Full disclosure: before we were assigned to Calgary, I had never heard of the Calgary Stampede -- billed as "The Greatest Outdoor Show on Earth". The Stampede is part rodeo, part state fair, this quintessential Canadian event was actually started by an American -- promoter Guy Weadick.
It's no surprise Calgary was chosen for this mega rodeo. Calgary is to Canada what Houston is to the U.S., a boom town built on the oil and gas industry. But before there was oil, there were cows. Lots and lots of cows. Hence Calgary's other nickname: Cowtown. Outside of Calgary in the plains of Alberta, real cowboys still roam.
But for 10 days in July, everyone in Calgary is a cowboy or cowgirl. Folks wear jeans, plaid shirts, big shiny belt buckles and cowboy boots, of course. Another Calgary tradition: the pancake breakfast. Many companies and social organizations host free pancake breakfasts throughout the city, sometimes 100 different events per morning. The costumes, parades, decorations and pancakes all lead up to the Stampede. It could take you 3 straight days and you would still not see every attraction, food stall, dog show, or ride every ride. Just $8 Canadian dollars (about $6 U.S. bucks) lets you roam the grounds for an entire day. Of course, you can still go broke buying drinks, junk food, ride tickets and tickets to headline concert events.
And of course the rodeo tickets. During the day, the Stampede grounds host a traditional rodeo with bull riding and barrel racing. At night, the shows start with the ground-shaking chuckwagon races, followed by a Vegas-style glitzy show and fireworks. Here's looking forward to the next Stampede!
One of the most difficult tasks as a Consular Officer is dealing with the inevitable case of a U.S. citizen who has died overseas. I will never forget the first time I had to make 'The Call' to the family back home in the States. In my brief career as an ACS (American Citizen Services) Officer, I've had to make that call three times. It never gets any easier.
This week's Time magazine features a fascinating article on how and where Americans die overseas. Canada was deemed the safest country in the world for Americans to visit. Although more Americans visit Mexico than any other country in the world, Thailand has more deaths per capita than any other country. And very few Americans die in terrorism-related incidents. The most common causes of death? Traffic accidents and drownings.
The beautiful woman above with the curly red hair is Kimberly Kenny, a dear friend and wonderful musician with the voice of an angel. You may not know her, but she touched countless lives with her passionate soul, songs and humanity.
Mrs. Crab first met sassy "Rock Star Kim" back in 2003 or so, through another dear friend, Angelina. At the time Kim was working in the corporate world in Washington DC, and rockin it at night in local nightclubs. Mr. Crab was completely mesmerized and enchanted with this chanteuse with her belting rendition of Susan Tedeschi's "Hurt So Bad!" We became Kim "groupies", following her every Monday night to her performances at the Majestic Lounge in Del Ray, Alexandria, Virginia when she was singing with the Joe Chiocca Band.
When we moved to London, Kim stopped to visit us en route to see family in Ireland. Later after breaking out of the corporate world, Kim left DC and moved to San Francisco to pursue her dream of a music career and share her gift of music and song. Mrs. Crab traveled several times to SanFran to see Kim & Angelina. Mrs. Crab recalls staying with Kim in her old apartments, in the Mission, behind The Lost Church and Russian Hill (it was at this apartment that Kim gave Mrs. Crab her first CD -Kim Kenny & the Otherlys- in a handmade cover from a recycled paper grocery bag - we have played it in our homes and cars all over the world). Kim and Mrs. Crab spent time talking about the future, taking walks together to the dog park with Kim's beloved pup "Bill Murray" and donating food to homeless people in a local park. When we joined the Foreign Service, Kim insisted on taking Mrs. Crab to the mall to help her pick out a whole new wardrobe. "A diplomat's wife needs to dress the part," she would say with her keen fashion sense.
Kim was the most embracing, non-judgmental person you would ever meet. She had the wisdom of someone beyond her years and somehow she always had the right words of wisdom or comfort. Although we were separated by distance, we saw and spoke often. En route to our second tour in Seoul, we made a point to stop in San Francisco and spend several days with Kim and Angelina. Our highlight of Summer 2013 was attending one of Kim's shows, where she acted and sang in a performance at The Lost Church in a musical.
In 2015, Kim released a new album with her new band, Kim & The Generations (singles available on iTunes and Amazon). Things were looking up for Kim. Then in mid-2015, soon after we moved to Calgary came the shocking news of Kim's diagnosis. But she was a trooper, and kept performing as long as she could. Kim was a fighter. It was a blessing in disguise that we were posted nearby, so Mrs. Crab could visit San Fran often. Kim's final public performance was at the infamous Great American Music Hall in August 2015.
Just before Christmas 2015, Kim and Angelina were married in Angelina's parents home. With less than 6 days notice from engagement to wedding and despite the busy holiday season, the happy couple managed to squeeze 100+ people into Angelina's family home for the wedding ceremony - a testament to the love and friendship surrounding these lovely ladies. "See you later!" we would always say and kiss at the end of each visit.
In early February, Mrs. Crab was able to visit Kim to spend some time and sadly, say goodbye. Last night, Feb. 22, 2016, Kim lost her brief battle with cancer. The world is a sadder place without Kimberly Kenny. We miss you and love you. We'll see you later. XoXo
Kim's last CD, "Kim & The Generations," is available for purchase at CDBaby:
When we were first assigned to Calgary, everyone warned us of the horrible the winters that lay ahead. They don't call Canada "the Great White North" for nothin'! Some of the more bleak predictions warned of regular -40 degree days (note: -40 is where celsius and fahrenheit meet).
We took the warnings to heed, physically and psychologically preparing ourselves for what would surely be the longest winter of our lives. We spent a lot of money on winter tires (a MUST) and super warm parkas (maybe a must depending on your tolerance for cold. But you don't need to spend $1K on a Canada Goose). We got a good snow shovel and ice melting salt. We bought new gloves, hats, scarves. We prepped our house, storing everything in the garage. We stocked up on bulk food and products from Costco, under the assumption that we would be spending a lot of weekends and nights stuck in the house.
It hasn't turned out that way. More than halfway through the winter, our description of 2015-2016 winter has been: meh! Turns out, it's been one of the most mild winters in history. Granted, we've had a few cold spells. The coldest day we experienced in Calgary was -13F (-25c) in late December. There were weeks in December and January when the temperature never got above freezing, and we've had a few snow "storms". Fun fact: it doesn't snow in Calgary as much as on the east coast. And when it does, it's rarely more than 3-5 inches, and the snow is so fluffy and powdery, you can sweep it away with a broom. But even when the temperatures dipped into single digits, it's soon followed by the warming phenomenon known as "Chinooks" -- a warm dry wind from the Pacific that blows over and down the east side of the Canadian Rocky Mountains. When the Chinook winds roll into Calgary, the temperatures can rise from 10F to 30F in just a few hours! (It was 55 and sunny in Calgary today, while it was only 31 and snowing in NYC today).
The Two Crabs have EMBRACED the winter. We've gone skiing, snowmobiling, dog sledding. We have no problem with bundling up and walking 1 mile in the snow to our neighborhood pubs. As devoted skiers, we've explored several of the world class ski resorts within a 2 hour drive of Calgary (more details in a future post). And we've welcomed 5 wonderful friends to our home in fall and winter, including two dear friends who visited us in the dead of winter in January. We've experienced activities we never would have done otherwise...like human curling! And in a few weeks we will be heading to Yellowknife, a city near the arctic circle most famous as being one of the top places in the world to view the aurora borealis -- the Northern Lights.
The Two Crabs are now officially in Canada! We arrived in Calgary in mid-July after a month of Home Leave. We haven't been here long but already loving our new job and home at the foothills of the Canadian Rocky Mountains. The Two Crabs have already been camping a few times in Banff and Jasper National Parks, exploring some of the countless hiking trails, and sampling local cuisine like poutine, bison, elk and Canadian beer (NOT Molson).
It's been a busy summer between pack-outs, travel, training, consultations, visits with friends & family, arriving and in-processing at our new Post. To make it even more challenging, this is our first experience with serving in an "LQA" (Living Quarter Allowance) Post; at most US Embassies and Consulates around the world, Foreign Service staff are assigned to housing; at LQA Posts, FS employees must go out and find their own housing -- a time-consuming process but with the benefit that you can find a home that's right for you instead of a one-size-fits-all model.
I'll post more later, and I still owe you a "Best of Seoul" report! But here's a few photos from our Home Leave and our first month in Calgary.
Biggest reverse culture shocks from our first 24 hours back in DC: 1) The diversity of America, or, Fifty Shades of Brown. As a "minority," this was especially noticeable after 2 years living in Korea, one of the most homogeneous countries in the world. My taxi driver from Dulles is a recently-naturalized US citizen from Morocco. Our waitress is Korean. The Target cashier was Somalian. The bartender is from El Salvador. The U.S. remains the melting pot that attracts people from around the world chasing the American Dream. 2) Choices! My jaw dropped when I walked into the new Fairlington Safeway on King Street, Alexandria. It is about 3x the size of our old Yongsan commissary with FOUR aisles of beer and wine. 3) Tipping. After two tours in countries where tipping is not common or expected, I forgot that tipping has become ubiquitous in the United States. 4) Cost of living. A Korean BBQ dinner for six was $130 including $20 in tips. The same group meal would have been about $70 in Seoul with no tipping required. 5) Customer service. Although this seems to be a dying art form, American customer service is still light years ahead of most countries. Even our United flight attendants were surprisingly chipper. On second thought, Maybe there is something good to be said for tipping!
Yes I'm guilty of not blogging. 2015 has been a very challenging year, between bidding and now scrambling to pack-out with only 2 months notice of where we are going (Canada). Our pack-out is tomorrow, and I'm about to lose internet access. I absolutely LOVE Korea and will greatly miss all our friends and colleagues in Seoul. This was also our first experience living in Asia. We've had the opportunity to travel to some awesome places over the past six months. A quick recap of where we've been:
New Zealand (south island) - November 2014:
Hong Kong - November 2014:
Macau, November 2014:
Melbourne, Australia - November 2014:
Brisbane, Australia - November 2014:
Kauai and Oahu, Hawaii - January 2015:
Skiing in Niseko, Japan - March 2015:
Hoi An, Vietnam - May 2015:
Siem Reap, Cambodia - May 2015:
Home: Seoul, Korea! (This is a temple in Bukhansan National Park) - May 2015:
More than 9 1/2 months ago, Mr. Crab began the long painful task known as mid-level bidding. To recap: a Foreign Service Officer's first two tours are "directed assignments", which is a nice way of saying you go wherever the Department sends you (needs of the service). Mid-level bidding is a whole different beast; you're essentially responsible for finding your own onward assignment. This has been made extremely difficult by a staffing situation dubbed "The Pig in the Python"
For Mr. Crab, this process began in early June 2014 when I first threw my hat into the ring for PSP - Priority Staffing Post (aka Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq, Yemen and Libya). No dice, so I moved into the regular bidding cycle where I competed against hundreds of my colleagues for an assignment. Most officers learn their onward assignment on handshake day in November. But November came and went. That's how I ended up in a limbo state, like Dr. David Banner roaming the Earth looking for purpose. Every few weeks new jobs would pop up on the bid list, I bid, interviewed (some begging and groveling was involved), waited, then began the process all over again. I bid or expressed interest in no less than 50 jobs located in all corners of the world.
A few weeks ago, a bunch of new jobs suddenly materialized on the bid list. Again, I threw my name into the hat. This time was different. I got a few nibbles, then bites, call-backs, interviews. I was horribly sick this past week, but I managed to find the strength to conduct two phone interviews from bed. I slept most of Tuesday, so of course I woke up at midnight, got up and checked my e-mail. And there it was...
Subject line: "HANDSHAKE: CALGARY"
The Two SKIING Crabs are moving to Canada! Boom goes the dynamite!
It's been a while since my last post so I'll give a quick recap: In November we went on R&R to Hong Kong, Australia and New Zealand. In January, we went on a one-week trip to Hawaii with family. The Two Crabs have done a lot of skiing this winter throughout Korea including President's Day weekend trip to High 1 Ski Resort (best ski resort in Korea!).
And I'm still sitting on the bleachers, looking for a dance partner. Three months since "handshakes" were announced, and we still don't have an onward assignment. Bidding has been a second full-time job. The past months have been spent searching for an assignment, sending out resumes, doing countless e-mail and phone interviews with post decision makers, etc. It's been a long, stressful experience, exasperated by the knowledge that we are scheduled to leave our current Post in a few short months with no clue where we are going.
Many FS colleagues are in the same boat, especially those of us who came in during the hiring surge of 2009 - 2011 as part of the Department's Diplomacy 3.0 initiative. Most of us have now reached the mid-level grade, creating a huge bulge in the ranks that has been described as "The Pig in the Python."
Back in September, I submitted my bids for my next assignment. My next tour will be my first mid-level tour as a tenured Foreign Service Officer. And with it comes a whole new world known as Mid-Level Bidding.
For your first two tours in the Foreign Service are "directed assignments". This basically is a nice way of saying that the Entry Level Officer (ELO) has very little say in where you get sent. You rank your bids and provide a wish list, but at the end of the day, you get sent based on the needs of the Department of State. But as a Mid-Level Officer, you do the Mid-Level Bidding Dance. This dance has its own beat, unique rhythm and even a secret language with terms like "air kisses," "winks," and "hand-shakes".
Bidding mid-level in the Foreign Service is a lot like a middle school dance. The boys and girls are sitting on opposite sides of the gym (globe). You flirt with a girl (post), we'll call her Xanadu. Xanadu is shy, coy with a good poker face. She won't let you know immediately whether she likes you or not. So you go track down her best friend from the same class (bureau) -- we'll call her Athena -- "Hey, does Xanadu like me? I really like her!" The friend gives you an answer, which may or may not be coded language for "you have a chance at a dance" or "no chance, dude". So you pass notes in class to her wider circle of friends and acquaintenances. At the same time, you'll get your own buddies to pass notes to Athena, vouching that you're a swell guy, encouraging Athena to put in a good word with Xanadu. If Athena hints that you have a chance, you might get the nerves to go back to Xanadu directly and flat out ask her, "So, do you like me or do you LIKE me?" Xanadu might warm up and give you a wink and a sly smile. If she really likes you, you'll get an air kiss, meaning you're in like Flynn. But before you can get to the dance floor, out of nowhere, another girl you briefly fancied -- we'll call her Lindsey -- swoops in and asks you for a dance. You've already committed to dance with Xanadu, so you tip-toe around Lindsey and politely excuse yourself back across the gym floor and towards Xanadu's open hand. BUT, it's only 6:30pm, and the school dance doesn't officially start until 7pm. So you stand there looking at each other knowingly until 7:01pm, when she approaches you an outstretched arm, you shake her hand and lead her onto the dance floor. And that, my friends, is Mid-Level Bidding in a nutshell.
So where I am now? It's now 6:45pm and the dance is about to start. Most of my classmates have already received "air kisses" and joyfully congratulating each other for finding a dance partner. Other more tight-lipped classmates are keeping their kiss cards close to their vest, lest they jinx the news or upset their jealous classmates in the back of the gym. That's me, sitting on the bleachers, looking nervously around the room, straining through the crowd to spot anyone left without a dance partner.