Saturday, May 30, 2015

Keeping busy

I've been back in the states now since December and I only have three months left. It's hard to believe language training is already more than half over. I wish I could say that I've spent the past few months getting out of town and exploring every weekend, but laziness and budgeting make for a boring combination. Instead I've been busy seeing the sights in exotic Northern Virginia to pass the time (when I'm not studying of course). If I were not a slug I would write all these things up as individual posts, but well, I am. So here are some very random highlights from the past few weeks in NoVa.
Gelato from Boccato in Clarendon. Highly recommended. I find that my Italian language skills are 100% better with the addition of a little gelato.

Morel mushrooms from the Arlington Farmer's Market. I haven't seen these in years but to the uninitiated, just know that they're kind of a big deal. The selection was pretty good all around. I also recommend the Apple Cider donuts.

Rolling Thunder! Hundreds of thousands of bikers paraded through DC. I went with a friend and we both agreed it felt a little like interacting with a foreign culture. You can read up about Rolling Thunder online, but basically it's a rally in support of POWs and MIAs.

Some people really dressed up to greet the bikers. (I hope they didn't stay out in the heat like that too long.)

Two weekends ago I attended one of my favorite DC events, Opera in the Outfield. Basically, there's an opera at the Kennedy Center, and they broadcast it at the baseball park as well, for free. A pretty good deal, even by DC standards where many cultural events are free. This one was sponsored by M&Ms, and they played Cenerentola, better known of course as Cinderella. This was a surprisingly fun opera and they really pulled out all the stops to make it a kid friendly event. Even with a little rain we had a great time. 

Ok, I realize this doesn't fit the category of 'things I've been doing in DC', but I just wanted to give a shout-out to the lovely lavender bushes at FSI. Now that their blooms are mostly gone I can confess that I was very  tempted to sneak a few home with me.

I tried my hand at cooking Southern food last week. I figured I'm a semi-southerner now so I need to start cooking like one. I actually really enjoyed the grits and the collard greens, though maybe next time I might seek out a recipe that was a little lighter on the butter. (On the other hand, maybe that's what makes it authentic?)

Monday, May 25, 2015

To read

Hey faithful readers! I interrupt our regularly scheduled Italian program to bring you another random reminder of Nigeria. This article in Men's Journal was written by a very intrepid traveler. (Seriously, in all the years of National Geographic magazine I can't find more than a handful about Nigeria. It is way further off the beaten path than a country that size should be.) I haven't read it all the way through yet, but it looks like an interesting read.

I'll get back to my DC adventures next time, but FYI, you can expect a post on bikers, opera, and everything in between.

Thursday, May 21, 2015

Video of the week

Not much to say today, but I thought I'd pass along a mini recommendation for those lucky ducks who make it to Rome to visit me in the next two years. Check out this quick list of beautiful spots - coincidentally they're all off the beaten path as well, which is nice - all featured in La Grande Bellezza. Just finished watching this 2013 classic and while it's certainly not a light piece of entertainment I'd highly recommend it as well.





See? Bellezza indeed.

Sunday, May 17, 2015


I've been meaning to write a post on morale for oh, a year or so now, but I finally decided it was now or never (my English is deteriorating pretty quickly with all this Italian studying). I felt like it was important to share my personal thoughts on the subject and the experience I gained in Lagos (and before that in Bosnia, Serbia, Sri Lanka, etc) in the hopes that I can help other people who find themselves in challenging assignments.

So first, the reality:

Consular work in Lagos may not be the hardest tour in the foreign service but I sure as hell hope it's close. It combines the tedium of 6 hours straight every day of adjudication (and sometimes 7+) with the stress of an environment rife with fraud and inefficiencies. We say no a lot and that's just plain no fun.

Added to the stress of consular work in a visa mill is the incredible crush of life in one of the toughest cities in the world. Poverty, traffic, overcrowding, poor infrastructure, violence... Lagos has got it all. It's not as if you can escape the city either. For my first eight months at post I didn't leave the islands at all (picture two neighborhoods in a typical city back home - that's the islands). I was eventually blessed to get out of Lagos and see other parts of Nigeria three times in two years, and that made  me extremely fortunate. Many of my consular colleagues have been to other parts of Nigeria only once in their entire tour. The city is nice enough, but all that restriction would make any place feel a bit like prison.

Plenty of people hate living in Lagos. It's painful to say it, but it's true. So why doesn't everyone?

Partly I'm sure it's just disposition. Fortunately for me, I'm easily entertained and have generally low expectations - I'm sure this is in part due to traveling for so many years and being broke for many of them. At this point in my career I feel like I know what to expect in developing countries. I may not always like it (hello hotels without hot water) but it's not a shock to the system. And after the times when I washed clothes in a bucket and slept sweat-drenched under a mosquito net that always seemed to let in exactly one mosquito per night I can appreciate the basics that are standard in the Foreign Service. A high threshold for frustration and discomfort seems to be a common trait among the other people I met who thrive in developing countries.
But I think there's a second big reason that some people enjoy tough places where others just can't, won't, or don't.

They choose to.

I know this is easier said than done, but there are some very practical ways to choose happiness. It starts with planning to be happy. Obviously this looks different for everyone. During A-100 I came up with a list of things I would do to be happy in each of the 'worst' places on the list. These lists got me excited about even the places that I bid low. And once I was assigned to Lagos I started googling Nigeria in depth to find out all the good things I could about it. When I arrived I was ready to enjoy those two years rather than just survive and that made a big difference.

Not only does it help to look forward to being happy but I find it really useful to look back and be happy. Every night, as cheesy as it sounds, I think of five things to celebrate from my day. These things might be a great meal or conversation with a coworker, a new food that I got to try, something hilarious that happened on the line, or one of the many blessings that you only realize you have when you are surrounded by poverty. This countdown never fails to make me truly happy and put things in perspective. If that's just flat out too cheesy for you I'm sure there are other strategies out there.

Getting involved is also one of the biggest differences between the happy set and the unhappy set. The happy people in Lagos were constantly out exploring, trying new things, and soaking up every experience Lagos had to offer. Their schedules were full and they were always ready to share a restaurant recommendation or invitation to something cool. This certainly beats the alternative coping strategy - which is spending the majority of one's time waiting, miserably, for the tour to be over.

Which brings me to the age-old 'fake it til you make it' strategy. Complaining about problems just makes you think more about them, so the best policy (I confess that I haven't mastered this one yet) is to just ignore the things that annoy you and spend your time talking and thinking about the stuff you enjoy.

I certainly don't always maintain a good attitude. (My friends and coworkers can give plenty of examples I'm sure!) I have my moments of griping and I was often shamefully aware of exactly how many days I had left at post. The times when I did keep up a good attitude it was only with the help and example of my colleagues and friends. They've taught me a lot about how to 'bloom where you're planted' and live life to the fullest. 

So to my colleagues* in Lagos, thanks for teaching me the following:
- accept that life is difficult and move on, don't give in to complaining
- dive in to the local culture, explore and have adventures
- make friends with locals, even when it's difficult - don't live like you're only here for two years
- make your house a sanctuary and extend that hospitality to others
- put things in perspective and give people a break for not being perfect
- don't take life too seriously and be ready to enjoy whatever comes around
- invest in relationships and prioritize people, be ready to laugh at things that frustrate you
- learn about your host country - the more you know, the more context you have to understand
- be polite when others complain, but don't add to the negativity  
- create things that you love and share them with others, improve old skills or learn new ones
- take care of your body and your soul, take charge and don't act helpless
- share the things you enjoy with others, you might be filling a need post didn't even know it had!
- don't be cheap about life, know what makes you happy and prioritize it
- realize that work is your job and your evenings, weekends and holidays should NOT be about work

And the biggest lesson I've learned (from the entire consular section): There's almost nothing that good friends and good laughs can't fix.

*Hey colleagues! I would love to write your names next to each of these statements because I wrote them with specific friends in mind - but you know, privacy... Instead, just know that every single one of you taught me so much and it was an honor to work in the trenches with such a great team!

Sunday, May 3, 2015

Five good, five bad, Lagos version

As part of the foreign service bloggers group I thought I would belatedly join group of bloggers posting about the pros and cons of living and working overseas - in my case, that means in Nigeria. Then I thought, "I'm in the middle of language trIning and my brain is fried, why reinvent the wheel?" So I decided to poach from old me. For a list of five(ish) good things about Lagos, just check these old blog posts. Incidentally, I really need to finish my list of eight reasons to bid Lagos high. Any day now...

And just a note, I am aware that some of these sound a little Pollyanna-esque, but keep in mind that they were written while I was still at post and aggressive optimism turns out to be my primary coping strategy - that and Lagos does actually have lots of good qualities and it's annoying to see it get such a relentlessly bad rap.

As for the "bad", I'm sure it's nothing unexpected, but here goes:

1) Restrictions. Let me just repeat that, restrictions, restrictions, restrictions. In case you didn't know me as a two year old, I do NOT like people telling me what to do, and being given a list of no's right off the airplane was incredibly frustrating to me. 

2) Along those same lines, it can be difficult to get a sense of the 'real Nigeria'. This is not one of those quintessentially African posts where you get lots of singing and dancing and cultural immersion opportunities. I assume all that is happening out in the parts of the country outside our safety net. Hopefully CLO can turn that around sometime soon!

3) You don't have easy access to nature. I fixed this by joining the yacht club, but no one else did and I can only imagine that was a big morale killer for many people.

This is getting depressing.

4) There aren't really day or weekend trip options - at least nothing that doesn't require pretty extensive clearance and planning - so there's no escaping the grind of Lagos when you just need a break.

5) Ok, so most of the above are just variations on the theme of being restricted and cooped up. So for a little variety, let me just add that Nigeria is very much a developing country and that can make life kind of exhausting, just across the board.

Really, though, just so it has been said, none of these should be deal breakers if you have actually joined the foreign service with the intention of serving where you are needed. And believe me, Lagos needs you! (Free guilt trip for every reader!)