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Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Radiation Treatment

I’ve gotten back to painting, started a new job and am now sitting in The Gambia Africa.  My new adventures have begun and I haven’t sat down to write about the adventure, or misadventure, of my cancer treatment yet.  I’d better put it down, even though it isn’t nearly as fun as what’s going on now.

It’s been about six months since my lumpectomy.  I flew to Frankfurt, settled in, had radiation treatment and started on the road to recovery.  That’s the nutshell, but doing all of this in Germany added a layer of stress, comedy and adventure that wouldn’t have been there otherwise.

I didn’t sleep on the plane flying over from the states.  The doctors told me not to take any sleep aids.  Since I’d just had surgery there was a danger of blood clots and I was supposed to get up every so often and move around.  Every time I drifted off to sleep I would wake suddenly because I was concerned about that, I was leaning on my incision or the guy next to me was snoring.  I was still going on nervous energy when I arrived in Frankfurt.  Bob was able to come into the baggage area to help me get my luggage through customs when I arrived.  But when we got to the apartment I collapsed in the recliner and slept there for several hours.  The danger with jet lag is that if you sleep during the day when you arrive, you may not sleep during the night.  Well, I did both.  It did take me a week to get over the jet lag completely.  I was sleepy during the day but I slept regular hours right away.

For the first month all we had was what we brought in our suitcases.  Our belongings would follow in three separate shipments.  The apartment was furnished and there was a “kit” with towels, sheets, pots and pans, silverware, a toaster and coffee maker and a few other conveniences.  None of them were very good quality but they were OK for getting by until our stuff came.  The place really looked like a bachelor pad when I arrived.  Bob had bought a huge TV and he had the recliner parked in front of it.  His friends had said that that wouldn’t last once I got there and they were right.  First thing I did when I had the energy was to rearrange the furniture. (A person’s got to put their mark on their home!)  When our "stuff" arrived, we set to work right away hanging art and putting pictures of our family around the apartment.  I brought my grandmothers china which hadn't seen the light of day in years.  The apartment came with a china cabinet and the china looks great in there.  I'm hoping to host some dinners and put the china to use.  Our apartment is big with three bedrooms and windows on three sides so it is light and airy.  We don't have any private outdoor space but there are big common areas where we keep our little patio table and chairs and a webber grill that a departing officer gave to us.  

There are rabbits living with us at the apartment complex.  They had bunnies about a month ago and there will be up to 20 bunnies on the lawn in front of our apartment at any one time.  The crows recently fledged, so one day there were several gawky young birds walking around the grounds, totally unafraid of humans.  Their mother sat on top of the apartment building squawking at me while I talked to her "kids".   Common blackbirds, like the four and twenty that were baked in a pie, are plentiful in our area. They are in the same family as robins, but there are no robins here so these guys are filling that niche for me.  Their babies fledged recently too and were afraid of people.  They were really noisy as they followed their parents around waiting for them to dig up worms and feed them.  It's pretty funny to see seemingly adult birds being fed by other adult birds.  

There were several options for radiation treatment in Frankfurt, and one of the best was three bus stops from our apartment.  St. Markus Hospital (Markus Krankenhaus) has a Breast Center (Brustzentrum) attached.  It’s really not as fun as it sounds.  They specialize in breast ailments especially breast cancer.  Bob went with me to the first appointment, as his German is better than mine at this point.  The doctor, a woman, said that she was afraid her English wasn’t good enough to talk about radiation treatment but it was better than some Americans’ English.  She explained the whole process, which was almost identical to what they would have done in the U.S.  I would start the following Monday.  Bob had to leave at that point to go to work.  The doctor walked me out to the receptionist’s desk and then said, “Oh, I really should examine your incision before you go.  Come on back to my office.”  I followed her back into her office where there was an exam table.  She closed the door and said, “OK, go ahead.”….  She meant, go ahead and take off my top… while she stood there in the room watching me.  Now, I’m not shy or modest, or at least I didn’t think I was, but I’m really accustomed to the tradition in the U.S. where the nurse takes you into the examining room, gives you a little gown and leaves you to undress in private.  The doctor then comes and gently taps on the door and asks if you’re ready.  While the doctor examines one breast, he or she makes sure that the other breast is draped.  Well, that’s just not how things are done in Germany.  There is no gown or drape.  So I half disrobed right there in front of the doctor.  I wasn’t even sitting on the exam table.  She looked at my incision while I stood there in her office and she discussed the angle of the radiation and because of the location of my scar.  She admired the lovely work done by my surgeon.  Thank you Dr. Smith!   I then got dressed again, in front of the doctor, and we said goodbye. 

The following Monday I went to my first appointment, which was over in the Hospital proper.  The nurse, a man, showed me to a little room (a booth really) with a door on either end.  He explained something, in German, and after asking him to repeat himself and repeating what he said, I gathered that I was to take my top off and go through the other door.  That’s what I expected.  Alone in the booth, I disrobed again and reached for the gown.  No gown.  There I stood in this little booth half naked looking at the door.  I didn’t know what was on the other side but I was pretty sure there was a young man!  Maybe he’ll knock and tell me to come out.  Or not.  So I opened the door a crack and peeked into the next room.  There was a big CAT scan machine… “Hallo?” I said in my best German.  No one answered.  I peeked around the door further.  There was no one in the room.  I peeked further.  There, almost behind the opened door, was a window into the tech’s room.  The young man and a couple of young women, all in white, were messing with the controls in that room.  I was standing with my half naked body hidden behind the door, my head peeking around so that I could see them.  In my halting German I asked if I should come out into the room… naked.  “Yes” was the answer.  They were, or they acted, unaware of my embarrassment and went about the business of getting me situated on the CAT scan table and positioned properly.  They did a scan to see the “marker” that had been place in my breast at the former location of the tumor.  They marked my breast and chest with sharpies and covered the marks with waterproof tape that would stay on me throughout my treatment.  Between my embarrassment and the fact that they were touching my rib cage with cool fingers and pointed markers, tickling me, I started to giggle. My German is OK but I just didn’t know how to explain all of that.  They didn’t really know what to make of me but I came away from it knowing that "kitzlig" means ticklish in German.

My radiation started on that Wednesday in the Brustzentrum.  I was to start showing up each weekday at 7:10 am.  I was instructed to bring slippers and a hand towel.  They explained why… in German, so I only got part of it.  They don’t want me to wear shoes on the radiation table.  I didn’t get the part about the towel but figured that it was their concession to my modesty.  Wednesday morning I caught the #34 bus at 6:58 am.  I showed up in the radiation waiting room with my flipflops and a hand towel.  I was shown in to one of three booths like the dressing room on Monday. I was to strip to the waist and put my flipflops on and wait to be called.  Once again, there I was, in the little booth, half naked armed with a towel that was about 12” long and about 8” wide.  They called my name and I held my little towel up in front of my breasts and walked into the radiation room.   The same young man was there.  He gave me a funny smile, reached out and took my towel from me and laid it on the table.  “Please, lay down here with your feet there and your head there.” He said.  I could have laughed again but was able to control it this time.  The towel was so that they could move me around on the table without any friction to put me into position.  They were able to bring the mountain to Mohammed.  I became unembarrassed by walking out of my little booth topless.  I just can’t wait to go to the gynecologist in Germany!

Other new German words I came away with are “haut” and “jucken”  which mean “skin” and “to itch”.  I had an allergic reaction to the waterproof tape and my whole chest broke out in an itchy rash. “Strahlentherapie” means “radiation therapy” and the little dressing booths are “kabinen”.  I learned that Germans aren’t comfortable talking to strangers on the street or bus and avoid making eye contact, but if you are sitting in a doctors’ waiting room you are like family.  Germans are, of course, very efficient and I never had to actually wait in the waiting room except once when there was a problem with the machine and there were about eight of us waiting.  We ended up exchanging email addresses.

I frequently found myself feeling overwhelmed by all of the events of my life and feeling very tired as a result.  At some point the fatigue was more about the radiation than the emotional stress.  Some people don’t have that reaction but it really did a number on me.  I became so fatigued that simply going to radiation in the morning, coming home and having breakfast would wipe me out for several of hours.  I tried to get out and walk every day but eventually it didn’t seem worth how awful I would feel.  Thank heavens for my I-pad, because I read and read and read and had all of the books in the world at my fingertips.  I finished up radiation on the 14th of May, the day before my Birthday!  What a birthday present!  I figured I’d be feeling pretty normal within a week or so.  Hah!  Then I read that you need at least a day of recovery for every day of treatment.  Well, that would mean 6 to 7 weeks for me, which was pretty much the case.  I still have some lingering effects more than 8 weeks later but I’m feeling so much better than I have since my surgery that I’m elated by my energy.

My follow up is that I am to get a mammogram every six months now and my doctor in the US prescribed Tamoxifen, which, in effect, blocks all estrogen in your body.  I haven’t started it yet and am very hesitant.  The side effects can be really annoying (like hot flashes) and really bad (like having a stroke) and I haven’t decided if the risk reduction is big enough to make it worth it.  I was going to start but Bob was asked to do a TDY (I really don’t know what that stands for) which is a temporary assignment, in The Gambia.  We had to get Yellow fever shots and take an antibiotic against Malaria.  Tamoxifen renders the antibiotic useless so I’ve postponed the decision until I’m finished with the prescription.

I have had so much going on since I finished radiation, but that is for another blog entry, which will be soon.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

I will bloom where I'm planted.

I recently took a class at the Foreign Service Institute which dealt with some of the issues that foreign service spouses (EFMs) have to face.  One of the most memorable quotes I heard was from an EFM who's husband had been in the Foreign Service for over twenty years.  When asked how she dealt with moving to a different country every two to three years, she said, "I bloom where I'm planted."  I've been thinking a lot about "Home".  I began my first blog post talking about my house in Corrales and leaving home.  Then a wrote about our "home for now" which was our apartment in Arlington.  When I was diagnosed with cancer I wanted to go "Home" to New Mexico for treatment... and I did.  Bob went on to Germany to set up our apartment.  I am staying with my Mom and Dad in the house that I grew up in.  I'm sleeping in the room that was mine as a teenager.  The funny thing is that I don't feel like I'm at home.  Why wouldn't I feel at home in my own childhood home?  Last week I drove up to Durango to visit my daughter, Tasha, and her boy friend, Thomas.  I had a wonderful time there and it was so great to luxuriate in Tasha's company and I was very comfortable in their new house but I didn't feel at home there either.  While both my parents home and my daughters home are filled with people whom I love, those are not places where I feel "planted".  I was feeling a little low one day recently and said as much to my Mom.  "What's on your mind?" she asked.  "I want to go Home." I responded.  What!?  What I meant was that I want to go to Germany!  My home is a location where I've never been before.  In Frankfurt, Germany, in an apartment of which I've only seen photos and one Skype tour, there is my home waiting for me.  I will be at home when I get there because there, with Bob, I will be planted.

Breast Cancer:
I haven't yet called myself a cancer survivor. I was only diagnosed less than a month ago and the cancer has already been surgically removed from my body. I haven't said that I'm cancer free. I have yet to go through radiation treatment to make sure that any cancer cells that might be left over from the tumor will be eradicated and that tumor won't regrow. I am now in another statistical category. I've had cancer so my chances of getting a new cancer are higher than those who have never had cancer. I'll do a five year oral med treatment to search and destroy any cancer cells lurking in my body. I'll be as vigilant as ever with my mammograms but now they will seem less than routine and more anxiety provoking. I've heard that cancer changes some people forever. I guess I can see that. The diagnosis certainly was a jolt. I peered at my own mortality in a way that I never have before. But I don't want the changes in me to be that I am now all about being a survivor. I am not Breast Cancer. I never felt sick. The surgery was akin to serious dental work. I'm very, very lucky that my treatment, when it's all done, will have been so easy to "survive" that the word "survive" really shouldn't be used. The changes in me are more about a shift in priorities and living in the moment. It is time to change "one day" into "today". You never know what is going to come along and totally change the course of your life and what you intended to do one day is no longer possible.

I've always been able to find the bright side of almost any situation. Something really wonderful that has come out of the timing of my cancer diagnosis is that I have been able to come to live with my Mom and Dad for several weeks. This was a gift of time in their company that none of us would have planned but all of us really wanted. I was also able to go visit Tasha and Thomas in their new house. I wouldn't have been able to do that until I don't know when. I now have absolutely no reservations about leaving New Mexico and going to Germany. Before this time in New Mexico I was anxious about going but now I just can't wait to go.

The good news:
I visited my oncologist on Monday. She came into the exam room grinning and said, "I love it when I get to deliver good news." My pathology reports from the surgery show that they got clean margins around the cancer and that the lymph nodes were cancer free. We talked about what she recommends for treatment; Full breast radiation, follow up medication; Tamoxofin and me going to Germany for treatment. She fully supports me going and says that I should be able to get top notch treatment there. She would fax my records off by the end of the day to all of the appropriate people so that I can be approved to join Bob. I will leave on this coming Friday and arrive Saturday morning, hopefully after a good night sleep on the plane. I still have some challenges ahead regarding cancer but it feels like the worst of it is behind me. I am very grateful to be so lucky and so very happy to be going home.

Saturday, February 5, 2011

Post Op.

It's Saturday the 5th of February. Two days post surgery. I've waited until the narcotics have worn off to write. They told me not to sign any legal documents for at least 24 hours after surgery and I think blogging under the influence would be dangerous too.

It has been a record breaking cold spell in New Mexico this week. Many towns are out of natural gas and people are huddling under electric blankets and around electric heaters to keep warm. The governer has called a state of emergency. The morning of surgery I rolled out of bed at 6:00 am and it was 10 below 0 out. My sister had agreed to drive me to the hospital in her lovely SUV. When she went out her garage door was frozen shut. She did manage to get it open and Mom, Dad Heidi and I were on our way by 6:30. We wanted to give ourselves plenty of time to get to my 7:30 appointment because the roads had been so bad. It only took us 1/2 hour to get to the radiology office for a pre-op procedure. The staff was just arriving when we showed up and they weren't really open yet but they let us come in and hang out in the waiting room until they were ready for business. After the procedure we all piled back into the car (with seat heaters that were like a day at the spa) and drove to the hospital. There was very little about the experience that was unpleasant. Drugs helped me not feel the pain of what I went through so what my impressions is that there were flocks of sweet gentle women fluttering around me asking questions, taking my blood pressure, patting me and reassuring me. One of them apparently injected happy medicine into my IV. The last thing I remember was thinking, "This is kind of like a roller coaster. I love roller coasters!"

They performed a lumpectomy and removed one sentinel lymph node. I'm very fortunate that we caught it early and it was small. Here's were I get on my soap box about regular mammograms. Getting regular mammograms has undoubtedly saved my life. My cancer was buried underneath my breast tissue and I may never have felt it myself until it was really big. So, ladies, get your regular mammograms!!!! If it's been a year or more, call Monday and schedule it!!! (OK, stepping off of my soap box.) I was so happy after surgery. For one thing, it was behind me but also the medication made me very agreeable. I was up all day after surgery talking and talking and having a wonderful time. It felt good to be numb to the reality of my situation for a day and I knew that my incision was hurting but I just didn't care.

We were instructed to tend to my incision every hour. The first night I was snug in my bed in a drug dazed state and my wonderful Mom and Dad came in every hour on the hour and tended to me. They were like soft sweet silver angles hovering over me all night. None of us really got any quality sleep but it's a really nice memory for me to have in my library. I have been getting lots of phone calls, emails and notes on face book as well as comments on my last blog, with love and support. I can't tell you how grateful I am.

Today the anesthesia has worn off and I'm not taking the narcotic pain meds so the euphoria has dwindled. I'm very happy to have surgery behind me and I'm anxious to find out the results of the pathology reports. That will determine what treatment will come next. I may dodge a bullet and avoid Chemo but that remains to be seen. I will have radiation. This will all unfold over the next two weeks.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

The best laid plans of mice and men...

It was to be our last Weekend in DC.  The movers came to the apartment and packed most of what belongings we had here into boxes and took them away.  Hopefully we would see them soon in Frankfurt.  Bob finished up the last of his training and I'd been getting the last of the administrative tasks and doctor/dentist appointments taken care of... a slight snag, I got a call after my annual mammogram to come back in so that they could take another look.  I couldn't get in until the Thursday before we were to leave on Tuesday.  This was nothing to worry about.  I'd been called back before and it was nothing.  But I had to do it just like dental work.   It would feel good to get all of this stuff out of the way.  Ok.  The mammo call back had me a little freaked out but there was no sense in expecting the worst. Positive thinking is the only way to get through in the face of something scary like that.

Bob went with me to the call back which was a mammogram and an Ultrasound.  Women over 40 really must get a mammogram once a year and we're all pretty glad that it's not more frequent.  It's not the worst thing I've been through but it's not exactly pleasant and I wasn't very happy having to do it twice in a month.  The ultrasound wasn't bad though, sort of like a breast massage!  My very competent radiologist, Dr. Lu, spent a lot of time looking and looking.  At the end of the appointment she said that she thought everything was fine.  Yay!  We left and went out to dinner.  I had forgotten my phone so it was a fairly quiet, very pleasant evening.  Not that I get a ton of calls but someone inevitably calls during dinner.  When we got home there were two messages on my cell phone.  "This is Dr. Lu.  You just left my office and I think I want you to come back if you can turn around.  I just want to have one more look."  then "It's Dr. Lu again.  Call me."  Oh crap!  I called her on her home phone number which she had left:  "I was looking at your scans again as I was dictating and I'd like you to get a biopsy on this little spot.  I really can't decide if it has more to it than it did on your last mammo."  We had told her about the up coming trip so she called her office and got an appointment for me the next day at noon.  Needle biopsy.  That sounds kind of awful and serious.  But really, it would be nothing.  We just have to make sure it's nothing before we go off on our big adventure in Europe.  I was a little sore when it was over but at least it was over.  Unfortunately we wouldn't get the results until Monday or Tuesday!  The day we were to leave!  The Doctor was great and put a rush on the order.  Bob and I had a wonderful weekend.  All of our stuff was gone and all of our training was over with.  We acted like tourists all weekend.  I refused to let this little scare put a damper on our imminent departure.  I decided to write a blog about what had been up since my last blog but I wouldn't write about the abnormal mammogram.  It was going to end up being nothing and no one would be the wiser.

Monday morning I went to the dentist as planned and then met Bob at the Newseum in DC.  If you ever have the chance you really must go.  It was moving and interesting.  If you like 3-D movies, there's a great one there about the impact of the news on our history.  It was a great day and we were both in a great mood coming home.  "I'm not worried about the biopsy." I said.  "What are the chances of your mother and your wife being diagnosed with breast cancer in one year?  That wouldn't happen!"  Bob said that he felt the same.  That wouldn't happen to us.  4:00 pm on our way home Dr. Pulosky called on my cell phone.  "Do you have a minute to talk?" She asked.  "Sure." I said settling down on a bench in the mall attached to our apartment building.  She started to talk and I could feel her circling what she was going to have to say:  "I'm afraid it's not good news."  After that she talked and I listened but I still don't really know what she said.  "What did she say?" Asked Bob who was waiting on the bench next to me.  "I have Breast Cancer."  I said.  My first thought upon hearing my voice echo in my head was, "I might die from this." We were in the middle of this stupid underground mall and I had breast Cancer.  I started to cry.  Not the kind of crying that feels good to let it out and you will feel better when you're done, but a panicked "I don't know what to do to make it better.  I always know how to make things better and I don't have the equipment to make this better!" kind of cry.  I couldn't breath right.  I don't really remember walking back to the apartment except that we ran into our sweet neighbor, Tim, coming out of his apartment to walk is dog.  He saw I was crying but I wasn't ready to tell anyone yet; to say it out loud again.  I was trying to pretend I was OK.  Bob saved me and told him that we had just received troubling family news.  I'm sorry I didn't say proper goodbyes to someone who had been a good neighbor.

When we got into the apartment, and I couldn't recount what the doctor had said, Bob called her back and got the details. It was small, 5 mm. It is a ductal carcinoma and it is invasive.  I should get in touch with a breast surgeon and an oncologist.  She could recommend some great Doctors that she works with and she was sure that there would be great Cancer care in Germany if we decided to continue on our trip.

"Denial is a great place to be." my friend Jo said.  "I'm still in denial and I'm over a year post cancer treatment."  I was in denial to a point when I got the phone call about the call back mammography, but not so much that I hadn't thought about and mentioned the "What if."  I had told Bob that if, God forbid, I had Cancer, I would go back to New Mexico for treatment so that I would have the support of our family and friends.  If we went ahead to Germany, I would be alone a lot as he would be at work and I really didn't want to be alone with this. I also wanted to make sure that language wasn't an issue for me.  I felt that dealing with Cancer in english would be challenging enough.  It took Bob a few minutes to realize that that was about to be our reality.  I wasn't going to Germany.  I didn't really have to think about it because I had thought about it already when my head was clear and when I wasn't paralyzed with fear.  The next big decision was, what was Bob to do?  Should he come home with me? Would his job be in jeopardy if he did? Should he go to Germany?  Would we wish that he had come with me if he did? We finally decided to wait until morning and call the State Department and let them know what was going on.  Our flight wasn't until 4:00 pm the next day and that would give us plenty of time to figure out what to do.  That gave us an opportunity to call our parents and my kids.  It's hard for me to write about it.  It was so difficult.  Each person had a different reaction.  Everyone was shocked of course but one cried, one got really quiet and a couple of them asked a lot of questions.  The big unasked question: What does this mean and are you going to die.  I told them all, "I'm not going to die!" Next I wrote an email to all of the friends and family members who's addresses I had telling them.  It didn't take me long to realize that if I didn't get it all written down and sent out that I would have to tell the same story over and over and relive it a little each time.  I wanted support so I really wanted everyone to know.

In keeping with our great impression of the Foreign Service, Bob's employers were stellar in their response to our situation:  Of course Bob should take all the time he needed to be with me and fly back to New Mexico.  There would be not problem with him coming to his job later. They also let us know that they would have med-evacuated me home for treatment so going to Germany for treatment really wasn't an option.  After thinking about how things would be in New Mexico with me and doctors visits and what Bob would be doing there, I decided that it would be better for Bob to go to Germany, get settled and if and when big scary things started to happen, he would fly home.  I knew that there would be a lot of time with nothing to do with regard to my cancer and we would spend that time wishing he was at work.  We both took the van ride to the airport that we had arranged but we said goodbye at Bob's gate.  As we hugged and kissed goodbye, the sadness of how our great adventure together was being hijacked by this Cancer overcame both of us and we sobbed.  He boarded his plane to NY to be followed by a flight to Frankfurt.  I waited another hour for my flight to Albuquerque.  By the end of the day I was in the loving embrace of my family in Corrales.

The next morning the phone started to ring.  The outpouring of love and support from my friends and family was amazing.  I am really touched and feel lucky.  Since we now have friends working in embassies and consulates all over the world I am being included in peoples prayers around the globe. I feel the love and it makes me strong.  I couldn't believe how many people could give me advice from first hand experience.  It wasn't long before I had a doctor lined up and a series of appointments made.  I got in with Dr. McAneny, oncologist, and her amazing group at the Cancer Center of New Mexico.  She recommended Dr. Smith for Breast surgery and her office is incredible as well.  I've been poked and prodded, scanned and examined.  I now know more about what's going on in my body than I ever thought I would.  With no stone left unturned I'm set for the next step: Surgery.

I am typing this blog on the eve of my surgery.  Until they actually do the surgery and send tissue samples to the pathology lab, we won't know what comes next.  At this point we know that I'll have a lumpectomy.  This will surely be followed by radiation and there is a chance of Chemotherapy. (It sounds like a weather report.)  If things go well, it will be nothing more than a bad storm.

Friday, November 5, 2010

German Training

If you look at the dates of my posts you will see that it's been quite a while since I have posted.  There is a very good reason for this long delay.  In a word: German! I don't remember having that much trouble learning Spanish but trying to learn German made me feel kind of dumb. The method used and the Foreign Service Institute is fondly referred to as the fire hose method.  On day one our instructor started speaking German to us and asking us questions in German.  The idea is that you will absorb it through your pores.  They did give us some grammar lessons but I found myself fondly remembering those stupid dialogues that we had to memorize for spanish.  I just wanted a few "Esta Susana en casa? Si. Ella esta con una amiga." of the german variety to sit in my head for easy reference.

For 30 weeks we had class for four hours a day and were expected to put in that amount of time additionally on our own.  We listened to German news, read German magazines and wrote essays in German and practiced and practiced.  The grading system for the Foreign Service is on a scale of 0 to 5.  0 is no German and 5 is a well educated native speaker.  For his job, Bob is supposed to get a 3.  A 3 is when you can speak about nuclear proliferation and the recent insurgencey in the middle east in good solid German with fairly sophisticated grammar.  You may make some small mistakes but no glaring ones.

The German department gives it's students 30 weeks to get to a 3.  Now, it has been my history that if I put effort into something I generally meet or exceed my own expectations and if I don't make an effort I get mediocre results. I don't think I have worked this hard at anything I've done before and after 30 weeks I earned a whopping.... 2.  Well, fortunately for my ego, I wasn't alone.  Bob did similarly and so did many of the other German students that we have met at FSI. In the Foreign Service, I am what is known as an EFM which stands for Eligible Family Member, meaning that I'm Bob's wife.  Bob was given an additional 16 weeks in German class where as I, as an EFM, was not offered that... opportunity... punishment (depending on the frustration level of the day).  On one hand I was really sad that my time in the department was over.  I truely enjoyed the comradery and having a reason to get out of the apartment each morning. I liked the challenge of learning something new, and it was frustrating that a goal had been set and I hadn't reached it.  I met some wonderful people and I miss seeing them every day.  On the other hand, it was really hard and 7 months is a long time to work that hard on one thing, so it was a real relief for it to be over. I can carry on a decent conversation and at the moment I'm reading Harry Potter: der Stein der Weisen.  That's the first Harry Potter book in German. On some pages I almost feel like I'm reading in english and other pages I have read two or three times before I really understand what I'm reading.  I keep my dictionary handy but try to figure out the meaning from context before I look anything up. I'm really happy with what I have achieved.

My next challenge is not to forget how to speak German before we go to Frankfurt.  Originally we were to leave toward the end of November (this month), but with Bob's extension we won't be leaving until next March.  Advice I was given by a couple of my instructors is to narrate your life in German.  This keeps your mouth used to speaking German and your brain used to forming German sentences.  You also have to remember vocabulary. So lately I've been taking long walks and narrating the scenery or telling a story to an imaginary audience.  You know those crazy people you see on the streets talking to themselves?  Maybe they aren't crazy but are mearly German students or they are crazy because they are German students. So next time you see me, if I'm muttering incomprehesibly, know that I'm just trying to get to a 3.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

The List and Flag Day

“It never gets this cold here,” they keep saying.  “This cold is very unusual for DC.”  With the temperatures never above 300, and the humidity at 50%, the cold cut through us like sharpened icicles.  We arrived in DC on a Saturday evening and there was a cocktail party planned on Sunday for Bob’s class as an orientation and introduction to some of the FSO’s (Foreign Service Officers).  From our apartment building we can go into an underground system of passages to the hotel next door, under the freeway, into the Crystal City underground mall and to the metro without ever going outside.  Once we got to the Roslyn metro stop, however, we had to go outside and walk for a couple of blocks to get to the hotel where the cocktail party was being held. That’s the kind of cold that we just don’t get in New Mexico.  It gets cold at home, but the fact that it’s a dry cold makes a huge difference.  This DC cold felt like something humans shouldn’t live in.  The cocktail party was very warm in comparison.  The heat was on, yes, but the people that we met were so warm and happy to meet us.  There were new officers, like Bob, and their families and officers who had started their training in September. We were also welcomed by seasoned FSO’s.  That warmth took us into dinner afterward with new friends and home again without the cold feeling quite so sharp.

In the first week of class Bob was presented with a list of over 90 posts around the world.  We were tasked with rating each post high, medium or low.  We had been hoping that there would be Western European posts, especially in Italy and we both want to end our experience with the Foreign Service fluent in Spanish so we were also hoping for a bunch of South American or Spanish posts. There was, in fact, one Italian post in Rome and a post in Frankfurt Germany.  That was easy, those would be ranked high.  There were several Eastern European posts.  We ranked those high as well.  Many of the posts were in Central Asia and China with a smattering in South America and Africa.  First pass we had 5 posts on our high list, ten on our medium and the rest were low.  We knew that we had to show the CDO (Career Development Officer) more about our preferences by ranking more of them high and medium. 

While Bob was in class the next day, I took on the task of researching posts that we didn’t think we would like to see if I changed my mind about any of them.  I had said that I didn’t want to go to any of the “Stans”, so I looked and Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan.  I was surprised to see that they were all beautiful interesting places that would be fascinating to be in.  Bob was surprised that I had decided to move those places from low to medium.  I was really starting to get excited about the possibilities but after neither of us slept that night because of anxiety about those posts we moved them back down to low.  I’ll be daring and brave in another life.

We spent most of the month of January reviewing and considering the list.  We met with Bob CDO and were advised to hope for our highs, expect our mediums and prepare for our lows.  They would take into account all of our preferences and needs but in the end the needs of the Foreign Service trump ours.  The job at each post was listed along with the language requirement and when the job started. All of this had to be taken into account.  The Rome job was scheduled to start in May and had an Italian language requirement.  That didn’t give Bob enough time to learn Italian to the level required.  There were two people in Bob’s class that spoke Italian already.  We knew that we wouldn’t be posted in Rome.  There was a really good job in Istanbul, which was turning into our top choice, but there was no language requirement and we really wanted to learn a language.  Without learning a foreign language in the first three years, Bob wouldn’t be able to get tenured.  I thought it would be really hard moving to a country without knowing the language, besides, learning a language was mainly what sold me on the idea of the Foreign Service to begin with. There was an interesting post in Montenegro but it was to start immediately and required Serbian language.  No one in the class spoke Serbian and the job was a new one so it had some flexibility on the start date so that was a possibility for us.  Layered on top of what Bob and I wanted was the fact that my daughter Alex would be going with us and wanted to attend college.  Many of these places have colleges but not all good colleges and not all english speaking.  After I told Alex that there was no way I thought we would get Rome (it was here top choice too), she said that she would like to go to Frankfurt.  Huh! I hadn’t really given Germany much thought. 

We compared preferences with Bob’s classmates.  For every post there was someone who wanted had put it in a high position.  Almost everyone ranked Rome as high because… well it’s Rome!  For every place that I thought would be kind of horrible to be in for two years, there was someone who chose it as their top choice.  The reasons varied from being really interested in being in the political hot spot to wanting the pay differential that comes with a hardship post.  We really weren’t in competition with the rest of the class so we spoke freely about our choices.  I kept trying to let go and just wait to see what happened.  We didn’t really have any control of the situation and worrying wasn’t getting us anywhere.  I can honestly say that I didn’t have a good night sleep for the month of January.

Finally the day came; Flag day.  This was the day that all of the FSO’s in Bob’s class and their families gathered and one by one the FSO’s were presented with the flag of their post country.  The presenters marched to the front of the stadium with three standards full of little flags.  After an introduction the director of the Foreign Service Institute announced the each city and country and then called the name of the FSO assigned to that post.  We were nervous for ourselves but also for our friends.  Our lives were about to change dramatically and it all hinged on the announcements made in the next twenty minutes.  The atmosphere took on a feeling of unreality for me.  “Frankfurt Germany,” said the presenter, “Robert A. Perls”.  Time was suddenly slowed down.  The statement echoed and all other sound in the auditorium went quiet.  I had to remind myself to breath.  I had to remind myself to take pictures of Bob going up to receive his flag and shake the hand of the presenter.  Germany!  I had forgotten to think about Germany!
Focus, center the picture… blink the tears away…
I didn’t even do any research about Frankfurt!
Click… Click… I can’t see the image on the camera… thank goodness there’s an official photographer.  Germany!  I was truly overwhelmed by emotion. I looked across the aisle at Bob when he sat down and the sounds around me returned. I had missed a couple of post announcements.  Bob mouthed the words, “Are you OK with this?”  Yes!  I was OK.  I was more than OK.  This was really great!  Oh my God!  We’re going to live in Germany!!!

There were parties afterward and there was a very perceptible relaxation of among Bob’s classmates. Out of 81 students there were only about five students who were really disappointed in their post.  We were amazed that the team of CDO’s who did the post assignments was able to make that many of us happy.  That doesn’t diminish the disappointment of those five people.  I had imagined being in that position many times over the past month and I really felt for them.  We went home after the revelry and slept well for the first time in over a month.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Our New Home (For Now)

Ann and Jim and Laurie threw a going away new years celebration party for us. We gathered with some of our dearest friends, reminisced and said good byes.  I had such a lump in my throat as we were about to leave the party that I could barely speak.  In my fantasy I would have given a little speech about how much they all mean to me and how I hope that they will all come to visit us in D.C. and in our post abroad, but the lump and my quivering chin prevented it.  I will miss my friends so much.

We arrived in Washington DC late on a Saturday.  The lobby of the high-rise apartment building seemed clean but very 70’s style.  It was difficult to tell if it was if it was retro or just old. We were given keys and shown to our new home on the 13th floor.  (I didn't think any buildings had a 13th floor. Whatever happened to superstition?) The first impression, dings in the drywall, dirty carpet and terrible lighting, vertical blinds (Ugh), didn’t do much to ease my anxiety about the place.  I kept my mouth shut but worried that all of the Foreign Service housing would be shabby and second rate.  Later Bob told me that he was thinking "Oh no, what have I gotten us into?" We were tired and both knew that everything would seem better and easier to deal with in the light of day. I tried not to think about the fact that I had left a house that I adore to live for a while in a marginal apartment building.

We have always slept in a queen size bed and the king in the apartment seemed like an acre of soft comfy sleeping surface.  I had a lot of trouble getting to sleep the first night and when I did finally doze off I was frequently awakened by traffic noise punctuated by my anxiety about leaving home, being so far from my kids, leaving behind my Mom and Dad who had been my room mates or neighbors my whole life.  There were also the dogs to think and worry about.  I had left them in the capable hands of Peter who seemed like a loving guy, but would he love them and play with them like a did?  Would they miss me?  Would it bother me more if they didn’t?  At one point in the night I rolled over to cuddle up to Bob for some comfort and he wasn’t there.  I didn’t remember him getting up… Where the heck was he? When I sat up a little alarmed and saw that he was on the other half acre of the bed hidden by lofty comforters and pillows sound asleep.  Well there was my constant. He is always there, always reliable and loving and we are on this adventure together. We had both dreamed of living abroad and Bob had figured out a way to do just that. We were both excited about the unknown, guessing that where ever we end up might be really rough, but we would have each other and together we would find what was wonderful about where ever we end up.  I crawled over to the other side of the bed, curled up with Bob and finally fell into a sound sleep until morning.

The light of day revealed the Jefferson Davis Freeway at the foot of our building.  (So that’s where the traffic noise was coming from.) Across the freeway were some high-rise buildings and between two of them was a big gap through which we could see the Potomac.  If you looked north up the freeway you could see the Washington Monument perfectly framed by more buildings that make up Crystal City.  These were the views in my fantasies about living in the DC area.  We realized that our apartment hadn’t really been turned over well after the last tenants and was in need of some attention from the maintenance department.  One phone call took care of that.  The crew came in and cleaned and painted and it made all the difference.  It didn’t take care of the freeway noise though.  The building manager called one day in the first week and said that another two bedroom had become available on the other side of the building one floor up and would be happy to show it to me.  It was quieter and it was fun to see another floor plan.  I was really worried that the freeway noise was going to be a real problem for me in our original apartment.  In Corrales we had been living at the end of a little rural street next to the river.  The only traffic noise I was used to was the migratory traffic of Sand Hill Cranes and Canada geese.  After showing the apartment to Bob though, I realized that the views in our apartment were pretty spectacular and that the noise was already bothering me less that it had at first.  Our apartment was a corner apartment and was much bigger than the other.  I hemmed and hawed for one night and called the manager the next day to tell him we would stay.  By the end of the second week the traffic had ceased to be something that I even thought about.  We both enjoy the extra floor space to do Thai Chi or yoga. 

One morning while we were eating breakfast, a pair of large raptors (species unknown, sorry Dad, I didn’t have my bird book) went soaring past the window with a couple of crows dogging their tails.  They circled around for several turns before they circled out of sight above our building.  Well, it’s not the winter home of the cranes or geese but there is wild life in this place and I now feel that it is the new, if not permanent home of Bob and Joan.