Wednesday, July 11, 2018

Vivant à Paris: La Premiere Semaine

In short: I'm loving Paris so far! More to come, but here is a taste via some photos...

Jacques checks out some flowers in nearby park Bois de Bologne. 

Lake and geese at the park. 

My favorite path so far in the park. 

View coming out of the metro on the way to work. 

Monday, June 25, 2018

Pre-Departure Preparations

I'm one week out from heading to Paris! As usual, the preparatory tasks start piling up, even though it feels like I've been trying to stay ahead of it all. In any case, here's my monthly blog post to sum it all up.

The past six weeks were a real roller coaster for me. Coming back to FSI (the Foreign Service Institute, where much of our formal, professional training takes place) was both fun and stressful. It's odd, because FSI is like an idyllic college campus: lots of green space, walking paths under the trees, picnic tables, a few little gazebos, a decent cafeteria with some variety, and hallways packed with people learning tradecraft, languages of all kinds, and other useful diplo-skills.

I was excited at first to see familiar faces from previous trainings. Oddly enough, though, the anticipation of seeing familiar faces caused more anxiety than nostalgic fondness for me. By the end of each day in my first few weeks, I would feel like I was frantically checking out the face of every person I passed in the hallway, wondering if they knew me or vice versa. It was strange, even as I felt myself tensing up and angst-ing about it, the thought would cross my mind that I loved seeing familiar faces, it shouldn't be so stressful. Talking to other people helped me feel better: many people feel the same way.

It's disappointing and confusing, that 'coming home' is not the easy, simple thing one imagines it will be. Sure, I'm not dodging suicidal motorcycle drivers along unpaved roads, or going through my seventeenth power outage of the hour. Maybe I understand (mostly) the language spoken around me, and I don't have constant low-grade digestive stress. On the other hand, the stores seem overwhelmingly and unnecessarily over-stocked with options, and nothing hits me emotionally like I think it "should." There's a stress with coming back that is undefined and nebulous, but no less intense for all that. Interpersonal relationships feel strained. Good friends seem distant or, worse, too judgmental.

Thankfully, some of that unnamed stress melted away as I learned about visas and our processes for granting or denying them; passports and nationality, and the unexpected rights and limitations that come with them; and all about the services I might be asked to provide for Americans living overseas (like visiting them in prison, or doing welfare and whereabout checks). It was a great six-week course and although I know it'll be necessary to learn all over again on arrival in Paris, I feel at least marginally more intelligent on the subject matter than I did before.

Which brings me to the present! As I said, it's one week until blast off, and I'm busy getting ready. I drove down to Durham on Sunday with Jacques in the back seat. Today we went to the veterinarian, got our $95 EU health certificate, and sent it off to USDA so that they can provide their $28 APHIS approval stamp and send it back in my $25 overnight FedEx package, hopefully in time to take with us to the airport on Monday. Whew! They aren't kidding when they say having pets in the Foreign Service ain't cheap!

Last minute shopping, separating stuff into shipment piles, changing my address, and getting my stuff together all take time, energy, and focus. Luckily, I have wonderful parents who are willing to help and keep me going, as well as great friends who support me and cheer me on. The mobile life style does help clarify relationships, and those that can stand the test of sporadic visits and my intense bouts of scrambling to get things done are definitely keepers. I'm a very lucky person to have such incredible people in my life.

Next post will be from Paris!

--Z

Saturday, May 26, 2018

Back in Training

Greetings from DMV! (That's DC, Maryland, and Virginia, not the Department of Motor Vehicles, just to assuage any concerns!)

About three weeks ago, I packed my bags and piled my things and Jacques in the car and motored up to DC with my dad. After spending a night, dad headed up to Baltimore to meet my mom, who was staying there to help her brother after some serious surgery (he's on the mend now).

After a couple of doctor's visits and meeting up with friends, I began consular training, often called "Con-Gen". This is a six week course wherein I learn all about the work I'll be doing in Paris. Broadly, it includes processing visa applications and helping Americans abroad in various contexts (adoptions, deaths, jail, passport issues, etc). After two weeks, my brain is buzzing with all that I've learned about the fascinating world of how non-Americans apply for visas, and the role I as a consular officer will play in the process. The class is challenging but the instructors are good: dynamic, knowledgeable, and understanding of the stuffed-head feeling all us students have right now. Training includes lectures, homework, roleplays of various scenarios, computer training, and a healthy dose of real-life stories.

Meanwhile, I'm staying with my friends Joe and Cody, and Jacques and I have settled nicely into the roomy basement apartment. A local dog-walking company comes every weekday to walk him, which he seems to enjoy. He's still quite reactive to other dogs, but we're working on it! Jacques also enjoys meandering around the back yard of the house, watching and barking at cars, pedestrians, dogs, and birds. And sometimes things I can't see. :)

My training takes place at the Foreign Service Institute in Arlington. It's fun to be back there, because there are so many familiar faces: former French instructors, people I met in Bamako, A-100 colleagues back for training, and occasionally someone I worked with at Main State. It was a bit overwhelming at first: I would find myself getting anxious, that first week, as I looked at every face I passed in the hall, wondering if it was someone I should remember or know. I continue to carry my IFAC (individual first aid kit) around with me, a habit picked up in Bamako. Overall, the level of anxiety I've felt since returning to FSI has surprised me. Talking to other Bamako-returnees, it seems within the normal response continuum, but still... it's harder than I thought. That seems to be my foreign service mantra!

My between-posts resolution is to write a blog entry at least once a month... wish me luck!

Friday, April 20, 2018

A New Year, A New Adventure

Happy 2018 and, as is becoming a distressing recurring phrase, sorry for not writing for so long!

Last I wrote was September 2017. I was in Mali making new friends, raising my pup Jacques, and looking at my last six months at post. To kick off restarting blog posts, here are some highlights from September '17 until today. Enjoy!

September: Trip to Ghana for work and a little play!



October: Trip to Morocco with good friends!



November: Time well spent in Bamako, celebrating Thanksgiving and lots of walking and hiking with Jacques.


December: Work trip to Conakry, Guinea, plus taking pictures in my Bamako neighborhood.




January 2018: Enjoying the dry "cool" weather on some hiking trips in/around Bamako.




February: Several Bamako photo safaris and a road trip to Dakar!












March: Saying Goodbye (last photo safari and some random pictures)







April: Home leave, relaxing in Durham, NC, watching spring spring.








Saturday, September 16, 2017

Changing Temps

The year is flying by as we hit the middle of September. Many of my closest friends here in Bamako have moved on to their next posts or trainings, and I've started making new friends with the newer arrivals. When in meetings, I sometimes look around realize I'm amongst those who have been at post the longest, which is a strange feeling.

The coming months promise to bring lots of excitement: a work trip to Accra, Ghana; a personal vacation trip to Morocco with good friends; a visit in Bamako by my parents; and possibly another work trip to Conakry. Soon after it will be the end of the year, which will bring my last few months at post.

My puppy, Jacques, is almost six months old, and having him has opened up several new friendships and avenues for activities with other dog owners or folks who like dogs. He's gotten so much bigger and his personality continues to develop and change. He's *mostly* potty trained now, though at friends' houses he still manages to leave surprises. As they say here: petit-a-petit, or dony-dony (slowly, slowly; little by little; step-by-step).

The temperatures are starting to cool as we near the end of rainy season. It's lovely to walk in the evenings and feel a cool breeze now and then. The days still bring 90+ degree weather and wind/rain storms are still sweeping through, but I can feel it: the seasons are changing.

--Z

Saturday, June 24, 2017

Kicking off Year 2 in Bamako

It's official, I'm on the downswing of my time in Bamako! My tour here is two years and March was my halfway point. Although my exact departure date won't be solidified until much closer to March 2018, it feels good to be on the downward slope.

Things in Bamako haven't been so great. Perhaps you've seen the news, or maybe not: there was an attack on a "resort" area called Le Campement, or Kangaba, where several westerners and Malians were killed. Just another senseless attack, for terror's sake alone. I've been to Le Campement a couple of times and was looking forward to going again sometime soon.

It's funny, it's so easy to say (and think, and feel), "One can't live in fear, you just have to keep on doing what you're doing." It's not true. It is possible to live in fear. You just start to decide what you're willing to risk: go to the very popular-with-westerners restaurant? Hmm. The other resort-y place in town? Uhm. Grocery shopping at the market primarily frequented by westerners? Er. It's a terrible way to think, in trade-offs and hesitancy, but it's a real way to live.

The past month has been a tough one: we lost a member of our community, the attack at Le Campement, continuing security threats, plus all the usual work stressors and projects, and let's just toss on the State Departement hiring freeze and budget cuts, which are starting to have their effects. It's not an easy environment to live in, all around.

So how do we cope, here in Bamako? Primarily, by taking care of each other. The people here are incredible and I find myself depending on the goodness of my friends and colleagues more and more. I usually feel like I'm the one trying to provide lots of support, but here it's the reverse: I'm receiving it, all the time. From "I'm thinking of you, how's it going?" text messages to office walk-ins just to shoot the breeze, from get-togethers at friends' houses to sporadic phone calls to check in and say hi... the community here is real and it is strong.

Another way of coping is making flash decisions, and one month ago I did just that: after years of hemming and hawing, wishing it were the right time and place, I finally followed in my Grandma Nancy's footsteps and said "The time is now!" And I adopted a puppy the next day.

Jacques is just about three months old now and he's a handful: of cuteness, frustration, love and energy. He's a Malian mutt, a mix of Malian dog (technically called Azawakh) and an unknown father. There's no telling how big he'll get, but for now he's little and adorable. We're working on potty training, and crate training, and sit-lay down-come-hush training. Also on training ME, because it's a lot of work being a dog owner!

Without the support of friends here, I probably couldn't handle having Jacques on top of everything else. Luckily, the dog-loving community here is strong and very supportive, so I think we'll make it! Pictures to follow...

--Z

Thursday, April 20, 2017

Vacations: 3 Different Trips

In March, I took a road trip to Burkina Faso with six friends and it was a wonderful, relaxing, interesting couple of days. When I returned to Bamako and downloaded the pictures, there were many other photos from my R&R as well. So, now you get to see pictures from my Nov/Dec trip AND from Burkina Faso! And, from my April R&R in Italy!

First, USA R&R. I spent a few weeks at my parents' house in Durham, NC. My Minnesota grandmother flew down and we got to spend a lovely week together, catching up and enjoying chilly Durham. My brother and his wife came for Thanksgiving so I had time with them as well. And most importantly, I got time with my fantastic mom and dad, who are my biggest fans and my favorite people in the world. And so I present to you, R&R 2016 pictures:


My grandma Nancy watching the birds in my parents' back yard. 

The neighborhood bamboo grove that my father's "Bambusero" group has made visitor-friendly.

Pretty house with a pretty tree in Parkwood.

Dad and Joe. 

Proud dad at the red hydrant grove. 

Bamboo groves are so pretty.

Off to visit the goat farm!

Hungry goats.

This guy loved my grandma... and her cane! He stuck by her like a faithful pet, begging to be patted and head-scratching on her cane. 

Silly kids!

By goats!

Smiley mom on the hill!

Thanksgiving with my awesome family.

---

Next up is my recent trip to Burkina Faso! A few weeks ago a friend of mine asked if I'd like to join a group planning a road trip across the Mali-Burkina Faso border, and after dithering and procrastinating, I finally decided to do it. To give you an idea, this isn't a trip that is taken lightly: the security situation in Mali is such that travel farther than 50 kilometers out of town, or any trip overnight, has to be approved by our regional security office. For our trip, we had to provide details: what route would we take, what communication devices would we have, where would sleep, what tourist sites would we visit. We were also given locator devices to take with us. 

Luckily, this meant a very well-planned trip, and off we went directly after work on Friday! We took two cars and motored to the border. There were five stops to make, though I couldn't tell you what was done at each. We showed our passports a couple of times, the vehicle owners presented their "carte grise" or registration cards, and paid the various "peage" or tools. We chatted with the border police, who were various shades of stern, jovial, or disinterested. 

On the way to Burkina, we stopped for a quick road-side picnic.

Banfora Hotel

Asha at Domes de Fabedougou 
Domes de Fabedougou


Cascades de Karfiguéla

Cascades de Karfiguéla

Water pipes

Yes, we went to McDonald... no golden arches but the burger was delish!

Lake Tangrela, where it is sometimes possible to see hippos. Not the evening we went, however.

Ladies selling baskets.

Ready to take a hike!
Our little adventure group.


Size.

Artistic photography in cool landscapes.

Our guide managed to take us places just before the hordes of school-kids... we were
on our way out of the hiking area, thank goodness.

Giant baobob. We went inside and learned its history. 

Cashew tree fruit!

Start of our walk through the historic area of Bobo Dioulasso.

Narrow alleyways.

Fish stew, anyone?

Water collection.

A little musical interlude. 

The Bobo Dioulasso mosque. 

Inside the mosque.

---

And last but not least, here are a few pictures from my Italian R&R. Friends of my parents decided to spend a year in Italy, renting apartments in different parts of the country to explore different regions.


View from uphill on Todi.

Assisi view.
Mom & pop, the Italian travelers!

Mom enjoying the view. 

Dad being a humble beggar... with a view!
Orvieto's fabulous church.
Views from Orvieto.
Taking a break.

The hilltop town of Civita di Bagnoregio.

Pretty archway in Perugia. 

Lovely courtyard of a B&B. 
Sardinia: hiking to get a peek of a gorge.
Sardinia beach from above.
A nuraghe, ruin of a people who inhabited Sardinia in the tenth century or so.
Pops of red.
Penant on a hilltop with a grand view.