Sunday, September 16, 2007

Chez Gemmell

Islamabad used to be a jewel in the Foreign Service crown. It was an extremely desirable post and was generally staffed with senior people who enjoyed the weather, the hospitality of the Pakistani people, the opportunities for travel in the region and the amenities. Now it is considered a Danger/Hardship post and families are not allowed to accompany or visit the FSOs posted there. Danger/Hardship posts are generally one year assignments and that's the case with Islamabad. I'll have a full year of the weather, the hospitality and the opportunities to travel but until I actually get to Islamabad, I won't really be able to describe those things in any great detail.

However, I can begin to describe some of the amenities because I've recently been assigned a house. Just like in the Peace Corps, housing is provided by the government as part of the deal. In Islamabad, the assigned housing is also furnished, so all the FSOs need to bring with them are the things that make a place feel more like their own homes. That, too, is just like the Peace Corps. We have no responsibility for finding our own places, they are simply allocated to us from housing already under contract. Again, this is very similar to the Peace Corps experience. The housing itself, however, is different from most Peace Corps accommodations. For one thing, you don't need to hold an umbrella over your head when you sit on the john because the water tank above the toilet leaks in a steady drip.

Here are some pictures of the furnished house I'll be living in for my year in Islamabad.

There are four bedrooms and four bathrooms. Other than that, it is no more or less splendid than your average palatial mansion in any similarly gated and guarded community. Thank goodness I'll have enough storage space for my golf clubs! The impression of life in Pakistan today, created by the news media, is one of anarchic chaos with mobs of unruly men marching up and down streets chanting anti-this or anti-that slogans. While this makes for good tv, it probably isn't a totally accurate picture of everyday life over there. I can make that statement with confidence because I've been told to bring my golf clubs with me. There is a group of three men who play every Sunday morning and they need to fill in the foursome. So, I'm packing my 36 handicap and my bag of clubs and I'll be teeing it up on the weekends.

I've been in touch with several people who are there now and they all seem to be enjoying the experience. They're working long hours every week but still find the time to get out and sample the local markets, nightlife and sights. I'm putting together a list of places I want to see during my stay and have my cameras and video equipment all set to go.

My immediate supervisor has let me know that I'll be responsible for the motorpool and shipping. I may acquire other responsibilities when I get there, but I'll start out with motorpool and shipping. We have a full complement of FSNs (Foreign Service Nationals, in this case, Pakistanis) working at the embassy and I'll be supervising the guys who handle the shipping of personal effects to and from post and the drivers and maintenance guys who play with the vehicles. I'm hoping that this will give me a chance to use and improve my Urdu. I'm already learning to say, "Where is my personal armored vehicle?"

Now life consists of Urdu lessons that begin at 7:30am every day. I have five one hour sessions with a different teacher each hour. Then I have a break for lunch, after which I'm expected to spend approximately three hours in the language lab taking advantage of the wealth of resources found there. There is, of course, homework every night and a take-home quiz every Friday. The Foreign Service takes language study very seriously! There are times when my brain gets so fried that I answer an Urdu question in Bulgarian.

So now I have just over seven weeks to go. I have a to-do list a mile long and an apartment that is filling up with stuff that will have to be shipped to Islamabad. I have an Urdu quiz to complete and my fantasy baseball team to manage. Oh well, it beats working.

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