Monday, February 23, 2015

Is that "cha" the one that means car or tea?

Someone recently posted in a blog about how despicable it is that people at embassies overseas don't bother to learn the local language so that they can be prepared for emergencies. She said that when the RSO suggested in a meeting with American staff that they learn vocabulary that would help in in an emergency, there was scornful laughter. The blogger took this to mean that Americans can't be bothered to learn the local language. Excuse me while I stop laughing at that interpretation. It's not that we don't want to learn the local language, it's that the Foreign Service Institute in its wisdom insists on teaching words and phrases that are completely not useful in every day life.

As many of you might remember, my next post is in India and we are leaving in July. The Department has decided that neither of our jobs require language training since many people in India speak English. You might wonder if I am worried about not being able to communicate and the answer to that question is another question which is when has the Department ever sent me to a place with the ability to communicate in the local language? And the answer to that question is never. I have never had a full course of language training before leaving for Post, and I also suspect that even if I had, it probably wouldn't matter.


Here are some phrases and things I learned how to say from studying language through the official language programs both at FSI and at Post.

  • Nuclear non-proliferation
  • Education policy
  • Anti-terrorism programs
  • Economic development
  • proper greetings and salutations on letters
  • defense posture
  • free and fair elections
  • electoral process
  • historical context
  • cultural revolution
  • energy issues

Here are how many of those phrases I actually used in my job and/or life at Post: 0.

I had one friend on the visa line who insisted on asking applicants if they were terrorists because they had taught him that word at FSI and dang it, he was going to use it! The applicants mostly just stood there blinking because they couldn't figure out what he was asking. Because who talks about terrorism during a visa interview about going to see their new grandbaby?

Here are phrases I wish I had learned at FSI but which they do not teach.

  • I fell off a curb and I think my ankle is broken.
  • The car battery is dead.
  • The pipe burst and there is water pouring everywhere.
  • My daughter does not want you to take her picture.
  • I would like to order spicy eggplant and marinated cucumbers.
  • How much can I get these for if I buy 10?
  • She has had a fever for three days and now she has a rash and I'm worried.
  • I slipped on the ice and fell and twisted my ankle. It feels broken.
  • My oven won't stay lit when the stove burners are on.
  • Yes I need both the oven and the stove burners to work at the same time.
  • Does this have any wheat or gluten in it?
  • Do you have a list of ingredients so I can see what is in it?
  • Yes, I've broken both ankles at different times. Is it sprained or what?
  • Our furnace is broken and there is oil leaking all over the floor and it's cold. 
  • Do you have any purses that are not IPR violations?
  • I need something that will cure a headache but not make me sleepy.
  • Did you clean these vegetables with bleach?
On the morning that our pipes burst at 4am, husband heard them and woke up first. It was like a fire hydrant went off in our bathroom and it was the hot water pipe. He was trying to find a way to turn off the water and yelled for me to go call maintenance. It was while I was on the phone with the night guard that I realized I couldn't say pipe or burst or flood. So I just yelled water lots of water come quick! Then five minutes later I called back and yelled now! Come now! Water everywhere! And finally when the guard came, I dragged him into the house by the arm and showed him the waterfall down our staircase. Then he moved pretty quickly and got the maintenance crew to come shut off the water and fix the pipe. And no, I still don't know how to explain any of that in Chinese and it's not something I would ever learn in language training. 

You know what is not better than a brownie? All this freezing weather and snow. If you're in the US, then you've probably seen Boston on the news. It looks like this.

Now, DC, is not Boston by any stretch, but I am getting really tired of slipping on the ice every time I go out to walk The Dog. So, if the weather gods are listening, please bring us spring. Now. Soon. Because I keep having to wear my ugly mushroom coat which is really warm but ugly. Please, I need to wear the pretty green short sleeved sweater I just bought. No more snow! Or ice! Honestly, I can't wait for India. This move can't come soon enough. Now, somebody tell me how to say "how much are these and can I have two" in Hindi.

Saturday, February 14, 2015

Because I didn't buy a card and you never eat the chocolate I give you

Child 3 asked me a question today that I gave the best answer for and made me seem like a parent who completely has it all together. OK, actually I flubbed it. Stuttered and did that stupid parent thing where you say what do you think the answer is honey? And the question was what is it like to be married. And I answered first that it's exactly what you think it is, and then I said what do you think it's like because I thought for a minute she might say it was like this.

But she said she thought it was like being with the love of your life every moment of every day. Yep. Nailed it. Except that you don't spend every moment of every day together. And it's not like this all the time. Or actually even some of the time or ever at all. Husband and I never waltz, not even at the Marine Corps Ball where mostly they line dance and do the Electric Slide. And I don't own any ball gowns that sparkle and if Husband ever wore epaulets, I would not be able to make it to the ball because I would be laughing so hard I would cry all my makeup off.

So now that we've debunked the Happily Ever After myth, what is it like being married? And the answer is I don't know. I can only try to describe what it's like to be married to Husband which is I hope what you meant because I don't know what it is like for anyone else to be married. I only have my own experience to draw from. So here I go.

You know that montage scene in Up that makes you cry and shows Carl and Ellie's life together and it's lovely and touching and makes you want to be friends with cartoon characters because they had an awesome marriage and Ellie seems like so much fun? You know, this one?

Image result for montage from up

Yep. It's like that. Only I don't wear yellow and we never go on picnics and life is waaaaay slower than a montage and they don't show the parts about stomach flu and hospital tests and car crashes and there is no soundtrack  unless you count NPR constantly playing in the background and our house is totally not as clean as theirs and we don't have armchairs. So, it's not really like that at all. But if you took all the beautiful and fun and exciting parts of our marriage, they would make a lovely montage. And you could set it to "It Had to Be You" by Harry Connick Jr. which is our song. So, Husband, here are some of the moments I would pick to show what it's like to be married to you.

The time when we had just met and went ice-skating with friends and Husband held my hand and swung me around in a circle.

That drive up the canyon when Husband said he loved me for the first time.

Watching Sister 2 catch the bouquet.

When I almost died in Korea and Husband carried me to the hospital in his arms.

That time when we found out we lost the baby and Husband held me all night while I cried. And Husband cried, too.

When I yelled at Husband for watching the NBA playoffs while I was in the hospital in labor with Child 1, after 40 hours. Of labor. Just saying.

When I yelled at Husband for chatting with his dad on the phone while I was in the hospital in labor with Child 2 and he was supposed to be counting while I pushed and instead talked to his dad.

When we had the best. birth. ever! with Child 3 and nobody yelled even once.

The day we moved into our first house.

And then the day when we moved out of it 8 months later and drove across the country to our new home.

When we found Child 2 inside the Christmas tree and she knocked it down and broke every single ornament and we laughed and laughed.

When Husband taught Child 1 to ride a bike.

That time when the sweet potatoes in Asia were yellow and the casserole for Thanksgiving looked like snot and the children loved it.

That time we lost Child 3 for a minute when she was 1 and we searched all over the house and found her playing in the bathtub in her Sunday dress and tights and shoes completely happy. Oh, and the bathtub was full of water.

Husband eating lasagna for every single birthday for 22 years. (Except for the one he was in Afghanistan.)

When we brought The Dog home and she hated Husband and tried to eat him.

When Husband passed the Foreign Service Exam and then I did.

All those times Husband tried to give my visa applicants advice and they looked at him like he was crazy.

The most romantic dinner ever in Bali that also included the children in our private villa with the pool. (Can we add that one in twice? That was awesome.)

The cruise where Child 3 got freaked out by the child care employees because they went on an alien hunt and Child 3 was scared of aliens under her bed for years.

When Husband and Child 2 used to sing karaoke together--usually Queen songs.

That time Husband left for Afghanistan.

That time Husband came home from Afghanistan.

The day Child 1 graduated from high school.

There is way more to come later because we're not done and life isn't a movie.

So there you have it, Child 3. 22 years is a lot to put in a montage. I'm sure I'm forgetting some things. I deliberately left out some things. What it's like to be married to Husband is sometimes fun, sometimes hard, sometimes joyful, and sometimes scary, but always, always good and I wouldn't trade a minute of it for everything. Except the Afghanistan explosion incident. That I would give up freely. And maybe The Dog. We could cut her out of the montage altogether, although then Child 1 would never forgive me.

But the honest answer is, being married to Husband is better than a brownie. Does that answer your question?

Wednesday, February 4, 2015

Not exactly like riding a bike

Yesterday was the end of the semester and the children didn't have school, so I sent Child 2 off on a trip to Florida with her band and they promised they would not set the bus on fire this year. Although, technically it wasn't their fault last year. Sweet Child 2 that she is, she asked me if I wanted anything from the parks, I said no, just drink some butterbeer and take lots of photos. So she sent me two pictures. Of a duck.

Because Child 3 would have been home all alone, I took the day off and we did her favorite thing ever which is to go to the mall and go ice skating. Now, I haven't been ice skating in a few years, but I was pretty good back in the day and even took lessons as a kid. I have a big scar on my lip to prove it. However, this was before all the ankle breaking and I had forgotten just how strong your ankles need to be in order to ice skate, which is to say, ice skating is no fun when you have weak ankles. Also, it was so windy outside at the rink that if you stood in the center, a gust of wind would come and push you into the wall. So that lasted about three times around the rink and then we went back inside and shopped.

I know, you are thinking, why would I spend my day off shopping when it is torture to try on clothes, and you are right except that my favorite pair of jeans, OK, my ONLY pair of jeans is wearing out and I needed to replace them. But, I had a strategy which involved going to the same store I bought them in two years ago and buying another pair. It actually worked, and I now have two whole pairs of jeans that fit! I know. It's some kind of miracle. Then I tried on about 30 pairs of pants for work, none of which fit at all, so my shopping karma is in tact.

So now I want to talk about the clearance process. For those of you unfamiliar with government work, you might not understand that every single thing that gets written and is seen by the public, or even stuff never seen by the public, must be cleared. That means that everyone has to agree on every single word or it won't get published. Many, many very good ideas die a slow and painful death during clearance and sometimes what you end up with is completely unintelligible and doesn't even mean what you meant anymore. I've mentioned before how I had one manager who every time I wrote "beginning on" would change it to "effective" which drives me crazy. No one in the real world says effective tomorrow we will now have dinner at 6:30 instead of 7:00. Ugh. But that is only one small stupidity and what happens during the clearance process is even worse.

Let me give an example that isn't an actual example. Say you work for a company that makes motorcycles and you have been tasked to write a safety manual for a particular kind of bike. So you talk to the engineers and some safety experts and you look at previous manuals and you start writing and after a few months, you have a very clear and user friendly manual. So then you send it to clearance. And someone changes the word speed to velocity. Every single time. And you think, ok, speed and velocity kind of mean the same thing, so alright. And then someone says you have put the section on the accelerator next to the section on brakes and they should be separated by the section on pedals. And you say but motorcycles don't have pedals and the accelerator is on the handle bars and they say they won't clear it until you move it. So you move it. And then someone says you don't have a section on how to properly wear a helmet. And you think, ok, so that's not exactly about motorcycles but you can see how it's related so you write one, but you draw the line at including a section on how to wear your hair under the helmet, even though you totally get that one could be distracted enough by bad helmet hair that one stops paying attention and crashes. But still, this is a motorcycle safety manual, not a fashion manual.

And then, someone says I don't see a section here on hybrid engines. And you say, this company doesn't make hybrid motorcycles. And they say that you should and you should include in your manual how they are better for the environment. And you say yes, but we don't make them and I can't write a manual for a motorcycle that doesn't exist. And they say a Toyota Prius is a hybrid and you say yes. But we are not Toyota and a motorcycle is not a Prius. And they say I won't clear until you show me the section on hybrids. Which you can't write, because no one in the company knows anything about hybrid motorcycles because they don't exist. So your manual doesn't get cleared and now no one knows about motorcycle safety and people still keep asking when your manual will be finished and the answer is never. Never ever because it was cleared to death!

So that is what the clearance process is like. And don't ask me again because it's still far to painful because that stupid motorcycle safety manual is one of my work requirements and now I have to explain in my EER that clearance killed it and I will never ever get promoted. Ugh! And that is how the rest of my week went and why I had a migraine yesterday and why my eyebrow keeps twitching.

Not smiling for 40 years is not better than a brownie. Apparently, to avoid wrinkles, this woman hasn't smiled or laughed for 40 years. To be sure, she does look younger than 50.

But no matter how many wrinkles you get, eventually you will still die. And when I die, it will be after having lived a life full of smiles and laughter. I kind of love my crow's feet because they are evidence of happiness--laughing with my children and friends and smiling when Husband tries to help Child 2 with French (he doesn't speak French) and letting my face light up when I Skype with Child 1 so she knows how happy I am to see her, and laughing with Child 3 when we got blown into the side of the ice rink on the windiest skating trip ever. I earned every one of those little lines and I love them. Plus a smile takes off 10 years anyway, so those wrinkles get canceled out and I still get to look younger and happy. It's a win/win!