Friday, December 30, 2005

The Inevitable Timeline

There's a legend of a 19th century British lord, who, when visiting his daughter, exclaimed with dismay that his toothbrush wasn't "foaming properly". It turns out that his valet had been placing toothpaste on the brush for him for so long that he no longer knew how to do it for himself.

There are some interesting parallels to being a Foreign Service spouse. I can do many things I would have never tried three years ago. I can buy beer in three languages, I can bargain in outdoor markets, I can navigate any international airport in thirty minutes or less.

There's also the wimpy, whiny dark side that you almost never hear about. Our apartments are assigned before our arrival by an inter-agency board, someone else sets up our license plates, we have a special passport agency, an Embassy maintenance guy comes over to change the light bulbs, and we receive financial allowances for virtually anything that may be construed as a hassle. Mama State takes care of it. It's like crawling back into the womb. Some spouses are able to keep a hold on themselves, some become accustomed to being taken care of and lose themselves a bit along the way, others become spoiled brats.

I don't really know which camp I fall into. Luckily I lived on my own for long enough that I don't take Mama State for granted. I'm sure most of my girlfriends felt the same way, but there seems to be an inevitable timeline for us. For a while it's a refreshing break, then it becomes routine, then it becomes an entitlement. Then our brains inevitably dissolve into a puddinglike goo, we become "ladies who lunch", we manhandle the pool boy, and then we bemoan the lack of a Christian Dior boutique in Mogadishu.

OK, I'm exaggerating for effect. The infantilization of spouses is an entrenched, and unfortunate, State Department trait. On most forms I am listed as Matt's "dependent" or "trailing spouse". I haven't been anyone's "dependent" since I left for college, and "trailing spouse" implies that Matt is dragging me around the world in a little red wagon. Sometimes I'm called an "eligible family member" which is a lovely effort to avoid offending anyone by being completely vague. I have friends who try to list their cats as "eligible family members." So excuse me if I don't find the term flattering.

Until the 1970s, wives were considered "unpaid employees" of the State Department and were included on employee evaluations. I don't mention the husbands of diplomats, because there weren't any. Female diplomats who married were forced out of their jobs.

Frankly, things haven't gotten much better. For example, Matt has to sign a Power of Attorney so I can use the Embassy Cashier. It's a joint account, it's my money too, but I need hubby's permission to talk to the nice bank teller lady. It's enough to drive you crazy.

Of course, there are government programs to fix all these things. For example, if I DO indeed go crazy, Mama State will send me on a lovely all expenses paid two-week vacation to Sibley Hospital.

Now call me crazy (and ship me off to Sibley) but couldn't a lot of this be fixed by NOT calling us dependents, NOT making us get our husbands' approval to cash a damn check, and by trying to make us fend for ourselves a bit?

Thursday, December 22, 2005

The Travelogue Monologue Suckalogue

The Ambassador and the RV

This story ran in Sunday's Washington Post Travel Section. The German Ambassador in DC and his wife decided to spend their summer vacation in an RV. Wacky hijinks ensue, and the wife writes an article about their experiences. This could have been really fun, great stuff.

However, I found her article annoying, poorly written, and lacking in any sort of emotional resonance. She's been in our country for four years, and has nothing to say about America that hasn't been said a hundred million times already. Guess what? We're all really fat and we like to throw stuff away instead of fixing it.

It's amazing, but in one article she managed to hit every last one of my Top 10 Travelogue Pet Peeves. Some quotes:

1. "But the real America, we felt, was happening somewhere else. Clearly without us."

It always drives me crazy when Washington is described as some sort of alternate universe "fake America." I'm sorry, I left my "real America" Bible, giant belt buckle, and dog named Rusty at home. I’m sorry I can’t provide that authentic American experience for you.

What a twit. It annoys me to no end when people feel like they have to drive all the way out to the middle of nowhere to “really experience” a place.

2. "It's not something I'm particularly keen on experiencing myself." "Nothing is as I had hoped....I keep these thoughts to myself."

Nothing is better for a vacation than sulking! So, why are you exploring the "real America" if you don't want to? She spends the entire article moaning about how she doesn't want to be on this trip. Let me tell you, nothing is more exciting than paragraph after paragraph of sheer whining.

3. "Karl teaches political science at Harvard; Debbie inherited the 250-year-old antiques-filled farmhouse from her parents."...."Peter Schleifenbaum, with whom I played ring-around-the-rosie in a German kindergarten many years ago, is a professor of forestry and rules over 60,000 acres of land, including more than 50 lakes."…“The success of such a trip clearly depends on one essential: to be equipped with a long list of friends.”… “We've rented a house there [Martha’s Vineyard], and at dinner parties we share our vacation stories with British aristocrats, football team owners, Washington power brokers and writers who live on the island year-round. They all stare at us in disbelief.”

We get it. You have really important, glamorous friends. You’re the most popular kids in school. Now stop reading your Christmas card list to me.

4. "Looks like a mix between Lake Starnberg in Bavaria and Lago di Como in Italy," Wolfgang says."… “It's like the Norwegian fiords and England's Cornwall all in one.”

You're well traveled and sophisticated. We get it, already. Talk about the trip you’re actually taking, please.

5. "Milky twilight is settling in."

Eeeeeeesh. Did she get that from Dial-a-Cliche? Let's not even discuss the "alluring blue water" she discovers.

6. "Next to us is a party of 10. Grandpa and Grandma, each weighing more than 250 pounds, enjoy their first cigarettes of the day in camp chairs."

Yes, because Lord knows that Germany has no fat people. Germans never touch anything like sausages, beer or sweets. It bugs me when writers, especially European ones, imply that Americans are the world's only overweight slobs.

7. "At Cornwall, we cross the St. Lawrence River back to the United States. Nobody checks the vehicle to see if we are hiding any terrorists."

Holders of diplomatic passports aren't usually searched, you nitwit. Remember that little thing called ‘diplomatic immunity’? I hate it when someone with special privileges implies that they are just another traveler.

8. "Everything on Route 2 is about cars: car dealers, new cars, used cars, auto body shops, repair places, wrecked cars under sun umbrellas, garages, scrap merchants. It all seems to symbolize a mobile, throwaway society."

Or, you’re in the auto repair section of town.

“Here you start something, give it up and go somewhere else. Buy, sell, tear down the old, build up the new. Are we in Europe too attached to the past?”

Are we in Europe too attached to asking ourselves lame pseudo-philosophical questions? Both of these quotes bother me for the same reason: trying to bodily force symbolism out of the mundane does NOT make you deep.

9. "You did what?" one gentleman bursts out. "All alone, no help, with the baby? Thank God you did not bring the vehicle on the island!"

I absolutely love this. I adore the idea that driving around in an RV, which pensioners do on a routine basis, is some sort of grand adventure. It's not like she was in 'Nam, people. She slept in an RV for a few nights. The horror! The horror!

10. “Let's face it: Between professional socializing, embassy functions and fundraisers, how else could we have ever felt so cut loose, so independent and so mobile -- so American?”

I don’t know…could you maybe try getting out of the RV for once? Or try talking to actual Americans? At no point in the trip does she have a conversation with, or meet any of these “real Americans” she was so damn eager to see at the beginning of the trip. She and her husband just putter around, visiting one upper-crust friend after another. How very enlightening. I truly hate it when a travel writer makes no effort whatsoever to talk to any locals.

I guess what burns me most of all is that this self-serving dreck was on the front page of the Washington Post’s Travel Section, while I still toil away in Blogland. There truly is no justice in this world.

Wednesday, December 14, 2005

Nordstrom is Porn

Ironically, nothing makes you feel quite so American as living abroad. And if you really and truly want to feel American, move to a formerly socialist nation with a depressed economy.

Forget the language barrier, the shattered buildings, and the fact that people still drive around in Yugo hatchbacks. The hardest part is the complete lack of shopping. There is very little to buy here, and there’s no one around who can afford to buy it. For the average American, consumerism is a way of life. For the average American in Sarajevo, consumerism is a grand lost art, like pyramid-building. Consumer nostalgia runs high.

I was a shopping addict under the best of circumstances. However, the forced withdrawal has warped me a little. I cruise Nordstrom’s website like it’s porn. I even close the browser whenever someone enters the room, so no one can catch me at my dirty little habit.

I can absorb every detail of a catalog, whether or not it’s a store where I would actually shop. I swipe misdirected catalogs from the mailroom to feed my habit. I even read those home decor catalogs with the corny seasonal decorations (who doesn’t need a foam scarecrow and assorted reusable easy-clean plastic pumpkins for their front yard in the fall? It’s festive!). Sadly, as there is no comparison shopping, I find myself wanting everything I see. Ugly sweaters? Votive sets? Day-Glo orange DVD cabinets? My sense of style has completely vanished.

I’m not alone. Every time the mailroom gets a shipment, the entire embassy community gathers around the door, hoping for a package. In fact, as I write this, there’s a group waiting outside in sub-freezing temperatures. A friend stopped by my office today to say how excited she was to go home for Christmas. Seeing her family was all well and good, but she was truly thrilled to go to Rite Aid. Only in Bosnia would Rite Aid be considered an exciting day out. Entire lunchroom conversations revolve around Target. Coupon codes are spoken of with awe.

Being homesick for shopping is completely normal. I promise. Now, if you’ll excuse me, Nordstrom might be having a sale.

Postscript: Special congratulations go out to Mike West and Erin Shannon, who got engaged this past weekend. Hooray!

Thursday, December 01, 2005

Hodgepodge of Procrastination

It's been over a month since my last, I mean blog post. I'm sorry guys, things have been super crazy lately. I'll just give the highlights:

I'm famous!

The Associates of the American Foreign Service Worldwide (they were the Foreign Service Wives or something like that in the Dark Ages) has posted this blog on their list of Foreign Service family websites. Check it out:

Shot for a Shot, On the Clock

Lord knows how I got official approval to do this, but a few weeks ago I organized a Shot for a Shot happy hour with the Health Unit. If you got your flu shot, you got a ticket for one free Jell-O shot at the next Embassy happy hour. It was gloriously tacky, and 75 more people got flu shots this year than last year.

The Marine Ball: It's Kind of Like the Prom, But This Time Around I Had a Date and Actually Showed Up

The next day, Matt and I attended the Marine Ball, which celebrates the birthday of the United States Marine Corps. We got all gussied up in formalwear and went down to the Holiday Inn (sadly, Sarajevo's poshest hotel is a Holiday Inn). We brought the leftover Jell-O shots with us, so our table was festive indeed. Our table also got much, much noisier as the evening progressed. By midnight, a bunch of normally very official Americans were swilling cocktails and dancing (very badly) to hip hop. Some hardier souls attempted a Rockettes line, which didn't last very long.


Merrill and Anne came to see us for Thanksgiving, and we had a raucous good time. Between all of the standard tourist stuff, we consumed 9 bottles of wine in one day, then sang karaoke. Skye sent a Playstation game called Karaoke Revolution, and all of you have to go out and buy it right now. My character was a pudgy white-boy rapper I dubbed "Hot Bitch." We also attended a fashion show, complete with catwalk, pretentious fashions, and male models in their underwear. Anne and I liked the last part the best.

Other Stuff

I have to admit my job is wearing on me a little. I'm supposed to be responsible for the Embassy's morale, but what do you do about people who just don't want to be happy? It can be emotionally draining to deal with all the pettiness and gossip of Embassy life. My latest solution has been to ignore everyone who doesn't completely kiss my butt. Hey, if it works for the President, why can't it work for me? I'm looking forward to when my coworker comes back from maternity leave and I can go back to 20 hours a week. In the meantime, I've learned that bake sales really do matter.