We’re back! And as you can see, we’re quite happy about it.
At some point I’m sure I’ll have more to say about goodbyes in Benin (preview: awful), long haul travel alone and pregnant with a toddler and dog (preview: also awful), and the house we bought sight unseen by me (preview: not at all awful). But for now, there are playgrounds to be discovered, ice cream shops to be visited, and neighborhood kids to be met. Benin was rewarding, and we’re looking forward to Mexico, but at the moment this is exactly where we want and need to be.
We’re still here, but not for long. With our stuff gone, we’ve been making camp in our big but virtually empty house. Desperate to not let our remaining consumable items go to waste, we’ve been putting together meals that look a little something like this:
This last stretch of time at post feels to me like a drawn out break up. We all know the goodbye is coming and that in many ways it’s going to be heartbreaking. But it’s necessary and for the best. At this point, I’m anxious to just get to the other side of it and start settling into our future.
Flynn’s ready too, if only because Andy promised during one recent Skype call to take him on the Metro when they’re reunited. “Go airplane? See Daddy? Go choo choo train?” he asks incessantly. Unfortunately the concept of “soon” is a little beyond the grasp of a certain two year old, whose bags are packed and ready to go.
There comes a point in life when you’re just too old to pack up boxes and lure friends with free pizza and beer to help haul them on and off a moving truck. I’m there. At the same time, I’m also cheap. Luckily in the Foreign Service, because you’re moving for your job, your job arranges and pays for movers to do this for you. Let me tell you, I had every intention of making sure the U.S. taxpayers got their money’s worth.
Most Foreign Service folks I know spend a lot of time sorting, labeling, and otherwise getting ready for what we call “pack outs,” but I didn’t intend to. I had visions of doing absolutely nothing to prepare and just sitting back sipping a lemonade as I watched the movers work their magic.
I had my reasons.
Reason #1: I’ve never been an obsessively organized type. My theory is that it will all get where it’s going eventually and if the kitchenwares happen to get mixed up with bathroom supplies, well, life will go on.
Reason #2: It’s not like I’m moving to, say, Benin. I’m moving back to America for goodness sake. If something I meant to ship by air accidentally ends up shipped by boat, and I won’t get it as quickly as I would have liked, well, there’s always Target.
Reason #3: I’m at post alone with a toddler, and I’m seven months pregnant. Extra and unnecessary work? No thanks.
Days passed and my pack out date approached, and I continued to sit back and do nothing. But then, the weekend before the scheduled pack out, I started to get a little antsy.
There was so much stuff we could and should get rid of. Wasn’t it better to do that here where people would really want and benefit from our discarded goods as opposed to DC where it would probably end up trashed?
The air shipment should beat me to DC whereas the boat shipment as might take months to arrive. By that time I would have a newborn and probably no energy to make our new house feel truly like our home, which was one of the main reasons we decided to buy rather than rent in the first place. Wouldn’t it be well worth my time to organize in such a way that our favorite stuff got there before the baby?
If you haven’t seen a toddler throw a tantrum, I assure you it’s not pretty. If a little pre-planning would allow Flynn’s favorite toys to come more quickly, and possibly avoid a tantrum or several surrounding the absence of his moto giraffe or his blocks or his slide, wasn’t that maybe worth it?
Being pregnant I have limited wardrobe options. Mostly maternity clothes are awful, but I’ve managed to collect a few items that I don’t totally hate. Didn’t it make sense to ensure I had them with me for my last few months of pregnancy?
You see where this is going.
Even my unorganized self was beginning to see the value of some pre-pack out organization. And so that’s how I spent my Memorial Day weekend: throwing out, giving away, sorting. Moving all the items I wanted as my air shipment into one room together so they couldn’t get mixed up with the boat shipment. Pre-packing my suitcases to make sure everything I planned to carry with me on the plane would fit. Hiding those suitcases away so they couldn’t accidentally get thrown into a box bound for the boat.
In other words, all those things my Foreign Service friends suggested I do but that I’d initially turned up my nose at.
Much as I would have liked to sit back sipping lemonade once the movers arrived, this wasn’t exactly how things went either. Basically, I had to constantly circle the house keeping an eye on everything, because yes, the movers did try to box up my packed suitcases. No, they didn’t remember to pack the dresser that I pointing out multiple times was mine and not the embassy’s. Yes, they did try to pack up the embassy’s vacuum cleaner. And so forth. It’s not that they did a bad job. Not at all. It’s just that no one knows where all your stuff is and where it’s supposed to be going better than you do.
Anyway, after two full days of packing up and hauling off, it’s all gone. Except for those packed suitcases of course.
This leaving post thing is starting to feel pretty real.
The original plan was for me to leave Benin in mid-June and go directly to a temporary assignment in DC, which I’d stick with until my due date in mid-August.
To be honest, I’m not exactly sure how this plan came to be. I guess I never really considered another option. I worked up until the day I gave birth to Flynn, so why wouldn’t I do the same this time? Besides, I’ve had a job — oftentimes multiple jobs simultaneously — since I was 15, and I don’t think there’s ever been a stretch when I haven’t worked unless there was a very good reason not to, like maternity leave #1. So of course I’d work when I got back to DC.
Except, well…. enter beauracracy.
It’s not worth going into all the details, but suffice it to say that about a month before I was scheduled to leave Benin I got word that I couldn’t work a temporary assignment in DC after all. It was a decision that didn’t make sense for a lot of reasons, and one I’m sure I could get overturned if I fought it, but it got me to thinking… was this really worth the fight? Did I even need or want to work?
Financially, me working isn’t crucial to our family finances now that Andy’s an FSO too. Professionally, not working wouldn’t really be any worse than a temporary assignment. Logistically, it would certainly be easier to manage moving into a new house and all that goes along with that if one of us were at home during the week. Personally, spending quality time with Flynn taking advantage of the many fun toddler activities we’ve missed out on during the last two years in Africa sounded pretty great too.
Really, why didn’t I consider this option before?
Between this break, maternity leave, and an uncertain but likely far off start date for Spanish training, it may very well be a good long while before I return to work. And, much to my surprise, that is just fine with me.
So if you happen to be in Northern Virginia and are looking to meet up at a playground or water park or ice cream shop in the middle of the day — I’m your gal.
In addition to the things you know about — living across the world from one another and raising a toddler and growing a baby and starting a new job and getting ready to leave one post and bidding on our next post and an unexpected medevac to London — there’s something we haven’t mentioned yet.
We’ve been house hunting too. By “we,” I of course mean that I spent hours each evening pouring through online listings, and Andy spent hours each weekend visiting the places I told him to go see.
For a while now we’ve been meaning to invest in real estate, but we could never decide (or agree) on where to buy. In the Midwest, where our families are from? In Florida, where we could spend time off between tours and which would give us some tax benefits? In DC, with the best rental prospects, and in case we ever took domestic jobs there?
Knowing that we would be living in the DC area for at least a year finally prodded us into a decision. Rather than throwing away tens of thousands of dollars in rent, we would buy something. We would live in it for a while, and then rent it out once we headed back overseas. Maybe we’d even live in it again one day, and it would help resolve that complicated question of where exactly is Flynn’s home.
So, we had settled on buying in the DC area — but what exactly did we want? Well, we wanted a nine-bedroom, $14 million beauty in Georgetown, but baring the untimely demise of some wealthy long lost relative neither of us know about but who thought very highly of us for some reason, this wasn’t going to happen.
Realistically, we settled on a 1950s three- or four-bedroom Cape Cod near the West Falls Church metro stop as our ideal. A Cape Cod because Alex has an irrational aversion to any house built after 1960 or so, and Andy has a rational desire to make sure his wife’s not miserable. Falls Church because it’s the shortest commute and nicest, most walkable neighborhood available for the amount we wanted to spend.
While we were browsing this seemed like a very realistic plan. But by the time Andy’s DC job was confirmed and we were ready to act, inventory had dropped and prices had risen. It was a sellers market. Good properties were getting numerous offers within days of being listed, oftentimes selling for significantly above asking price after fierce bidding wars. We only had a few months to find something, so we began making compromises.
First we bid on a 1950s Cape Cod in a neighborhood just south of Falls Church. The house was updated, but strangely so, which was probably why it had been on the market for a while. But I guess our interest prompted interest from someone else, who bid higher than we were willing to go for that particular place.
Then we bid on a townhouse one metro stop beyond West Falls Church. It was nice enough, as nice as a newer townhouse could possibly be, but a newer townhouse is just not my style. And don’t get me started on my thoughts about homeowners associations. Let’s just say I could easily see us becoming these people. Still, the townhouse would be a comfortable place to live for a year, and it would be a solid investment, so I agreed to go for it anyway. But we lost this bidding war too.
We bid on another townhouse soon after, this time two metro stops beyond West Falls Church. This one was a five-minute walk from the metro and hence pretty much my public transportation loving husband’s dream come true. (According to him, “We wouldn’t even have to buy a car!” According to me, we still would.) The house itself was very much not my style, but time was a-ticking and we still didn’t have anything, so I caved. When we lost this bidding war (20 bids had already come in by the time we placed ours, the same day as the open house…), that was just fine with me.
We bid next on a 1950s Colonial in Springfield, a neighborhood pretty far from Falls Church. I can’t imagine a house I liked more. Hardwood floors and crown molding throughout. A hip new kitchen. And because of the location it was significantly under budget. Andy liked the house too, but the commute would be longer and this was a big concern for him. However, the fact that he might have to spend every weekend until the end of time continuing to go out and look at houses was also a big concern for Andy, and besides, it was his turn to compromise. He agreed to put an aggressive offer on this one.
One problem, though: literally hours after we sent off that bid, a 1950s Cape Cod near the West Falls Church metro, in our price range, came on the market. It wasn’t perfect. We’d need to add a bathroom and do some updates. But the price allowed for that. It was workable and better for us than anything we’d seen. I wouldn’t have to compromise the sort of house I liked, and Andy wouldn’t have to compromise his commute time. The schools were good in case we ever ended up living there long term. The neighborhood had sidewalks and leafy trees and other nice older houses and parks and a public library and a few restaurants and shops within walking distance.
This was the house we wanted. But, if it didn’t work out, we would still be happy to move forward with the faraway Colonial.
We worked with our realtor to quickly submit an offer on the Falls Church house in such a way that we weren’t breaking any rules by having two bids out at once. Andy didn’t even have time to go see it in person, but no matter. We knew what we were looking for well enough by this point to feel confident about acting based on photos and location alone. Plus, we could always back out during inspection if any major issues came to light.
In the meantime, the sellers of the faraway Colonial countered our offer as predicted, so the ball was in our court with that one. We hoped they would be patient as we awaited news about the other…
After a day of obsessively refreshing our email browsers, we finally heard back… the owners of the 1950s Cape Cod in Falls Church picked our bid! They had received other offers, but the desperate letter we included about me being pregnant and this being the perfect house for our growing family tipped the balance in our favor, the selling agent said. Three cheers for sympathy votes! (The fact that we were flexible on a few terms that were important to the sellers didn’t hurt either.)
We declined the counter from the faraway Colonial and proceeded to move forward with inspection, appraisal, and mortgage hoops. A lot of stress and a little over a month later the four-bedroom Cape Cod near the West Falls Church metro is officially ours, although we agreed to rent it back to the sellers for a short while so we’re not in it just yet.
Andy will move in a few weeks before Flynn and I arrive, which I for one think should be plenty of time for him to remove the wallpaper and paint the kitchen, and install flooring in the almost finished basement — don’t you?
Anyway, the homebuying process wasn’t always pleasant, but at least we’re happy with how things turned out.
Of course, I say this without yet having set foot in the house. Making major life decisions with partial information from halfway across the world? Only in the Foreign Service…
I hate that these two years of your life aren’t being recorded for permanent safekeeping in that little noggin of yours. The most this experience will likely ever be to you is a fun fact you keep tucked away in your pocket to pull out for those “tell us one thing we wouldn’t guess about you” sort of games at summer camp or your first week of college.
Benin? I imagine your new friends asking incredulously. Where in the world is that?
Then again, if we stick with this lifestyle and you spend all your formulative years in far corners of the world, you’ll likely have even more interesting facts tucked away in those pockets, and maybe Benin won’t ever come out at all. That’s even more sad.
Though you won’t remember your time here, I firmly believe it’s shaping you into the person you will one day be. I believe that loving and being loved by all sorts of people of varying backgrounds and skin shades will allow you to respect and value everyone equally in your adult life.
I believe that hearing and starting to speak a handful of languages is flexing your brain muscles in a way that will be evident long after your knowledge of these specific languages fades away.
And I believe that eating anything and everything and rolling around on the ground who knows where is helping you build the finest immune system a little American boy could possibly have, you lucky son of a gun.
Because you won’t remember Benin yourself, I’ve decided to take a moment to collect some memories on your behalf and scatter them here on the interwebs for you to hopefully discover at some point in your future.
Flynn, I wish you could remember your great fortune of living a fraction of a mile from an international airport. Being a boy, you are naturally obsessed with all things that go. You know, before I had kids, I thought these sort of stereotypical gender preferences were forced upon little ones by their parents, but I assure you that you were demanding cars and trucks and planes before I bought you a single toy rendition.
Luckily you get to watch a dozen or two airplanes take off each and every day. You run to the window and sometimes out to the front porch at the sound of them, wave your finger up to the sky and say, “Airplane! Airplane?” You turn to me with wide eyes, like you’re questioning whether it could it really be so, whether you could really be so lucky as to see yet another real live airplane right above your very head.
And then of course there is the dilapidated airplane a few blocks from our house, abandoned as the result of some sort of customs dispute, as the story goes. You constantly ask to take walks to see it, and when I tell you no, sometimes you try to sneak out the gate and bolt down the street to go yourself. Luckily I’m still bigger and faster than you.
Flynn, I wish you could remember living by the ocean. Your dad first dipped your toes in it several days after we arrived, and since then it’s been a huge part of your little life.
Your bedroom window opens to the sea, and as you get your diaper changed you look out and tell us about the boats or the sand or the waves. Although you still call the ocean a swimming pool, you talk incessantly about the beach and sand in both English and French, probably because you visit it bucket and shovel in tow multiple times a day.
Sometimes when your dad and I get home from work and you are nowhere to be found, your dad points his telescope out the window and finds you and your nanny playing a little ways down the shore. The undertow by our house is too strong for you, but on weekends we drive a bit outside of town and let you splash around in the water. You run as fast as you can into the waves until they knock you down, and then giggle.
Flynn, more than anything else I wish you could remember your nanny Marie. At first I was jealous and nervous about how much time she got to spend with you. I feared you’d love her more than me and your dad. But somehow everything worked out. She never took our places. You love Mom. You love Dad. You love Marie too, and she loves you as if you’re her own. In fact, she refused to take paid time off when your grandparents came to visit until she spent a week getting to know them and finally decided they could be trusted with you.
Marie carries you in the traditional African way, tied up on her back in bright cloth, and this is your very favorite place in the world. Even now at two years old you hate to fall asleep anywhere other than au dos.
You spend your days with Marie going on walks, coloring, dancing, singing, playing; I am constantly amazed by the unlimited amount of energy she seems to have to make your life fun. You light up at the sight of her, but you probably light up even more at the sight of her son and daughter, who I’m fairly certain you think are your brother and sister. They build block towers for you to knock over, teach you how to kick a soccer fall, and let you climb on their backs for horsie rides. You speak beautiful French with them all, and when they try to say something to you in English you just laugh. You know that French is the special secret language you all share.
Marie told me once that after we leave she might try to find a housekeeper rather than a nanny job, because it’s just too hard to grow to love a child and then say goodbye. I get it. To be honest with you, the thing I’m dreading most about leaving Benin is your last à tout à l‘heure with Marie.
There’s more, of course. The goats and horses you greet on your walks around town. Your play dates with kids from all over the world. The mosquito net that you get in and out of more seamlessly than your dad and I are able. The giant lizards you chase through our yard. The guards who come find you for a high five when reporting for duty. The ladies at the nearby bakery who all greet you by name.
You’ve had a good life here, Flynn. This country has been kind to you. Though you won’t actually remember it, I hope in the future your time here means something to you.
One of the benefits diplomats get when signing up to serve their country overseas is — as much as possible — continued access to the sort of healthcare they would have if they were still living in America. Of course, a modern healthcare system can’t be perfectly replicated in all corners of the world. Should we have found ourselves needing an ambulance or an emergency room while in Benin, well, we would have been out of luck. But when Andy needed more sophisticated medical attention than he could get in Benin last year, we were sent back to the U.S. And recently, when I needed to have something checked out that couldn’t be done here, Flynn and I were sent off to London.
If we learned anything from Andy’s health ordeal last year it’s that you just never know when something serious will strike, so we decided that as big of a hassle and as big of an expense as it would be, it was important for Andy to take a few days off work and fly out to London to be there for my appointment too. Plus, an unexpected family reunion would be pretty nice, and might help us better push through these last two months of our six months apart. Lemonade from lemons, and all.
It was a whirlwind trip. We arrived Thursday. I had appointments Friday morning. We found out everything was fine that afternoon and were booked on the next available flight out, which was Sunday. But we squeezed in as much family time as we could. We didn’t do anything particularly special. Mostly we just hung out.
We hung out on trains, Flynn’s current obsession.
We hung out in restaurants.
We hung out in parks.
And let’s not forget that a) I’m pregnant, and b) I’m living somewhere with limited dining options, so we also of course spent a large amount of time chasing my many food cravings.
Did you know there’s a Krispy Kreme in the Selfridges Food Hall off Oxford Street? Well, there is. Don’t ask how many times I visited it.
I am not the sort of mom who scours Pinterest for amazing DIY project ideas for my kid’s birthday parties.
I am wholly impressed by those moms and the cute things they manage to create. I will gladly attend their parties, and I will sincerely ooh and aah over their achievements. But me, I’m the sort of mom who heads to Target and neighborhood bakeries for the best money can buy, and sets it all up in the best play place money can rent out.
Unfortunately, though, when you live someplace like Benin, with no Target and a cultural aversion to sweets, and no play places to speak of, you have to turn to plan B.
So Flynn’s second birthday party would happen at our house, which I’d have to do my best to turn into a play place.
Future parties will undoubtedly be better, because after being inspired by a conversation about impressive yet portable play things with some more seasoned Foreign Service parents, Andy and I have already decided that when we get settled in the U.S. we’re investing in a) a bouncy castle, and b) a mini roller coaster. And, let’s be honest, as a tandem couple we can ship a pretty obscene amount of stuff to our next post with us, so my guess is we’ll amass many more large play things during our year stateside that we don’t even know exist yet.
But, for now…
There were a few Target purchased touches after all, shipped in from the grandparents.
We even had a petting zoo!
A few months ago, after admiring a Mickey Mouse cake at one of his friend’s birthday parties, Flynn told me matter of factly that for his birthday he wanted Cookie Monster cupcakes. This was only appropriate since at my own Cookie Monster themed second birthday party I apparently had cookie trees and a real costumed Cookie Monster (whose presence, as the story goes, made me cry). With no neighborhood bakery to scour for cupcakes, off to Pinterest I went. And I threw in some Elmo cupcakes for good measure.
Because I happened to have 16 pounds of baker’s chocolate that I wanted to use up before leaving post, I made the cupcakes from scratch. (Fudge too. And I’m still not through with that darn baker’s chocolate.) And when my two tubs of icing I made Andy ship from the U.S. proved not to be enough, I made the icing from scratch too. Definitely not projects I would have undertaken with a Target nearby.
Last year, there were so few littles ones in the embassy community, I was literally telling people I barely knew to bring babies and toddlers I had never even met. This year, however, with an influx of little ones at post, more than a dozen friends and all their parents showed up to help Flynn celebrate. I won’t publicly post photos of other people’s kids, though, so instead I’ll introduce you to some of our more, well, plush party guests.
I guess I didn’t get a photo of it, but for food I whipped out the big guns: sandwiches made from a real, authentic American honey baked spiral ham shipped in from the commissary at the embassy in Ghana. Super easy yet also impressive (at least in the context of our current hardship post) — this is much more my usual style.
Much to Flynn’s chagrin he had to pose for some obligatory photos before the guests arrived.
Since they’re only two, there were no party games or activities — just lots of sugary goodness making already wild kids even more wild.
Probably Flynn’s favorite part of the party was when everyone joined in a chorus of “Happy Birthday,” a song which he’s been happily singing to himself on a regular basis ever since he heard it at that same Mickey Mouse loving friend’s party a few months back. I was holding him so couldn’t see myself, but I hear his face lit up. And today, the day after the party, he keeps going back into the room where “Happy Birthday” was sung and busting out in song again himself.
It was a good party, though it would have been better if Andy could have been there. Maybe in a Cookie Monster costume.
Despite running into his dad’s arms at the airport and enjoying a giggle packed few days of family togetherness during an unexpected last minute reunion in London, Flynn also happened to tell us repeatedly that he was ready to go home.
Home? What is this home of which you speak?
That giant house back in Benin that I never got around to totally unpacking doesn’t really feel like much of a home to me, and yet I suppose it’s the only home my toddler has ever really known. It’s where his toys, his dog, his friends, his nanny, and the vast majority of his memories are. So how exactly will I explain to him in six weeks that it’s not going to be his home anymore? His toys and dog will come along, but the friends, the nanny, and the room he knows as his own will stay behind. He’ll adjust to his new home in Virginia, I’m sure. Life will go on. He’ll be okay. But then, in a year, we’ll be packing up and moving homes again. And two years after that, home will change once more.
To be clear, I don’t think moving frequently damages a child. In fact, I believe the cultural awareness and adaptability gained as a result of frequent moves – particularly to new countries – is in fact a huge gift. If I ever come to think otherwise, well, we will not hesitate to leave this job behind. So while I don’t think moving frequently is bad, it does certainly make the question of home a complicated one.
As he grows up, what will Flynn think his home to be?
Will the concept of home even matter?
I don’t know the answer to these questions just yet, but for now we decided to explain to Flynn that he was indeed home, because home is wherever Mom and Dad are. He didn’t seem convinced, though. He seemed pretty sure that home was back where his dog and toys were waiting.