a toddler on moving

Flynn’s off living the good life with his grandparents in Ohio at the moment. Apparently the following conversation took place in his grandma’s car:

  • Flynn: I’m moving to Mexico!
  • Flynn’s three-year-old-cousin: Why?
  • Flynn: Because I need to learn Spanish.
  • (His cousin starts to cry.)
  • Flynn’s grandma: What’s wrong?
  • Cousin: I don’t want my cousin to leave me!

He needs to learn Spanish? What? Glad to know we’ve hammered the importance of bi- or tri-lingualism into his little head, though.

In any case, being far from family is definitely one of the harder things about the Foreign Service life, but when I start to feel bad about that I remind myself that we actually managed to see family nearly as often when we were in Benin as we did this past year while living in the Washington, D.C. area. Admittedly we did manage to get back stateside a lot while in Benin. In Mexico, I’m not sure the same is going to be true. We have a finite amount of vacation time, and there’s a lot of regional travel we want to do. Luckily, in Mexico, something tells me we’ll have a little more luck luring visitors to us.

Posted in FS Life, Toddler | Leave a comment

some unsolicited language learning advice

It’s almost old news at this point, but… we both passed our Spanish tests! I passed mine on time which is no small feat in these days of dismal passing rates, but just to make sure that didn’t go to my head, Andy went on to pass his too… except he did it six weeks early.

Andy passing early is totally annoying. Why? Because he spent his entire 18 weeks of Spanish training telling me how awful he was doing and stressing about having to extend and really screw things up for our timing in the future. And then he passes early? What?

But mostly it’s totally excellent because it means a) we won’t have to separate our family as I travel to post ahead of him, b) I won’t have to take the kids and dog to post without Andy’s help, and, c) now Andy’s got time to focus on all that tedious administrative stuff that comes along with traveling to post… stuff I thought would be on my plate while he focused on studying.

All this is excellent for me, at least. As Andy’s “to do” list grows, I think he’s starting to wish he hadn’t passed…

Anyhow, that’s not the point of this blog post. The point of this blog post is this: after having completed training in two different languages in the past four years at the Foreign Service Institute (remember, we studied French too), we’ve realized a few things we’d like to pass along to anyone out there on the Interwebs who finds themselves embarking on this endeavor:

1) You need to work hard from the beginning. You’re in class for five hours but being paid for eight. Use those extra three hours, and use them wisely. Sure, there are some brilliant linguists out there who can hunker down in the last few weeks or months of training (or never at all) and still pass, but for most of us, getting serious halfway through is just too late.

2) Be strategic with your vocabulary. You don’t need to know four different ways to say the same thing. If you’ve got one phrase or one word down, move on to the next. You don’t need to learn words for things unlikely to come up frequently, like bungee jumping, or passion fruit, or boat shoes. It can be tempting to learn to say crazy things in foreign languages, but remember that the goal isn’t to pick up party tricks, it’s to pass this test. You only have so much brain space and so much time to get to the level you need, so triage. Save the fluff for later.

3) Get your connector phrases down early on. In real life most people don’t punctuate every sentence with “therefore,” or “in that regard,” or “as a result,” but the examiners love this sort of thing. Plus, connectors gives a logical structure to your ideas, while also working as placeholders to allow you a bit more time to think about what you’re going to say next. It may sound awkward, and you may stop using most of these after passing your test, but trust us, memorize 10 or 15 good connectors early on, and you won’t be sorry.

4) Slow and steady is better than speedy and sloppy. It’s very hard to undo bad habits, so don’t let yourself develop them. It will be frustrating in the beginning to not feel like you can say much, especially as some of your classmates already seem to be speaking in paragraphs, but saying little and saying it correctly is almost always better in this context than saying a lot but with many mistakes.

5) Advocate for yourself. No one is more invested in your success than you are. If a particular teacher or class grouping isn’t working for you, say something.

6) Remember that your goal is not just to learn the language, but also to pass your exam. This is the lesson that probably took us the longest time to learn. Commit yourself early on to understanding what the test is all about, and work toward succeeding at it. Yes, this will leave some gaps in your language abilities. (You will have the vocabulary necessary to debate about global warming. You won’t have the vocabulary necessary to get Internet set up at your home.) But you can fill in those gaps later.

7) After you pass the test, keep learning. A lot of people leave FSI with an inflated sense of confidence about their language abilities. The reality is that no matter what the IRL says, as an FSI trained 3/3 you still have a long way to go to communicate in a way that doesn’t embarrass yourself or your country. So celebrate passing that exam, take a bit of time off, and then get back at it.


Posted in French, FS Life, FSI, Spanish | 1 Comment

on observing someone else’s culture shock

You would think that nine months in to this parents of two young kids thing we’d have it pretty much figured out, but truth be told we’re still barely managing to get our homework done and get moderately nutritious food in the kids’ mouths, so social lives? Hosting other people? Yeah, no. But a few weeks ago we found out that one of the two Beninese employees with whom Andy worked most closely in the embassy was going to be in Washington, D.C. for a few days. We knew we’d regret it if we didn’t reach out and show some hospitality in this case, so we did.

Dinner at our house was nice but fairly uneventful. But before dinner, Flynn and I took our guest for a stroll around Target. I knew it would be interesting for her, but although this was her first trip to the U.S. she’d spent significant amounts of time in major world cities outside of Africa, so I guess I underestimated the level of culture shock she would experience at Target.

Every few aisles she would just stop and almost giggle. “It looks like this all the time?” she asked about the toy section. “But it’s not even Christmas season!” She was baffled by how many different choices there were for types of diapers. She couldn’t believe the store was so clean and the shelves were so well organized. She was shocked to learn this was where the average American shopped, not just the wealthy.

The whole experience was so overwhelming for her that she had trouble deciding what to buy. She ultimately settled on instant oatmeal, which apparently isn’t available in Benin, but which she took a liking to when some departing diplomat left her a few packs. And of course we sent her off with some books and art supplies for her kids.

Not long after her visit I was back at Target and noticed a middle-aged man standing in the laundry section looking rather troubled.  I recognized that look. It was the same one I had shortly after arriving in Benin, and, sick, found myself in a pharmacy with no idea how anything was organized let alone what any of it was. After I gave the man a sympathetic smile, he asked in heavily accented English (yet, it should be noted, still much better foreign language skills than we diplomats possess when we arrive overseas), “Is this how I wash clothes?” He was pointing to bleach. I led him over to the detergent, and as his eyes scanned what I realized all of a sudden must be 100 choices, he looked more troubled than ever. “Is there, um, one you like?” I hooked him up with the Target brand and sent him on his way.

Posted in Benin, FS Life, Life in DC | 4 Comments

birthday bouncing

Flynn turned three this week!

Did you know that two dozen helium balloons is the absolute most you can fit in a small SUV? This is one of many important lessons we learned from planning his party, the most important of which is: never again host a party outdoors!

After weeks of weather stalking and escalating levels of worry (since we had no plan B of which to speak), we decided to take a chance on the 66% chance that it would not rain during his fairly narrow party time slot. What do you think, dear reader? Was the weatherman wrong? You betcha.

Here are some scenes from the festivities before the storm. (Lest you wonder why in the world there were no children at this party, I should point out that I make an effort not to post photos of other people’s kids. Alas, you get to — or have to — enjoy lots of photos of mine, and their relatives.)

andy russ jonah cake flynn papa cake decor dino jonah drink driveway  flynn bounce flynn mom dino flynn food good family photo jonah playing dinos  yard again

Shortly after the rain hit and the party moved inside, Flynn’s cousin mentioned there was something moving in my mom’s bed. At first I told her not to worry, it must be the dog, until I remembered that the dog was locked upstairs. What did I find under the covers? Why, it was Flynn, hiding out and opening his presents, of course.

He’s no fool.

By some stroke of scheduling luck the bounce house rental place asked us if we could keep Mr. Dinosaur overnight. We gladly obliged, though are waiting nervously to see that next utilities bill. Still, I maintain that it was worth it for the loads of after hours bouncing.

Is that someone bouncing in his pajamas first thing in the morning? Yep.


The only person who might have liked the the bounce house more than Flynn was his brother. A giant padded room with unlimited crawling possibilities, and no one snatching him up from potential hazards? Yes, please!

Image 1Goodbye, Mr. Dinosaur.


Many exciting things surely await us abroad, but I’m going to miss being in a place where all it takes is a Google search, a phone call, and a check to make your dinosaur loving three-year-old’s wildest dreams come true.

Happy birthday big guy!

Posted in FS Life, Holiday, House, Life in DC, Personal, Welcome | 1 Comment

on assimilation

Just because we’re back in the States doesn’t mean we haven’t gone through the typical Foreign Service adjustment process. Oh, have we!

At first everything was new and exciting. Libraries? Playgrounds? Paved roads? Any food you can possibly imagine? Yes, please! All of that! All of the time!

Then, the depression stage. Things we would have killed to have in Benin now seemed commonplace, and we found ourselves focusing on the negative. Why does traffic have to be bad? Why are pineapples so expensive? Why do there have to be so many choices about everything all the time?

After a while comes acceptance and then finally assimilation. For me I think that moment arrived last Friday night, when the only thing I wanted to do was explore an allegedly amazing grocery store that somehow escaped my knowledge until now, a little place called Wegmans.

Now, admittedly, Wegmans is more than your average grocery store. It is what happens when your average grocery stores meets Costco which meets Trader Joe’s which meets Whole Foods which meets a charming local bakery which meets a farmer’s market, and so on. As such, it is the subject of these sort of grand proclamations throughout the Internet, and even got some free publicity from Alec Baldwin when the actor told David Letterman that he tried to get his mom to move out to L.A., but she declined: ”And leave Wegmans?”

Lobster pretzel twist? Because, Wegmans.
Lobster pretzel twist? Because, Wegmans.

But still, it’s a grocery store. And it was a Friday night. And that’s how I spent it. (And it was great!) I’m pretty sure this means I’ve fully assimilated to my current exotic locale of American suburbia. Who would have thought?

But as per usual in the Foreign Service life, just as soon as you settle in, it’s time to start getting ready to move on. Does that seem depressing to any of you non-FS readers? I can see how it would, but let me explain, because it’s really not.

Perhaps it’s a testament to how well-suited I am for this career and its accompanying lifestyle, because I must say, even though it’s been a great year stateside, even though we were lucky to end up in just the sort of house we wanted, in just the sort of neighborhood we’d hoped to find, just as much as I love all our local playgrounds and playgroups and Flynn’s school, just as amazing as it is to be able to eat any sort of ethnic food I crave, just as nice as it is to have collected a lovely circle of friends for ourselves, if I’m to be completely honest, I have to admit that I’m starting to get antsy.

We’ve created a great life here, yes, but it’s getting too comfortable. For the sort of people who thrive in the Foreign Service — those of us who believe that an ideal life looks like a collage of the most interesting experiences one can collect — comfort is the enemy.

And so it’s nearing time to go. Though when we do, I will most certainly miss Wegmans.

Posted in FS Life, FSI, House, Life in DC, Personal | Tagged , , , , | 3 Comments

technology & language learning

Last week my Spanish teacher was out on leave, so we had a substitute. A wonderfully experienced substitute, but a substitute who let’s just say tried to retire about 30 years ago, yet it never stuck. When we suggested during a lull in conversation looking up a bit of news on the SMARTboard — the interactive, Internet connected whiteboard with which all Foreign Service classrooms are equipped — she unapologetically reminded us that it didn’t work unless she operated it, and she didn’t care to operate it, so it wasn’t very smart after all, now was it? Instead, she got out the same grammar book she’s been loyally carrying around since her first teaching gig many moons ago.

It wasn’t until this week without the SMARTboard that I realized just how reliant on it FSI language classes have recently become. It’s only been a little over three years since I studied French here, and yet the change is remarkable. Back then, our classes were fairly formulaic: talk about the news, read and discuss an article, learn or review some grammatical point, do exercises in the book to practice said grammatical point, repeat.

But now no day of language learning is quite the same. Each teacher employs technology differently, but in my experience thus far it’s integral to every one’s instruction, recent substitute excluded of course. When we were studying the weather, we watched Youtube clips of actual weather segments on Latin American news stations. We listen to popular music and try to transcribe the lyrics. When we’re starting to feel overly confident about our skills our professor pulls up some rapid speaking newscaster to show us how much we have left to learn.

It’s not just the SMARTboard. Technology has worked its way into our class in other ways too. Once when we were learning to formulate questions we tried them out on Siri. (Sadly at that point our Spanish accents were still too awful for her to understand us.) When a teacher is struggling to come up with the best translation, a student can usually track it down on the Google translate app on his iPhone before the teacher thinks of the word.

Outside of class, too, technology comes in remarkably handy. The flashcards our teachers create online  sync with my phone; I can access them anywhere whenever I have a few minutes. I listen to daily news podcasts during my commute and while at the gym. I have a handy verb conjugator on my phone that helps me out substantially more quickly than a book could. When I don’t want to do anything too rigorous I can play Duolingo, an online Spanish learning game, tracking my progress against friends and classmates.

Are there downsides to technology? Absolutely. Just like in real life, it can be a distraction. We’ve certainly wasted valuable class time searching in vain for some particular video we probably didn’t really even need to watch anyway. Was I able to learn as much that week without the SMARTboard? Sure. And I probably talked more than usual since speaking was kind of the only thing we had to fill all that time.

But all and all I think the addition of technology is positive for language learning, at least in the Foreign Service Institute context. Six months of full-time study of a foreign tongue is grueling. Anything you can do to keep things interesting is a welcome addition in my book — or should I say, on my touchscreen? In any case, I have to think that maybe even my Luddite leaning substitute sees some benefit to all this new technology, even if she’s not interested in taking it on herself. Once, searching for a complicated translation, she started to get up to get the giant dictionary on a side table, and then stopped short. “Ask that phone of yours, why don’t you,” she instructed my classmate. And a few seconds later, before she would have even gotten the dictionary back to her seat, we had our answer.

Books schmooks. With everything we need easily accessible on all of our many portable screens, will the library go the way of the video rental store? I hope not, but possibly.
Books schmooks. Gimme that iPad already.

P.S. Here are a sampling of some of my favorite online resources…

Posted in FS Life, Spanish, Welcome | Tagged , , , | 4 Comments

the spanish continues

I’m eight weeks into my Spanish training and some days are definitely better than others. With almost five hours of class per day, plus time in the lab and individual instruction with my professor and learning consultant, there is precious little time to do my homework, especially with two little kiddos at home. Fortunately, I’ve learned to multitask.

After two years in Guadalajara, which one will speak better Spanish?
Posted in Baby, FS Life, Spanish | Tagged , , , , | 3 Comments

chinese new year

I realize that Chinese New Year happened a few months back, but it’s still alive and well here in our house.

Let me explain.

Back in December, Flynn somehow stumbled upon a video of a Chinese New Year parade in his YouTube perusing. (Yes, our toddler peruses YouTube. Don’t judge.) Seeing as how the parade featured a giant colorful dragon, it should come as no surprise that this immediately became the coolest thing our two year old boy’s little eyes had ever seen.

And then he (and we) realized that YouTube is filled with these Chinese New Year videos. He could click from one to another and watch mesmerized for pretty much forever — or at least until his parents started to feel a little negligent and made him go read a book instead.

Fast forward a few months to February, and, what do you know, the actual Chinese New Year was upon us. We live in a pretty culturally diverse neighborhood and so there happened to be a Chinese New Year festival at the middle school a few minutes away. Of course we went. We only stayed for about 10 minutes or so, but our little guy is still raving about the event now, two months later.

And of course he’s still watching his dragon dance YouTube videos too. He’s watching one at this very moment, in fact. It’s odd, yes, but we can’t really complain. They’re a huge improvement over his previous favorite videos of people unwrapping Kinder Egg Surprises. Yes, you read that right.

(Brief aside: These egg surprise videos have millions of views. Don’t believe me? See for yourself: this one has 55 million views! It’s just someone unwrapping a candy egg with a toy inside. That’s it. And 55 million views! And there are hundreds if not thousands of videos like it! If you understand this phenomena, please enlighten me.)

Just as a reminder, we’ve never been posted to China. He doesn’t have any friends who have been posted to China. He doesn’t know any TV shows set in China. The fascination with Chinese New Year came out of the blue, but we like to think it’s a sign of a sort of curiosity that will serve him well in the crazy international lifestyle that awaits him.

Maybe that’s a stretch.

At least it’s keeping us from having to watch any egg surprise videos for a while.

Gratuitous family photo.
Gratuitous family photo. Nope, the almost eight month old baby still doesn’t have any hair.
Posted in FS Life, Life in DC | Tagged , , , , | 1 Comment

how’s that spanish?

Want to see a video of an English language learner whose level of English is equivalent to my current level of Spanish? Click here.

Not exactly bilingual, eh? But still not too shabby considering I could only say “hola” a few months ago.

(If you’re curious to learn more about the U.S. government’s language evaluation system, click here or here. I’m currently a 2; I need to get to a 3.)

NYT’s columnist Nicholas Kristof wrote recently that he uses a simple one-word test to determine whether someone is truly proficient in a foreign language: he asks, “how do you say ‘doorknob’?”

Uh… not a clue.

Fortunately, I have a few more months of full-time language instruction left ahead of me.


Posted in FS Life, Life in DC, Spanish | 5 Comments

first words in the soon-to-be second tongue

When we first switched Flynn’s beloved Mickey Mouse Clubhouse to Spanish, he got pretty upset and insisted we make Mickey stop talking silly. But lately he’s totally behind the idea of learning Spanish. He loves telling everyone both “hola” and “adios amigo,” and after some hiccups, he can now also explain, “Me llamo Flynn.” (It took a while for him to understand why “me llamo me” doesn’t work. “But I am me,” he would argue.)

This evening, Mickey taught Flynn to say “gracias” and “de nada,” which inspired him to ask me for a whole bunch of other translations. In case you’re curious, here are the words a toddler boy desperately needs to know in his soon-to-be second tongue, according to said toddler boy:

  • Dog
  • Dinosaur
  • Bucket
  • Spider
  • Pigeon
  • Mickey
  • Pig
  • Pants
  • Digger
  • Tiger
  • Dog (guess it didn’t sink in the first time)
  • Elephant
  • Baby bottle
  • Giraffe
  • Light
  • Mirror
  • Bear
  • I will get you

So there you have it. He’s pretty much bilingual now, wouldn’t you say?

Posted in FS Life, Personal, Toddler | 4 Comments