  I think I deserve a lot of credit for simply ignoring this person, rather than responding with my first knee-jerk reaction (physical violence) or my second (yelling back something outrageous, like “it’s a tumor.”)

I’m told by so many people – including most of my family – that I should not only “grin and bear” strangers’ wildly unwelcome and invasive questions/comments, but that I am supposed to be kind to them and provide honest and thorough answers.  Essentially, I’m to put strangers’ feelings about what’s going on in my life above my own.  I’m told, when I express my outrage at this, that it’s a societal expectation, and I should just go along with it (and in the process allow it to perpetuate).  I’m told I shouldn’t say anything that hints at unhappiness with this situation, as this would be rude to others.

But let’s get one thing straight:  I am not a zoo animal, here for strangers’ amusement.  Neither is any other woman who happens to be pregnant.

Yes, I currently have a medical condition that is visibly obvious (“the only medical problem that is usually happy instead of scary,” to quote my husband).  That doesn’t mean people, particularly strangers, get to comment on it and ask all about it.  Like all medical conditions, this is an intensely private thing.  And I should not be vilified for wanting to keep it that way.

Ever since the first time I received such unwelcome questions from strangers about my pregnancy, and got a talking-to from relatives about my reaction of “I don’t like to talk about it” (which I considered both mild and polite, not to mention honest), I’ve felt totally alone.  Like maybe I’m some pariah, unable to become the stereotypical “glowing” and bubbly pregnant woman, simply waiting for any opportunity to tell perfect strangers about all the inner workings of her biology.  Like maybe something’s deeply wrong with me.

I felt that way until I – and my husband – started sharing stories about these unwelcome inquiries with friends and acquaintances who have had children in recent years, or are currently going through pregnancy.  Turns out I’m not a crazy harpy – apparently most people feel this way, but are too afraid of being categorized as crazy harpies to say anything.  It seems, though we all agree the constant invasions of privacy are deeply disturbing, we have all felt compelled to endure them in silence, bowing to external pressures exhorting us to appear like perfect, beaming pregnant ladies.

No more.  I will not just “grin and bear” your invasive questions, complete strangers.  I will either ignore you (if I’m feeling charitable) or say something outlandish that makes it clear your questions aren’t welcome (if I’m not feeling charitable).  You have no right to know how long it will be before I get my body back to myself.  You have no right to know what variety of human is occupying the space usually reserved for my internal organs.  You simply have no right.  This doesn’t mean I’m a crazy harpy or a pariah or even that I’m unhappy with my current state.  It simply means that you, stranger, have no right to my private business.

I – and others in similar situations – am perfectly within my rights to object to strangers’ intrusive rudeness.  And I contend we should do so.  Hopefully, if enough of us do, people will stop telling us there’s something wrong with the way we feel, and accept that we are still human beings who have a right to keep certain things private.

Monday, December 3, 2012

Linguistic Murder

Posted in Generalities at 4:47 pm by graceandpoise

So I’ve been in Serbo-Croatian (“Serbian Variant”) language classes since right around Labor Day.  I can construct some complete sentences now.  Sometimes those sentences are grammatically correct.  Sometimes.  A couple of weeks ago, one of the instructors told me, “You really need to murder your Bulgarian – it’s holding you back.”

Sorry, Bulgarian friends.  My Bulgarian language skills currently suffer from life-threatening injuries, even though my Serbian language skills aren’t out of the NICU just yet.

Why must one die for the other to live?  The two are just so closely related, but not quite closely enough.  A few examples (spelled kind-of-phonetically for those who speak American English)…

  • The word for “milk”:  Bulgarian – “mlyako” — Serbian – “mlayko”
  • The word for “where”:  Bulgarian – “kuhday” — Serbian – “gday”
  • The word for “good night”:  Bulgarian – “layka nosht” — Serbian – “lahkoo noch”
  • The word “kakvo” means “what” in Bulgarian; it means “what type of/please describe” in Serbian (“what” in Serbian is “shta”)
  • The word “kogah” means “when” in Bulgarian; it means “whom” in Serbian (“when” in Serbian is “kada”)
  • The term for “we are”:  Bulgarian – “nee smay” — Serbian – “mee smo”
  • The word for “easy”:  Bulgarian – “lehsno” — Serbian – “lahko”
  • Strangest of all (though not central to the problem):  the word for “Bulgaria” is “Buhllgahrya” in Bulgarian; the Serbian word, though, is “Boogahriya”.  Seriously.  One of the instructors actually told me they thought English-speakers took it upon themselves to put the “L” in Bulgaria, that it didn’t actually belong there.  The two countries have a great big border with one another, and have mostly-mutually-intelligible languages with pretty much the same alphabet!  How could the spelling/pronunciation of their neighbor’s name be a surprise?!

Not to mention the grammar complications.  For instance, Bulgarian has no cases but does have endings on nouns to indicate you’re talking about “the” thing rather than “a” thing;  Serbian on the other hand has seven cases that change nouns’ endings, but no definite/indefinite articles.  So you can see where some confusion would kick in.  And to think I anticipated this would be an easier learning curve than previous languages because I already knew a closely-related language.  Sigh.

So, to my Bulgarian friends, I apologize in advance that I will be unable to speak your language with anything resembling intelligence by the time I get to the Balkans and make my first visit to Bulgaria.  I hope you will understand, and I hope you will bear with me.  I really didn’t set out to slaughter my Bulgarian skills, but it’s looking like I don’t have a choice…

Saturday, June 16, 2012

Ms. B

Posted in Family, Friends & Other Travelers, Generalities, Home at 11:29 pm by graceandpoise

I was still in middle school when my older brother started coming home raving about all the great things he was learning in his new Humanities class from “Helen and Bob.”  My brother, an extraordinarily smart young man in whose mind very little was deemed comment-worthy, was thoroughly enamored.  I, looking up to him as I did (though I’d have denied it to my last breath back then), couldn’t wait until I got to high school and could take Helen and Bob’s Humanities class.  I had no idea what “Humanities” referred to, but I knew I wanted to take the class.

I was fortunate enough to have Helen – or Ms. B (I never was quite as forward as my brother) – as my English teacher in addition to taking the Humanities class she team-taught with Bob.  She was known for pushing her students hard, making them do a little more, a little faster, and a little better than they thought they could.  Her special mix of tough, comical, intense, wistful, wise, and hard-driving made her one of the best teachers I’ve ever had.  The addition of an undeniable and genuine enthrallment with the art, poetry, or literature she was teaching made her my favorite teacher ever.  And I’m definitely not alone.

I owe Ms. B a lot of things.  I am still known, on occasion, to tell people “you don’t need to have a point to have a point” (this befuddles them every time).  During my junior year of college, studying abroad in Paris and having gotten my hands on a year-long pass to the Louvre, I would sit at the feet of the Winged Victory of Samothrace, writing letters to my mom or my friends, looking up from time to time to study the statue, echoing Ms. B’s “ahhhh.”  She and Bob are the reasons the names Khufu, Khafre, and Menkure pop into my head every time I see a photo of Egypt’s pyramids.  Ditto with Ur, Uruk, and Lagash, whenever someone mentions certain parts of Iraq (happens more often than you might think).  Many a museum visit has been made exponentially more meaningful because of that Humanities class, from seeing the Stele of the Law Code of Hammurabi to gazing at the frescoes by Giotto in Florence’s Santa Croce, Vermeer‘s scenes of Dutch domesticity, Degas‘ dancers, or Georges de la Tour’s exquisitely wrought candlelight.  She’s the reason I know what a “Pre-Raphaelite” is, and why I have a special fondness for this painting.  Ms. B is the reason I have never, ever, written the word “alot” (until now, and she’d probably still try to have my head for calling it a word).  She’s also probably a large part of the reason that I have been so successful with my writing in my current job; her standards were high, and so mine are too.  She’s the reason I still tell myself and others, “Say it three times and it’s yours.”  And she’s the reason that, after all these years, I not only went out of my way last month to visit Canterbury Cathedral, but annoyed my companions by reciting the entire “General Prologue” to the Canterbury Tales, in the original Middle English.

Ms. B is retiring this year.  It’s a great loss to the students who haven’t had the chance to experience that special thing that is a class of Helen’s, but she has made a profound and positive difference in more people’s lives than most of us can hope to make in multiple lifetimes.  There is a retirement party this week, and you can bet if I weren’t three timezones away and not independently wealthy, I’d make darned sure I was there to show my appreciation.  As it is, I can only say from afar, “Happy retirement, Ms. B., and my door – wherever it may happen to be located – will always be open should you get bit by the travel bug.”

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Laying it Out There

Posted in Generalities, In DC, On the Internet at 8:34 pm by graceandpoise

It’s no secret that I work for a part of the U.S. government that doesn’t tend to get a lot of credit (and does get plenty of criticism).  Particularly around tax season, there is a lot of grumbling that goes on, and the State Department – not to mention the foreign assistance budget – is definitely not immune from being the target of calls for significant cuts in government spending.

With my own friends and family, I can make the case for how teensy a piece of the federal budget is taken up by our foreign affairs and foreign assistance efforts.  However, I’m the first to admit my own efforts don’t go very far.  Enter, the Obama White House’s brilliant idea of a tax receipt.  Now, nobody can claim ignorance about how much of their tax money goes where.  Maybe, just maybe, this will help people gain some perspective and realize that all our budget troubles will not be magically solved if only we just start ignoring the needs of those less fortunate.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Open Letter: Cilantro

Posted in Generalities at 3:43 pm by graceandpoise

Dear Food Makers/Sellers of America,

Please, please, PLEASE warn people when you are going to put cilantro in a dish. Particularly when it doesn’t belong there.

I mean, I have come to expect it if I’m ordering something Mexican, or even Indian or Vietnamese food, and I know to specifically ask for my food without cilantro.  However, if I’m ordering something ostensibly Italian, or meat-and-potatoes style American, I expect it to be cilantro-free. It should be cilantro-free!

If you are trying to be all nouveau-fusion-cuisine by putting cilantro in everything, then you need to tell people so.  You wouldn’t top a burger with liver and onions and assume that everyone will love it so much you don’t even have to mention the liver and onions part on your menu, would you?  Then don’t put a pile of cilantro on top of (or into) my burger/sandwich/soup/wrap/pasta/whatever without mentioning it.  If you choose to go that route, don’t be insulted when I come back to you and say, “Pardon me, but this appears to be covered in cilantro, rendering it completely inedible.”  The liver and onions, at least, would be a whole lot easier to remove from the item.

I’m not asking you to omit cilantro from your menus in a wholesale fashion (though of course I’d be perfectly happy if you did).  I’m just asking you to allow me to make informed choices about what I order for lunch.  Please recognize that for a lot of us, even what you might consider a tiny sprig of cilantro will overpower every single other flavor in a dish with a disgusting chemical/metal/soap flavor.

Maybe it’s a good weight loss tactic.  I doubt many people would overeat if you just did stuff to make all their food taste nasty.  Perhaps you could market that.

Otherwise, please, just tell people when you’re putting cilantro in things.

Sincerely,

Me

Friday, August 27, 2010

Holy cr@p! Who DOES this?

Posted in Generalities at 5:07 pm by graceandpoise

Now, I’m the first to tell you I would love to have a cute baby tiger or baby panther or something for a pet.  But I’m not really serious.  OF COURSE I’m not really serious.  Because – all concerns of getting mauled 6 months later by your playful friend aside – who DOES this?!?

Poor baby kitty.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

19th Amendment

Posted in Generalities at 3:42 pm by graceandpoise

Today is the 90th anniversary of the 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. It’s because of this that I get to vote. Incidentally, it’s also because of this that I was able to have what might just be my favorite consular moment: making an 18-year-old young woman cry tears of joy when I told her I could help her register to vote in the 2008 Presidential election.

To the American women (and even men) of the early 20th century: Thank you.  You risked ostracism, jail, physical abuse, and who knows what else, so that people like me who came along a couple of generations later could grow up and reach voting age without even considering the possibility of a world in which we wouldn’t be able to vote.  What an incredibly generous gift.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Re-learning America

Posted in Foreign Service Life, Generalities, In DC at 4:54 pm by graceandpoise

Home Leave is over, and we’re back in DC.  We’ve completed our first 2 weeks at our new jobs and are starting to settle in.  Over the past month or so we’ve both added 2 new states to our lists of “been there,” and we’ve spent some quality time with both sides of the family and with friends from all kinds of categories, but now it’s time to start trying to get re-accustomed to “real life.”

It turns out that living in difficult conditions in foreign countries for so long makes you end up going “Oh yeah! In America you can [insert otherwise common-sensical thing here]!” an awful lot.  For instance, one of the things we’re re-learning is the convenience of being able to stop by a store on the way home from work.  Gosh, what a novelty!  And you don’t even have to have exact change in cash – they all take credit cards!  Another thing: the far-more-equal status of men and women here.  In India, it was inadvisable for me to wander around alone much, and wearing a tank-top was just an invitation for lasciviousness of the highest order from anyone you might happen to pass on the street.  Now that I’m back in America, it’s taking me a while to become comfortable again with wearing tank tops or skirts that hit above the knee, or with going on a late-night solo trip to pick up something from the 7-eleven (a store that’s actually open late at night – wow!).  Ordinary things, I know, but my life’s been so different for so long that they’re now truly remarkable.

So what’s next?  Well, we’ve got to start looking for someplace to live from August onwards (we love our temporary place, but it’s too small, too expensive, and too already-furnished).  We’ve also got to replenish some things that didn’t make it out of India (many pairs of shoes, about half our work-worthy clothes, our entire spices and baking ingredients collection, the list goes on…) so we’ve been doing lots of shopping.  Once we get a place (probably renting rather than buying, at least for a while), I’m sure there will be plenty of stuff to do to make it feel like a home.  I sure am looking forward to that, though, and to becoming a “real American” again.

Also: photos from Home Leave will be coming, I promise.  Stay tuned!

Friday, April 9, 2010

Planning a New Life – and Remembering Past Ones

Posted in Foreign Service Life, Generalities, In DC at 11:22 pm by graceandpoise

Our time here in India is winding down, and we’re scheduling “one last” dinner out with friends and “one last” trip to our favorite shops and restaurants.  We’re worrying about packout, editing and re-editing our EERs (Employee Evaluation Reports), and generally trying to tie up loose ends.  In the midst of all this, I also find myself thinking about DC, spending a lot of time pondering what life is going to be like when we move there for the next 2 years.

I will admit, I went into this whole “bidding on DC jobs” thing with more than a little trepidation.  Last time I lived in DC, I knew I was only going to be there for a short amount of time, and I was a student so I lived like one, sticking to a very tight budget.  I found it nearly impossible to meet interesting people or make friends in the city, there was a lot I didn’t understand about the whole west-coast/east-coast culture gap, and I generally had a pretty crummy time.  I remember thinking sardonically that the only way to get anyone in DC to give you the time of day was to be either politically powerful or the right-hand-man of someone politically powerful.  I don’t want it to be that way this time around.

Though being part of the Foreign Service essentially makes you homeless, a drifter from place to place unable to put down roots anywhere, I’ve learned that in order to preserve your sanity, you basically have to lie to yourself and treat each posting as though it were for good.  That way, you can at least give yourself a chance at having something approximating a normal-ish life.  (Discussion on how marvelous and exotic a “normal” or “ordinary” life sounds these days will be kept for another time.)

So I’m thinking about DC.  For instance: what part of the DC area should we think about living in, and do we want to rent or buy (or can we afford to do either one)?  Will I gain crazy amounts of weight when suddenly I no longer have to worry about 80 percent of available foods being painfully spicy?  Should I join a gym or just take lots of classes at that fabulous yoga studio we went to in the weeks before we came to India (or will I have time/energy to do either one)?  I’ve also been thinking about work stuff, like how I’m going to be able to replenish my work wardrobe after I get rid of all the things ruined by living in India, and whether I’ll manage to remember any of the stuff I learned about working in my chosen “cone” (job track) of the Foreign Service way back when I worked for the Department before formally joining as an officer.

And, of all things, I’ve been thinking about rowing.  I’m not sure where, but I saw a photo recently of rowers out on the Potomac in an eight, on the glass-smooth water of early morning, all the rowers moving with purpose and in unison, with the city’s landmarks gently touched by the sun in the background – a photo obviously shot in those quiet, private hours before the rest of humanity is fully awake.  I haven’t rowed seriously in about 10 years, but it’s amazing how much that photo made me yearn to get back out there with a boat, an oar, and a group of like-minded individuals.  It’s a sport that requires a high degree of coordination – almost choreography – great amounts of power, a huge helping of perseverance, lots of sweat, sometimes blood, sometimes tears, and even sometimes little icicles hanging off your fingernails – and, yes, getting out of bed early.  Those who know me well are undoubtedly scratching their heads at that last bit.  But I don’t know – there’s just something about the simple, quiet things (not to mention the sense of community and of accomplishment) that is so unbelievably seductive these days.

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