Sunday, July 31, 2011

Managing Finances

One thing the foreign service definitely makes more difficult is managing finances. Before we joined up, I downloaded all credit card and bank statements every month and made beautiful spreadsheets showing where we spent our money. I could estimate a good budget at the beginning of the year and adjust as necessary. Not a penny pincher, I did take a bit of pride in being able to put aside savings, while taking some fun vacations and purchasing a few nice things.

I kept control of it when I was in grad school - and when home after Wm was born. But then we joined the foreign service. The income cut combined with starting day care payments made the reality too painful to look at on a spreadsheet, especially when I compared all the fun things we used to spend money on, but couldn't anymore. Not wanting to resent our new jobs - or new baby - I just stopped tallying.

Then we moved to India. While we then had more wiggle room in our "fun" budget, I found the challenges of accounting more difficult in a highly cash-based society. My spreadsheets were heavily geared toward downloading income and expenses from websites. I didn't feel like making the effort to write down all the cash expenditures, so tracking it didn't seem worthwhile. I realized tonight that my beautiful spreadsheets are languishing on our old laptop - I hadn't even bothered to migrate them!

From January - March 2011, I encountered another obstacle: Home Leave. This has become synonymous with deferred purchasing, in my opinion. A bike for Wm. A new non-stick saute pan. A wardrobe update. Gifts for friends and family. Setting up temporary shop in our temporary apartment. Things we lived perfectly well without in India, but which make life more comfortable when available in the US. As one friend put it, we were trying our hardest to keep the US economy going!

Now we're just getting settled enough in Manila that I've attempted to start tracking again, easing myself in with tracking credit card purchases. The surprising result? We spend a lot on groceries. I'm not sure if the former is because of prices at the store we shop at most frequently, or if it's just simply because food is expensive here. Now that I'm aware, I'll have to price compare a bit more.

Thankfully, both India and the Philippines have had pretty stable FX rates. That would really make things complicated!

(And this is just the expense side of the deal. Income can fluctuate quite a bit when COLA or post differential changes.)

Thursday, July 28, 2011

Hope it lasts!

Wm and Patch - almost all of the time - are pretty adorable together. Maybe moving around the world twice in four months drew them close. Or maybe their opposite personalities help them mesh. Whatever the reason, I'm hoping their friendship lasts.

This morning, Patch (as usual) was messing up Wm's "lines" (he lines up cars, or planes, or trains, or whatever for various reasons ... and Patch thinks it's hilarious to storm in like a tornado and wreck havoc on Wm's orderly play method). Wm storms into the bathroom where I'm taking a shower and announces, "Maybe it would be better if I were alone!" I could almost hear Wm's pout on the other side of the shower curtain.

I stopped lathering my hair and asked who would make him laugh by spinning around in endless circles? Who would come over and give him a hug when he cries? Who would he fall asleep next to every night? After a brief moment of thought, Wm replied, "well, I guess Patch can stay." A classic big sibling moment, if I may say so myself (being the older sibling).

Tonight, for the first time in a long time, Wm was crying in his sleep. I went in to give him some pats, and, as I was doing so, Patch, in his sleep rolled over to snuggle closer to Wm. (yes, most nights they sleep in the same bed.) Wm then turned away from me, put his arm around Patch, stopped crying, and drifted back to a peaceful sleep.

Back in Manila

I'm back after a fun three weeks in Chennai (with a weekend jaunt to my old HYD haunts). Returning to HYD for the weekend brought back the intimately familiar, from easy conversations with close friends, to lunch at Chutney's, to brunch at our neighbor's in Hanging Gardens. Development (ie, new construction) is continuing in the city, though at a bit slower pace. If the city can manage to settle the Telangana separatist issue, I still think it is one of the most liveable cities in India.

Driving home from the Manila airport, excitement abounded at knowing Greg, the boys (and Bagwelle) were near, but it struck me it doesn't quite feel like "coming home" yet. I'm not sure if it ever will, or if I just need a little more time living here. We'll see what the next few months bring.

At the office, everyone wanted to know how the countries compare. For sure, Manila has more of the material goods - better shopping and restaurant options, from an expat perspective. But, all the same, I miss India! Something about that country just seems to have a pull on me ...

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

3 Second Diplomacy

I'm in Chennai. So is one Madam Secretary Clinton. It's exciting and anti-climatic at the same time. It's the first time an acting Secretary of State has visited Chennai, which is a big deal to the local government, press and institutions. But my main job was helping keep the consular section humming while my colleagues with local contacts could facilitate the visit.

I was, however, a first-hand witness to a pretty impressive scene of three second diplomacy today.

We had the "meet and greet" tonight at 7PM, and a bunch of us opted for dinner together after. Turns out, the Golden Dragon was the place to be - about 20 minutes after we sat down, in came the security agents to sweep the place, and 15 minutes later Secretary Clinton and her executive staff were escorted into the restaurant's private dining room. On her way in, the other diners were looking at each other in shock - did they just see who they thought they saw?

(We wanted to reassure them, yes, they did. But instead we enjoyed our dumplings, crispy spinach with candied walnuts, mapo tofu, crispy lamb and hakka noodles - plus the cocktail creation of a friend here: fresh lime soda sweet with gin - good improvisation on the old Indian favorite gin & tonic)

On her way out, the guests were more prepared. One guy even had his camera up and ready to shoot as she was about to power by his table. Secretary Clinton noticed it, stopped to smile for a good photo op, said good evening, and then continued on her way to her room.

For the next few minutes, all the chatter in the restaurant was how kind she was - that it was so unusual for a politician of her rank (especially in India) to take notice of the "common man" - and how lucky this guy was to have such a great picture! At our table, we agreed that those mere three seconds of her time had a pretty big impact for a positive image of the US with local Indians, especially since the story will be told again and again. Brava, Secretary Clinton!

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Radio Silence

I've been sentenced to radio silence with Wm and Patch. Apparently, they're fine as long as they don't hear my voice or mention of "Mama" or "India." Thus making like easier for Greg and Lea, despite the difficulties posed for me, alone in my furnished temporary quarters. Greg calls after the boys go to sleep, enforcing the rule and rendering any pleas of mine futile. Pity on me!

Good news, though, is that Wm has not put up any bedtime fights. Before I left, only I was allowed to read stories, so Greg and I were worried how the bedtime routine would transfer to a Dada-only environment. Turns out, with radio silence, no toruble at all. One night, when Greg was trying to convince Wm to fall asleep in his own bed instead of Patch's, Wm even said that he couldn't sleep alone because Patch kept him company when I was gone. What a great little brother! [As I type, I can picture Patch accidentally bowling Wm over with a generous hug.] Greg gave up his entreties and now the boys fall asleep together in Patch's bed.

I'll be home in about 10 days, so my self-imposed exile will soon end. Most of you know I'm not really a mother to pine after or fawn over her children, and my work-induced mother-guilt is on the low end of the spectrum. Three weeks of travel, though, is testing even my independent nature.

Thursday, July 7, 2011

Back in India

I've been back in south India for two days. Honestly, it's strange. When we left, I doubted I'd return - and certainly didn't expect it to be so soon. Our whole family still misses HYD (when Wm found out I was coming back to India, he had a total meltdown and wailed, "Mama, why are you going home to India without me?" The raw emotion outburst brought me to tears, too). The sadness of saying goodbye is still accute.

With no boys waking me at 5AM or clamoring for more scoops to drink or to fix trains, I enjoyed my usual Indian morning routine of yoga followed by a light breakfast with buffalo milk yogurt and Taj Mahal tea. I missed the morning stretch, the creamy yogurt and the strong tea!

This evening, I had to regain my sense of adventure, which had grown soft in the Shopping Mall and Starbucks Land of Manila. But, with a big breath, I ventured out on foot from my temporary apartment, sidestepping all sorts of debris in the street, being just assertive enough to get where I needed to go without getting run over by an autorickshaw. I have not lost the ability to cross a street.

I managed to find a decent dosa place for dinner and some shoes that fit (even if not stylish) to substitute for the ones I brought which broke yesterday. Confidence is necessary - otherwise, it would be too easy to hole up in my apartment, only venturing out when kind coworkers kindly offer to pick me up and take me out.