Sunday, December 22, 2013

"We Take Care of Our Own"

One of the reasons I bid on Brussels was to feel independent again. To live on my own, outside of a compound, and away from bodyguards, armed vehicles, and the watchful eye of the entire embassy community. I was looking forward to my apartment having a revolving door as I welcomed guest after guest to the heart of Europe. And that's exactly what I've been up to these last few months. Sharing adventures and laughs with friends and family as we explored the vineyards of Champagne, attempted to climb church towers in Flanders, and taste-tested the best Belgian food Brussels has to offer. My first six months here have really been one for the memory books.

When I bid on Western Europe, people said that the posts wouldn't have a strong sense of community, that it would be just like going to work in any office building in DC. That people would not look out for one another. And, sure, settling into life in Brussels has had its challenges and its somber moments of anonymity, but saying that this embassy doesn't band together when one of its colleagues is struggling couldn't be further from the truth.

While I was home in Arizona for Thanksgiving, I awoke one morning to a message that most of us dread receiving while away from home. The voicemail said they were calling from our security office and I was to contact the embassy immediately. My stomach was in my throat...what could possibly have happened? Had there been a fire? Were the cats hurt? There was no way the person was calling me while on leave to offer some good news. After a few minutes that seemed like hours, I learned that my apartment had been broken into and robbed over the weekend. The perpetrators had seemingly scaled my balcony, shattered the glass door, and rifled through the whole apartment. I was speechless. It was Monday and I wasn't scheduled to go back to Belgium until the following Sunday. Who would care for Mish Mish and Sprinkles? Was the apartment secure? I was simultaneously sick to my stomach imagining my vandalized place and traumatized cats, and thankful that I hadn't been home that night to encounter the intruders.

As I was feeling utterly helpless at my mom's house in Tucson, an army of colleagues came to my rescue and took charge. The co-worker who had discovered the break-in didn't give a second thought to taking Mish and Sprinks home with her, despite owning a very large dog herself. Since my living floor was covered in glass, her paramount concern was ensuring they stayed safe. The burglars had left my front door open and she found Mish three floors below, huddled on a stair crying. Sprinks had predictably hidden herself under my bed. She rounded them up and for the next two weeks graciously kept them in her guest room. Another colleague tirelessly liaised with the police, escorting the CSI team as they meticulously dusted for fingerprints and processed the crime scene. Others worked hard to secure my balcony, boarding up the shattered door, and ensuring the landlord agreed to tighter security measures.

After nearly a week of anxiety-ridden anticipation, I headed back to Brussels. The same co-worker who took the cats in also agreed to take me in, as my apartment wasn't ready for me to move back in. Bleary-eyed from the overnight flight, we dropped my bags at her apartment and headed downtown to face the wreckage. At a post where people supposedly didn't care for one another, this colleague refused to let me go back into the apartment alone. She wanted somebody to be by my side as I surveyed the damaged. Walking slowly from room to room, I took in the destroyed balcony door, the open drawers, the rifled papers. But it wasn't until I got to the bedroom that I really lost it. Seeing my clothes, purses, and jewelry strewn across the bed is an image I won't soon forget. The closet doors were still open, the fingerprint dust still coated the furniture, illuminating hand prints all over the room, touching my most personal possessions. I can still feel the chill that ran down my spine as I imagined the people standing in my bedroom, upending my stuff, stealing heirloom jewelry given to me by my late grandmother.

This last month has been somewhat of a blur, an emotional roller coaster I never thought I would experience. Anger, frustration, loneliness, fear. An overwhelming sense of violation. But through it all, the embassy has been there for me. Offering comforting words, emails, phone calls, dinner invitations. Helping me move into temporary quarters. Always available when I needed to talk or just wasn't comfortable being alone. I've gone back to the apartment several times since I returned to Brussels, but I still can't shake the eerie feeling of the burglars' presence. Every little noise makes me jump, wondering-no matter how improbable-if somebody else is trying to climb the balcony. Every time I enter my bedroom, I see my clothes and jewelry ransacked. No matter how secure the apartment is made, I know I won't be comfortable there again.

The decision to move wasn't an easy one, but in the end it was the right one. The little downtown apartment that I loved so much and that had finally started to feel like home was now a constant reminder of vulnerability and loss. The tiny balcony, with its spectacular view of the cathedral and where my brother got engaged this summer, now served as a reminder of people scaling wrought iron and shattering glass doors. The home that had welcomed so many visitors, that had been filled with so much laughter and love, was now filled with discomfort and unease. But again, the embassy community rallied around me in support, urging me to move forward and get a fresh start. Nobody wanted this to ruin the next year and a half in Brussels. Neither did I.

So tonight I'm packing my up my temp quarters, taking down my little Christmas tree, and tomorrow afternoon I'm moving into the new apartment. Although the walls will still be bare and the bookshelves will still be empty, this new apartment will welcome a house full of visitors for the holidays and new memories will be made. My home will once again be filled with laughter and love, a new chapter of my time in Brussels ready to be written. I am so grateful for my embassy colleagues, my Foreign Service family, my home away from home. The mantra that they each echoed time and time again, and was evident in everything they did, was "we take care of our own." I appreciate, more than I can ever express, their kindness, generosity, patience, and fortitude. Thank you for making one of the worst experiences of my life more bearable, and for proving that valuing a sense of community is still at the core of the Foreign Service. No matter where in the world we might be.

Thursday, August 1, 2013

The King of the Belgians

Since arriving in Brussels, most Sunday mornings have been spent sleeping in, drinking coffee, and maybe milling around a farmer's market if I feel like leaving the comfort of my balcony. But on July 21st-also known as Belgian National Day-I added a few additional items to my usually lazy routine: wishing King Phillipe and Queen Mathilde congratulations as they assume their new roles as King and Queen of the Belgians. 

I happen to live almost across the street from the Cathedral of St. Michael and St. Gudula, which is where the Belgian family holds weddings, funerals, and for the first time in their monarchy's history, an abdication. Well, the technical abdication took place later in the day with signing official paperwork and taking the oath of office at parliament, but the cathedral bore witness to the Te Deum mass that blessed King Phillipe's upcoming reign. I figured instead of watching the ceremony from the tv, I'd cross the street to see if I could catch a glimpse of the action. What I didn't expect was to be able to walk right up to the front of the line and watch the royal family pull up to the church. 

In total contrast to the US, there was hardly any security at all. No metal detectors, very few security guards, and the king and queen seemed to roam as they pleased. The small size of the crowd was also a bit mystifying. You would think that the very first abdication of a Belgian king, the inauguration of his son, all coinciding with Belgian Independence Day, would generate a bit of interest. Not so much. The few people who were there were really passionate, as in wearing Belgian flags as capes and shouting "Long Live the King" in French and Flemish, but for the most part it seemed the country wasn't that interested. The southern Francophone province of Wallonia demonstrated much more interest than the northern Flemish-speaking province of Flanders. Traditionally, the monarchy has been seen as much more closely affiliated with the Francophone community, and there are strong Flemish political parties that want to see the end of the royal family and the creation of a republic. They don't really feel much loyalty to their king, and the pomp and circumstance surrounding the monarchy is on a much smaller scale than in the UK for example. It's kind of hard to comprehend the seeming lack of nationalism and split identity between the regions, and King Philippe has his work cut out for him to help unite the country. He isn't called King of the Belgians for nothing though. 

And of course, it wouldn't be a holiday without the Manneken Pis dressed up in another costume. This time in a Belgian military uniform in honor of Independence Day.

Friday, July 19, 2013

Christmas in July

Reunited and it feels so good....

After nearly 11 months of living in temporary housing, last week I finally moved into the apartment I'll call home for the next two years. It's adorably charming, cozy with a flair of Old Europe charm...and right now a complete disaster. On Friday morning my HHE from Beirut was delivered, and since I packed it out nearly a year ago, I forgot exactly how much stuff I actually own. Let's just say it's way too much. And on top of the HHE, my UAB out of DC was also dropped off, so my foyer looked a bit like a loading dock...2,200 lbs of memories shoved into 47 boxes sat piled in various corners. And suddenly what had felt like cavernous rooms with too much space for just one person was teeming with cardboard and paper. I was at risk of being buried alive by falling boxes and I'm pretty sure I lost the cats a time or two.

Against my better judgement, I decided to do the bulk of the unpacking myself. I let the movers handle the really heavy and bulky items, but I figured it wouldn't be that big of a deal to go through the rest at my own pace. Plus it would be fun to rediscover stuff I had forgotten I even had. And there were some fun highlights-my handmade Syrian furniture made it without a scratch; the Persian rugs aren't moth eaten; and possibly most importantly, my heated foot bath is ready for at-home pedicures! With pedis starting around 40 Euros-without nail polish included-I have a feeling that bath will be getting a lot of mileage...

There were also some rather astonishing discoveries. Three boxes of shoes? A couple boxes worth of purses? I seriously own more than 50 scarves? Pretty sure this qualifies as an accessory addiction. There were also a few items that made me question my packing strategy back in Lebanon. Did I really need to bring a gold tambourine or glitter mask from NYE? How did all this cat hair get on my (supposedly) clean sweaters? Why is there a random almond at the bottom of this bag?

But what really got me was the packing paper. Apparently anything that appeared even the slightest bit breakable required four sheets of paper. Now this wound up being a great tactic as everything made it in one piece, but the aftermath translated into piles and piles of what amounted to a small forest in my entry way.

I've spent this past week clearing pathways, filling closets, and attempting to sort through years of souvenirs and memories. Even though I'm still surrounded by boxes, it's starting to feel like home. Books are on the shelves, art is ready to be hung, and my dresser is filled with scarves. It might take me a little while to get everything arranged just the way it should be, but at least I'm here to stay. Until the next packout anyway. 

Monday, July 8, 2013

Let Freedom Ring

It's that time of year again. Pool parties, hot dogs, extravagant displays of pyrotechnics. Singing along off-key to every patriotic song imaginable. Celebrating the 4th of July overseas, however, can look a little different than it does at home. While the long weekend might not be full of neighborhood BBQs and baseball games, toasting America's independence with fellow expats and explaining its significance to foreigners has become one of the highlights of life abroad for me. This year, though, will be one for the memory books. 

A strong appreciation for liberty, freedom, and independence is deeply-rooted within Belgians, and never is it demonstrated more than during this time of year. In honor of the Fourth of July, the Manneken Pis statue in downtown Brussels was dressed up like Uncle Sam. Belgium is a free country today, in part, because of our brave, and Belgians aren't shy about expressing their gratitude for the sacrifices made by the American military on their soil. 

This country is a history buff's dream. Battle memorials dot the countryside from Waterloo to Bastogne to Ypres, and many more towns in between. I'm embarrassed to say I'm not as well-versed in World War I and World War II history as I should be, but that's something I plan to change during my stint here. When I was offered the opportunity to serve as the Embassy representative at a commemoration ceremony for a Belgian town's liberation by American GIs, I jumped at the chance. Getting to venture outside of Brussels and learn a little bit of history at the same time sounded like the perfect way to spend an afternoon. What I wasn't expecting was just how moving the day would be. 

The charming village of Remicourt, located on the outskirts of Liege, hosts an annual wreath-laying ceremony in homage to soldiers who lost their lives while liberating Belgium and reconstructs a military camp with authentic material used by the US Army during WWII. Standing in the town square, flanked by older gentlemen bearing Belgian and American flags, I felt as if I had been transported back in time. A contingent of young men were dressed in American and Allied WWII military uniforms. US military jeeps and cargo trucks filled the background. The stars on the American flag dancing in the breeze only numbered 48. 

In a town official's speech to kick-off the ceremony, he offered profuse thanks to the young soldiers "who should have been dancing, playing, living life" but instead came to Belgium to fight the German occupation. He expressed deep gratitude for all the Americans had done for Remicourt and Belgium, and reiterated what was inscribed on the memorial : "to those who gave their lives for peace and liberty, we will never forget."

 After we paid our respects at the monuments for American and Allied forces, followed by the Belgian resistance, we made our final stop at the monument for the liberation of Remicourt. On September 6, 1944, the German army invaded the small town and rounded up all of the townspeople, who were then taken hostage and locked in a church. One of the flag-bearers recounted the incident, saying the Germans intended to burn the church down with all the residents still inside. At this point of the story the gentleman began to get choked up, as he described how the American GIs came to their rescue on September 7, riding into town, defeating the Germans, and liberating Remicourt. He stood up straight, looked me square in the eye, and thanked the American armed forces for saving his home and family. Excuse me while I go get a tissue. 

It was in the shadow of this same church where Remicourt's monument was built. As the flag bearers stood at attention and the crowd looked on, I climbed the stairs and placed a wreath at the base of the memorial. As the official US representative, and sole American in attendance, the town wanted me to have the honor of paying tribute to what my countrymen had done for them. They reiterated how grateful they are to Americans, and repeatedly thanked me for all the United States has done for Belgium. I had never encountered such sincere and earnest pro-American sentiments abroad before. I realized that I was much more accustomed to images of American flags being burned or anti-U.S. messages being broadcast, and was a little taken aback by the overflowing love and support being expressed. 

Bowing my head in prayer, taking a moment to honor the sacrifices made, I was embraced by the silence that had befallen the gatherers. A moment later, the haunting notes of a trumpet pierced the air, as a lone musician played the Star Spangled Banner. I placed my hand over my heart and softly mouthed the words, while the rest of the group stood in respectful silence. Gazing at that church, with the notes of the anthem ringing in the background, chills ran down my spine and tears filled my eyes. Standing on that hallowed ground, I felt like I was truly experiencing what freedom really means. Remicourt and its residents exist today because of American servicemen, doing what they have always done and will continue to do, coming to the aid of those searching for liberty and independence. This town is grateful everyday for the opportunity to live freely, the memories of occupation still sharp in its collective memory. 

As the breeze carried away the trumpet's final tune and I descended the stairs, several people emerged from the crowd, asking for a moment of my time to introduces themselves and share their personal stories. One man, dressed in an American flag button-down shirt, said his father was an American GI who had returned to the States after the war. After decades of searching, this gentlemen discovered he had brothers and sisters in Ohio and proudly displayed family photos taken during his recent trip to meet them. Another man described how his mother had taken in wounded American soldiers and secretly nursed them back to health so they wouldn't be captured by the Germans. One of the soldiers located his mom 50 years later and traveled back to Belgium to thank her. There were several stories likes these, each one offering a unique glimpse into the narrative that has helped build such strong ties between our two countries. 

I don't think I'll ever look at the 4th of July the same way again after this weekend. When you are blessed to grow up in a country where life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness are boldly proclaimed in its Declaration of Independence, it can be easy to take such freedoms for granted. And while I have lived in and visited many places where such freedoms aren't permitted, much less enjoyed, I had never really set foot on liberated land before or met people who remembered what occupation was like. Stories of hard-won independence had always taken place somewhere else, far from home, and, I'm embarrassed to admit, had had minimal personal impact on my life. But now that's changed. I will never forget the people I met in Remicourt, the faces of the children I saw who would not be alive today had their grandparents not been liberated from that church. Whenever I hear our anthem, I will remember that trumpet belting the Star Spangled Banner for all the world to hear. An enduring declaration. Let freedom ring. 

Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Remembering One of Our Own

It's hard to believe I arrived in Brussels almost three weeks ago. Three weeks already? Only three weeks? I'm not sure how it's possible to feel like I've been here for both an eternity and just a blink of an eye, but it does and I do. I've spent these couple of weeks wandering around wide-eyed and in awe of the history and grandeur that surround me. At times, the sheer freedom to go where I choose, when I choose, without body guards or armored vehicles, has been almost suffocating. I've thrown myself into work, pouring over files and cables, eager to learn as much as I can in order to become a productive and contributing member of the team as quickly as possible. 

The rigorous nine months spent slogging through French training in DC have started drifting into the background, slowly fading into nostalgic memories of a time spent in the States getting paid to learn a beautiful language. Constant reminders of the amazing friendships and bonds forged with colleagues over our struggles with French grammar (I still detest subjunctive) and pronunciation (why can't I distinguish between vin and vent?) have become less frequent. Not because I no longer care, but because adjusting to this new life has taken nearly all the energy and enthusiasm I can muster. I assumed this was the same for the other "Frenchies" too, as we all start to drift to our remote (or not) corners of the globe, making it on our own yet inextricably bound by all those months pacing the halls of FSI. I thought so, that is, until this weekend. 

On Saturday, June 29, our tight-knit group of pseudo-Francophile FSOs lost a member. Not even two months after her arrival in Haiti, Antoinette was tragically killed in a car accident. Even writing this down doesn't make it feel real. News of her passing traveled around the globe at lightening speed, from the Congo to Guinea, Mauritania to DC. Even colleagues here in Brussels, who hadn't been in French or even had the pleasure of knowing her personally, had heard the crushing news and were lamenting her death come Monday morning. Despite the horrifying circumstances, this was a comforting reminder of what the Foreign Service family really means. In times of happiness or sorrow, abundance or need, celebration or mourning, it comes together. We come together. No matter where we are or what we're doing. Emails go flying, phone calls are made. Who can do what for whom? Checking on each other, leaning on each other. No matter how much time has passed, this is how it's always done. For whatever irrational reason, I've maintained the naive notion that when tragedy strikes it won't be close to home, won't hurt anyone I know. But it always hurts somebody's home, hurts somebody's loved one. And this time, it could happen to us. It did happen to us. Antoinette was one of us, part of our family. 

I'm afraid whatever I could say here won't do her memory justice, but I want to try anyway. I want her husband and two sweet little babies to know that we are heartbroken over her loss, shocked by a life taken far too soon, made raw by the thought of the agony her loved ones are now enduring. Spunky and funny, with a quick smile and an infectious laugh, Antoinette always brightened my day with a witty line or sarcastic remark. Her passion for development work and excitement over her assignment to Haiti was evident after just minutes of chatting with her. She was a committed public servant, caring, generous, and thoughtful. She was also a marathon runner and proud mama. I am honored to call her a member of our family, and am humbled by the ultimate sacrifice she and her family have made. Thank you, Antoinette, for serving our country with grace and dignity. Your kind spirit shall never be forgotten. 

Please click here to read the condolence statement issued yesterday by USAID Administrator Rajiv Shah.

Monday, June 24, 2013

Three Years and Counting

When I started this blog just before joining the Foreign Service in 2010, I was eager to join the throngs of FSO and FS family bloggers chronicling their adventures around the globe. I wanted to create a platform to not only recount my own stories to family and friends, but to also highlight the challenges of FS life, especially for those navigating the system with Members of Household (MOHs) or traveling with pets. Well, as you can see, that clearly didn't happen. Work got busy, life got messy, and keeping this updated became less and less of a priority.

Fast forward a couple of years and I'm ready to give it another shot, this time from Belgium as I start my second tour. I thought about deleting my earlier posts, wiping the slate clean, and coming up with a new blog to kick off my new assignment. But I decided that would be unfair to the person I was writing those early entries, so anxious about moving abroad and leaving loved ones behind, yet so full of hope and enthusiasm for the opportunities and experiences to come. Those early posts serve as a reminder to me about how far I've come, both personally and professionally, and also about why I joined in the first place.

I think any officer will tell you there are plenty of moments in your career-even as a green FSO in a first or second tour-that make you second guess your decision to uproot your life to serve your country far away from home. However, rereading some of those entries I can almost feel the butterflies in my stomach while taking the oath, or the swell of pride on Flag Day when I learned I'd be doing human rights work in Lebanon.   It's moments like those that will help me get through the early days in my new city, as I teeter on the fine line between tourist and resident, impatiently expecting to have carved out a life in a place I've only called home for a week.

Such is the strange reality that is FS life. Moving every few years; adapting to new customs, cultures, and languages; being given opportunities and facing obstacles beyond compare. These are the thrills and adventures I was seeking when I joined, and they are still what gets my blood pumping today. What I wasn't prepared for, though, was how this job would make me throw my well-crafted life plan out the window. The clearly-scripted goals, objectives, and milestones my Type-A personality had carefully outlined quickly succumbed to the unofficial "it depends" mantra of our line of work. I have been pushed, tested, and challenged, and I am a better person for it.

When I started this blog three years ago, I could never have imagined the many things to come...that I would live through the Arab Spring, interview Syrian refugees fleeing a bloody civil war, or end a nearly five-year-long relationship. I never thought I would study French and pack my bags to spend a couple years in the heart of Europe. Sometimes life goes as planned and sometimes it doesn't. Sometimes you end up where you intend and sometimes you don't. And sometimes you realize that all the zigzagging life has made actually led you to the exact place you should be. I could never have imagined Brussels was in my future, but here it is and here I am. Ready to see what this crazy and amazing way of life has in store.