Lessons from a Moving Expert: The Trailing Spouse

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It’s only taken about six weeks, and the DiploFam is almost entirely moved into our postage-stamp sized townhome in Northern Virginia.  It’s taken a lot of work, appointments, negotiations, and time.  It’s been worth it.

The previous paragraph is complete and utter bullshit.  Let me translate it for you:  DiploDad had a total of three days off to direct and unpack about 18,000 lbs. of crap.  He marked off the boxes from the BINGO sheet as the movers brought them in, bought food for the movers, and promptly went back to work and left me with 16,500 lbs. of crap to unpack and find a place for.  The DBs sat around and played with their LEGO or phone in the middle of a pile of paper, completely overwhelmed at the idea of putting any of their crap away and didn’t move on it until I physically lorded over them and made them.  The DiploCats spent the days rustling paper, hiding in or climbing on boxers and inducing general panic of “have you seen the fat one?!?!?” whenever we took a bunch of boxes and paper out to the trash.  The DiploDog hid.  Just hid.  He’s probably the smartest creature in the family.

Moving is overwhelming.  It’s exhausting.  And I’m SOOOOOO done with it.  I’ve never lived anywhere longer than 4 years in my entire life.  And I’ve gone through a total of 27 moves.  Nope, that’s not an exaggeration, and yes, it excludes the moving from temporary quarters to permanent ones in a couple of places.  I consider myself an expert on moving.  Today, I present my Top Ten Lessons on Moving – the Delivery.  Learn from me, not the hard way, trust me.

1 The movers will always show up earlier if you have an early morning school run, later if you have a late afternoon cable appointment.  

Always.  It will not matter if you take your kid to school a half an hour early and drop him ten minutes before he’s even allowed in the building, the movers will be there, waiting for you and calling your phone, trying to induce panic.  Do not fall for this.  Your delivery window was 9 a.m. to 12 a.m., if they show up at 8:04 and start hassling you, remember that they cannot leave because you were not there.  I’m not saying you can go to Starbucks and hang out for 30 minutes drinking your morning chai (unless you take orders from the moving crew and pick it up for everyone), but I AM saying don’t freak out and feel guilty because you’re buying milk at the grocery store half a mile away or are 10 minutes from arrival home after dropping said kid at school.  They have to wait.  This is gonna be an all day affair.  Chill.

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Brace yourself.  

2.  You’ll Be Eating Pizza for Weeks.

There are several reasons for this.  First, you will have very little energy to cook anything for most of the first two weeks you move in.  Second, you can’t find the pot or pan you want or need.  Third, in some kind of scarcity mathematics or over exuberance, your spouse will order six pizzas for the three adults on the moving crew.   You can always return the favor to your spouse for his planning by pulling a foil-wrapped pizze slice out of the freezer two weeks later and pack it in his lunch.

3.  There Will Always Be Something Broken You Can’t Replace

Always.  It might be grandma’s antique cookie jar or Aunt Eileen’s hope chest.  Maybe it’s the pottery “who knows what it is” your kid made in preschool that you always put out for display on your desk.  Maybe it’s your wedding cake topper.  Either way, brace yourself.  And then take a deep breath and either file the claim to replace it or fix it, or let it go.  I have a friend who buried one of her kid’s art projects in her garden (just make sure you don’t dig it back up if it’s not biodegradable) to say goodbye.  Because I’ve moved so much, I don’t have my memories stored in a place – there’s not an ancestral home to go back to.  I store my memories in things.  This was a hard lesson to learn, but I’ve made peace with it now.  When something you love is gone, the memories can remain.  Take a photo if you must (you’ll need one for the claim anyway), take a deep breath, relive the memory it jogs again, and let it go.  You were overweight on the last move anyway, right?

4.  Watch the Filials and Stoppers!

Movers don’t care about them.  At all.  Personally, I don’t let the movers unpack any trinkets or dishes alone without me hovering, because I know exactly which items have a stopper or filial or decoration that comes off that the dude on the other end decided needed to be separately wrapped.  DiploDad does not track these things.  If you leave the movers alone (or worse, with your spouse) you will wind up without these crucial pieces.  This move was particularly bad for this – I’ve got two stoppers gone forever, including the top of one of my oil-and-vinegar salad dressing bottles I’ve had for over 20 years.  I have no idea how I will replace it.  DiploDad may finally, finally NOT override my directive on no unpacking after this fiasco.  Maybe.

5.  There Will Always Be a “How the Hell Did They Break THAT?”

Yup.  It’s like it was a challenge and they met it.  Sometimes, you actually have to admire that.

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A plastic storage bin that had mostly stuffed bunnies for Easter decorations was toast.  This is only one of four sides that was totally crushed.  How do you do this?  You bet I’m claiming it – those suckers cost upwards of $15.  

6. Clothing Hangers will Take Over the Entire House if You Let Them

Hangar supply always goes through a predictable cycle in our house during moves.  It goes something like this:

DiploDad:  “I need some hangers.  I don’t have enough to hang all my clothes up with.”

Me:  “I have a few I can give you.” (Takes off a few dresses, folds them, hands hangers to DiploDad)

DiploDad:  “That’s not enough – I have a total of eleven hangers.  I need at least 15.”

Me:  “UAB* comes in a week – I packed a TON in UAB.  Can you wait just a few days?”

DiploDad:  “Not really.”

Within 24 hours, DiploDad will sneak out on a Target run, ostensibly to buy cat food or milk, and return with three twelve-packs of plastic hangers.  A week later, UAB will show up with about 40 hangers in it.  A month later, HHE** will show up and we’ll be looking at this:

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If you leave them alone in the dark, they replicate.  I promise.

DiploDad:  “We’ve got to find a place for all of these.  Can we donate them to Goodwill?”

Note that Goodwill does NOT take hangers.  Everyone on the planet drops them there and they have too many –  they will actively chase your car down as you are trying to leave to give them back to you.  Trust me on this.

7.  The Cats Will Do Something Bad While You Are Unpacking

It’s 3 a.m. in the DiploHouse.  All is calm, all are asleep . . . .

DB2:  (runs into our bedroom) “Mommy!” (Not Daddy.  Never Daddy.)

Me:  (waking up, disoriented) “What?! What?!”

DB2:  “It’s Gink!” (DiploCat1)

Me: (jumps out of bed, runs with DB2 into his room) “What?! Is he OK?”

DB2:  “He peed on the paper in the corner of the room!  I heard him meowing and then scraping the paper and then I went to pick him up and he was peeing!”

DiploDad: (who has followed us in, unnoticed) “On my new carpet.”

Turns out that the carpet was safe, and the pile of paper was big enough to absorb the accident.  This meant that DiploCat1 was permitted to stay a little longer.  It also meant I used less white vinegar on the area.  Just in case.

A few nights later:

DB2:  (leans down next to me, sleeping, whispering in my ear loudly) Mommy!  (Not Daddy.  Never Daddy.)

Me:  (disoriented) What?!?

DB2:  Gink peed on my LEGO!

DiploDad: Damn cats.

Upon further inspection, it seems that DiploCat1 was completely disoriented again when DB1 placed a plastic bin of LEGO pieces on the floor in a corner.  Seems that the change from Indian kitty litter, to American kitty litter, to American kitty crystals confused him, and when a pan looking suspiciously like a new kind of litter and his old Indian litter box showed up in his favorite room in the house, he thought we were just being considerate.

Me:  “I think it’s time you got a handle on your room.”

DB2:  “Yeah.”

I can now check “cleaning cat pee off LEGOs in the middle of the night” off my Mom Bucket List.

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This is not the Bad Peeing Cat.  But I’m sure he got away with something when I wasn’t looking.  I will eventually discover something. 

8.  Cats Like Paper.

Make sure you don’t accidentally recycle them.  Unless you want to.

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This IS the bad peeing cat.

9.  You Will Have More Things to Hang on the Wall Than You Have Wall Space

Every post, every move, you “localize” your apartment.  When I lived in NYC, I bought a couple of black-and-white photos of the Flat Iron Building and the Chrysler Building.  During our European travels, we bought watercolors that I framed on base at the US Army MWR framing shop.  Africa added masks and batiks to our collection, and India some Bollywood movie posters, prints, and paintings.  Add that to family photographs, a curious cuckoo clock that always needs refitting after lying in storage doing nothing, and some Chinese ancestor paintings and we’re overloaded.  My advice to you:  Hang what you love.  Do a gallery wall.  And then store the rest unless you truly think you will never use it again.  Those NYC prints?  I haven’t had them on the wall since I left the City in 2000, but DB1 visited New York for Model UN last year, and they are now finding a new life in his room.  All that “me wall” stuff?  Awards, diplomas, stuff you hang at work but don’t want to look at while chilling in your rec room?  Two words:  Storage Space.

10.  Your Furniture Will Not Be Adequate for All Your Stuff.  Ever.

It’s a hazard of State Department life:  you never have enough bookcases.  The furniture that is assigned to your quarters will either be all new and complete or it will have been mostly given away and turned in by a string of predecessors.  We have never, ever, experienced the former situation.  Our house in Ghana was so bad and so lacking because the previous occupant had her own living room stuff, that we literally had ONE bookcase when we moved in.  ONE.

Most of us travel with extra tables and bookcases.  IKEA’s Billy line is excellent.  I figure we’ve owned about 245 Billy shelves since we got married.  When you leave, they are inexpensive enough you don’t mind passing them on or donating them, or selling them, and you can replace them at your next post.  Just be patient while you sort through your stuff and know you’ll have a few piles on the floor until you can make that IKEA or thrift shop run.

11.  You Will Forget This and Do It All Again.

Yeah, there are really 11 lessons here.  A wise person on my Facebook page compared moving to childbirth.  She’s not wrong.

 

*UAB – Unaccompanied Air Baggage.  A certain amount of stuff that goes via air, ostensibly arriving within 2 weeks to your new destination.  

**HHE – House Hold Effects.  All your crap.  Don’t ask me why there are two Hs involved when “household” is technically one word.  It sounds better, anway.  

 

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Halloween Back Stateside

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I have to admit it – I kind of dropped the ball on Halloween this year.  Yes, we got to a pumpkin patch.  Yes, we did a few other fun Halloweeny things this year.  Yes, I bought candy, wore a costume, and carved a pumpkin.  I even sifted through all the slimy pumpkin guts to get to most of the seeds and roast them in the oven.  (Here’s a tip:  add about 1 tsp of raw sugar at the last minute for salty-sweet yumminess.) But I just didn’t go full-on like I normally do.

Most of my decorations were down in the basement, and when I walked past the last few boxes that need to be unpacked I just couldn’t bring myself to add to the repack/unpack mess.  I decided that it could wait until next year to swap out all the coffee mugs for Halloween mugs, and yes, I DO that.

We had a great time this year.  Overseas, Halloween is truly different.  You want Halloween, you make Halloween.  So we normally have a party – which once the DBs diverged in interests (scary movies v. candy relay and bobbing for apples), morphed into two parties.  It also is a chance to show your local colleagues some of the most fun American traditions.  The consulate went full-on this year, and I couldn’t be more proud of my colleagues who decorated the hallways and “really scared some of the kids”.  They made a really cute video of the celebrations – Halloween Awesomeness in Mumbai

It’s kind of strange to shift gears with respect to Halloween.  Here, I don’t have to do anything unless I want to – there are activities, pumpkins, and Halloween in yo face everywhere.  It’s not public or a sideshow the way it is when it’s that “strange American holiday that is all about lollies”, according to one of my Aussie friends, who was completely baffled about it all.

Our Halloween was kind of last-minute too – rain and conflicting schedules meant we packed it ALL into about a five-day period.

First, we visited a pumpkin patch.  We love Summers Farm in Frederick, Maryland.  It’s got all the fun things to do and apple cider donuts that make it worth the drive and calories.  We were supposed to go with DiploSis and her kids and DiploBro’s daughter, but we got rained out, so the next day, we headed out with just the DBs.  It was so much fun.  If you are reading this and have not experienced an American pumpkin patch and corn maze in October, you seriously have to do it.

We started in the small maze.  Decided it was too wimpy.  Waded through corn to get to the big maze.  Got hopelessly lost for 20 minutes.

Lots of other fun stuff to do.  And we did it ALL!

Still, due to rain, we couldn’t do the one thing we really wanted to do – go on a hayride to the patch to pick a pumpkin.  So we headed home pumpkinless.

We had about an hour’s respite before we were heading to The GLOW to meet some friends, so in true parent fashion, we told the kids to entertain themselves and took a nap.

When we woke up, DiploDad remembered a place nearby that would fit the bill for a quick pumpkin stop, so we headed there first.

Success!

We drove out to Lake Fairfax park to meet friends for dinner before heading over to The GLOW, a pumpkin experience featuring tons of awesome carved pumpkins.  Dinner was at a place called Kalpasi’s – South Indian – and I was so happy to see idli I almost cried.

The GLOW was awesome too!

After that awesome experience, we had a few days to prepare at home for trick-or-treating.

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DB2 made his costume himself.  Can you guess what it is? 

Pumpkins were carved . . . .

And then, we were ready for the tricks and treats!

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Bring it, smalls. 

And the actual event we’d been waiting for began.  DiploDad took DB2 out.

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“I got a rock.”  *

DB1 had two tests the next day, so he stayed home.  Until he just couldn’t stand it anymore and wanted to get some candy and have the experience so many people say he’s too old for.

IMG_6062So I was left alone with the DiploDog (grousing and acting all depressed that I made him dress up) to hand out candy.

Most kids had costumes.  But not all of them.  I have a simple rule:  you show up, you get candy.  But you have to work for it.  If you didn’t dress up, you have to sing me a Halloween song, tell me a story, or tell me your favorite costume from when you were little – it’s always the teenagers and pre-teens.  Mostly.  And most kids were happy to just engage.  Joke a little.  One tween girl was a bit snotty, but I still gave her candy.

And then, one boy, about 12 or so, came to the door alone.  No costume.  So I asked my usual questions.  He didn’t know a song.  And so I said to tell me what his favorite costume was from when he was little.

“I didn’t have one.  We didn’t have any money for one.  I still don’t.”

Boom.

“Do you want one?”

“Nah, I’m OK.”

“You sure?  How about my hat?”

“Really?”

“Yeah.  I have an extra, I’m sure.”

“Like, I can keep it.”

“Absolutely.

“Cool. Do I get extra candy too?”

Ha.  So I removed the satiny witch’s hat from my head, handed it over to him, and dropped two fat handfuls of candy into his plastic CVS bag.  He said thank you, waved goodbye, and ran off into the night.

I went back inside, took another witch hat from where it lay on the sofa and resumed my post.

The DBs came back with an appalling amount of candy.  There will be rules about this.  And Mommy Taxes.

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That’s 234 pieces of candy.  He counted. 

Halloween is over.   Which means that everything at the drugstore, at the party store, and the grocery store will be ridiculously marked down.  Makeup.  Masks.  Costume headpieces.  In short, everything I need to set up a costume table next year.

Because that’s what I’m going to do.

As my one friend said, “Some kids are lame.  But some kids are poor.”  And if I can make that a tiny bit better for a few little pumpkins, I will.

*Did you guess?  He’s a Charlie Brown ghost from “It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown!”  All his idea.  

The Last Ganpatis

Last week, shortly after I realized that really, truly the summer was over, the kids had spent a couple of weeks in school, and that I was NOT going back to Mumbai, I looked at the calendar – September 13.  Ganesha Chathurti.  My favorite Indian festival was happening, and the first Ganpatis would go to the sea the following afternoon.  And I was going to miss it.  As in really, really miss it.  

I knew that it would happen.  I’d go home, it would creep up and me, and I’d be sad.  So when just a street over from my home in the Lanes of Lalbaug the workshops started setting up despite the monsoon rains, I had to go out to see the Last Ganpatis.

DiploDad begged off and took a nap.  Of course I was irritated – how could you MISS THE LAST OPPORTUNITY TO SEE THEM?!?  Undeterred, alone, and armed with a camera, I set off for the streets in a rain jacket and with enough money to get a nimboo pani (fresh lime soda in a half-washed cup) from the old guy by the Ganesha Talkies.

Walking down the street from the train station on the corner I spotted my first little elephant gods.

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Yes, there you are!  Don’t hide, come out to play . . . .

There were artists inside – I saw their shoes outside, but when I snapped a photo, they glowered – the God of Joy and Happiness would definitely NOT approve, but as artists can be very sensitive about their designs, and because there were lots of other workshops, I just smiled, waved, and moved on.

A few meters on, I came to my favorite store and peered inside.

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This little corner store, cattycorner to Ganesha Talkies, right on the long walk to the train station, is the shop where the DiploFam purchased our “LifeLong Ganesha” three years earlier.  The owner was so nice – we went with our driver, D, and when we realized that the one my DBs fell in love with was already spoken for, the shop owner agreed to expedite a new one for the other family and to sell us the one tagged and on the shelf.  When I popped my head into his shop, slightly wet from the rains and leaning in so as to not have to deal with taking my shoes off to enter, he smiled, greeted me with “Hello, Madam!” and pulled back some curtains and aimed a spotlight.  I tried to explain to him this was my last visit to Lalbaug.  I’m not sure he understood, but he he knew I was sad, and said brightly, “Madam, it tik hai!” – it’ll be alright – before waving an arm around him and motioning to all of the brightly colored elephant gods.

Moving on a bit further, I followed the growing midday crowds down the lanes towards where they were building the pandal for the Lalbaug Raja, one of the most famous Ganpati pandals.  I went last year, and it was truly moving.  I made DiploDad get up at 5 a.m. to beat the crowds.  It was beautiful.  I’ve been a lot more active on Facebook than anywhere else over the last few years, so I did capture it here.  Lalbaug Ganpati 2017

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People buy these and put them in their homes.  I have a small one for my wallet.  

I took my usual route back from behind the market where the Raja is, visiting the shops that specialized in larger society and apartment complex idols.  Most of them were still in the casting stage, or just beginning decorations.

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Many societies specify the same pose, the same colors, and the same decorations, year after year.  They may alter the backdrop or the decorations.  All of them are ordered months in advance.

After wandering through a few tunnels of idols and breathing in plaster of Paris, I found myself back on the road home when this sign caught my eye –

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I can’t resist a good eco-friendly artisan.  Even though the BMC, the Mumbai municipal corporation, banned thermocool (we call that styrofoam) from pandals this year, a shocking number of them are still made of plaster of Paris instead of mud or clay.  The guy had some pretty neat Ganeshas – the color was slightly different, but once they applied paint, no big difference, really.

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There’s a certain skill in the painting of a Ganesha.  When you watch one getting painted, they are all relaxed until they get to the eyes – and then, nervousness sets in.

I wasn’t the only camera on hand that day – I ran into a local news photographer who was doing a feature story on the artisans coming to Lalbaug for the annual festival.  I snapped his photo too.

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If you ever run into another photographer and he or she is a little camera shy about being IN a photo, let me let you in on the magic words to make them relax:  “National Geographic”.   

Next year, I thought to myself, I’ll be in my home and not in temporary quarters and we can celebrate properly.  You see, Foreign Service Families take on a little bit of the culture of every place we serve and every place we have loved.  My kids realized they were going to miss Ganpati this year and made us promise that we would celebrate it wherever we are, adding it to Chinese New Year and African Unity Day on the DiploFam calendar.

As I was getting ready to leave that final shop, I took one last look around at all the elephant gods that would be finding homes across greater Mumbai in the next few months.  And then into the sea.  Without me.

Ganpati Bappa Morya.

 

 

Irani Chai, Ginger Biscuits, and Grumpy Old Men

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And that’s pretty much all you need for your own Irani café.  Chai is everywhere in India, but Mumbai, with its vibrant Parsi community, has a collection of cute little places that both individually and as a group, are and iconic part of the city’s cultural fabric.

A few years ago, the DiploFam and I took a Chai walk organized by the Mumbai Foodie Tours.  It was pretty amazing, and if I can ever find the photos I took, I’ll link to them here.  Unfortunately, a computer crash and the millennials who design shit at apple (I hate them all, every single one of them) have made it difficult to find them, and it’s entirely possible that the day will exist only in my memory.  Anyway. . . .

The Parsi cafes are from a time when everyone called Mumbai “Bombay”, and most of the regulars who frequent them still do.  They all serve the same items, although a few of them stake a claim to having a specialty, such as Yazdani Bakery and its apple pie, and Brittania for its berry pulao.  The pace can be fast or slow, depending on your need.  A quick breakfast served to a businessman or endless cups of Irani chai over an hour as you read your Times of India (or you pretend to while you’re really focusing on the page 3 of the Mumbai Mirror).

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You’re walking into a place where time is frozen, but the temperature is definitely not freezing.

The architecture is classic Mumbai, with a tiled floor that would make Molly Maid break out in hives, a back cooking and baking area that you can see through a glass door in the far back where the staff appear with plates of egg burji, butter bun, and mutton pulao, a few counters with an array of baked goods (including ginger biscuits, butterscotch biscuits, and mawa cake),

and finally, a desk at the front where the owner/manager sits and lords over the entire scene.   He’s not much to be photographed, so you’ll have to make do with a photo of the ever-present Faravahar over the doorway.

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He’s right next to it, I promise.

If it’s one of the bigger ones, there’s an upstairs balcony area with wrought-iron railings that were last painted in about 1992, and an assortment of old posters and signs advertising the bakery’s wares or with prints of Old Bombay.

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Damn those stupid fluorescent lights.

Many of them are on corners, because at the time the Parsi community arrived in Bombay, they were all available on the cheap as for some bizarre (and counter to today’s real estate philosophy) reason, no one wanted those locations.  That means that the cafes have an almost open-air feeling, taking advantage of the two sides and entryways.

My favorite place is Kayani Bakery in Fort near the Metro Theatre.  After my chai walk experience visiting all the old Irani cafes, I decided that I had to pick a favorite to make mine.  I ruled one out because even though it was my favorite blue color and the host was the friendliest person on the planet (and the ginger biscuits the BEST in the city), it was way too hot because of the proximity to the ovens.  I ruled another out because although I love cute grumpy old men, sometimes you have to draw a line.  Eventually, I asked my Parsi friend, A, and while Kayani is definitely well-known, I hadn’t been there yet.

Over the last few years, I’ve consumed my share of yumminess there.  My absolute favorite thing to eat is a butter bun, a traditional pav, fresh-baked that morning and smeared heavily with Amul butter, dipped into a cup of milky, minty, Irani chai.

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It’s one of the best ways to get your caffeine and empty carbs together that I’ve ever discovered.  DiploDad goes for something a bit more substantial and loads up on chicken samosas – an unusual thing in a city hell-bent on making everyone eat vegetarian ones in public.  I’ve found that the cafes will absolutely indulge vegetarians, but at the same time are unapologetically meat-heavy, which in the minefield of Indian food politics is interesting if nothing else.

I love to sit in the café and watch all the different people of Bombay filter in: the students with backpacks who just purchased books and pencils from the nearby shops; the local small-medium businessman who runs in for Second Breakfast like a rumpled Hobbit, glasses sliding down the bridge of his nose and his shirt collar unbuttoned; a housewife taking a break from shopping with her toddler to dive into a cupper and a cream-laced pastry that will eventually be all over said toddler’s face.  And the families.  The families come too, and take up one of the square tables and order food and chat and get in and out and fed for under $10 for everyone.  Irani cafes are simple food, good food, but also cheap food.  My bill today for two cups of chai, a plate of ginger biscuits (6, I ate 2) and egg burji that came with 2 pav was a whopping INR148.  That’s $2.25, people.

By this time, I’ve been enough times that I consider Kayani “mine”, but I’m pretty sure that no one really notices me, which is yet another reason to love it.  There are no “giraffe moments” at Kayani – I’m a customer, end of story, I get water, food on a tan plastic plate, and my napkins arrive after the meal.  There is no “firenge tax” or special attention.  I sit there and soak it in and look around while everyone else gets on with his or her business (wait, why am I saying “her”?  I’ve never seen a female working in an Irani café in my entire life.)

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Except for this guy. This guy always remembers me.

If you’re ever in Mumbai, stop by one of the many Irani cafes.  If you’re going to live there for a while, pick one to make your own.  Sit, drink your chai, read your book, and soak in the culture of a community that is dwindling and commit it to memory.

Just don’t bring a computer, ever.  I wanted to type this among the old railings, the noise of the customers, and the shouts of the counter boys, but the cranky old man overload doesn’t allow computers.

Soooooo . . . I’m typing this at Starbucks.  They have Internet, but the chai is awful and there’s not a butter pav in sight.

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Clubbing at Breach Candy

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About four years ago, I went over to my friend D’s house for a school mum coffee morning.  I’d just arrived, and it was one of my first “Mum Meetings”.  I’m not sure what I was expecting, but the morning was (in my mind) over-the-top.  Everyone was dressed in cute outfits (I’m pretty sure I’d showered that morning, but I wouldn’t swear to it), there were a lot of women chatting animatedly, there was an amazing spread of brunch foods, and although it was only about 9 a.m., the Sula sparkling had been poured.  I was new, still trying to remember if the person I was talking to was Vera or Veronica, and then suddenly D shoved a paper booklet in my hand and said, “You’re joining; you have to.  Here’s the paperwork.  V will sponsor you, I’ve signed, so you’re all ready to go.”

And thus, began our four-year relationship with the Breach Candy Club.

I took the packet home to DiploDad, who looked at it, thanked me for filling it out and then went to go pick his eyeballs off the floor, where they’d popped out and landed when he read the initiation fee.

“You’re kidding.”

“No, I’m not.”

“That’s a lot of money at once.”

“Yes.”

“It can’t be worth it.  There’s no way you can convince me it is.”

But DiploDad married a corporate attorney (recovering) and after I broke it down for him by month and calculated the costs for similar weekend activities, he was close to agreeing.  About a week and a half later, the club opened up full time after Monsoon, I clicked a few (forbidden) photos on my phone, and the application was submitted.  Now, we just had to wait.

On Halloween of 2014, we interviewed with the committee.  The interview was a little strange, but after we went through it, we were offered membership and then joined V, D, and a few other friends who had just been offered as well upstairs for a sundowner and watched the sun set over the Indian Ocean.

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Note:  All pictures taken in stealth. There are signs everywhere saying “no photography”, but if other folks aren’t listening to that, do you think I would? 

Over the past three and a half years, the BCC has been our oasis.  The first year here, DB2 was younger, and the mom group I hung out with all had memberships, so every Friday we landed at the Club.  We’d hit the club early when the Reception and Nursery kids got out, and then go off in shifts to pick up our older kids.  By sunset, some of us were heading home, some of us were ordering wine (which you used to be able to drink on the lawn during the weekends), and some of us were waiting for spouses to show up to order dinner.

Set right in the middle of Breach Candy, the Club boasted a host of leisure activities – a full guy, tennis courts, volleyball court, a basketball hoop, a lawn for soccer and other games, and a walking path that circled the large saltwater pool in the shape of a pre-partition India.

During “the season”, from the end of August to the end of July before monsoon began, we took full advantage of these.  Mostly, we went on Sundays, as Saturdays always seemed to be packed with some activity or commitment.  Sundays were just about family, so we’d head over around noon or just after the sun crested, to spend the day.  For the first three years, my friend, R, would join us.  R had been in Mumbai her first tour, and had a membership then.  She applied to join again, but was caught in the quagmire that has become a court battle over the fate and future of the club.

We would choose a place on the lawn and the grounds men would come assist us in set-up, magically appearing with chairs, tables, and umbrellas.  We’d order water, then take brisk walks in one of the few places we could walk in Mumbai undisturbed, and without a fear of falling.  After our walk, we’d have lunch, which was well worth the price and delicious.  A favorite dish was the “Awesome Okra”, which I never would have ordered if R hadn’t told me to.  I don’t think I ever visited the club after that without at least one big dish of it on my plate.  We’d hit the pool after that, and float along or yell at the kids not to stand up on the slide – this is a European club in India, people – no lifeguards, and let the kids just run amok and see what pans out.  Eventually, the sun would begin to dip under the horizon and we’d have a sundowner before packing up the bags to head home, exhausted, sunburned (me, usually), and ready to head back to work or school the next morning.

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The Club was great for the kids.  DB2 had two of his birthday parties there and went to several for his classmates.  The Christmas party was crazy and I’m sorry we only made it one year.  Seriously – Santa arriving in a zorb?!?

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There is controversy in Mumbai about the extensive club system.  I’m honestly not sure how many there are – I once got invited to a club in Bandra that I must have passed hundreds of times without knowing it was there.  Clubs all lease land from the government, and many of the leases expire soon.  The government, under pressure from some groups to free up green space for public use, and under pressure from others to develop green space, has been putting the screws to clubs off and on for the last few years.  Bombay Gymkhana, another club in south Mumbai, lost part of its parking, had to cancel its annual New Year’s Eve party when the BMC threatened to take action if someone walked outdoors with an alcoholic beverage in hand, and was eventually forced to give government officials lifetime memberships their kids could inherit.  Breach Candy, as a European organization, has come under fire for discrimination for its policy of only allowing Europeans to be on the board and nominate new members, and requiring all Indians to have long-term/lifetime (read: EXPENSIVE) memberships.  I’m not saying that’s necessarily fair, however, I’d like to call attention to the Islam Gymkhana and the Parsi Gymkhana, which also restrict membership on the basis of community, and to my knowledge don’t even make exceptions for any others like BCC does (i.e., Americans, New Zealanders, Peruvians).  There are also clubs that are de facto segregated, such as the Khar Gymkhana, which is pretty much all Sindhi, and a number of Catholic clubs in Bandra.  A friend recently said to me that “everyone here discriminates, but it’s our kind of discrimination and we’re fine with it.”  I’m not really sure what to think about that, but as an American, it doesn’t line up with what I’m entirely comfortable with, even as I did benefit from that system.

I don’t know what the answer is to this, but I know that if I go to any public park in Mumbai, I won’t be left alone.  Period.  Going to the park to have a picnic or read a book simply cannot happen without have 8 or 9 new friends who want to be in your space, share your food, or talk your ear off.  There’s no animosity intended, but culturally, the idea that you would want to be alone is something a lot of the Indian public doesn’t understand.

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My chair.  All alone.  No one around. Silence.

With the city noise, intensity, and lack of privacy, the club was a place I didn’t have to wear a particular kind of swimsuit (or a swimming cap), could eat meat and drink wine without any crappy stares, and could simply sit on the lawn alone for hours.  For someone who didn’t grow up in a big city or large family, it’s almost necessary so you don’t go mad.  DiploDad, after being inundated with people all week and working long hours, probably would have died without the respite it gave him.  In spite of his initial “are you crazy?” protestations about cost, he became the most enthusiastic user of the space.  Sure, I’m probably justifying it from the point of view of some people, but I don’t give a damn and I won’t apologize.  They don’t live here, and don’t realize that anyone who can, does find a club to join, whether they are Indian, European, or African.  As the city struggles with open spaces and more and more people either develop them in their communities or reclaim them from developers who have simply squatted, I hope public parks and facilities are available to more and more people.  Only time will tell.

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We’ll miss Breach Candy Club.  We’ll miss the sea breeze, and the open space, and the lazy days in an oasis of calm in the chaos that is Mumbai.  And I will really, really miss the Awesome Okra.

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She’s Got a Ticket to Ride

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A few months back, I discovered the train.  Not so much its existence, but as a viable alternative to sitting in Mumbai traffic.  My verdict:  it’s AWESOME.

Rail travel in India gets a bad rap, especially if you are a woman traveling alone.  Newspapers frequently have stories of women and girls on trains and the men who are arrested for “outraging” their “modesty”, which is pretty much code for groping and feeling you up.  While I certainly do not mean to cast doubt upon that, and I’m more than happy to acknowledge the need for safe spaces for women in public, I have to say that my personal train experience has been overwhelmingly positive.  If there’s a space in public that needs to be safe for everyone, including women and girls, it definitely should be the train.  (Get on that, railway cops.)

I have a regular appointment twice a week in Bandra, and by the time I’m finished, it’s smack in the middle of rush hour.  For several months, I called an uber.  I then spent anywhere from forty-five minutes to an hour-and-a-half in traffic.  During festival season from October to December, it was absolutely sordid.  While I was taking a rickshaw to my appointment, those wondrous 3-wheeled death boxes of awesomeness are prohibited from entering Mumbai proper where I live, so that was out.  Too bad, because rickshaws can maneuver where cars cannot.  I will admit that even though they may be shortening your ride, rickshaws could possibly shorten your life every time you ride them.

So, I started to investigate the train.  “It’s easy,” said I, my friend, “it’s only about four or five stops.  It’s probably sixty rupees?”  Wow.  That’s like, less than a dollar.

Still, I wasn’t 100% sure I could figure out the system all by my lonesome, so I enlisted my helper, V, to meet me one day and then ride the train with me home.  V met me outside and we started the short walk over to Bandra Station.  We passed paanwalas, street dogs, various commuters, and goats.  Down the winding alleyway we went until we were confronted with the imposing and beautiful façade of Bandra Station.

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From there, we went to the ticket booth.  V asked about the ticket price, and I bought two, one-way, first class tickets for the station closest to home.  Each ticket cost me fifty rupees.  That’s seventy-six cents; about a fifth of the cost of my uber.

We joined the throng of commuters rushing off to their trains, and climbed the stairway up to cross the tracks to our platform.  Along the way, we passed children coming home from school, beggars out for their daily bread, office workers, deliverymen, and people hawking the latest in earphones, plug adapters, stationery, and cheap plastic toys on low tables and bedsheets spread out on the ground.  On platform 3, we moved along to the orange-and-red striped pillars indicating that the first class train would stop there.  A few minutes later, the train to Churchgate pulled up, and we were on our way.

The first class cabin was crowded and the door blocked, so V and I went to the cabin next to it.

We had a sleeping guest.

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Turns out we were on a “sick train” as V called it, for the infirm or ill.  Still, V decided that we could pull the “Firenge card” (foreigner) and stay there and keep a seat, because obviously, I didn’t know any better and could get away with it.  I wasn’t entirely sure that I could get out of that car, find the appropriate one, and get back on before the train moved on, so I just stayed put.

Since I was seated in a sparsely-populated car, I was able to look around a bit.  The skull and crossbones on the wall indicating it was a “sick car” was a bit off-putting, but overall, I was impressed.  Shiny, well-maintained metal surfaces, hard surface seats that were sturdy and clean-ish.  Only one homeless person.

One thing that IS kind of freaky is the fact that you will never hear, “doors closing” because people, that ain’t happening.  Train doors don’t close, and in fact I’m not sure there are any.  I’ll have to look during monsoon.  It’s a bit dangerous, and during certain times it’s so packed that you see folks hanging off the edge out the door.  It’s also a bit unnerving the first time you see people jumping out on the platform while the train is still moving, but I’d say about 92% of the locals of all ages do this.   It’s part of the reason that trains in Mumbai (and across India) have such a dangerous record.  In 2017, over  3,000 railway commuters in the Mumbai area were killed.

A train fire in India is believed to have killed dozens of people.

Photo Credit: The Guardian.  I cannot believe I do NOT have a photo of this, but I blame a lack of high-speed shutter on my iPhone.

By the time we arrived at our station, I was so excited to be home almost an hour earlier than usual that I was ECSTATIC.  V thought I was amusing.  I think that’s what that smirk meant.

These days, I ride the train regularly.  I even took the train from all the way out in Andheri one day and it took about an hour of solid travel, so I figure I’m a pro.  If you’re ever on the Western Line, look for the blonde lady in flip-flops with her hair in a topknot listening to her iPod next to the doorway, enjoying the breeze as the train flies by.  Just don’t expect me to jump out in front of you onto the platform while the train is still moving as it pulls into the station.  I’ll leave that to the truly intrepid.

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.

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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