The Diplomatic Community Steps Up Once Again

by Sarah Novak on August 16, 2014

diplomatic community

It was about this time last month that I found myself in a bit of a conundrum.  We were in the process of setting our new apartment up and it was very obvious that there was no room for my beloved custom-designed chaise lounge from the Philippines.  I was heartbroken.

I resigned myself to the fact that I would have to sell it (I’m not into storage anymore, if there’s no room for it, then it’s gotta go).  I started posting it in our diplomatic community facebook forums and listservs. The response was overwhelming, but not in the way I had expected.  I got reply after reply telling me that I absolutely could NOT sell the chaise.  And interestingly, a unique solution emerged that I never would have considered.

The Diplomatic Community Never Fails to Surprise Me

People started volunteering to ‘house sit’ the chaise for a few years until we headed to our next post.  And mind you, these were not long-time friends, but total strangers.  There I was, humbled yet again by the generosity of our diplomatic community.

I accepted an offer from a lovely family whose timing matched ours (translation: we wouldn’t have to take it back before we leave again in 2-3 years).  We coordinated via email and they showed up yesterday with a big ole moving truck.  Not only did I not have to get it to them, but they didn’t even want my help carrying it from the apartment to the truck.  Talk about service, huh?!

Big thanks to Lauren, David and Lily for helping us find a creative solution to our problem!  No matter how big or small the challenge, I am thankful that we’re never in this alone thank to our amazing foreign service community!

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Foreign Service Institute

An Overview of Foreign Service

Institute Courses

The Foreign Service Institute is a sprawling complex located in Arlington, VA where Diplomats go to school.  It is here that they may enroll in over 600 different Foreign Service Institute courses in leadership, job-specific training, area studies and most commonly, language courses.  Amazingly, there are over 70 languages being taught there each year with courses ranging in length from a few weeks to 1 year.

In addition to preparing the officers to go overseas, there are also specific courses geared at getting the spouse/partner and family ready.  These Foreign Service Institute Courses fall under a different umbrella of the Institute called the Transition Center.  It is here that spouses take classes in security preparedness, raising bilingual children, preparing for pack-out and much, much more.  These classes were sanity-savers for me when we joined, so you can imagine my delight when I was presented with the opportunity to co-lead one of these classes for spouses!

The View from the Front of the Room

The class I got asked to co-lead was a full-day course called Portable Careers: Employment Options for Family Members.  This is a topic near and dear to my heart, as it causes many an identity issue for spouses who have to abandon their location-specific career to support their foreign service institute coursesDiplomat partner.  The class is meant to help spouses explore all the career opportunities available to them – from working on the local market, to being a professional volunteer, to teleworking or running a portable business – so that they may create a successful and fulfilling career alongside their spouse.

I came in at a time when they were revamping the content for this class, so I got to inject a lot of coaching-related material that provided opportunities for assessment and reflection.  Specifically, I created a workbook that helped participants look back at their prior roles and life experiences to recognize not only their job-related skills, but the ones they also picked up as an athlete, mother or volunteer (among many others).  The class was evenly split between this reflective work and more information-driven presentations from SCORE and veteran individuals who had successfully created portable careers.

The feedback I received indicated that the material was both useful and presented in a way that was fun and engaging.  While there were a few individuals that were on 2nd or 3rd tours, the majority were fresh recruits.  I remember all too well the overwhelm that accompanies those first few months.  I hope our class was able to remind them that they aren’t leaving everything behind, they are simply being called to use their skills and passions in new ways!

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We’re Freecyclin’ Baby!

by Sarah Novak on July 30, 2014


Okay, I have to share a delightful little thing I’ve stumbled upon.  It’s called FreeCycle and it’s basically a place where you can give or get things for FREE.  You simply go to the FreeCycle website to find a group near you (there are over 5,100 groups in the US, by the way).  Then just type in your city or zip code and it’ll pull up groups that are in close proximity to you.  The Arlington, VA group that I belong to has almost 9,000 members alone!

How Does FreeCycle Work?

Here’s the process, in 5 simple steps:

1.  You put an offer up in the Yahoo Group that has a subject like this – OFFER: 5 Bottles of Bubbles

2.  The offers are sent to the group member’s email and if someone’s interested, they’ll email you.  You then get to decide who receives it (perhaps the one who emails first or the one who makes the most compelling case).

3.  You post a message in the group like this: TAKEN: 5 Bottles of Bubbles

4.  You arrange a pick-up time.  The other members are always in a specific geographic region, so you know you won’t be driving far for pickup.

5.  The item exchanges hands and avoids the dumpster!

And here’s the best part.  Not only can you make offers, you can also ask for specific things!  If you want to inquire about something, your post looks like this – WANTED: Old Magazines

I just love this concept because the recipient comes and takes it off your hands.  You also can give away things that might not be accepted at Goodwill, etc.  We’ve both offered and received something so far, so I can verify that the system works.  No weirdness on either the pickup or the drop-off.  And of course it’s free to join!  Is that cool, or what??

In case you’re curious, we gave away some brand new men’s hygiene products and we received a vacuum after posting a WANTED inquiry.

Anyone participate in this?  Definitely go to FreeCycle and see if there’s a group near you.  You’ll be amazed at what people give away for free!

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Realities of Foreign Service Life

Hey all – Perhaps you’ve noticed I haven’t been writing much.  Well, it hasn’t been for lack of interest, it’s just that I prefer to jump into the deep end quickly when arriving in a new place, as I’ve found that it makes me feel more connected and settled.

So, in no particular order, here’s what I’ve been up to:

  1. Moving.  Ick.  Yes, our stuff is comforting but each and every time I watch the 100+ boxes come through the door I question why we need it all (and this after downsizing 25% in Manila and 30% in Peru).  I swear it multiplies in the night when I’m not looking…
  2. Writing all new copy for the latest evolution of my business at where I’m now billing myself as a Grief Coach for Individuals in Life Transitions.  Check it out.  I’m quite proud of it.  Each time my vision gets refined (and then translated into new copy and programs) I feel one step closer to doing exactly what I was meant to do on the planet.  Yay for new clarity!
  3. Getting my volunteer on with AAFSW (Associates of the American Foreign Service Worldwide).  I self-selected to be the Happy Hour coordinator for the incoming classes of brand-spankin-new foreign service officers (and their families).  Last night was my first Happy Hour (although they’ve been going on for a few years now).  I jazzed it up a bit by substituting wine for ice cream sundaes (my absolute fave!) and awkward mingling for a killer ‘speed meeting’ event (think speed dating minus the awkward follow-up).

Happily, it was a mega-success!  We had 30ish veterans, 30ish newcomers and 20 kids too.  These folks had just handed in their bid lists that morning (a nerve-wracking process each and every time no matter how many times you do it) and were overflowing with questions about specific posts, birthing, housing, transit, safety and loads of other stuff.

As the night progressed, I noticed myself giving a lots of specific advice but a few larger pieces of general advice about the realities of foreign service life.  I want to share this broader advice in my blog as well, because I know that there are a lot of soon-to-be-officers (and spouses) that are reading – in fact, I met 5 last night.  Turns out Novakistan is kinda famous.  :)

So here goes…

  1. Every post has good and bad aspects.  I’ve met people who were miserable in London and others who couldn’t say enough good things about western Africa.  Those who thrive are the ones who choose a useful perspective and proactively look for the good things about a location.
  2. When signing up for the foreign service, you’re basically handing over control for a good portion of your life.  You will no longer choose what country you live in, where you live and what furniture makes up the space you call home.  You may be evacuated at a  moment’s notice or you may be forced to separate from your spouse for a year while they head to a hot zone.  Again, perspective is the key to success.  The other thing that I’ve learned is simply to roll with whatever you’re dealt and trust that it will work out in the long run (because it usually does).  Keep setting big goals and moving toward them on a macro level, but let go of the particles, or the exact means of how YOU THINK you should get to the end goal.  Turns out that there’s often a richer path to your goal than the one you dreamed up.
  3. You are at all times a representative of the US government.  You never get a break and people will be observing you at all times.  When you treat locals badly or make a drunken scene in public, people make a judgment about that and file it away with their other opinions about Americans.  Therefore, before acting, writing or speaking, always consider the implications of what you’re about to do and think about if the impact you’ll make will reflect positively or poorly on the United States.  You really are advancing or harming diplomatic relations with your everyday actions.  A burden?  Sometimes.  A great opportunity to have a positive influence?  Always.

So there you have it.  My two cents.  Veterans, what other general advice would you add to this list about the realities of foreign service life?

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by Sarah Novak on June 25, 2014

Good News

After a couple of frustrating weeks filled with ups and downs, I am pleased to report that we’re finally starting to gain some traction here in DC.

Of particular note:

  1. We signed a lease in Crystal City (in Virginia) and move in during mid-to-late July.
  2. Grandma Janet is coming out for 3 days of non-stop decorating (it is rumored that wall stenciling may be involved).
  3. All 9,000 pounds of our stuff is scheduled for delivery.  First comes the stuff from storage that we haven’t seen since we joined the foreign service 5+ years ago.  Then the following day we’ll get all the stuff we sent from Lima.  Don’t ask me where we’re going to fit 9,000 pounds of stuff in a 2 BR apartment.  Looks like more downsizing will be in order.
  4. Nick started his job on Monday and is spending a lot of time with his mistress, the blackberry.
  5. Nia miraculously got offered a slot to a well-known preschool called the Children’s International School which is attended by lots of other foreign service kids.  We weren’t planning to start until September but you don’t pass up an opportunity like this in DC.
  6. I will be jumping into full-time work from home, splitting my time between my life coaching business and my work with Lake Area Discovery Center as Director of Marketing.  I am way jazzed to immerse myself in this work that I’m so passionate about.

See!  Isn’t that a lot to celebrate?!  There’s nothing I love more than getting settled in.  More updates coming soon.

From Novakistan, post Progress!

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Beating the Heat in DC

by Sarah Novak on June 16, 2014

Navy Yard 001

If you’ve lived in DC in the summer, you know that it’s a muggy, sweaty mess.  There are only two sure-fire options to beat the heat.  1.) Run from air-conditioned place to air-conditioned place or 2.) Get in (or on) the water.  Given that we have a toddler that needs space to move, we opted for #2.

Thankfully, water activities are abundant in DC.  On Saturday we checked out this fab splash pad at Virginia Highlands park, just a short walk from our new home.  We will definitely be frequent visitors there!

Navy Yard 011

On Sunday we ventured down to Navy Yard, a waterfront area close to the Nationals’ ballpark.  It was previously an industrial area but has recently been beautifully restored into condos, shopping, restaurants and a park.  The wading pool (pictured above) was absolutely perfect for tots.  It’s about 1 foot deep throughout and has circular platforms at water level that the kids can climb on.  Warning: Don’t be fooled by the serene nature of the shot above (this photo was taken at 9 AM and by 11 AM there were a good 100 kids in the pool).

Just as Nia tired of swimming we happened to spot an upscale Mexican restaurant nearby called Agua 301.  Since it was Father’s Day we decided to extend our activities to include an outdoor lunch by the water.  There were an abundance of shaded tables by the wading pool, so we just grabbed one of those and got Mexican take-out.

Can I just say that that was an EXCELLENT choice?  Definitely one of my favorite meals I’ve had in DC thus far.  The cuisine was authentic, super fresh and very reasonably priced.  Highly recommended by this foodie!

Boating in DC 005

The other cool thing we did was to purchase a season pass to the Key Bridge Boathouse.  The pass gives our family unlimited access to canoes, kayaks and stand-up paddleboards from April through mid-October.  The pass also comes with free kayaking and SUP beginner courses.  There are 3 different locations we can use our pass at.  One is the Key Bridge location in Georgetown.  The second is the Navy Yard, where we went to the wading pool.  And the final location is the National Harbor which is down in Alexandria.  All are within a 15 minute drive for us and I know we’ll appreciate the variety of scenery we’ll get from using all three.

Boating in DC 008

On Wednesday Nia and I took out a single Kayak in Georgetown.  Then on Saturday we brought Daddy back to Georgetown and took out a double kayak.  Finally, on Sunday we tacked on a little canoeing before our swimming and lunch at Navy Yard.  So far we’ve had zero regrets – great staff, beautiful locations and well-kept boats.  I can see us doing this for many summers to come.  FYI, for those who don’t want to get a pass, you can also just rent a boat by the session.  Also, our pass includes 20% off for friends & family, so let us know if you want to join us for a paddle!

Navy Yard 030

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In Pursuit of Order

by Sarah Novak on June 16, 2014

xy 004

We’ve noticed over the last few months that Nia has a very unique style of play that’s different from most other two year olds.  Her play centers around ordering her various collections (animals, polly pockets, videos, etc); lining them up over and over again each day for hours on end.

cabin 022

It’s quite fascinating really.  If you so much as bump an item she freaks out and rushes to get it perfectly back in the exact same place (notice how all the figures above are standing up and facing forward).

MN Trip May 004

This Polly Pocket scene looks like chaos but each piece was actually placed with precision (took her a good 90 minutes).

cabin 020

I’m not concerned about this pattern in the least but if I had to guess why it’s showing up I’d say that she’s looking for order in her play because the rest of our life is so chaotic right now.  I think it helps ground her when everything else feels out of sorts.  Anyone else seen this behavior in their kiddos?

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Settling Into DC Life

by Sarah Novak on June 15, 2014

Boating in DC 011

We’re 12 days into our DC tour and slowly but surely finding our footing.  We spent the bulk of the first week touring preschools and apartments (with mixed results, I might add).  I am pleased though to report that last Saturday we signed a lease for a 2 BR condo in Crystal City!  We are huge fans of Crystal City after our last stint there in late 2011/early 2012 (when Nia was born and Nick was learning Spanish).

Walk-ability and metro access are the two greatest pluses of Crystal City.  We’re crazy about urban living and this condo has loads of amenities that are a 15 minute walk or less (Pentagon City Mall, Harris Teeter, Costco, CVS, urgent care clinic, park, library, splash pad, metro stop and dozens of restaurants).


Nia has been a real trooper through the transition.  We switched her from the crib to a queen bed (I know, we skipped a few phases) and she’s adjusted well to that.  Potty-training, however, is a different story.  When we left Peru she was fully trained and unfortunately we’re now back in diapers 100% of the time.  We think it’s her way of taking back some power during this time of transition.  She does need to be trained for school in September, so we’ll be making another big push for underwear in July and August.  Wish us luck!

Speaking of school, I found a program in Georgetown called Little Seasons that takes drop-ins given availability.  I didn’t want to enroll her there long-term because of the fact that we’re moving, but it’s a perfect solution for summer.

Nia’s now going 2 full days per week and couldn’t be more stoked.  She’s so eager in fact that she didn’t even have time to kiss me good-bye on the first day.  I’m delighted that she loves school so much (just like her Mommy) and it makes it that much easier for me to slide back into my work routine.  We’re still searching for the right program for the school year, but I’m feeling optimistic that we’ll get one.

Navy Yard 008

More updates soon about the exploring we’ve been doing around town!

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3.5 Hours of Non-stop Goodness

by Sarah Novak on May 17, 2014

Nick and I have been hanging kid-free in Portland since Tuesday.  One of our favorite things we’ve done thus far was the Epicurean Excursion Walking Tour with Portland Walking Tours.  In the course of 3 1/2 hours we covered a mile and a half and consumed 8 different types of Portland cuisine.  We had an absolute blast and we’d both recommend the tour and separate visits to these fantastic places.

choc collage

Curious to know what we ate???  Well….first up was a stop at the chocolate shop Cacao.  They are best known for their liquid drinking chocolate (which was divine, by the way), but we were also delighted to see chocolate featured from two of our favorite places – Peru and the Philippines!  We were off to a great start.  One can never go wrong when starting the day with chocolate!


Next up was a visit to Courier Coffee for a perfectly poured macchiato.  Seriously, it was like they planned this tour just for me.  Chocolate followed up by scrumptious coffee.  Could ice cream possibly be next??  Oh wouldn’t that be a lovely trifecta….


Alas, ice cream was not our next stop (although we did get some before the tour ended).  Next up was this killer tomato orange soup from the Elephant’s Deli.  It was to die for.  The finish was so perfect that there was just a hint of pulp at the end.  Divine indeed.

And what goes perfectly with chocolate, coffee and soup?  Why waffles of course!  Now when I say waffle, don’t think of traditional ones.  Think more along the lines of funnel cake with lots of messy powdered sugar.  The waffle stop was extra cool because it was our first treat from a food truck, in this case Gaufre Gourmet.

Rounding out the middle of our tour was roasted garlic, blue cheese and asparagus pizza from Hot Lips Pizza.  Strange combo but boy did those flavors work well together.  Who’d a thunk it?  That was about as main course-y as we got because on we went to the bakery.


This was no ordinary bakery through.  It was none other than the famous Pearl Bakery, ranked one of the top 25 in the country by Food & Wine Magazine.  Not only did we sample, but we got a little behind-the-scenes tour as well.

ice cream

The stop I’d been waiting for was finally here.  Bring on the ice cream from Ruby Jewel Scoops!  Anywhere else you’d have plain old chocolate, strawberry and vanilla.  Not in Portland. Some of our unique choices were Lavender Honey, Meyer Lemon or Strawberry Rhubard Crisp.  Sandwich those unique flavors between two chocolate cookies and shazam, you’re in for one heck of a treat!

olive oil

Last but not least was Benessere Olive Oil where we sampled dozens of exotic olive oil and balsalmic vinegar varieties.  We got a SERIOUS education on olive oil.

For example, we learned that UCLA did a study that determined that 3/4 of popular grocery store brands don’t qualify as extra-virgin based on international standards (due to lack of regulation in the US).  Most commonly the olive oil was mixed with canola to make profits higher.

Remember how you’ve been told to always keep olive oil at a low temp in the pan or it will smoke?  Well, what’s actually smoking is the canola oil that’s mixed in.  Pure high-quality olive oil can reach over 400 degrees before smoking.  Isn’t that crazy?  I’ve believed that myth all my life!

Last cool thing.  You should be able to taste 3 different notes of flavor when sampling high-quality olive oil.  There are very specific bitter, fruity and pungent aspects of the oil that you’ll feel on the tip of your tongue, middle mouth and throat.  The pungent aspect will catch in the back of your throat and a good oil often makes you cough a bit if enjoyed solo.  Greeks often jokingly classify their olive oils as 1, 2 or 3 cough oils.

So there you have it folks.  Portland really delivered big on this one.  Highly recommended for others who are planning a visit here.

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Sarah Discovers Kirtan (and digs it)

by Sarah Novak on May 12, 2014


In honor of Mother’s Day I decided to stretch myself and try something new.  That something was Kirtan, which is basically singing meditation done in Hindi or Sanskrit in a call and response format.

I first heard of Kirtan from my friend Jennifer Alexander who leads Kirtan at Moksha Yoga in Chicago.

Since I’m just learning about it myself, I’m going to borrow a synopsis from Jennifer’s website that better describes what Kirtan is:

Kirtan is an ancient form of vibrational sound healing, which is practiced through the call and response chanting of mantras. A mantra is a sound, syllable, word, or group of words that is considered capable of creating energetic transformation. At a Kirtan concert, the band or song leader introduces the chant by singing the call, and the audience participates by singing back the response. The song and energy build through the call and response rhythm, transforming everyone in the room – whether you consider yourself a “singer”, are simply humming along, or are silently soaking in the vibration.

So there’s the definition of it.  Here’s what my actual experience looked like:

The session was scheduled for 90 minutes at an Alternative Therapy Center.  The center was situated in a house and our group formed a circle in the living room area.  There were 9 people there that night (which is about average).

There were no introductions, which was odd to me.  Everyone just simply found a floor cushion and quietly waited for the music to begin.

There was a man who led the calls who played the drums and the Harmonium (it is pictured above, kind of a combo between an accordion and a piano).  There was also a guitarist that accompanied him.  We had a sheet with the Hindi/Sanskrit phrases on it but there were no notes to be found.

As I mentioned before, this was a stretch for me comfort-wise and as often happens with discomfort, I spent the first 30 minutes in my head trying to decide if I liked it, if I fit with the people and if I was being meditative enough.  Then my inner critic chimed in and told me that I wasn’t doing it right – wrong words, incorrect notes, not swaying properly, etc.

This inner battle went on for quite some time and then, as usually happens, I got swept up in the beauty of the music and stopped thinking.  I can’t pinpoint exactly when that moment took place, but the energetic experience that followed for the next hour was one of deep calm and yet intense aliveness.  It was a very cool paradox to linger in.

The crazy part was that we only did about 4 songs/chants.  Each one lasted between 15-20 minutes and was composed of 2-4 lines (usually less than 15 words in all).  I thought I’d get really bored by the repetition but the calls varied slightly each time in rhythm and intensity.  Most songs/chants would start slow, grow to a build in both speed and volume and then slow down again to complete the chant.

Because the call varies each time, the only way to be able to repeat it back is to keep yourself in the present moment.  There’s no time to think when you’re trying to repeat back words in Hindi and Sanskrit!  The cool part was that as I stayed with the chant, it lulled me into this beautiful meditative place in which time evaporated.  And let me tell you, time is not something that ever flies for me when I’m meditating.  And yet it produced the same after-effects!  How cool is that?

What I came to understand was that it wasn’t even about getting it right or sounding pretty.  It was simply about losing yourself (and your thinking mind) in the beauty and rhythm of the music.  I learned that people do it routinely as part of their meditative and yoga practices, which makes sense, since sound is yet another way to ground ourselves in the moment.

So there you have it folks.  This new stretch activity is a keeper.  Now to find a group I like in DC….who else is in?

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