A smooth ride

We have officially arrived at our next Foreign Service post of assignment, Belgrade, Serbia!  This move has been like night and day from the transition to life in Malabo back in 2013.  For one, we have an extra member of family with us.  But also, the Serbian culture has a few less shock waves to surf than Malabo did.

We arrived about two weeks ago.  We traveled just over 14 hours door to door– half of what a trip to Malabo would have been!  We were swept off to our new house by our awesome social sponsor, who had set up our kitchen with groceries, our bathrooms with toilet paper, and our wallets with local currency.  We were in business!

Within twenty-four hours of our arrival, our air freight shipment arrived.  We also had functioning cell phones with 3G data plans.  A week after our arrival, we had home internet installed and our shipment of household goods that we packed up in Malabo arrived. Our car still has not arrived, but will be here and ready to roll by the end of August.

Belgrade is proving to be a very easy place to live.  We can walk to five or six grocery stores from our house.  There are multiple taxi companies that we are allowed to use (in some countries, such as Equatorial Guinea, taxis are off limit to those of us working in the US Embassy).  The internet speeds are comparable to the service we had in the US.  There’s an app to help you order take out.  There’s a babysitters club that will help you find qualified child care.  Food is inexpensive and the produce is dreamy.  My coworker brought in a peach to the office that had me drooling at my desk twenty feet away!  So far, there’s a lot to be excited about.  We’ll post some more updates with photos soon.

That would be a bad day…

I’ve completed the visa portion of my consular training, and have moved on to the American Citizen Services part of the class.  We spent last week learning exactly how US citizen parents transmit their citizenship to children born abroad.  Contrary to what I remember learning in high school civics, merely having a US citizen parents does not necessarily guarantee that you qualify for citizenship.

america image

The entrance to our last July 4th party at Embassy Malabo.  It’s hard to capture what it means to be American since it varies so much from person to person, but we tried!

Congress wanted to ensure that US citizens who have children abroad have enough American-ness in them to pass on to their children, so there are stipulations about how long a parent must have been present within the borders of the USA before their children were born in order to have US citizen kids.  It’s not exactly cut and dry, either.  The qualifications vary based on whether the child of the US citizen was born in, out, or of wedlock, and whether the US citizen was the mother or father. Then there were some years where Congress decided that people who were born US citizens also needed to live in the USA for a certain period of time in order to retain their status.

So today, we practiced telling our classmates that their pretend children were not, in fact, US citizens.  Yikes!  Can you imagine receiving the news that your child did not qualify for the citizenship that you believed they had received at birth?  Or learning that you had actually lost your claim to citizenship somewhere along they way?  That would be a very very bad day.

Curious what the law actually says about citizenship and nationality?  Check out these resources provided by U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services:

Citizenship by Birth

Children Born Abroad in Wedlock

Children Born Abroad Out of Wedlock

On to ConGen!

I have successfully completed my Serbian language training!  Although my teachers assured me multiple times leading up to the exam that they felt I was ready to test, I still felt nervous walking in to the testing center last week.  Since I had been in a class all by myself for several months, I wasn’t sure how my speaking and reading abilities matched up to my peers.  But I tested well and have enjoyed spending the past two days of classes that were entirely in English!

I am now in a course that we call “ConGen” that is designed to teach basic consular skills.  It covers a wide range of topics including immigrant visa policies, non-immigrant visa policies, and American citizen services.  So far, we have practiced interviewing each other about mundane life events and determining whether two photos are of the same person or different people (harder said than done if the person has different hair, age, or weight).

For homework tonight I had to read about the different types of non-immigrant visas.  Having traveled abroad a bit in the past, I knew that there are differences between a student visa and a tourist visa but have never thought much about the wider range of visas available.  Did you know that there are special visas available for air and sea crewmen? And for athletes, artists, and entertainers?   Or, my personal favorite, for aliens of extraordinary abilities?


то су кључеви!

I have finally reached the end of my Serbian language training time.  I have to take my final test on Thursday morning.  I’ve learned a couple of things about trying to learn a language while studying Serbian over the last seven months.  My top three tips for mastering a foreign language are:

1. You have to become a human thesaurus.  After only seven months of classes, the majority of which was spent trying to master a rather complex grammar structure, there are huge holes in my Serbian vocabulary.  So I think about what I would like to say, in English, and then try to match the verbs and nouns to words I know in Serbian.  For example, I may not know how to say “off the beaten path”, but I do know how to say “on a road where a lot of people do not walk”.

2. Sometimes you have to say things you don’t really mean.  Sometimes, no matter how creative you are, you just don’t know the words to say what you want to say.  So you say something else.  During class, I have routinely supported policies and politicians that I would never in a million years support in real life simply because I don’t know how to say otherwise.  It takes a while to adjust to the idea that you’re practicing speaking, not practicing diplomacy.  There were a couple of weeks when my purposed resolution to any problem involved violence, because I knew the verbs “to bomb” and “to attack” but not the verbs “to discuss” or “to change”.

3. Learn to prioritize your vocabulary lists.  Each week I had a list of 60-100 new words thrown at me.  I was never great with learning new words in English, so trying to learn that many new words in Serbian was a struggle.  Each week, I would sort the list into three groups of words: memorize, recognize, and forget.  I memorized important and high frequency use words, learned to recognize words that were likely to come up but that I was unlikely to use personally, and didn’t waste time learning the words in the “forget” category (words pertaining to opera and outdated technology).


And those are the keys (то су кључеви!) to earning a passing score on your language test after seven months of studying.  Or at least I hope they are. We’ll see how well my strategies worked on Thursday!


Done Waiting

Life in the Foreign Service can sometimes feel like one long, never-ending countdown.  You can get sucked into a pattern of waiting for one event or milestone after another.  First you wait for your invitation to join, then you wait for A-100 to start, then for Flag Day, and then for training to end, and then for your departure.  When you get to your new job, you start waiting to feel like you know what you’re doing, for your stuff to arrive, for your first R&R, for the one year mark, for new friends to arrive, for your second R&R.  Then you start waiting to leave and all the fun that goes with it: the pack out, airline tickets, long flights and layovers.  And when that’s done, you get to start the process all over again!

On top of that, there’s the personal life waiting game.  We’ve known since early January that we’d be adding a new member to our family in September.  So we waited, and waited, and waited.  Then September came and went, and we found ourselves still waiting!  Finally, after being induced and laboring for 24 long hours, baby D decided to arrive in October!  And for the first time since I can remember, we find ourselves truly living in the moment and not waiting for a thing.

The thing about always waiting and counting down for something, is that you are always willing the time to pass a little faster.  People have been lamenting that we need to “enjoy every moment because the time will go so fast” since we learned we were expecting.  That seemed pretty obvious to me, as each December 31st, I’m always surprised to find myself at the end of another short year.  But now that we are seeing how fast a baby changes and grows, both physically and mentally, I realize that life is moving at warp speed!  He’s packing on the ounces, learning to move new muscles in his face, and exercising his vocal cords a bit more each day.

I know that we’ll eventually fall back into countdown mode, especially late next spring as training wraps up and our departure looms nearer.  But I’m really quite glad that we’re done waiting for now!

Style by Grandpa!

Style by Grandpa!

Learning the AБСs

Cormac and I started Serbo-Croatian language training two weeks ago, and have been working hard to master the Cyrillic alphabet for most of that time.  I don’t know who I pity more, our poor instructor who has to make 50+ hours of alphabet learning engaging and somewhat entertaining, or those of us who are struggling to remember that “P” is now “rrrr”.  We are in a class with two other students and have all managed to remain in good spirits thus far!  We have five hours of classroom time each day, and then do three to four hours of studying on our own outside of class.  We can now read just about anything written in Cyrillic, but still have no clue what the majority of the words mean.  We spend our evenings making funny noises like “CHuh” and “DJuh” and “Shuh”, and repeating our favorite phrases.  The dog probably thinks we’ve lost our minds.

So far we’ve learned print and cursive. Eventually we learn the Latin alphabet, too!

A lot of people have asked what happens with my language classes once the baby arrives, so I figured I’d mention it on the off chance that it may be useful for other FSOs in the future.  The US Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA) mandates that employers provide up to 12 weeks of unpaid, job-protected leave to eligible employees for incapacity due to pregnancy, prenatal medical care or child birth; to care for the employee’s child after birth, or placement for adoption or foster care.  So despite FSI’s “no leave during long term training” rule, maternity and paternity leave must be accommodated.  Depending on which language you’re learning, the leave/return from/to language class plans seem to vary greatly.

One source of anxiety for me after we found out we were expecting was how the baby’s arrival would play into our training schedule for Serbo-Croatian.  We really want to go to Belgrade, but I wasn’t sure how I could meet the language requirement of the job if I was going to take six to eight weeks of leave from classes after only two to three weeks of class.  I was so pleasantly surprised when the first reply I received from the instructors to my email about maternity leave during language training was “well, people have babies, so we find ways to work with them when they do!”   I was offered a mix of telecommuting, self-study, one-on-one classes, and tutoring to help me catch up to the rest of the students once I am ready to go back to class. Once the baby decides to arrive, I will go on leave status from training.  After a couple of weeks, I’ll get in touch with my language instructors again to set up a more concrete plan for transitioning back to work.  I’ll try to remember to post an update with what the final plan works out to be.

Ћао for now!

Taking the Dog Back to the USA

We arrived back in DC after wrapping up our assignment in Malabo about three weeks ago.  It was a spectacularly uneventful journey, which we were especially grateful for, given that we were flying with me at 7.5 months pregnant, a dog with separation/anxiety issues, and more luggage than poor Cormac could really wrangle on his own.  Since a lot of people we know are planning to eventually depart Malabo with a dog or cat, we thought we would share the process of how to get a pet off the island.  You can read about how we brought Molly with us to Bioko here.

The same day that we booked out tickets on Lufthansa, we made sure to make a reservation for Molly on the same flight.  If you’re in Malabo, you can go to their office and make the reservation in person.  Otherwise, you can just call Lufthansa and give them the weight of your dog and kennel size to book a spot.  You’ll have to pay for the excess baggage charges (which you can only do in cash in Malabo) at check-in.

The USA’s import requirements for dogs going to the continental 48 states is pretty easy.  They need a rabies vaccine and certification that the pup is screw worm free, if you’re coming from a place with screw worm.  We went a step further and had the vet issue us a general certificate of health (on the USDA’s export certificate form), just in case someone in Frankfurt, Germany (our transit city) wanted to see that she had been fully vaccinated and micro-chipped.  To get the dog out of the Malabo airport, you need a letter from the Ministry of Agriculture, signed by one of the Ministry’s vets, certifying that they are healthy enough to travel.  The only document that anyone actually asked to see during the whole travel period was the letter from the Ministry, which is what we were told by a friend who also traveled with a dog recently, so it’s worth getting the letter if you plan to travel with a pet out of SSG.

Molly was loaded onto the checked baggage belt at the Lufthansa desk in Malabo about an hour before take-off.  She was treated to a water and potty break at the Frankfurt Pet Lounge since our layover was just over three hours long, and then boarded the next flight to Washington, DC.  We met her at the over sized luggage counter in Dulles airport about 26 hours later, where she was clearly a bit confused and scared.

The poor pup is having a little bit of trouble adjusting to live in the big city.  Since she spent her first ten months of life living in the sleepy suburbs of Malabo on a walled and gated compound, she didn’t get a whole lot of exposure to people, cars, or other dogs.  We pass more people walking out of our apartment building than we did on any walk we ever took off-compound in Malabo.  And sometimes they have the audacity to carry strange objects! Or make noises!  Add in the cars and sirens and it’s just about more than our poor Molly can take.  If she sees another dog, she absolutely loses her mind trying to decide whether to be scared or excited that there’s a potential playmate headed her way.  Needless to say, we’re doing a lot of training and probably signing up for some professionally led classes to help her adjust to life in the city.  She’s making slow progress each day, but with a baby on the way, we are hoping we can move her along at a little bit faster pace!