The Newbie’s Guide to Throwing a Party

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I’ve been to four planned gatherings in the last month.  One of them was a massive-scale, official function, two were small gatherings, and one was a themed, open-to-all, casual party.  For most of these, the events went off well – the atmosphere was inviting and warm, the food and beverage well-planned, and overall – people had FUN.

See what I did there?  That last phrase was so important, I put it in bold, italics, and underlined it.  Because that’s really what parties are about.  Fun.

To a lot of people, throwing a party is an opportunity to freak out, and that’s always baffled me.  I suppose that unlike a lot of folks, I grew up with the idea that hostessing was something that you did, that was important, and I had great role models for how to do it.  DiploGramps was in the military, and so DiploGram did the traditional army wife thing – coffees for the ladies (who pretty much all stayed home – this was in the days before telecommuting was a thing or jobs were “portable”), bridge nights, and at least one barbeque or holiday party every year.  I remember passing around peanuts and m&ms and opening the door to welcome people in for bridge nights (that’s a card game, whippersnappers).  I was probably seven at the time.  DiploDad had a similar experience with his grandparents, also a career military couple, and his grandfather was a military attaché in Egypt and Taiwan, where entertaining became second nature to them.

But even beyond the realm of the 1970s-80s military entertaining, there were a lot of other places to learn the skill along the way – sorority formals and date parties, ROTC events, prom in high school.  Sorority and fraternity membership dipped quite a bit in the 1960s and I don’t run into many young adults these days who admit to wearing letters.  This is sad, because in all honesty, these organizations, for all their faults, teach organizational and social skills like how to throw a party.

For an expat community, or indeed any community, building a sense of belonging is often achieved by parties and gatherings.  It gives people shared experiences, a chance to talk in a non-threatening environment, and if you want to be crass about it – a chance to “network”.  At the risk of being snarky, it’s what adults do to make life at your post, in your neighborhood, and in your community better.

Because I have been hostessing for a couple of decades now, and because I am damn good at it – I’m going to give you the essentials, and I’m going to level with you.  To begin with, I’m not going to tell you that you can throw a party for nothing, because you can’t – it will require a bit of investment.  But I will tell you that I’ve been to parties that have been pretty basic with respect to cost that still checked all the big three blocks:  food, drink, and music.  One of the best parties I ever went to was an impromptu BBQ thrown by my neighbor and his best friend when neighbor’s wife was out of town.  He invited the entire street, and well, he only had a small tub of potato salad, a few bags of chips, and a one-pound container of coleslaw from the local deli for about 30 people.  But he had about six different kinds of meat on the grill and four separate sauces to choose from, a couple of coolers of cheap beer and wine, and a loud sound system.  Again, the basics: food, drinks, and music.

Food

This is where about 40-50% of your budget should go.  Two considerations here – cost and menu.  Cost is the easy one – cut costs by shopping at stores like Costco, ethnic/international grocery stores (great deals on produce), and buy stuff that’s in season or on special.  Make food yourself – you’ll have to plan to start baking/cooking at least 2 days in advance for pretty much anything, so consider your time and energy for that sort of thing when making a decision.

When deciding what to serve – play to your strengths.  Those two guys who hosted the BBQ I mentioned? – that’s exactly what they were doing.  If you are a master griller, but hate baking, outsource dessert – buy a cake at a bakery, or ask a friend who loves baking to bring his or her specialty.  If you are a baker, but not much of a chef, consider having a dessert party with coffee, liqueurs, a cookies and milk set-up, or go for the French tradition of 12 different desserts on Epiphany (January 6), and bake and buy a number of treats.

Another consideration is choosing food around the theme of your party, if you choose to have a theme, that is.  If you are having a party on Texas Independence Day – that’s March 2 – serve Texas-style fajitas, beer, nachos, homemade salsa, and “Texas caviar” – a black-eyed pea salad with a vinegarette dressing.  Top it off with an easy cobbler, and you’re done.  If you are having a coffee morning, you need coffee, tea, water, juice, a loaf cake (e.g. banana bread), a coffee cake, some small quiches or savory bites, some fruit, and perhaps some small bakery items like mini-croissants.

Think you don’t have time but still want to put out a big spread? “Cheat” – be shameless and buy or cater if it makes sense or if you just don’t have time to make your own salad, dessert, or side dishes.  Ina Garten, Barefoot Contessa and hostess extraordinaire, actually has a “country dessert platter” in her first cookbook and encourages you to just beautifully arrange a  “delicious and beautiful assortment of cookies, bars, and pastries from your local bakery”.  If Ina says it’s OK, it is, trust me.  I would personally draw the line at passing the baked goods off as your own, as say, another well-known TV chef did with my friend’s bakery’s cinnamon Danish.  Tacky.

The biggest problem with food is not preparing.  One of the parties I went to in the last month had practically ZERO food – and they had asked for RSVPs to plan for it.  The hosts were woefully unprepared, which is not the message you want to give to your friends, coworkers, or family.  That said, if it’s clear you put in the time and volume but the crowd is either so ravenous or so large (i.e., it got crashed – awesome) that they’ve stripped the buffet like a bunch of piranhas, that’s fine.  If you can, look into back-up foods – a few bags of chips with some salsa, nuts, olives, maybe cheese and crackers or some quickly cut fruit or vege can supplement the food.  If you don’t have any of that stuff on hand, don’t worry – people will know you planned and forgive you if you have lots of booze, which brings me to my next point . . . .

Drinks

I’m going to assume you’re throwing a party with alcohol.  In my line of work, most people drink, and most people choose to serve alcohol at parties.  If that’s not you, just substitute the words “mocktail” where I have “cocktail”.

Know your audience, is what I say.  It makes no sense serving beer if no one you know drinks it, and if you have a cocktail party, you should serve cocktails, or don’t call it that.  Confused about what to offer when?  Here’s a quick cheat sheet:

  • Backyard BBQ: beer, soda, wine, water, Kool-Aid or juice boxes if kids attending
  • Cocktail party: beer, wine, soda, signature cocktail (premixed 30 mins before guests arrive and stored in fridge – but add anything fizzy at the last moment), gin, vodka, bourbon, scotch, tonic water, soda water, still water.  (If you have a massive liquor cabinet, feel free to add to the list – I’m just listing basics here.)
  • Birthday Party (kids): water and juice boxes or Kool-Aid.  It is a GREAT investment to buy one of those 2-gallon water coolers or two and use that to dispense drinks.
  • Brunch: water, orange juice, tomato juice, sparkling wine, vodka, coffee, tea.  Other juices are nice too, but I’d personally avoid grape because of stain issues.  Kids seem to really like it, but can’t keep from tipping it over.  Adding a flavored vodka will make your screwdrivers or bloody Marys even more awesome.  Try a hot pepper one.
  • Open House: see Backyard BBQ above.  Add on signature cocktail if you are celebrating something special like Cinco de Mayo or Christmas.
  • Coffee: Coffee, tea, water, juice or lemonade.

Don’t be intimidated by the idea of a cocktail.  Start simple – learn to make at least one great signature cocktail.  Invest in a book on mixology – I personally like “Mix, Shake, Stir” from Danny Meyer’s New York City restaurant group, and everyone should own a Boston Bartender’s Guide.  A basic set of tools for drinks is also a must, and while it’s great to have quality items, if you are just starting out, you can make do with a more basic bunch of bar tools and some kitchen gadgets – a shaker, a shot glass (break out that one you bought on spring break your senior year), a teaspoon, a tablespoon, and a glass mixing cup.

If the party has a “defined time” – such as “from 3-6 p.m.”, you should budget a minimum of one and a half drinks per person per hour, unless you know for a fact your crowd is heavy drinkers or you have an outside party in the hot sun, in which case you should budget at least 2 per hour, including water and soft drinks.  When folks are outdoors, they tend to drink more on average, and most of the time you’ll move the nonalcoholic beverages a lot more quickly.  As tempting as it is, I’d advise you to skip the individual bottles of water and go for a water cooler – go green, and save cash at the same time.  For 20 people, you’ll go through a 2-gallon cooler about every two hours.  Keep water chilling in the fridge if you have room, and ice separately to put in the water cooler when you need to refill.

Music

Not all parties focus on this, and most folks don’t think of it until the last minute.  Even if it’s not a theme night that requires a certain kind of music, such as 50s Night, or an Elvis Party, you should take a moment to think about the kind of vibe you want, because music is a big part of setting the tone.  If you’re throwing a holiday party, just make the playlist.  Christmas and Halloween playlists can be recycled year after year and updated with minimal effort.  Just keep in mind that you probably won’t want to play “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” at a sophisticated adult holiday party (unless it’s a jazzy number by Diana Krall) and “Santa Baby” isn’t appropriate for a kid’ party.

If you’re woefully overwhelmed and can’t think of a friend to enlist for this task, check out any of the great online streaming services such as Spotify or Google Music and look for publicly shared playlists.  Try them out in advance and see which one speaks to you.  Trust me, even if you can’t break it down yourself, you can recognize it, and then you can capitalize on all the work someone else did on this front and put your energy into another aspect of your party.

After the Big Three, Look for the Extras – but ONLY if You Want to

Once you’ve mastered the Big Three, or if you feel confident taking on more, you can branch out to the fancy stuff.  Whatever you are looking to celebrate, you can find tons of help on the internet.  I don’t personally spend much time on Pinterest, but lots of people do, and while there are great ideas, it can be overwhelming.  The biggest thing to keep in mind when you DO go down the Internet rabbit hole is that you don’t have to DO everything a crazy, over-the-top party planner does.  There are people out there who make a living doing this, and there are also people out there who post about their fantastic party and pass stuff off as theirs when they had a professional do it.  One big thing with impact – a fantastic dessert, a really cool table decoration, a signature cocktail – can make your gathering memorable and up the fun factor.  If you have an idea, just type it into google, and you’ll get tons of ideas and images.  My rule of thumb:  if you do more than three things “new to you” per party, you’re going to drive yourself crazy, so just don’t go there.

Just keep in mind, with a little planning, and some great food, drink, and music, you’re golden.  Party on.

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How to Survive a Diplomatic Function

Let’s be honest – if you’re invited to such a shindig, it’s probably going to be something cool, not something to “survive”.  That said, there are ways to make the experience a BIT more fun and exciting.  Every time, I go away thinking “that was the best night, EVER!”, even with some of the social and practical challenges, and over time, I’ve figured out a couple tips for how to enjoy yourself, and to avoid making a mess of things (most of the time), or living through a minor (or major) gaffe.  You’re welcome.

  1. If you have national dress of the host, wear it.  If you are invited to an Indian Independence Day function, rock the sari.  If you are going to hang with Ghanaian peeps, bring out the batik up-and-down.  If you don’t have anything, take a good hard look at your wardrobe – do you have edelweiss earrings for the Austrian-hosted reception?  A Chinese-collar blouse?  If you have anything that pays tribute in some way and recognizes the culture of your host, no matter how small, trot it out.  This is what I like to call “fashion diplomacy”.  Not only will it be appreciated, you’ll stand out a bit, which opens the avenues of conversation and you’ll actually get to talk to your hosts because you’ve started the conversation with your outfit.  Wear that icebreaker.
  2. Don’t Dress Like a Slob. The fact of the matter is, you’ll be walking in next to the Italian CG and his wife, who have their clothing subsidized by Gucci, so, do NOT wear something that should have been consigned to the rag bag.  Don’t get me wrong – you don’t have to go full-on designer and I’ve actually worn Target to functions, but you have to make sure you are well-turned out and that what you are wearing looks good on you.  If you’ve gained a bit of weight recently, be aware that your shorter dress may actually be too short in the back, and when you bend over people will see a bit more of you than they’d like to.  Avoid the big blousy stuff unless you are tiny and can rock it on your frame with some good accessories.  If you are a woman, and you’re not wearing national dress (see #1 above), go for a nice dress.  If you wear pants, for the love of God, wear a blazer, otherwise you look like the wait staff.  Yes, you do – quit fooling yourself.  If you want, put a blazer on with a nice dress, and you’re not subject to the congressional dress code, so go sleeveless if you want to and you can pull it off, and do the sandals too.  And accessorize – reference paragraph 1 above, and if you don’t have anything that fits the bill, go for a statement piece or simple pearl jewelry.  Guys – shave, or trim that Millennial beard.  Shine those shoes.  Wear a tie.  And if you have them, break out the cufflinks, dude – it’s a special occasion.  The bottom line is that you should be dressed just as nicely as you would be if you were going to a wedding as a single person looking to hook up.  Not that you should at this particular event.
  3. Remember What Your Mama Taught You.   The old-fashioned kind.  Open the door for ladies.  Thank the gentleman who opened the door for you.  Say please and thank you.  Let elderly people go first and offer them a seat.  Make eye contact when you shake hands and talk to people.  Don’t crush anyone’s hand or give them a limp fish.  If the French CG leans in to air kiss you, do it anyway, even if he’s a bit of a flirt.  Go through the receiving line and treat everyone the same.  Introduce your plus one by name, not just “my wife” or “my husband” or “my partner”.  Put a comma in that sentence and continue it – “My wife, Amy Jones.”  Find something nice to say about everyone and everything.
  4. Watch the Booze. Sometimes, you may have a little too much fun, but if this happens at every reception, it’s going to affect your career, your relationship, and your life.  If you are not a drinker normally, and you are nervous, this is not the time to try Long Island Iced Teas.  If you are, know your limits.  This is not a frat party, and there are people you will be among who will discuss you later.  Yes, I mean the dude representing the Country Who Will Not Be Named who appears to be drunk and groping everyone in sight.  Trust me, he’s not that lit.
  5. Try the Food When Prompted by Your Host. Countries go to great lengths to procure their local cuisine in foreign countries.  In some places, it’s easier than others, but in every case, tracking down a chef who can make the obscure delicacy that is the ambassador’s favorite stressed someone on staff out.  When someone from the host nation tells you to try the food and you don’t have a good excuse (i.e., vegetarian, allergic, religious restriction), just try it.  You might be surprised at how good a fish eyeball tastes. If you never mastered the fake chew and swallow whole as a child, get on it now.
  6. If You’re Cornered, Escape Delicately. Even if you are unaccompanied, you can always escape an awkward or boring conversation delicately.  Simply ask for a business card, say it was nice talking to the person, and excuse yourself.  Then walk all the way across the room and join another conversation.
  7. If You’re Not Acknowledged, Move On. This happens.  Either the group is all same-gendered and bonding, you’re not viewed as important enough, or the conversation is where someone is trying to close a deal or discussing something they shouldn’t be opening up on in public.  If no one brings you into the conversation and eye contact or smiling isn’t melting the ice, just walk away.  If your spouse or partner is in this group, get a clue and don’t get pissed – this is business and sometimes your presence helps and sometimes it doesn’t.  You need to trust him or her enough to read the subtle cues.  If it’s your supervisor and you should have been introduced, bring it up in the office the next business day.  If it’s a subordinate, read the previous sentence.  If it’s a casual conversation and the clique is just being jerks, say, “Thank you, gentlemen/ladies.  It’s been enlightening,” and walk off.  Be smart enough to know that the last option is one you should use only 2 or 3 times in your entire life.
  8. If Someone Joins the Group, Include Them. Unless it is someone who will completely dominate the conversation and push you out or who will alter the tone of a conversation that needs to happen, throw the newbie a bone, especially if you haven’t met him or her.  If the newbie alters the subject in a way that doesn’t work for you anymore, excuse yourself and move on to the next group.  This is a reception where you network and meet people, not a personal clique.
  9. Bail Out Your Buddies. Don’t leave your husband with the overly touchy tipsy businesswoman.  Don’t let your wife be cornered by the boor who only wants to talk about how his cousin was refused a visa.  If you notice that your coworker, spouse, or friend from another mission is uncomfortably trapped, walk in and say, “Oh, there you are!  Excuse me, there’s someone I would like to introduce you to,” say a brief hello to the other party, and steer the victim to the other side of the room and to a new conversation.  Don’t pull the rookie move of introducing someone to someone within his or her own mission.
  10. Remember, You WILL Make Mistakes. Over the last many years, I have brought flowers to a hostess that she was allergic to, “misconstrued” the history of Eastern Europe at a dinner party, and knocked over a few glasses of wine.  Just last night, I dropped an asparagus on the floor.  (Thank God it was outside and Indian street cats eat EVERYTHING.)  When this happens, do not blame anyone.    Make it right – offer to pay the dry clean bill, send a note, a box of chocolates, or anything else to apologize, but don’t dwell on it.  If you’ve screwed up on the clothing front and are having a wardrobe malfunction, stand with your back to the wall, count 10 minutes on the clock past the national anthems and speeches, and then bail, unless it’s so bad you need to leave STAT.  Smile.  Laugh it off.  And know that sometimes you just have to wak away (see asparagus comment).  If someone else commits a faux paux and looks up, panicked, smile at them and tell them, “oh, things like this happen,” and don’t be a jerk about it.  Continue the conversation with them so they don’t feel horrible and sneak off, but if they are running, let them.  If you see someone else in a bit of a bind, change the conversation, offer up some safety pins, move to offer your napkin, or whatever else will help diffuse the embarrassment.  Trust me, what goes around comes around.

Although they are technically work, remember that these events can be a lot of fun.  It’s a great chance to meet new people, learn new things, and have interesting conversation.  Just keep in mind you’re representing your country, and put your best foot forward.  You’ve got this.

America, Meet Your Patriots

As you may have guessed, DiploDad and I have had a LOT of conversations about the last 100+ days in America.  Those of you who know me and are in regular contact with me may just have been part of those conversations, but even then, unless you actually work for the Department of State, you probably haven’t been involved in ones where we circle back to the most personal question of all that just hits us in ways we can’t even begin to articulate.  What’s the question?  Well, it’s really more than one, but they all boil down this:

Why do the American people hate us?

Hate, I recognize, is a very strong word.  I’d guess that even the most conservative, anti-government, lizard-in-a-suit would deny that she/he “hates” us.  I respectfully disagree, and when someone stands in front of me or hides behind a computer and tells me they support diplomacy and then talks about how the foreign service wastes money on things like schools or housing or programming about equal rights, climate change, or events that are really representing U.S. interests abroad, they’re showing their ignorance.

So, let me break it down for you.

  1. The Foreign Service is made up of ordinary Americans from all over America.  People just like YOU.

In the 19 years I’ve been associated with the Foreign Service, I’ve been amazed at the diversity.  “Diversity”, for those of you who just rolled your eyes, isn’t a bad word.  Just shut up about it already, because it doesn’t mean what you think it does or what Breitbart or RT news told you it means.  At the Consulate in Mumbai alone, we have people from the states of Arizona, Oklahoma, California, Illinois, Texas, Florida, Kentucky, New Jersey, Massachusetts, Washington, Michigan, Virginia, Kansas, Minnesota, New York, Ohio, and West Virginia – just to name a few.  That’s a lot of different parts of the country.  Sure, there are graduates in the Foreign Service of some of the elite colleges (yet another bastion of “we hate those people” for the American public) such as Tufts, Columbia, Harvard, MIT, Stanford, Berkeley, and Princeton, but there are also people who went to West Virginia University, Oklahoma State University, University of Virginia, University of Kentucky, The Citadel, University of Arkansas, and Ole Miss.

We come from a variety of backgrounds.  It is the rare creature indeed who comes into the Foreign Service directly out of college or graduate school.  According to AFSA, approximately 20% of us have served in the military prior to entering the Foreign Service, so those of you who think the two career paths or philosophies are incompatible can chew on that for a while and ponder the fact that the kind of people who are motivated to join the Foreign Service really aren’t all that different from the publicly lauded (and deservingly so) military.  In my lifetime, I’ve met people who have had an astounding variety of jobs and careers prior to the Foreign Service.  It’s not just the traditional teacher, civil servant, or military who signs up.  College admissions counselors, social workers, lawyers, Peace Corps volunteers, journalists, photographers, travel agents, ministers, nurses, physician’s assistants, doctors, social workers, and IT folks are all represented in our ranks.  Most of us have had a number of curious jobs along the way too:  Baskins & Robbins ice cream scooper, vintage record store clerk, USO director, and I know of at least one former trapeze artist.

  1. The work the Foreign Service does isn’t glamourous.

I often tell people who make those lame jokes about my “high-flying” diplomat husband that his days “aren’t spent drinking champagne in a casino with James Bond”.  It’s actually pretty annoying how much influence Hollywood has had in pushing out the stereotype of the pampered, ineffective, career diplomat.  He (or now sometimes, she) shows up in the action movie or Bond serial of the year only to provide a comic foil or to get capped before the “real hero” saves the day.  Even in situations where the FSO is the hero, the American public misses it.  Seen Argo?  Remember the scene where the authorities didn’t believe that the hostages were a film crew and they were questioning Ben Affleck?  CIA dude Affleck wasn’t having much luck with the officials and some guy barges in and starts speaking Farsi and next thing you know they’re on a plane.  That guy?  He was a consular officer badass, people.

While that’s not the typical day diplomats have overseas, it is an example of the kind of presence of mind, assessment of the situation, and take charge that diplomats representing you show in their daily work.  It takes smarts, skill, and intelligence, and yes, sometimes bravery to deal with what diplomats do on a day to day basis.

Political officers meet with foreign governments and prominent people who have the power to influence relationships with the United States and issues that matter to the U.S. for reasons of security and policy.  Economic officers usually get rolled into that office, and they look at trade and business issues, interacting with business leaders, providing understanding to American policymakers.  No, you can’t put a dollar value on it, exactly.  But the next time you read about a big overseas transaction, the part you don’t see is that often, a diplomat helped make contacts, connections, and introduced the right people to the American corporation.  They are the eyes and ears of American policy, and they are the constant presence on the ground.  They attend and coordinate American business and political participation at conventions and conferences.  They are the ones at the table negotiating trade agreements, limits on nuclear weapons, climate and clean energy policy, human rights, and military agreements.  They work closely with the Foreign Commercial Service (part of the Department of Commerce) to help American business abroad.

Public diplomacy officers respond to questions from the press about American policy, activities of the United States and U.S. persons, corporations, and organizations in the countries they serve in.  They also provide information about U.S. culture, government, and policies that is truthful and accurate.  In some countries, that is quite a feat where a government may not necessarily care if truth is disseminated, or feels that it is advantageous to its own interests to have America be the boogeyman under the proverbial bed.  PD folks also run exchange programs, and help bring talented future leaders to the United States to see what we are all about – the rule of law, freedom of expression, religion and the press, equality, and innovation are all principles exchange participants learn while meeting American officials, experts in the exchangee’s field (e.g., education, journalism, government, or the arts), and ordinary Americans.  So often, exchange alumni come back and say that their most rewarding part of the entire experience was the time they spent with ordinary Americans.  PD officers also engage with the general public of the host country online, messaging about U.S. culture, amplifying policy messages, and covering presidential visits, military activities, and ties between America and the host country.  They shape the public face of America abroad, counter misinformation and inaccuracies, and set the record straight.  If that confused you, PD folks make sure people understand and like us.  Don’t discount how important that is.

Management officers keep it all rolling – making sure the Embassy has power, water, and you would not believe how difficult that can be.  When the President comes to visit, these are the guys and gals making sure The Beast can drive on that bridge (it can’t always, for the record), that the hotel is procured, and the wheels roll on the motorcade of support staff.  They are the ones who do all the logistical stuff when the merde hits the ventilatore and there’s an earthquake, a flood, or other crisis.

Finally, there’s my personal favorite (as you all know) the consular officer.  These are the people that issue those visas for folks to visit the United States.  You know, the people who invested more than $2.9 trillion in the U.S. in 2014*, the 77.5 million international visitors who spent more than $217 billion on tourism to the U.S. in 2015**, and the international students who contributed $35.8 billion to the U.S. economy for the 2014/2015 school year.*** There’s your dollar value, America.  It’s pretty significant.  Then there’s the stuff you couldn’t put a value number on if you tried.  Consular officers issue reports of birth abroad for U.S. citizens who have their children outside the U.S. (including military personnel), visit Americans when they are arrested, ship your dead Aunt Mabel’s remains home, and help Uncle Olaf when he goes off his meds and thinks he’s Captain Marvel.  When Warren Zevon said, “send lawyers, guns, and money”, he was talking about the consular corps.  Do you think you could walk into a morgue with inconsistent temperatures and pick out a body from a stack in the corner?  Ever spent an afternoon supervising the preparation of the body and sealing of the coffin for a two-year-old?  Ever been dropped off in a war zone to assist American citizens with only a few changes of clothing and a satellite radio, completely unarmed?  How about you walk your average joe ass into a jail, a government building, or a police station and demand access to an American citizen, not knowing 100% if you’ll come out?  Maybe your day will be slightly less stressful and you’ll only have to deal with some unmedicated schizophrenic threatening to tear up the American Citizen Services waiting room.  The next time you lose your passport on vacation, need a reference for an attorney because your kid made the poor decision to bring some weed into another country for spring break, or your daughter has just been sexually assaulted and someone shows up to meet her at a police station to file a report in a country where it’s not outside the realm of possibility that she’d have that experience again at the hands of the local authorities, that’s who you should be thanking.

  1. Our daily lives involve a LOT of hassles, dangers, and inconveniences most of you take for granted you’ll never experience.

For the most part, our families and friends stateside live an average suburban existence.  Kid’s soccer games on the weekend, visits to the local playground or park, errands, backyard BBQs.  Ours is often anything but average, and if it is, it’s because we work our ass off to cultivate that normalcy.  Where you might walk your dog in a local park, the city streets, or a manicured suburban area, we walk our dogs (if it’s even safe enough to let them out of our compound) past piles of garbage, on cracked and broken (if existent) sidewalks, and carrying a stick to ward off feral animals.  Even finding dog or cat food in some places is a challenge.  Our kids go to private schools, but that’s often because the local schools consist of nothing more than a basic room, benches and desks, and a blackboard where a teacher writes down what the students have to learn (that means memorize) for the day, and asking a question results in corporal punishment.  The great public education your kids get in the U.S. is available for us only at a cost, and only in very few places.  International schools might have after-school activities, and they may have buses, but you pay for them, and sometimes you pay extra.  Soccer leagues? Tae-kwon do? Baseball? In a lot of places, if they do exist, they are organized and run by us, the facilities aren’t anywhere near what kids get stateside, and can often have hazards like open sewers, piles of garbage, and exposed wires adjacent to them.  Next time you start to bitch about the inconvenience of that Saturday 8 a.m. soccer game at the manicured field, remember that you’re damn lucky if you don’t have to stand next to a pile of live wires on a dirt field edged with garbage, shooing kids away from it when the ball goes out of bounds in 104-degree weather.

Medical care in some of the places we serve is practically nonexistent.  While the average American is whining about waiting for 20 minutes in a doctor’s office, or contemplating a lawsuit because a doctor wasn’t able to extend Aunt Lou’s life for an additional six months, we’re praying to God we don’t go into labor before we’re permitted to medevac, and hoping there’s not a traffic accident or heart attack in the cards while we’re posted here.  We also deal with a host of diseases you’ve never had to worry about: malaria, dengue fever, Japanese encephalitis, typhoid, tuberculosis, and chikungunya.  Google those – they’re lots of fun, and they’re not all particularly uncommon.  I can name at least one friend or co-worker who has had each of those diseases, usually even more than one.  Are your kids vaccinated against rabies?  Nope?  Mine are. You have a lock from your kid’s first haircut?  I’ve got “baby’s first malaria test” glued into the baby book.  Ever had a tapeworm?  Are lice the least of your worries parasite wise? Have you had the unforgettable experience of changing the diaper of a toddler with giardia?  Popped a mango worm out of that boil on your back? No?  That’s stuff we deal with often.

We’re repeatedly told we’re spoiled because we often have nannies, cooks, drivers, and housekeepers.  Yes, we have help, and I’m not going to apologize.  Where I live, I have no mother-in-law or close family to watch my kids if I have an evening work event, and babysitting is pretty much a U.S. concept.  If I want or need something done or need to navigate the very complicated local social and economic net, I need to pay someone.  While you’re ripping open a bag of pre-washed veggies, I’m soaking mine in bleach solution and rinsing them with distiller water.  Most Americans can swing by the grocery store and get everything they need in one place at pretty much any time of day; we may have to go to three or four locations just for “normal” ingredients, never mind all the gourmet and prepared stuff you folks stateside rely on.  That giant parking lot you leave your car in (safely) while you run in for a moment?  Doesn’t exist.  Without a driver to wait for you and watch the car, you might just return to nothing, and you’re parked on a crumbling side street if you’re lucky, because again, parking lots are a U.S. concept. Another reason we have help is because stuff breaks.  Often, and someone has to wait at home all day for the repairman.  When’s the last time you had to call in an air conditioner repair?  I do it biweekly.  I don’t deserve A/C?  It’s a “luxury”?  Fine, then you turn it off when it’s 102F outside.  I’ve had to replace all the water heaters in my house since I moved in 3 years ago – all five of them – and they were new.  Changing a light bulb here involves wiring it in, and with the fluctuating current, you need an electrician.  Many of us live in places where you wake up wondering if you’re going to have power or water or both that day.  You just hit the ground running and don’t even consider that as a possibility.  It’s really frustrating to look in the newspaper, watch television, and hear people (sometimes even our own family) begrudge us any kind personal comfort with the epic amount of inconvenience, danger, and hassle we are confronted with daily.  Stop it.

  1. We’re on Duty All the Time

And I mean all the time.  With the exception of a very few posts, the locals know we’re Americans, and if we’re in the capital city or any other frequent haunts such as business hubs or cultural centers, they figure out who we are soon enough.  After you leave work, school, your home, you can pretty much disappear, and we can’t.  Whether we’re in a taxi, at the grocery store, or at a party with friends outside of the Mission, we are still working, because what we do and say reflects on us, and on you, the American people.  Our kids aren’t excluded from this either – if one of the DB’s acts out at school or in public, it’s that “American Kid”, and his behavior is setting the standard and expectation for all American kids for many people who will never know another American kid.  That’s tough to put on a child, but that’s what my kids live with.  Beyond just stressful, it can get downright scary – when DB1 was five, some random guy came up to him in the grocery store and said, “I know who you are and who your Daddy is” and proceeded to tell him DiploDad’s current position.  I don’t need to tell you how freaked out I was, but he literally ran off when I approached him and I still have no idea why he did that.  The anonymity you enjoy hasn’t been ours for quite some time, but we recognize that part of diplomacy is showing people in our host country what the average American is like, what our values are, and that we are people with families.  We may be the only American some of the people we know ever meet – and we take that seriously.

  1. Terror Attack threats are real for us.

When I get pulled over during air travel (which I always seem to), I can’t help but roll my eyes, because dude – we are the target.  I just want to laugh when I see some guy in the backwoods of Missouri or Oklahoma on CNN or Fox News going off about the terror threat, because the likelihood of him or his family ever getting hit is beyond miniscule.  No, we don’t usually have embassies blowing sky-high and assassinations, but they have happened, and there’s a wall in the State Department with the name of everyone who has died in the line of service to our country.  We take a lot of precautions, and a lot of calculated risks.  We drill.  We have diplomatic security who keep their ear to the ground, work with local and national police to keep on top of threats and take measures to avoid and disable it.  We don’t have the freedom to go places that we can’t restrict for a backpacker tourists in some places, because we know what’s there, and while we warn with advisories, we’re bound by them and others aren’t.  A dead diplomat is still a goal for a lot of very bad people, we know it, and we live with the knowledge that it’s often up to us, or fate, as to whether or not those bad people get one.  As for the rest of you stateside?  Get over yourself.  You’re more likely to die from a legally-owned gun at the hands of a family member.

If you’ve made it this far, it’s nice to meet you.  We’re your foreign service, and we’re a lot like you. We deal with shit you so you don’t have to, take care of business, and advance interests of our country on YOUR behalf because we are Patriots, and we believe in and love America.  We’ve got your back, America – it would be great if you had OURS.

*http://ofii.org/sites/default/files/Foreign%20Direct%20Investment%20in%20the%20United%20States%202016%20Report.pdf

**https://www.ustravel.org/research/world-travel-overview-answer-sheet

***https://www.iie.org/en/Research-and-Insights/Open-Doors/Open-Doors-2016-Media-Information

It Follows You Everywhere

In Janaury, R and I got an email from Judy Frater, director of Somaiya Kala Vidya , asking us if we would be interested in some tickets to see two of her proteges debut their creations at Lakme Fashion Week.  Judy is an American who has been living in India for many years, and focuses on traditional weaving and education in Bhuj, a small town in the Kutch district of Gujarat.  R is a traditional fabric FANATIC, and I always love to learn new things and see beautiful handiwork, so we responded with an enthusiastic “YES”!!! and marked it on our calendars.

The date actually snuck up on us, and if I hadn’t programmed it onto my calendar, we might have missed it.  Good thing we didn’t, because it was absolutely fantastic.

There were four of us escaping the humdrum of the week for the magic of fashion make-believe that evening:  me, R, P, and H, and we met up first at a fun restaurant in BKC near the Consulate called “NRI”, or “Not Really Indian”.  Name and un-PC nickname notwithstanding, the staff was attentive and kind and the daquiris were pretty fabulous. I have to give a shout-out to the waiter who was nice enough to let me talk him into serving us the cassava fries before the designated 7 p.m. time — Africa anywhere on a plate makes me happy.  After a yummy pre-show dinner, we headed on over to the Jio Center to crash the event in our Ann Taylor and Nordstrom Rack fashions and gaze at the high-end duds.  No disrespect meant to Ann or Nordstrom – we looked awesome.

Lakme Fashion Week is fun.  There’s always something kind of crazy in the design world, and there’s so much to take in.  We had a few brief moments to check out the outdoor displays before heading into the runway area and taking our seats.

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There were so many photos by the growing FW it was impossible to get a shot without at least one person in it.  

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The tree thing was cool, and gave a nice “fall” feeling that felt like home.

We ran into Judy on the way in, and she was her usual sari-clad, cheerful self. She was so excited for her artists.  We thanked her for the tickets, then headed for the nosebleed section to go sit down.  Wedging ourselves in between the beautiful, young, and fashionable, we settled in to watch the traditional textile show.  A band of local Kutch musicians played traditional music.

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The lights dimmed.  And then, the creations appeared:

It was over too soon.  The last model strutted down the runway, the lights switched on, and everyone rose to vacate to let the next collection prepare for its debut.  Next we headed over to the stall area.

Every designer has a stall where they show their collections and take orders.  As tempted as I might be, I’ve never had the courage to brave both sticker shock and some random stranger calling my measurements out to her assistant in front of a bunch of size zeros, so I’ve never taken the custom plunge in public.  Grab a card for “later”, forget about it, that’s my personal strategy.

People talk about how silly fashion is, how it’s frivolous, and I think that’s fair.  I also think it’s unfair.  Many designers over the years have taken on social issues such as child labor, racial discrimination, and poverty, to name a few.  In India, one of the issues that I’ve written about before is gender-based violence.  In an effort to explain, help combat, or justify, it, individuals, groups, schools, and public and private organizations and entities have often pointed to what women are wearing.  Recently in Mumbai, two schools issued dress codes for female college students, prohibiting shorts, sleeveless tops, and ripped jeans.Even more recently, a female administrator at a local college cordoned female students off in the cafeteria and said that when female students wear the same uniform of “men’s clothing” consisting of a pair of pants and a shirt that it causes polycystic ovarian syndrome.  And this was at a technical college.  A display next to the door of the building where the display stalls were located called attention to the issue in an interesting and creative way.

After visiting all the stalls, we came out the opposite door and were met with another display calling attention to a current social issue.

Sponsored by Diesel, the Italian fashion brand, was a display that obviously addressed one of the more contentious issues that has recently been blowing through the world consciousness.  Walls.

 

I don’t think I need to tell you what popped into my mind within 1 millisecond of seeing this.  I’m pretty sure it was the first thing that popped into yours, and into my friends’.  And suddenly, I felt hyperaware of a lot of things.  I was aware that we were some of the very few Americans present.  I was aware that people probably knew we were Americans.  And I was aware that as we stood there in front of the display, that they were wondering what we, as Americans, were thinking.

We were there on a night out.  Girl time, a few drinks, some fun fashion, meeting a fellow countrywoman who is doing amazing things preserving cultural history and engaging in economic empowerment of those in areas where the economy isn’t robust, and sharing her passion for India and Indian textiles.  We wanted to just have fun.  But staring us in the face was a commentary on world affairs and current debate in our country.

If you’re not an expat, or you’ve rarely traveled abroad, you probably don’t feel it the way I do, but the truth is, if you’re an American, especially one associated with the government abroad in some way shape or form, whether military or civilian, you run into this sort of thing a lot the longer you reside outside the U.S.  After a while, you realize how different your experience is from other expats.  If I were a Swede, or a Botswanan, or Vietnamese, I seriously doubt I’d run into public or private commentary on my country, its policies, and its culture.

This isn’t the first time it’s happened to me.  It won’t be the last.  America is on many people’s minds in many countries for the position we play in the world, and everyone has an opinion.

I’ve seen people pretend to lift their leg like a dog on dishes with an American flag on it.  I’ve had a waiter go off on me while I was about 8 months pregnant and out with friends, asking me if I felt guilty that my baby would live and the poor Iraqi babies in the area we’d just started bombing in response to the 9/11 attacks probably wouldn’t.  I’ve had people accost me on the bus to tell me what is wrong with American foreign policy.  I’ve also had people tell me that the best year of their life was the year they spent in Michigan on a student exchange.  I’ve had people tell me that the American volunteer in their village helped spark a passion for reading that propelled them into the upper echelons of society when they realized reading was key to learning and learning was key to success.    And I’ve had people ask me wistfully if I could get them a Reese’s peanut butter cup, because they remembered the American soldiers in their town would hand them out to the kids.  Most of these conversations happened before they even found out I had any connection with the United States government whatsoever.  They were completely unsolicited; honest, and each one of them hit me deep within my soul in some way or another.

It won’t change anytime soon.  So even if I want to just have a fun evening and forget what’s in the newspapers, what’s on TV, or on Twitter, I don’t always get that luxury.  I’m American.  It follows me everywhere.

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America, Please Show the World Who We Really Are

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I’ve been really, really, REALLY quiet lately.  I’ve had some fun adventures, but I’ve not felt bubbly and exuberant enough to give credit to Halloween at the consulate, a tea walk tour, or a few really cool trips.  Mostly, because I’m trying to be a Good Expat.  Then there’s that nasty thing called the Hatch Act, which makes me nervous and err on the side of keeping my mouth shut.  Finally, there’s the issue of friends and family – I don’t, as most everyone else, agree with all of them, and I really like them and don’t want to piss anyone off.  Well, not most of them – some of them, sadly, I’ve lost this election year when I got one too many nasty comments on my Facebook feed or saw one too many posts denigrating women, minorities, or common sense.

Again, I need to start with a disclaimer.  Or two.  First, this is typed on my own personal computer, on my own personal time, and no government resources were used in writing this post.  Second, I’m not the diplomat!

OK, then.

Let me be clear:  this election has been really, really difficult for me.  I’ve seen elections come and go, and several come and go from abroad, but none of them has ever had the amount of vitriol, hatred, partisanship, and yes – INSANITY – that this election has.  It comes at a time when we’ve seen minorities, including women, persons of color, and LGBTQI individuals in civic and public life at unprecedented levels.  It also comes at a time when there is still a lot of discrimination against minorities and we’ve got a long way to go, and some of us are pretty pissed off we’re still having this conversation.  It’s been a year of women calling out men on sexist Olympic coverage, of more unarmed black men being killed by law enforcement, and more threats to reproductive rights and personal freedoms by religious fundamentalists who seem to forget about that little separation of church and state thing, and attacks agains Muslims and other religious minorities.  I’m sure I’m missing something, but it’s been a sad tone all year.  The left has had quite a bit to rile it up this year – with good reason.

On the other side, and one that I can certainly understand as a native West Virginian, are who I will call the Angry Non-Urbans.  Remember how Romney said that 41% of the country could be written off?  Well, let’s be honest – there are a lot of people in “fly over country” who feel that they have been by the left, and frankly, there’s plenty of evidence to support that.  Before you go pointing to a bunch of statistics on job creation or benefits paid, take a good hard look at yourself.  Ever made a redneck joke?  Said that “those people” are “white trash”?  Made every effort you possibly could to distance yourself from that little hometown you grew up in because it was “provincial” or “backwards” as you ran like Hell to the big city?  I can’t tell you the number of people I have run into over the course of my life who have felt it’s perfectly fine to make West Virginia jokes, comment about how I probably married my brother, or ask me if I have indoor plumbing.  Some of those jerks even worked for me or DiploDad, and said such things at public events.  Every time I take one of those stupid Facebook quizzes that guess where I’m from, they automatically place me from an urban coastal area when I say that I’m well-traveled or like to visit museums or often watch films in a foreign language.  Because, culturally, educationally, and yes – OVERALL, if you are an Angry Non-Urban (or hail from that area), you’re inferior.  That’s the underlying message.  That’s a whole other post though, so I’ll shut my trap on that front and stop right now, but if you can answer “yes” to any of my questions above, you might want to think a little bit more about whether or not you’re including every single American in your whole “love thy neighbor” philosophy.

I’m also conflicted because in complete honestly, I am not thrilled about Hillary Rodham Clinton.  There, I said it.  Sorry, Pantsuit Nation, but I don’t share your unbridled enthusiasm.  I recognize that she’s qualified.  I recognize that misogyny has been part and parcel of this campaign from Day One.  But I have questions and concerns, and I think I’m well within my rights to have them without being called a traitor to my gender.

Then there’s Donald Trump.  I don’t even know where to start on that one.  I guess I could start by saying that he’s crude.  Or that he’s sexist.  Or that he’s stoking racism and hate the way no one has publicly gotten away with since, oh, the 1940s.  Every single time I thought I couldn’t hear anything worse, he said it.  Every time I thought he could sink no lower, insult no one else, or be more vulgar, he did it.

For the first time ever, I’ve had to completely remove “likeability” from a political election.  I don’t “like” either candidate.  But I also think that we went a bit too far when we started asking voters who they’d rather have a beer with as a way of implying that’s whom they should vote for.

I know where I stand on the issues of foreign policy, women’s rights, Black Lives Matter, immigration, fiscal policy, reproductive rights, LGBTQI rights, and a whole host of other topics.  I know which candidate represents my views, and I will vote for that candidate.

But somehow, even more important this time, and especially poignant to me as an American abroad, is the message America will send to the world with this election.  And I’m really scared.

At a diplomatic event I attended earlier this year, a third-country diplomat asked me about the U.S. presidential election.  I groaned and pointed to my watch, informing him it had only taken seven minutes since I arrived for someone to bring it up.  But we’re interested in your elections, he informed me, and do you know the reason he gave me?

“Where America goes, the world follows.”

Tomorrow is election day.  Don’t fuck this up, America.

 

Dear Consular Chief . . . .

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The first thing that I thought after I read about the Ryan Lochte Incident in Brazil during the Olympics probably wasn’t what most Americans were thinking (although that was probably my second reaction).  What popped into my mind first was, “Ugh, I feel sorry for the consular officers in Rio.”  Because I’ve seen enough mess go down in the last 18 years that I know it sucks to have any AmCit in trouble, but when it’s a public figure or other celebrity, it’s even more excruciating with respect to time invested, red tape to unstick, and embarrassment.  I mean seriously, dude – do you realize that the length of text on your Wikipedia page discussing your false police report is longer than the text discussing your Olympic success at Rio 2016?

Later on, I got to thinking, and I wondered:  Did Ryan Lochte ever even apologize?  Did he realize the impact he had on other people’s lives?  Not just the direct impact of the people involved in the incident, but the ones who were left behind to deal with the ramifications of his behavior, even after he was long gone and the Olympic torch had dimmed?  Probably not.  After all, it’s hardly on anyone’s radar until they need help abroad and turn to “lawyers, guns, and money” and the consular officers step in.  So why would it be on the radar of someone who had other people who dealt with the “other people”.  It wouldn’t.

Still, if Ryan Lochte deigned to write a letter, it really should read something like this:

Ryan Lochte, U.S. Swimmer, Lane 3, U.S. Swimming Training Center

August 20, 2016

The Consular Chief, American Consulate General Rio de Janiero, Av. Pres. Wilson, 147, Centro, Rio de Janeiro, 20030-020, Brazil

Dear Sir or Madam,

Please accept my most sincere apologies for the incident that happened in Rio on August 14, 2016. My teammates and I had been out drinking, and while that in an of itself isn’t a problem, some of us had been drinking a bit too much, and our judgment was impaired.

Because of that, we made some bad choices. I truly am embarrassed at my actions and am grateful to you and your staff for your assistance in helping clear up this matter.

Oh, fuck it. That’s what my agent and PR dude is telling me to say.

Here’s what I should be saying to you:

I’m a moron. I’m 32 years old, and I really should not have been drinking like a 14-year-old who laid waste to his parent’s liquor cabinet. Moreover, I should not have run off like a coward, leaving my less-famous buddies behind to take the public embarrassment and the heat of having to sit with you and your staff for hours while trying to get them to tell you the whole story. I’m sure you had more than one very painful conversation with the police, probably several, as you worked your way up the chain of command, trying and figure out how best to resolve this situation. This would not have occurred if I were not such a self-absorbed ass.

I apologize for adding extra pressure and a headache to a time when you and your staff were already spread thinly enough with the increased workload due to the influx of American citizens and public officials coming through Rio during the Olympic Games. My stupidity kept you at the office even longer than usual, away from your families and your personal lives. While I know you take your work seriously, are dedicated, and are willing to put in the time you know you need to do the job right, you didn’t need to be dealing with my garbage. I know that you and your fellow diplomats keep your noses clean and act appropriately for two, three, or even four-year assignments, and I didn’t even hold it together for a few weeks. I’m an entitled jerk who didn’t think of anyone but himself.

I promise that if I get to the Summer Olympics in 2020, there will be no need for a special session discussing the possibility of Ryan Lochte needing a bailout during an All-Hands Consular Meeting. I also promise that I’ll donate some of the gratis tickets that the swim team gets to the Embassy there with the stipulation that they go to career Foreign Service officers and specialists and their families, and not to political appointees who might be in town or heading things up. I’ll even throw in a meet-and-greet for the families at the end of the games to say thank you.

For you and your staff, however, I can do no such thing as I have already departed Brazil, medals in hand and tail between my legs. Instead, I’ve had several bottles of Johnny Walker Blue bottled individually so that each one is valued at a very acceptable $24.99, and stays within the guidelines of the acceptable gift amount under the government ethics rules. Please enjoy them. I’ll be teetotaling for the foreseeable future.

Sincerely and apologetically,

Ryan Lochte, U.S. Olympic Medalist

 

 

 

 

 

 

Vaulted Aspirations

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Rio de Janeiro : India’s Dipa Karmakar performs on the vault during the artistic gymnastics women’s apparatus final at the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, Sunday, Aug. 14, 2016. Photo Credit:  AP/PTI(AP8_14_2016_000252B)

I really, really wanted Dipa Karmakar to win the women’s vault competition in the Rio 2016 Olympics.  I really did.

Given the hellish time difference between Rio and Mumbai, most of what I have watched was on YouTube.  I admit it.  Try as my tired, old self could, my bed just seemed so much more – exciting than most of the Olympics.  Sure, I like watching the swimmers just as much as anyone else, and the men’s synchronized diving team gives me palpitations, but after snippets of the opening ceremonies (Hello, Tonga!!), I just gave in and waited until the next morning’s paper told me who I should watch by googling highlights.

Except for one woman.

Dipa Karmakar, the first female Indian gymnast to qualify for the Olympics, only the second Indian ever to qualify, and the first Indian to qualify in 52 years.  When she qualified for Rio, the papers went nuts, giving her front page headlines.  I was completely intrigued, and followed her in the media.  She’s not quite the usual gymnast – at almost five feet, she’s a bit on the taller side, and at 23 (her birthday was just a few days before the vault final) she’s a bit on the old side these days.

Dipa’s specialty is the vault, and she is only the third woman to land an extremely difficult move, the Produnova.  It’s wicked hard.

Watch her here – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IUVLSIZV_0U  It’s amazing.

Last night, the eve of India’s Independence Day, I stayed up until 11:20 p.m. to watch the gymnastics vault finals.  Dipa wasn’t the only gymnast to attempt the Produnova in Rio, a 41-year old gymnast representing Bulgaria who had medaled in London in 2012 was also ready to deliver it, but landed hard and added a sommersalt to her landing.  A few gymnasts later, Dipa took off and landed her first, easier vault, scoring a 14.866.  Solid, but not what we all were waiting for.  She then took off on her second vault, flying down the runway before flipping through the air.  She landed low, though, and the judges counted that bobble as a “fall”.  She still scored a 15.266, which gave her a combined score of 15.066 vaulting her into second place, behind Guilia Steingruber of Switzerland.

But the Big Kids were still to come.  Simone Biles, USA, and Maria Paeska, Russia, wound up taking first and second place, respectively, and Dipa was in medal-less fourth place.

I won’t begrudge the Swiss their medal – Guilia was good, and she’s physically a throwback to the old days of gymnasts – she’s not a waif, and she’s not a compact powerhouse.  If anything, she looks like a regular woman, and I don’t think you’d be clued in she’s a gymnast if you passed her on the street.  I kind of like that.  I also love Team USA, and Simone Biles is the most amazing gymnast I’ve seen, ever, so I have to say I’m thrilled she has gold.

But a medal by Dipa Karmakar would have meant SO much.  Gymnastics isn’t one of the sports you hear about, and even in Mumbai, a large metropolis, I’d be hard-pressed to tell you if, and where the gym is where the serious gymnasts go to train.  The money that is funneled into the sport here is in no way even close to what the U.S. and Russian teams put into it.  There is no way the gym she trains at and prepared at for Rio is anywhere near the U.S. National Team’s home gym.  So it seems to me that the fact that she was up front on the international stage going head-to-head with some of the most renowned names and well-sponsored gymnasts in the world was nothing short of amazing.

In a pretty dismal olympic showing by India this games, a woman earning a medal would have really made a statement.  It would have shown the nation that women’s athletics were something great.  That in beauty and grace there is strength, and national pride in women’s athletics.  The support for her, women’s athletics, and for the sport, would have followed, and potentially even planted the seeds for a national gymnastics program in preparation for a new generation of Indian gymnasts.  Even better, the headline would have hit on Indian Independence Day.  Jai Hind, indeed.

To be sure, she’s still amazing.  I’m still in awe.  She’s still going to inspire little girls all over India to turn even more cartwheels in their gymkhanas, and to climb higher on the monkey bars, and to try that penny drop.

But man, I wish that one athlete I didn’t mention fondly had tripped.  (Ooops – that was out loud?)

If they had given out medals for putting your heart and soul into it, Dipa would have swept the event.  Solid gold.

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Photo Credit: Indian Express

 

 

All About Hell – er – HOME Leave

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I loathe home leave. Well, not always. After six months back in India, I’m sure that I’ll wax nostalgic on the idea of it, if not the actual practice.

In its infinite wisdom, congress decided that in order to prevent its diplomats from sympathizing too much with the situation of whatever country they are posted in and “going native” or “going rogue”, that every so often, they would be have to come home and reorient themselves to life in the U.S. This fantastic concept, codified in Sections 901 and 903 of the Foreign Service Act of 1980, as amended, requires the diplomat to spend a minimum of twenty business days in the continental U.S. after each assignment abroad before heading back out, or after two years of a four-year tour.

I see some fellow diplomats posting fabulous photos of themselves on home leave, and they seem to relish it and do all kinds of awesome things. They also tend to be single, childless, and either come from intact families, or families where the divorce was Amicable. When some twenty-something, clearly single junior officer posted on Facebook that he thinks home leave can be fun and great and told me to just book a house on airbnb, I wanted to kick his unattached, millennial ass to Kingdom Come. Twice. Maybe even four times. I know he was trying to be upbeat and helpful, but FFS, dude, Get. A. Clue.

You might notice that thus far, this post has more than the normal amount of swearing in it, and I’ll get to that eventually. You’re on notice, Mom – I’ll probably drop an F-bomb or two before I’m done here.

Home leave and its mechanics are nothing if not predictable, so there are inevitably Certain Things That Happen Relating To or During Home Leave. Let me narrow that down to the top FIVE here:

  1. There will be some fucked-up regulation that makes you file extra paperwork or waste valuable time.

Turns out that when you extend and take a four-year tour overseas, the law requires you take your Home Leave midtour – which they define as within a month of arriving at post. Most families with children, like us, arrive in the July-August timeframe; especially if they have school-age children and they are dealing with camps, pack outs, and finishing up school (which is virtually NEVER compatible with the school they will start in the country they are moving to). We arrived on August 1, about ten days before school started, so DiploDad could leave the position he was vacating unfilled for as short of a time as possible (so the new guy could take HIS home leave) and so the DBs had a bit of time to shrug off the last vestiges of jet lag before starting school.

Fast-forward two years, and DiploDad has to take home leave. Given office staffing requirements (summer is, after all, a busy time for consular officers), a heavy rotation of folks in and out of the office, and the DBs’ school schedule, it made sense to take Home Leave in June and July. But nooooooooooo – that’s too early, the Department said.

DiploDad: I have to wait until August to take Home Leave? Seriously? No, you’re kidding. This makes absolutely no sense. My kids start back to school August 8th. I’ve got folks who have leave dates and transfer dates in, and I’m trying to work this for the least amount of disruption. There’s got to be something we can do about this.

Random DC Bureaucrat Who Never Goes Overseas: Well, you can leave your family behind. They don’t have to go. But you do. Or, you could just go early anyway, and lose an R&R.

DiploDad: Excuse me? You mean go by myself and leave my wife to deal with the kids alone at the beginning of the school year, or give up one of the tickets home that I get as part of my compensation? How is that reasonable?

RDCBWNGO: Alternatively, you could fill out a form for an exception to policy.

DiploDad: That sounds like a much better solution.

I should note that this conversation is condensed from about three or four separate conversations, because it took THAT long and THAT MANY conversations to get it out of RDCBWNGO that one could file for an exception. Asshat.

Attention AFSA (American Foreign Service Association for the uninitiated): The next time you get all crazy and decide that you need to lobby congress about something, let me flag this for you and even set it out in writing. Home leave should be given flexibility when taken mid-tour. Most officers with families will try to eventually get on summer cycle to make school and transition easier for DiploKids, which means that they will want to try and take home leave in the summer usually between mid-June and mid-August. Argue for a 60-90 day window of flexibility for Home Leave from the original date of arrival. Trust me, very, very, few people will skip it, the Department will have to process fewer exceptions, and it will be easier for HR folks. I suppose this may mean that a RDCBWNGO or two may be out of a job and have to find their sadistic “say-no-to-everything-not-be-helpful-ever” kicks elsewhere, but I’m sure there’s an office somewhere in DC hiring.

  1. There Will Be People Who Are A Pain in the Ass About Visiting Them, Whether You Can or Can’t Visit.

Once you get your dates and reservations, you send out the email to everyone in the family and try to alert friends. Some folks jump at it, and some it makes sense to visit because you have similar goals for the summer and they make it easy. Others, you go round and round with and nothing works out and they accept it, or you keep looking for chances to get together. Either way, in about a month, you’re fully booked. Let’s say this all happens about January.

You know where this is going now, right?

In April, you start getting emails and messages from a variety of family and friends asking if we could get together, and oh – when were we going to be in the country, and could we possibly drive to California/Nebraska/Texas/Alabama/Florida/Timbuktu to visit them?

Now, some folks get it and put no pressure on you. And if you possibly can, and are along the way or they are in your neck of the woods or willing to take the time to drive a bit, you get to see them and they are SO happy and you are BEYOND SO happy to see each other. I was lucky enough to see a former sorority sister this trip that I’d not seen in 20 years. One of the highlights this year was catching up with her. Others just know that if you CAN, you will definitely reach out to them, and so they don’t even ask, or just send you a message saying, “hey – we’ll be around this summer on these days, so if something works out, let me know – we’d love to get together” and that’s it. I love these kinds of people.

Then, there are the ones who not only pressure you to visit, but also insist it must be on their terms. They are often, but not always, the ones who never respond to the initial email/text/message where you gave dates you’d be in country. But two weeks into your trip, or a couple of days before you depart, you’re bound to get something like this in your inbox:

“Hi! If you guys can come over, it would be awesome. I’d love for you to drive to XXX (name town three hours from anywhere you’d be going normally, if ever) and spend some time, but only during the hours of 11 a.m. and 2 p.m. on the first and third Tuesday this month, and only if the temperature reads less than 75 degrees Fahrenheit between 9 and 10 a.m. Oh, and we’ll only be serving shredded wheat with bayberry juice because we’re all on a really restricted diet, and there will be NO WINE because we read somewhere that the prices are inflated this year because of drought in the Sahara and wages have gone up and we don’t support this.”

I wish I were kidding.

Let me be clear: I love my relatives. I love my friends. But we are travelling two days, going through security checkpoints twice, eating shitty plane food, getting DVT symptoms, and dealing with a bitch of a case of jet lag. By the time I landed at Dulles Airport in June, I’d been awake for 47.5 hours. You read that correctly. So, for the love of Peter, Paul, & Mary, please make it easy on us. We don’t really want to take a long plane ride again or drive 15 hours; it’s exhausting, and then we don’t really enjoy it at all. Ease off the guilt trip. If you think you might even be a tiny bit guilty of this, here’s what you do: when we send out the email telling you when we’ll be in town, jump into the queue immediately, and propose something halfway, or something near us, or, if we’re talking about doing X while we’re back, jump right on in and ask if we’re up for company. If we don’t want to go to Swaziland with you and want to go to Cape Verde instead, consider it – this is the only chance we have all year to escape the craziness of whatever post we’re at that means we GET a home leave. If it doesn’t work out, and our interests don’t align, you can always visit us, or we’ll try again next year.

If you think I’m being totally selfish about this, here’s a nugget for you – I’ve been trying to get to California and have a family trip driving Route 66 for four years now. We compromise. I lose out. And we try to put the grandparents first while they’re still around – for good reason.

  1. Even After It’s “Settled”, Something Else Will Pop Up and Try to Fuck Up Your Home Leave.

 

RDCBWNGO: Your home leave dates aren’t sufficient; you have to make a change.

DiploDad: Say again? I’m going for four weeks. Twenty weekdays.

RDCBWNGO: Yes, but the 4th of July is a holiday. You’ll have to stay longer and take an extra Monday.

DiploDad: Shit.

DiploDad said “shit” because that takes us over the 30 days of LWOP I’m allowed to take before permission has to be given by DC instead of post. And since we didn’t feel like finding out if that meant 30 calendar days or 30 business days, I just decided to go with the former and leave a week earlier than the DBs and DD. Which meant he had to take the DBs back by himself. (Hahahaha!)

  1. Some Relative or Friend Will Find a Passive-Aggressive Bullshit Way to “Punish” You for Living Abroad.

Towards the end of our Home Leave, we headed off to visit DiploMIL and her husband. They just bought a massive house, and we’ve been hearing about it for about 18 months. We confirmed with them no fewer than five times that yes, we were staying, and yes we were coming on X day. We arrived a day after DiploBIL and his family arrived, and hugged everyone. DiploMIL and DiploSFIL gave us the tour, starting with the upstairs. Their bedroom was beautiful, giant and posh. The DBs and DiploNephew were in a bunk bed with a trundle, perfect for 3 little/medium boys. DiploBIL and his wife were in a lovely room with a canopy bed, fluffy white bedding, and an en suite. DiploNiece had a room to herself with a double bed.

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The lovely bedroom occupied by the Other Son and his wife.

DiploSFIL: We put you downstairs. Come on; let’s go see where you’ll sleep.

DiploDad: Cool, sounds great.

So, we’re thinking that we hit the jackpot; we’ll be downstairs in a guest suite away from everyone. Instead, we get downstairs, turn into the rec room and see this:

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WhattheeverlovingFUCK???

As DiploMIL and DiploSFIL head back upstairs, I’m standing shock still STARING at my “bed” for the next four nights. And then I shake it off and I’m PISSED.

I turn to DiploDad and he immediately falls onto his knees –

Me: What the FUCK??? Are you fucking kidding me?

DiploDad: Shhhh! Shhh! I beg you, please do not make a big deal about this.

Me: Are you kidding me? I’m –

DiploDad: You can have the pop-out bed, I’ll sleep on the floor –

Me: Are you kidding? We’ve been married 26 years. We have two kids. We’re pushing 50. A 1980s era broken-down single pop-out couch and a couple of couch cushions wrapped in a sheet on the fucking floor are FINE??? While a 12-year-old gets her own room? Do you realize we’re in the rec room like middle school kids? I got over that shit YEARS ago, DiploDad.

DiploDad: We’ll fix this, I promise, we’ll fix this –

Me: On what fucking planet is this acceptable? Tell me. Really, tell me. We don’t even have a door to close. I’m not even in the same bed. Hell, the two cushions YOU will be sleeping on are uneven – one’s over an inch higher than the other – how is the OK for YOU?

I texted DiploSIL, who informed me that they’d tried to bring this up with the ILs but they said it would be ‘OK’ so they didn’t push it. She did offer to swap rooms with us. Seriously, am I wrong to think it would be OK for the 12yo niece to take the rec room? I didn’t think so. But even her MOTHER didn’t see that should be the solution.

An hour, a Target run, a lot more swearing, and $200 later, we had an aerobed and a pair of sheets.

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DiploDad: OK, bed, sheets – we need anything else?

Me: Wine.

DiploDad: (Reaches for tetrapak (hey, don’t knock it till you’ve tried it) on shelf.) Two?

Me: Four.

I should probably mention that DiploMIL and DiploSFIL do not drink. So after all that crap, there wasn’t going to be any booze in the house. That’s not how I roll. I have children, people. You’ve met my children. I drink.

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I wanted to leave the empty bottles of our secret stash here for them to find.  DD nixed the idea. Spoilsport.

After the bed fiasco, we settled in, and things calmed down. We had a great few days exploring colonial Williamsburg, visiting, and hanging out.

The afternoon before we were going to leave, DiploNiece was showing me, DiploSIL and DiploMIL a dress she’d worn to a dance program at Colonial Williamsburg. I moved into her room entirely, and that’s when I saw it.

A three-foot high, spooky-ass, china doll on a bureau in the corner.

We left the room. I came back a few minutes later, picked up a pair of scissors I’d noticed on the nightstand, and placed them in the doll’s hands and went back downstairs.

Me: Hey – DB1, come here.

DB1: Yes, Mommy?

Me: Did you ever tell DiploNiece about Annabelle and the other haunted dolls you read about online?

DB1: Nope.

Me: Why don’t you?

  1. You Will Get Extra Special Treatment From TSA.

The flight was OK, but I got extraspecial treatment both at Dulles and at Heathrow. Sometimes, I think they just pull me to make sure their stats don’t reveal profiling. Still, when I’m being wiped down for powder AGAIN and getting a special pat down that seems to get more thorough every single year, I can’t help but blurt out: “Dude, I AM the target.” Still, TSA is there to keep us all safe, so I try not to fuss. Even if the rules about taking your shoes off are not the same everywhere. Even if the bag you need to put liquids in is different and you’re repacking three bags of toothpaste and Axe products, and even if I have to take all electronics out when it says “laptops” at one airport and not at the other. Which inevitably gets me pulled over for MORE frisking. Dammit.

Even if the song, “TSA Gangstas” keeps running through my head. It went viral a few years ago. If you missed it, here it is – oh, wait – don’t put this on with children present.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=z7AWw7t5zj0

Oh, and I lied. You get a bonus sixth reason:

  1. You’ll Still Do the Same Damn Shit Next Year.

I’d hit 53.25 hours awake by the time I got back in. Everything melted away once DiploDog attacked me with the exuberance only a small mixed-breed dog can deliver. After much DiploDog snuggling, unpacking a bunch of cheese and lunchmeat from my suitcase (and removing the TSA “I searched your bag because that shit looked like plastique advisory flyer”) and packing it in the freezer to take out in October or so, I hit the sack for a few hours rest before starting off full throttle.

A week later, DiploDad and the DBs showed back up, and they just managed to shake off the jet lag today – I hope.

We were getting our morning coffee a few days later when DB2 walked up to us.

DB2: Do we know what we’re doing when we go back home next summer?

Me: Nope. But it won’t EVER involve me sleeping on the floor again.

DiploDad: Damn straight.

Annabelle

 

 

 

 

 

 

Top Ten Camping Tips from the DBs

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Another summer, another camping trip with the DBs, and instead of a summary of what we did, I thought I’d ask the DBs to give you their Top 10 Tips for Camping Awesomeness. Ready?

DB2: Canoe paddles make awesome double lightsabres. DB1: But don’t let Mommy see you.

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DB1: Be very quiet if you see deer.

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DB1: Leaves of three, let it be, especially if you have to pee. DB2: You don’t want to deal with that there.

DB2: Be a boy. It doesn’t matter if you have to pee while you are hiking or in the canoe. DB1: Don’t be so sexist, you twit.

DB1: Always look at the view from the top of the mountain. DB2: Take a snack break too. Bring granola bars. The good kind, with chocolate chips. DB1: Not the kind Mommy brings, the kind Daddy brings. DB2: Yeah.

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DB1: You have to have s’mores, or it’s not camping.

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DB2: You can only drink the water on the trail if your Dad says you can. Your mother will never say you can, so ask your Dad.

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DB2: If someone stops on the hike, smack them on the butt. DB1: No! Why would you say that? DB2: Because if Mommy had smacked me on the butt, I would have moved and she wouldn’t have fallen and crushed me. DB1: Maybe it would be better to say look where you are going when you go on a hike. DB2: Definitely.

DB1: Always check a map.

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DB1: You can fight with your brother anywhere. DB2: Totally, dude.

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Packing Like a Boss – The Beach Weekend

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Over Memorial Day, DiploDad, DB2 and I went to the Maldives. It’s a beach place – kind of like going to Florida, and we stayed at a resort. Since it’s the summer, and so many folks are headed to the beach, I thought I’d give my tips for Packing Like a Boss for a weekend beach trip.

This packing list assumes that you’re going to spend most of your time in the water or on the beach, chilling. It also assumes that you’re going to restaurants for your meals, or that someone else is at least doing the cooking. I’d probably make a few changes if I needed to cook dinner – but maybe not. It also assumes two overnights and flight time.

Ok – let’s get packing!

The list:

  • Four shirts. One of them should be a cotton shirt that could arguably be ironed. One of them should be a tank top. The others can be whatever you want, but should be comfortable and go either super casual or dressy casual, depending on how you accessorize.

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  • OK, so really five shirts. Something fun that reminds you of home, where you came from, or something you love. With a logo.

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  • A solid color scarf/dupatta in a color that goes with the two dressy casual shirts. I like to pack a colored one, but cream or black may be more your style. You could also go the crazy route and pack a beachy print that clashes with everything, which would be awesome.
  • One pair of solid color shorts that go with pretty much everything. I like white, but khaki, navy, or black can be good options. Just keep in mind two things: dark colors suck in heat, and white will call attention to that Wonder Woman underwear if you wear it underneath. Consider yourself warned.

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  • One pair of linen pants. Again, go with a neutral. Same warnings for colors apply.
  • One casual skirt. I recommend a black stretch skirt. It packs well, you can usually rinse it in the sink if you have a stain emergency, and it goes with pretty much everything. If it suits whatever else you’ve packed and you have another color, go for that instead. If you’ve mostly solid tops packed, you could even pack a matching print. I like something a little less on the sporty side and more towards classic so that I have more evening options, but if you wanted to, you could totally pack one of those Columbia or LL Bean skort things.
  • One sundress or maxi dress. If you are going out at night, and you’re in Beach Land, you could arguably get away with tromping through dining establishments in a beach cover-up and your swimsuit or a crappy pair of cutoffs and a tie-dye t-shirt with a risqué logo, but don’t. Go the classy route. Not only will you feel fabulous, it will prevent any embarrassment if you should inadvertently run into an old boyfriend or your 3rd grade teacher. Stranger things have happened, trust me.

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Given these basics, you’re looking at something like this for your land-based outfit options:

 

On to the beach!

 

  • I personally find it better to go the bikini route. Because you can do this:

Not only that, if you are diving, it’s easier to get in and out of things, and makes the pit stop after a long swim that much quicker. Invest in a good suit – buy separates, and while Target may have some cheapie options, if you’ve any kind of bust, you will want to visit Water, Water, Everwhere or another swimsuit specialty shop to get supportive tops. As an added bonus, it will hold up even longer, so go ahead and lay out the cash. I like to pack one in black and then a cute suit I have with two separate top options in a color I know I look fabulous in. Color definitely matters if you’re showing that much skin, so choose carefully.

For those of you who are not comfortable with the two-piece option, throw in at least two one-pieces. You’ve got room, trust me.

  • A swimshirt. Let’s get real, people, there’s this thing called skin cancer, and you want to avoid it. Again, invest in a quality top. Cheap ones not only won’t hold up that long, they also won’t provide adequate sun protection.

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  • A good, packable hat. As long as we’re on the topic of sun protection, don’t forget the hat. Wide brim, collapsible. Make sure you’ve a wide enough brim to cover your neck. Target has a great selection of these every summer, and they ring up at about $15. If you’re not near a Target, check out some of the local tailors, especially in Africa – they tend to make things like hats out of scraps or ends of fabric. My friend, C, has one that I am dying to swipe. No matter what your fancy, you have a lot of options with hats – pick a neutral, pick one that matches most of your wardrobe, or go crazy and pick a bold, fun color you wouldn’t otherwise wear. Nothing says summer like a bright orange, pink, or yellow hat.

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  • Beach cover-ups. I like a shirt-style cover-up that you can use as a casual dress over your suit when you head to breakfast on your way to the beach. I also like to bring a pareo – a giant scarf – for when I’m actually on the beach and just want to run somewhere else for a minute. Wrap it around your waist as a skirt, or put it around your back like a towel, cross one corner over your chest, bring it around your neck, and then repeat with the other side, securing it around your neck – bingo – halter dress. I tend to use the shirt-style cover-up only for the trek to and trek from the beach. Not while I’m parked in a beach chair.

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Next Step: Accessories!

  • Let’s talk jewelry. Yes, you want some. No, you don’t want to bring Aunt Tilly’s special cocktail ring. Bring a couple of things you regularly wear, and don’t bring anything you would not be able to replace or would absolutely die if you lost. A few pairs of earrings in colors you’ve packed, a classic necklace, a fun bracelet or two, maybe a ring, and you’re done. Just keep in mind that whatever you’re wearing should be something you can wear with more than one outfit. Pack them in one of those jewelry cases I mentioned in this post – https://diplomom.com/2016/05/17/packing-like-a-boss-the-business-trip-edition/

Jewelry Collage

  • Two pairs of shoes. You’re going to a beach resort, so I’d propose two pairs of flip-flops – one “fancy” and one rubber pair for ratting around in. You don’t want to deal with heels unless there’s a boardwalk or an area where you’re able to walk around in those cute little sandals. If you do have that available, toss in those heels as an “extra” if you have room. You’ll be wearing the “fancy” flip-flops on the plane anyway.

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  • Sunglasses. I travel with two pair because I tend to misplace things. I throw one in my bag and one in my purse.

And the basics:

  • A nightgown, five pairs of knickers, and a bra or two – if you need a strapless bra, toss it in, although you could probably get away with the double strap thing if you wanted to and didn’t care about your grandmother rolling over in her grave. Your call. Make sure that whichever bra you pack is a different color from the one you’re planning on wearing on the plane.
  • Go easy on the makeup – let your natural beauty shine through, and you’re going to have the holiday glow, so don’t cover it. Mascara and lip gloss are nice though. For other products, put in some travel sizes of your daily products. You can acquire quite a selection of these from hotel travel, the drug store, and samples from where you buy your regular cosmetics. Don’t forget to ask the salespeople when you buy that 15 oz. $40 moisturizer for a few sample sizes. And by a “few”, I mean about 10. While the goal is to make it through the airport without having to check a bag, you also want to avoid skin cancer, so go ahead and try to sneak in a full-size bottle of sunscreen. If it doesn’t make it through, you can buy it once you arrive. I have about a 75% success rate on sneaking it in – don’t tell TSA, OK?  Pack it in one of these:

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Finally, what are you wearing on the plane?

  • Shoes. Comfy ones.
  • Neutral tank top. You might even wind up wearing it later on instead of other shirts, so keep that in mind when choosing.
  • Neutral sweater or jacket. It gets cold on the plane, so you’ll need it, even if it will be 40C when you arrive at your destination.
  • Neutral scarf. See tank top advice above when choosing the color.

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Done! That’s it –

 

Pack it up, grab your tickets and let’s go – the beach awaits!

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Styling courtesy of DB1.