2014: And I went from this to that and this again

I sit on my couch, having just finished watching one of my ultimate guilty pleasure movies: My Best Friend’s Wedding. I incidentally just returned from my best friend’s house as well, clear on the other side of the U.S. The past 24 hours represent the past year in a nutshell: a whirlwind of balancing my new career with my family and friends.

2014 has been the best year of my life. It has also been a test of patience and adjustment. I went from being an only child with no relatives living within 1000 miles, to suddenly having sisters and a very large extended family within 50 miles. I went from Peace Corps back to advertising, and clearly not handling it very well. (But the blog post it inspired continues to strike a chord with RPCVs everywhere!) I went from complete uncertainty about the future to more uncertainty to far too much excitement to care. I went from “now what” to 8 months of Arabic training! I went from RPCV consumerism guilt to taxpayer guilt. I went from Arabic to German four separate times on the plane just this morning.  I went from being a cashier at Whole Foods to a diplomat in one day.

January of this year, I sat in a computer room awaiting my fate. That hour ticked by so slowly as I waited and waited, while people kept being called away leaving me with two other people questioning what we could have done differently. But with one smile and a “let us be the first to congratulate you” my whole world changed. That moment, forever etched in my brain, was one I’d dreamed of for 10 years. And when I finally opened my envelope and saw that my score was high enough to ensure I was called off the register, I felt every emotion possible stream through my body. The second I saw my score, I knew that my dreams came true because I worked for it. I put everything into that day and I was rewarded. Turns out hard work and dedication really do produce results, but sometimes it takes a while. January 23, 2014 changed my life.

This year has also been about maintaining the relationships that are most important to me. But, it isn’t easy when there is a lot of physical distance between you and everyone else. And it won’t improve next year when you can tack on an extra 10,000 miles. But, I’ve tried really hard to make the time for my family and friends. Financially, it isn’t easy either, but I know it is important to them. It is always hard on me when I get back though, because it hits me that I live a completely different lifestyle than what 90% of people are used to. I’m a fair weather friend, daughter, sister now and while I don’t particularly like labeling myself that, that’s just sort of how the cookie crumbles. My lifestyle and priorities are completely different from most of the people I know (outside of the Foreign Service). It is not a vacation until I’ve eaten at the restaurant I’ve meticulously researched. Or it is not a family event until I’ve explained “yes, I’m aware of the dangers of living in Egypt.” I’m at this weird point in my life where I’m a complete outsider within my own family or friend group. I’m that wackadoodle relative or friend that you bring up over the dinner table, wondering “what’s she doing now?” But it’s okay, this is what I’ve chosen and I know that if it were easy it wouldn’t be as rewarding.

2014 was the year in which I sat at a picnic table on my lunch break devouring my delicious Whole Foods salad when everything changed. I still remember looking at my phone while scarfing down some mashed sweet potatoes with candied pecans. I remember checking my email and reading in big bold yellow highlighted text that my name was added to the register and my score was high enough to be selected for the June/July class. And then proceeding to lose it. My fork was still midway to my mouth when I started half-crying, half-hyperventilating. And then I called everyone. Passing the oral assessment was the most glorious feeling on Earth, but getting invited to a class that truly was hyperventilate worthy. 2014 was the year that I made my dreams a reality.

My father is an immigrant. His family didn’t have a lot. My mom didn’t have much growing up either; her dad worked in a sardine factory. But they both worked hard and did everything they could to provide me with opportunities, the opportunities they didn’t have growing up. I went to a competitive and challenging public high school 30 minutes from home, because I knew that it was what I needed to grow. I pursued my own challenges and I haven’t stopped since.
This is my lesson from 2014: hard work pays off. Dreams are a reality, but only if you accept that they are also a challenge. You can’t just be handed your dream career or vacation or experience or relationship. You have to work for it. You have to want it and you can’t give up. Dreams are difficult to obtain for a reason, but determination to succeed and just plain ole hard work can put them within your grasp. I didn’t give up, even after failing multiple times. But as my favorite quote from Edison goes: “I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that don’t work.”

2014 was a year of many changes, but all of them put me right where I am today: extremely happy, grateful, and humbled to have been given such a wonderful year to cherish.

Why Life Ain’t So Bad

Let’s cut to the chase, here’s why life is currently just grand:

1. Spoke in Twi twice today to two different Ghanaians. Turns out, I’ve still got it! Commence Azonto dance now:

2. Told a story in Arabic today in a conversational tone at a regular speed, as if I were telling the story in English. I was so happy, even if the story wasn’t as funny as I always thought it was.

3. This time next week I will be in San Diego with my best friend. Bring on the burritos!

4. Finally making friends in DC outside of the Foreign Service bubble. Don’t get me wrong, I love my colleagues, but sometimes it is nice to hear someone talk about something besides language training. Plus, as it turns out, non-State folks do really awesome things too. And they are normal people, normal cool people.

5. I’m still getting paid to be a language sponge. The Department of State is still high fiving me everytime I walk into my apartment.

6. I’ve stopped drinking as much caffeine, 90% less I’d say, and I feel much more alert and awake. Funny how that works.

7. I learned the proper way to say King Tutankhamun today, so that made everything seem a little more real.

8. Speaking of real, I sent in my housing form today. Now that makes things feel real. I just hope to the housing board gods that they give me an apartment that doesn’t smell like dead fish and is not inhabited by a gang of wild flat spiders on tour from Ghana. It still feels like language training is going to last forever, but I guess it is just another 4 months.

9. Christmas is right around the corner and I’m always reminded during the holidays about how grateful I am for all the opportunities that have come my way.

Things I Wish I Would Have Known Before A-100

A-100 or as I like to call it “Diplomat Training: or how to look awkward in a suit” is the 6 week training course all U.S. diplomats take. A-100 was a mystery to me before I stepped foot in Arlington. I still have no idea what I will look like in 4 weeks when I’m sworn in (bags under my eyes are a given though). But in the past two weeks, I’ve discovered a few things that I wish I would have known beforehand. So, as I often do, here is a list:

1. Suits are hot. Long sleeves under suits are hot. Pants are hot. Skirts obtain optimal airflow. When you are packed in like sardines into a small room with everyone wearing a suit, it gets hot. Somehow, I’m still cold though, sometimes. The Ghanaian in me still has a firm distaste for air conditioning. Lesson learnt: wear skirts and deodorant. 

2. You will never sleep during the week. On the weekends, you will sleep like a teenager. My shuttle to the Foreign Service Institute leaves at 7:15am, even though classes are generally at 8:15am. After work, there are happy hour events, trivia nights, and socializing up the wazoo. You get home after an event and still have to check email, do homework, and make sure everything is ready for the next day (read: ironing). The adrenaline and whatever else is making my body still function seems to not turn off when I get home. I’m often up till 11pm or midnight just because I can’t fall asleep. The sun blasts in around 5:30am and it is time for round two. Lesson learnt: caffeine is your friend until you build up a tolerance in the second week. 

3. Your health is important. Okay, I was smart enough to get into the Foreign Service, but seriously it took me two weeks to figure this out. You don’t have to go to every social event. You don’t have to drink. You don’t have to guzzle coffee (especially after your tolerance builds up too high). You don’t have to eat take out. You can choose to do any of these things, but moderation is key. As annoying as it is, getting regular exercise and drinking plenty of water is incredibly important to maintaining your sanity. I converted my spare dining room (isn’t that a nice thing to say in DC) into a yoga room. Now I don’t have an excuse to not work out. After 45 minutes of yoga and 20 minutes of meditation I feel completely recharged and ready to take on the coming week. Plus, how cool is it to have a sunroom/yoga room in your free apartment?! Lesson learnt: take care of yourself first. 

4. FSI cafeteria food is, hmmm how do I put this diplomatically…lacking in originality and finesse. I tolerate the sushi, just because it is the right balance between carbs and protein to keep me awake in the afternoons. Generally, the food is not so tasty and expensive. The iced coffee is pretty good though. Don’t eat the sandwiches if you plan on staying awake in the afternoon. The insane amount of bread hits your stomach and BAM, your eyelids start to droop and your neighbor is elbowing you. Lesson learnt: bring your own lunch. 

5. This experience is everything you want to take from it. I spend half the day in awe that I made it and that this is real. I spend a few minutes choking up, as I am now, and embracing the duty. Yes, some of the sessions are long and sometimes exhausting, but guess what YOU JUST LANDED YOUR DREAM JOB. They are teaching us the skills and knowledge to be real bona fide diplomats, ready to represent and serve our country. Do you know who else was a diplomat? Benjamin Franklin. Thomas Jefferson. Madeleine Albright. Ambassador Chris Stevens. Lesson learnt: It is okay to be humbled. 

6. This is way cooler than I thought it would be. Lesson learnt: I picked the right career. 

Surreal isn’t Strong Enough

I still pinch myself. Is this really happening? Am I moving to DC next week? Did I really land my dream job or is this some elaborate ruse being orchestrated by Secretary Kerry because his initials are JK? My fellow classmates and I have begun filling out a spreadsheet with a few details about ourselves. I have affectionately renamed this spreadsheet to: the “wow, everyone is way cooler than me” list. We have people who’ve worked for the UN, survived multiple Afghanistan deployments, practiced law all over the world, and someone who has published a book. So far only 13% of us do NOT have a graduate degree. The people with graduate degrees have graduated from universities I’d be afraid to even step on the campus. It’s all a little intimidating and still surreal. Who are these people and why on Earth am I in the same class as them. Surely there must be a mistake.

And then I snap out of it and remember that, damnit I’m cool too! I may not have the credentials like everyone else, but I worked as a cashier at Whole Foods. They don’t let uncool people work there, clearly, have you ever shopped there? We all had to pass the same tests to get into the Foreign Service. I just hope that I can scrap my fluency in Redneck before class starts, so no one will question how I passed with this piss poor English. Luckily, part of the training is how to write like a diplomat. Then after those six weeks, I’ll be learning a new language anyway. Come on English, don’t fail me now!

I do still wonder how I managed to do this. The sheer odds of getting into the Foreign Service are incredible. You want to be president? You have better odds than joining the Foreign Service. Of the 20,000 who apply each year to be a Foreign Service Officer, only 2% make it. In 2012, there were 12 Republican candidates for President. Tack on President Obama and that gives you a 7.7% chance of scoring a seat in the White House. Yes, I understand I’m just manipulating numbers which are far too variable to really provide a strong comparison, but whatever, 2% makes me feel better when I go to sleep at night.

Part of me wants to prove that I deserve to be in that class, but the other part knows that I’ve already proven I deserve to be there. Ain’t no use in bragging about my accomplishments when everyone surrounding me has pretty awesome ones too. (Oh dear lord my English! Heaven help me.) I’ve just got to wrap my head around the idea that I’m not just coming to learn about the Foreign Service, I’m coming to learn from my fellow classmates. My two study buddies from the Oral Assessment have credentials that would make any resume instantly turn into gold, but they don’t intimidate me. They are just normal men who’ve done pretty fantastic things. I’ve learned a lot from them, clearly, they helped me pass my oral assessment! And I think I’ve taught them some things too.

Now I’ve just got to figure out a good mingling opening line:
”Hi, I’m not anywhere as cool as you. Please tell me all about yourself.”
“I read your bio online and know that you went to Johns Hopkins and love yoga. Can we be friends?”
”Hi, I spent two years in a town in West Africa eating with my hands and learning how to hand wash my clothes like a pro, please tell me more about your experience working on refugee and immigration issues.”
“Woot! Another Peace Corps Volunteer, so tell me, worst disease you got. Go! Also, do you feel like no one understands you anymore? Can we talk about our readjustment feelings?”

The Whole Package

Even though I only worked at Whole Foods for a short period of time, I learned some very valuable lessons from my experience. One of the reasons I wanted to work for Whole Foods was to learn more about their approach to customers and employees. Whole Foods consistently ranks in the top 100 of Best Companies to Work For. As an incoming management officer in the Foreign Service, customer service and keeping employees happy are two very important aspects of my new job. (Or so I’ve been told.) Even though I needed a little extra income, appreciated the discount, and generally loved being around foodies, my time at Whole Foods was almost like a research project. Here are my takeaways:

A customer once asked me: “why is it that every time I come in here, everyone looks so happy? Are you guys actually that happy working here?” I was bagging his groceries at the time and my fellow cashier and I just looked at each other, dumfounded: “uhhhhh…good question.” We couldn’t come up with a real answer on the spot, because it’s all intrinsic. Why was I happy working at Whole Foods? I was treated with respect, loved being able to share tidbits about random foods (hint: cashews, also hint: I love trivia), I was never bored, and my fellow team members were incredibly friendly. The atmosphere was the key.

Team members/employees are friendly, because Whole Foods treats people well. For part time employees, there is access to health care, a 401k, and profit sharing. Most people who work for Whole Foods are attracted to the whole package, the opportunity to be around people with similar ideals. As prevalent as organic and natural foods are today, it still seems like a bit of a counter-culture. Plus, if you work at Whole Foods, odds are you are eating fairly healthy, therefore you are theoretically less vitamin-deficient, hence the happiness factor. That’s why theory anyway. I know I’m happier when I have beets and fruit in my diet. Yes, I said beets, deep down inside I’m a Dwight Schrute.

 

So why are Whole Foods employees happy? We love the fact that we can be ourselves and be respected for it. We are around people with similar values and all have generally the same goals. We are empowered to make customers happy. We are rewarded for going above and beyond on a regular basis, and not just at the end of the year during a yearly review, on the spot. The environment is inclusive, decentralized, and family-like. We receive excellent training. Everyone comes to work ready to make our customers just as excited about food as we are. A shared passion. And apparently all those factors make everyone ridiculously happy. I’ll admit, some days I was tired, sore, and ready to go home, but I still smiled and tried to make every customer leave happier than they were before.

 

So how does that translate into a government job? You aren’t exactly working towards higher profits or pleasing a fellow foodie’s cheese craving (or maybe you are: wine and cheese parties). Just because it is a government position, doesn’t mean you can’t empower yourself to make your fellow employees happy. You can work towards “profit-sharing” by cutting costs and eliminating waste (see: http://www.cnn.com/2014/03/27/living/student-money-saving-typeface-garamond-schools/). You can be rewarded for going above and beyond on the spot. At Whole Foods we received small gift certificates, but intrinsic recognition is probably the winner in an Embassy, well really anywhere. All it takes is congratulating a great effort in a meeting, to your supervisor, in passing to the Ambassador (if that’s allowed), or telling someone just then and there: “wow, thank you so much for doing that. I really appreciate it. You didn’t have to take the extra steps, but you did and it made a difference.” or “that report was incredibly well written and I appreciate the time you took to do it well. Thanks for working so hard.”

We can all be foodies together, with our shared values. I mean we should all know those 13 dimensions by heart now, right? People generally join the Foreign Service with similar ideals, similar goals, so it seems very possible that a Whole Foods-like environment is feasible. The key is using the resources at hand to make people happy. You don’t have to spend money to make people happy, you just need to have a shared vision, shared expectations, and a positive environment. And maybe make everyone eat their fruits and vegetables. Maybe I am naïve, or maybe I’m just optimistic, but I believe this is possible as a Foreign Service Officer.

My Last Trip to the Market

The Techiman market is famous for its wide selection of just about anything. It is one of the largest markets in West Africa. I’ve enjoyed my weekly jaunts to the random stalls dotted along the market. Today my first stop is my friend Vida’s shop in the fabric section. She isn’t around so I tell all the neighbors I’ll be back later. I meander through the stalls stopping to look at the random assortment of clothes. I don’t have anything in mind to buy today, I just want to wander. I check out the jeans stalls to see if there are any hidden treasures, there are! But alas, they are all too small for my Ghana mama hips. I make my way over to the piles of clothes baking in the hot sun. This is my favorite part. Last time I pilfered through these piles I found a dress for 50p that I wore to Ghana Fashion Week. I made my way towards the start of the piles and slowly snaked my way through the crowded mess. There was one table with coats, but unfortunately the only decent and warm looking one wouldn’t fit around my hips. Cursed hips.

I found my favorite pile to look through. The pile with clothes from India. The silks and beaded tunics are beautiful. The colors are so vibrant and unique. Sometimes you find a matching tunic and pants. Sometimes it is just the pants. Today I opted for some pants. One pair is made from soft silk, another from comfy cotton, and another from some sort of synthetic fabric that doesn’t matter because they are ridiculous.

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The bright chartreuse ones have an intricate beaded design at the bottom. In America, I never would have bought anything like that. I would have thought – gah, how am I supposed to wash these? Now I know – you throw them in a bucket with soap and wash them. Easy, done. And what’s not to love about harem-style pants? I now have the coolest pajama pants. All three cost 1.50GHC (about 68 cents).

As I worked my way through more piles, I stopped and decided on a whim to turn down a small alley between two buses. And I’m so glad I did, sitting in front of me was a pile about 3ft tall of scarves. The lady in charge of the pile would scream out the price and then pick up the pile and turn it. I stuck with this pile for a while because I knew it would contain some real gems inside. (After all was said and done I spent 2GHC, or 90cents) I saw a scarf that made me smile, but opted not to pick it up. I regretted it immediately because the lady then turned the pile. Would I ever find it again? There had to be hundreds of scarves tangled in a giant heap. I pulled aside one because I liked the colors and it was larger, so I knew I could actually wear it. I’ve developed a real fondness for random bits of orange since being in Ghana too.

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The next one I found I grabbed immediately. Pile shopping is a very visceral experience. If you like it, grab it, you can decide on it later. But countless Peace Corps Volunteers before me have always said – if you like it, buy it, because you’ll never find it again. (Like that Jar Jar Binks head backpack I regret not buying almost two years ago.) Anyway, this one reminded me of my Oma. One of the only things I have of hers is a necklace with a pressed Edelweiss flower inside. The flower reminds me of my childhood and it brings back the happiest memories of growing up in Germany and time spent with my Oma.

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As the lady was turning the pile once again the scarf I regretted not grabbing resurfaced and I latched on to it. It just makes me smile. Yes, those are frogs and a princess. Who would ever give away a scarf this whimsical? (I found another scarf with roosters wearing Nikes that I thought the same, but I hate roosters, so screw them and their scarf likenesses.)

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Lastly, as the suns rays started to wear on me, I decided to give it just a few more pulls and then call it a day. Tirelessly throwing clothes around is exhausting. I noticed a pale blue busy scarf that just caught my eye. I flipped it around and tried to take it all in by letting it billow in the wind. I stopped dead in my tracks. Suddenly memories from my childhood came flooding back to me. I thought of my father and all my extended family in Germany, including in the Schwarzwald. I don’t know what I’m going to do with this scarf. I won’t wear it, but I needed it. I needed those memories. I especially needed them this week. I’ve been struggling with so many different things. I needed to remember that happiness is mental. You chose to be happy. Some things trigger sadness and despair, but you can always choose happiness. This scarf reminded me of that. I walked away clutching it in my hand, knowing that I will always treasure finding this at my crossroad. A German scarf that reminds me of my family, my childhood, my future, and I found it in Ghana.

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The past, present, and future. As I walked away from the market for the last time, I didn’t look back. I walked away smiling and happy that I found joy in the simplest things. These past two weeks have tested my resolve, but I know that I’ll leave Ghana with happy memories. Yes, I have scars. But a scar is always a reminder that you lived to tell the tale. And I’ll have many tales to tell, both sad and happy. It is the happy ones I’ll tell well after the sad ones have faded.

One Month

October is slowly changing. Instead of the leaves turning colors and the crisp air filling my lungs, the days are getting hotter and the rains are slowing down. My time is coming to a close and it is as if the universe wants to give me every last test possible.

I’ve been sick since September. I had bronchitis, which was not pleasant, but bearable. It disappeared for a week and a half, although a cough lingered. And as soon as I was feeling myself again, it came back. Was it the stress of working so hard for two days straight? Was it the pollution that fills my lungs every time I walk out of my house? (Seriously, have a lung illness living next to a soap factory that burns lye and being in the transport center of Ghana does not make for a good combination for fumes.) Or was it simply Ghana’s way of saying: “We can’t let you leave without one last good illness?” Whatever conspired against me did a good job. This past week I’ve been all but bed ridden. Friday was the worst, I deteriorated so fast I was terrified. All I could think about was how Danni had just one month left too. That thought of not making it to see my parents again, or my friends, or my dog, or my Oklahoma, or my aunt it gave me the strength to do everything in my power to heal. Plus, the 2g of antibiotics I’m taking everyday seem to help too. I will heal because there ain’t no way I’m going to let bronchitis ruin me after all I’ve been through.

And if I thought that would be the last thing, of course I’d be wrong. The truth has a funny way of coming out, right when it simply no longer matters. This month I’ve watched as my neighbors have become drunker and drunker. The other day as I walked to the latrine, boiled cassava came flying by me. And then my neighbor threw a crab on the ground. As I sat in the latrine, I heard someone rambling in English nearby. Upon leaving the latrine, I found my drunk neighbor right outside the door talking to me about heaven knows what. There were a few people sitting there and the sober ones all looked contrite. I’ve heard this guy’s ramblings before and most of the time it involves me being white and him being black. His wife (?) recently moved in and I saw her on my way home yesterday. She decided to come with me home. I told her I was sick and going to take a taxi, but since she didn’t have money she could walk home if she wanted. I wasn’t going to pay for her taxi, why should I when I barely even know her other than by appearance? She proceeded to tell the taxi driver a whole slew of lies. In Twi. Well, lucky for me I understand Twi. The taxi driver understood English. So I told him the straight story and that I would not be paying for her. Now, this may not seem like much of a to do, but after two years I’ve had enough. I’ve had enough of being taken advantage of. I’m sick of my skin color being some sort of unspoken code. I tired of people treating me like a pet. This woman has begged me for gifts and money since she moved in. I was not about to reward her for taking advantage of me while I’m sick. Later that day, the drunk neighbor (her husband), dragged my small girl away because she didn’t wash the dishes. The day before I asked the family if the small girl could help me wash my suitcase the next day. She was probably two minutes away from finishing when the man came over and dragged her away. I asked him to have a little patience since she was almost done. He proceed to rant and ramble at me about doing things properly and her needing to do her job. He kept going on and on about how she doesn’t know her place and I don’t know mine.

And that’s when I lost it. I felt myself grow 8ft tall and take a stand. I let him know that it simply didn’t matter. The girl could do both things and it didn’t matter when they were finished because in the grand scheme of things, does it matter? No. If the dishes don’t get washed for another five minutes, the world was not about to end. She works all day slaving away and he treats her like dirt. I puffed up and told him to stop yelling at her for the most ridiculous things and to have patience. I watched as the air deflated out of him, but then he went to say something else. And I stopped him. I told him our conversation was finished and this discussion was over. I organized the other small girls and turned my back on him and walked away. The whole neighborhood was watching our exchange. The whole neighborhood of women. They were smiling. The small girls told me afterwards that he is crazy and a drunk. But they smiled at me. I stood up for all of them.

The truth continued to ooze out for the next few hours about how that family has been stealing from me for months. When I had an old padlock, one of the guys had a key. They stole my water. They lied to me about entering my house. The girl stole my food and something very dear to me. The guy who used to live in the house stole the money I gave him monthly for the light bill. The mom lied to me about the light bill and stole my money just this past week. One of the brothers wants me to go with him to a big man to show off that he has a white friend. It drives me crazy that the family still treats me like a five year old. Last time I checked, I’m competent enough to know how to wash clothes, close a door, and walk across the street.
They have told me lie after lie. I could taste the bitterness on my tongue as the lies all unfolded in front of me. This is the taste that will linger in my mouth when I think about my home. This will be my last taste of Techiman. But I won’t let this cloud my memory of my time here.

I have my fabric lady, Vida. Her sweetness will compensate for the rest. And I have so many other wonderful things that I will remember that will make up for the disappointments.

But I’m ready. I’m ready to go. One month and my Peace Corps service will be over. Two years of life changing experiences will come to an end. When I get back to America I want to buy a t-shirt that says:

I survived.