A Traveler In The Foreign Service: What Impact Does Moving Have On Children?

If you’re a parent who is interested in an international career, you’ve probably worried at one point or another what impact your peripatetic lifestyle will have on your kids.
One of the most common questions I get about the Foreign Service is how the lifestyle affects children. Careers in the Foreign Service can take 1,000 different directions around the planet and the only predictable factor is that Foreign Service Officers (FSOs) will move every 1-4 years. Over the course of a 20-year career, one can expect to move 5-10 times, and these days, almost everyone can expect to endure at least one unaccompanied posting, away from family members.

This rootless lifestyle can be tough on kids, who have to get used to being the new kid on a regular basis (though they attend international schools where most are in the same situation). There isn’t a lot of research out there on how moving, on a domestic or international basis, affects children, but one study, conducted in 2010 by a psychology professor at the University of Virginia, might give pause to any parent considering joining the Foreign Service or indeed embarking on any type of international career that will involve frequent moves.The study concluded that frequent moves during childhood – domestic or international – can have a lasting, negative impact on kids. According to a New York Times piece that summarized the study, “Serial movers frequently reported fewer ‘quality’ social relationships, and the more times people moved as children, the more likely they were to report lower ‘well-being’ and ‘life satisfaction’ as adults. And adults who had moved a lot were more likely to have died when researchers did follow-ups 10 years later.”

The study also concluded that moves were hardest on middle school children, and asserted that introverts have a much harder time coping with moves than extroverted children, who tend to adapt more easily. (Another study, conducted by researchers at Cornell earlier this year, concluded that frequent moves before the age of 5 were detrimental to poor children.)

When I was in the Foreign Service, I didn’t have children, but my anecdotal observations lead me to conclude that there are no easy generalizations when it comes to predicting how well kids will adapt to the expat lifestyle. Some kids excel while others struggle, just like in the U.S., and it’s not always easy to predict how kids will do.

In order to try to get a better feel for the issues that affect what are referred to as Third Culture Kids, I reached out to Rebecca Grappo, an educational consultant who raised three children overseas as a Foreign Service spouse and previously served as an education and youth officer in the State Department’s Family Liaison Office.

What would you say are the advantages to raising children in the Foreign Service, or for that matter, any international career?

These kids get to be around a lot of interesting people, and they are exposed to some really interesting issues being in the Foreign Service family. Our kids develop a keen interest in international affairs, and they love diversity and multiculturalism. They learn to love to travel and explore.

The kids who thrive tend to be resilient and flexible; they have a three-dimensional view of the world. When they see something on the news, they might know something about it from personal experience. They know people who have been affected by the news from having lived in different parts of the world. And attending international schools, they get to meet some incredibly interesting people. For example, when we were in Jordan, we got to meet King Hussein and Queen Noor. Their two daughters were in school with my children, so they became friends.

Do kids in this lifestyle learn to be resilient and flexible or is that something you have to be born with?

That’s a tough question. The kids who do really well are the kids who have a strong sense of identity, who know how to connect and plug into their new communities very quickly. They have something, like an interest or talent that helps them be recognized, and feel like they belong.

But do you think kids can learn to be flexible?

It’s like a muscle you have to strengthen. For some it’s easier than others. It depends on the circumstance, the age, the post. There are a lot of variables. Kids can thrive at one post and not in another. Sports, music, drama, hobbies can help them plug into their new community. Kids who don’t thrive sometimes have learning challenges or socially they don’t fit in, or they start to become invisible and no one recognizes them.

Is it hard for FSO parents to “Keep up with the Jonses” at these International Schools? Government employees don’t have huge salaries and some of the parents at these international schools are extremely wealthy.

Most Foreign Service parents try to keep their kids grounded. They want their kids to remember where they are from and what they’ll be going back to and not let them get caught up in the privileges of expat life.

Is it hard for parents to predict whether their kids will thrive or struggle with frequent moves?

It can be, but the kids that have recognition, connection, belonging and identity are the ones who thrive.

How hard is it for parents to evaluate international schools when they are in the bidding process?

It’s very hard. Right now, I’m counseling a family that bid on a post specifically because it is a large school that is considered one of the crown jewels of the international schools system. It’s considered one of the best, but this particular student, who did really well at his previous post, which was a much smaller school that isn’t as highly rated, just isn’t doing well. There is no way to be certain what a school will be like for your children, and even within one family, you can have a situation where some kids thrive and others struggle.

What are some of the disadvantages of this lifestyle for children?

It’s very hard for kids to move and leave their friends and the older they get, the harder it is. The continuous cycle of loss and adjustment starts to take its toll on kids. Sometimes they get to a point where they just can’t move one more time. There is loss and grief. Everything you knew in your life is over when you move. We don’t have our extended families with us, so we bring other people into our family folds. But you lose people along the way. The parents try to stay positive, but sometimes kids just need to be comforted before they are encouraged.

And these days, unaccompanied assignments are more common than ever, so that must be hard on kids as well?

You see the spouses who are left holding up the fort being exhausted. My spouse was on two unaccompanied tours where I had to hold down the fort and it’s hard. We don’t talk about the things that scare us in the Foreign Service culture – its soldier on, stiff upper lip. Our community culture is to keep calm and carry on no matter what is going on around you and that’s hard for some people.

Do you buy into research that indicates that moving is detrimental to children?

I don’t think there’s solid research on that. It depends on the nature of the move, but you do have that feeling of rootlessness and restlessness. When someone asks you where you’re from, you watch their eyes glaze over as you give them such a complicated answer. Foreign Service kids have a hard time answering the question – where are you from? My daughter on Facebook listed a place that she’s not really from as her hometown, but it’s where she’s been longer than anywhere else.

Coming back to the U.S. can often be the hardest transition for expat kids, right?

Absolutely. I call it TCK (Third Culture Kid) land. We live in our expat world, where everyone is from somewhere else. Everyone is mobile. Everyone has traveled, so you can talk about your life without feeling like you are bragging. But back at home, they feel like they have to suppress that because it seems like boasting. It’s kind of sad that they have to be very cautious in sharing these incredible experiences they’ve had overseas just because they want to fit in and seem normal in the new environment.

Is there data on how expat children perform academically compared to the U.S. average?

Expat kids tend to better than the national average. If you look at the average SAT from students at the American international schools, they tend to be higher than average. A lot of Foreign Service kids can be very high achievers. Many of them also end up in international careers.

I know one FS parent who told me that it was easier for kids to move on to a new post before the era of Facebook, where kids can stay in closer contact with people from their old posts. Do you believe that?

It depends on how the kids integrate. I’ve seen some kids who have had hard time making friends and it’s easy for them to go in the basement and lose themselves in the world of social media, video games and what not. Some of them hide behind substance abuse. But I do see kids who aren’t able to connect. It’s easy to lose yourself in the Internet.

If I asked your children how they enjoyed growing up in the Foreign Service what would they say?

My kids have been generous with their feedback. The one thing they told us is that we really were too much cheerleaders and didn’t spend enough time just listening and saying, ‘we understand.’ Some parents have such anxiety over wanting their kids to be happy, and they try so hard, that they haven’t really listened. But looking back, I think my kids valued the experiences they had; they realize they’ve had an incredible life already. They appreciate it more now I think.

Do you believe that every FSO has to, at one point in their career or another, make hard choices about what is best for their career or what’s best for their family?

I think so and families sometimes find themselves in a place where it isn’t working. For example, I worked with a family of four kids, and three were deliriously happy, but the fourth was in a major depression. He had anger issues, substance abuse issues as well, and he made their lives very challenging. What do you do? Do you curtail? Have a separated tour? Pretend it doesn’t exist? Of do you say, there are six of us, and the one who isn’t happy maybe needs more support?

That’s also when boarding school can sometimes be a godsend. It’s not shipping your kids off for someone else to deal with. People make decisions thoughtfully. No one sets out to screw up their kids. People try to be good parents and fulfill everyone’s needs.

Any other advice for those considering international careers who are concerned about how it will impact their children?

In general, kids tend to do well in this lifestyle. Kids realize they’ve had incredible experiences; they travel and attend international schools, which brings a lot to their lives. Educationally, they do well. You can stay in your hometown and face challenges in raising children too. However, sometimes it’s going to be a hard road to hoe for the Foreign Service family, especially those with special needs children. At some point, they will find it extremely challenging and they need to know that going in.

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A Traveler In The Foreign Service: Tribute To Slain Diplomat Anne Smedinghoff

The Foreign Service lost one of its own on Saturday when a suicide bomber detonated explosives that killed 25-year-old Foreign Service Officer Anne Smedinghoff and four other Americans, three soldiers and one civilian Department of Defense employee in Afghanistan. Smedinghoff was a second-tour public diplomacy officer who was part of a convoy that was delivering donated books to a new school in Zabul Province. The Taliban claimed responsibility for the attack, which also killed three Afghans and wounded four State Department employees. (Another American died in a separate incident and 18 Afghans, including a Taliban commander and women and children were also killed in a U.S. airstrike over the weekend.) She is the first State Department Foreign Service Officer (FSO) to be killed in Afghanistan. (A USAID FSO was killed in August in a suicide bombing.)

A devastating loss like this one reverberates throughout the Foreign Service community. I never met Anne but a former colleague who served with her at the embassy in Kabul and also taught a course she took in Washington said she was “heartbreakingly young, and a nice, lovely person.”

Just last week they took part in a quiz night at the embassy with questions revolving around events that happened on or near Anne’s birthday. I lived in River Forest, the beautiful town just west of Chicago where Anne grew up for three years, and after reading about her life and career, I feel certain that we lost someone who epitomized all that is good about the Foreign Service.She joined the Service right out of college and volunteered to serve in Kabul after a tour in Venezuela. According to press reports, she wasn’t the type of person who wanted to remain in the safety of the compound. She looked forward to opportunities like the one that presented itself on Saturday and hoped to make a real impact during her year in the country, which was nearly over. Reporters praised her as someone who was responsive and easy to work with.

FSOs who serve in danger posts like Kabul and Baghdad often get plumb follow-on assignments to cushy posts but Anne actively bid on Algiers, despite the tenuous security situation there and the lack of creature comforts. According to a friend who was quoted in the Chicago Tribune, she felt that the places she was needed the most were the “scary” and “dangerous” places, not the posh ones.

She had a taste for adventure. Smedinghoff biked across the U.S. (to raise money for cancer research), Australia and from the Dead Sea to the Red Sea and she loved to travel. Her neighbors in River Forest have lined the block with white ribbons and American flags to honor her and her smiling face graced the front page of both the Chicago Sun Times and the Chicago Tribune Monday. The stories are a fitting tribute to her but it’s a shame that diplomats usually only make the news under tragic circumstances.

Most Americans have at least some awareness of the tremendous sacrifices that our soldiers and their families make for their country but comparatively few are familiar with the Foreign Service and the sacrifices that FSOs and their families make. People might imagine that diplomats spend the bulk of their careers mingling at cocktail parties in Tokyo or Paris but that isn’t the reality of today’s Foreign Service. Most officers spend the bulk of their careers in places most Americans wouldn’t dream of visiting, even on a brief trip, and these days, many are also being sent unarmed into war zones, where they are separated from friends and family members for a year.

I hope that the press coverage of Anne’s life and death somehow serves to remind Americans of the sacrifices that FSOs make for their country and I hope that it inspires, rather than scares off, other young Americans who might be interested in the Foreign Service because our country needs bright, adventurous, patriotic people like Anne representing us overseas.

Inevitably, her death will lead to more debate on whether unarmed diplomats should be serving in war zones, and FSOs in danger spots around the world will now be under even greater security restrictions, making it more difficult for them to be effective. And the security officials at the embassy who approved this trip will unfortunately have to live with the consequences, which will be a very heavy burden for them to carry.

But this isn’t a time for second-guessing; it’s a time for all of Anne’s friends, family members, colleagues and the entire Foreign Service community to grieve the loss of a bright star. The Foreign Service can be something of a dysfunctional bureaucracy but when tragedies like this happen, it unites everyone who has served, past and present. God bless Anne and her family and all those who are serving their country.

On Tuesday, the military identified the three soldiers killed in the same incident as Anne Smedinghoff as 24-year-old Staff Sgt. Christopher M. Ward of Oak Ridge, Tenn.; 25-year-old Spc. Wilbel A. Robles-Santa of Juncos, Puerto Rico; and 24-year-old Spc. Delfin M. Santos Jr. of San Jose, Calif. They were deployed with the 5th Squadron, 7th Cavalry Regiment of the Army’s 3rd Infantry Division.

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Read more here: http://www.sacbee.com/2013/04/09/5328844/3-ga-based-soldiers-killed-in.html#storylink=cpy

[Photo credit: Anne Smedinghoff’s Twitter]

A Traveler In The Foreign Service: What’s It Like To Work In The Foreign Commercial Service?

Janice Corbett has been a diplomat for more than 21 years. She has lived in South Korea, Spain, Ecuador, Brazil and Canada. She’s on a first name basis with several heads of state and has even met the King and Queen of Spain. Her lifestyle of international travel and adventure started in Cleveland, Ohio, of all places.

After getting an M.B.A., the Washington, D.C., native landed a job as a trade specialist at the U.S. Export Assistance Center in Cleveland and that led her to a career in the Department of Commerce’s Foreign Commercial Service. The United States and Foreign Commercial Service (USFCS) is one of four official Foreign Affairs Agencies employing some 1,400 trade professionals here and abroad and since we’ve talked to diplomats from State, USAID and USDA, plus a diplomatic courier, I thought it was high time we hear from someone at Commerce.

Janice Corbett is the Regional Director for Africa, the Near East, and South Asia (ANESA) with the U.S. and Foreign Commercial Service in Washington, with responsibility for 18 countries in a diverse region bounded by Morocco, South Africa, India, and Afghanistan. She is a career member of the Senior Foreign Service, class of Counselor.

Prior to her assignment in ANESA, Janice served as the U.S. Commercial Service Liaison to the National Association of Manufacturers (NAM) where she assisted U.S. manufacturers to expand into new export markets. We caught up with Janice to find out about what it’s like to work in the Foreign Commercial Service.Why did you join the Foreign Service?

It was a dream that started when I was 16. I went to school in Southern France and I really loved the culture and loved learning how things work in different countries. I realized I had a knack for being in foreign environments and then as part of our exchange, we went to Paris, where I met a friend of a friend’s father, who was an economics officer at the U.S. Embassy and that solidified what I wanted to do.

How did you pursue that goal?

I earned a B.A. in International Studies from Miami University in Ohio and I earned an M.B.A. in marketing.

Why did you choose to pursue employment with the Department of Commerce, as opposed to State, USAID or one of the other foreign affairs agencies?

I thought there would be more opportunities in business and also I figured I could hedge my bet. If I couldn’t get into government, I could always go into business. I also saw the trend at the time. Commercial diplomacy was growing and trade was growing in importance. So it seemed like a timely thing to do.

How did you get the job?

I started at the U.S. Export Assistance Center in Cleveland, Ohio as a trade specialist. The U.S. and Foreign Commercial Service has U.S. offices and foreign offices. In the U.S. offices, trade specialists counsel U.S. companies, help them locate markets for their products and are challenged to find companies who may not be exporting and help them understand the rationale and advantages of exporting. And then we work with our colleagues in overseas offices to help them enter foreign markets.

And how did you transition into the Foreign Service?

I applied for the U.S. and Foreign Commercial Service exam. After being accepted, I took the U.S. and Foreign Service exam, which is a full-day oral and written exam. After I passed the exam, I was put on a wait list. In the meantime, I had applied for a temporary, limited appointment overseas, and was assigned to Korea for two years. While working as the Assistant Commercial Attaché in Seoul, I was pulled up on the list and was converted into the Foreign Service.

Is the process different now? Can anyone take the exam?

The applicant completes an initial online assessment, and if they pass, they take an in-person written and oral assessment. It’s equivalent to the State Department’s Oral Assessment. You need three years of specialized trade promotion experience, and a Bachelor’s degree.

We also have internships, so if students want to get experience, it would behoove them to apply for an internshipwith the Foreign Commercial Service.

Any other advice for people who want this job?

First of all, have a knack for languages. Study business and get as much experience as you can. And if you don’t get it the first time, keep trying.

At the State Department, FSOs start their careers in an introductory class called A-100, did you have something like that?

No. I landed and was assigned to manage a trade mission in Korea right away. However now the incoming officers have a very complete new officer training course.

Do Foreign Commercial Service Officers get paid language training?

Yes. I speak Spanish and Portuguese.

You served in South Korea, Spain, Ecuador, Mexico, Brazil and Canada. What is the bidding process like?

You have to submit bids on four jobs at your grade level along with a rationale of why you are bidding on that post and what you can offer the Service in those places. Generally, as junior officers our tours are 2 years and then 3-4 thereafter.

And are there directed assignments at Commerce, where FSOs are sent to a post they have not bid on?

It’s very rare.

But do FSOs from Commerce serve in Iraq and other war zones?

We serve where there are growth economies. We have postings in Iraq and other unaccompanied posts. We have officers in Baghdad now but not in Kabul. I’m single so all my postings are unaccompanied.

Tell us about some of the travel opportunities this career has given you over the years?

I traveled throughout Korea and I never would have had a chance to do that. I would never have known about theRoyal Asiatic Society, where I learned all Korea’s culture and history. I went to the Amazon in Brazil three times. We took a trade mission to the free trade zone in Manaus. I traveled throughout Brazil. It’s a fascinating country. There is so much to see and do in Spain, so when I was posted there, I traveled all over the country and was also fortunate to meet the King and Queen of Spain.

How did that happen?

I was the control officer for a delegation that came into town. It was an official meeting and we went to the palace and we were told what the protocol would be. The King and Queen came through the greeting line and greeted each one of us.

What are you supposed to do?

Bow and shake their hands.

What kind of people do you think thrive in this career?

People who like travel. People who like to work in international environments, manage people from different cultures. People who are curious about how things work in different countries. People who are open to learning and listening. People who get a thrill from helping U.S. companies. If you talk to people in the U.S. Foreign Commercial Service, the most satisfying part of the job is how we help American companies.

Are you helping everyone from really small businesses to big multinationals?

Correct. I’ve helped very small businesses get started in Mexico, Canada and other places and I’ve helped major multinationals get into markets as well. We not only help companies in an export capacity, we also help them reduce trade and regulatory barriers. We provide on the ground market intelligence. And we will weigh in with foreign governments to show them the advantage of using U.S. products and services.

It’s illegal for American companies to use bribes overseas but in many developing countries that is how companies do business. How do you help companies abide by the law but still get things done?

You meet with government officials and you talk about transparency. You talk about the advantages of U.S. products and services and then government officials know that we are watching those transactions.

What do you like about this job?

Every day is different. You are constantly being introduced to new things, new ways of doing business. I’ve met presidents of countries; in some cases, we’ve been on a first-name basis because I worked on so many issues with them. You’re dealing with ministers and other very high level people to get U.S. policy accomplished or to make sure there isn’t a trade barrier blocking a product entry, and also persuading them to procure U.S. products.

And what is the hardest part of this career choice? Being away from family and friends in the States?

That is the hardest part. I had to miss my nephew’s high school graduation because I had a secretarial visit to Mexico. I missed my brother’s retirement from the Navy because I was overseas. Also, it’s difficult when you have aging parents. I was living in Mexico when my parent’s health was failing, so I had to travel back once a quarter to take care of personal matters.

What other things have you enjoyed about the Foreign Service lifestyle?

I feel like I’ve grown as a person because of it. I’ve learned about different artists that I never would have known about. Literature, cultures. I danced in Carnival in Rio. I never would have done that if I hadn’t joined the Foreign Service. It’s an incredible career.

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[Photo credit: Department of Commerce]

A Traveler In The Foreign Service: Coping With Loss Overseas

Coping with a personal loss overseas in an alien culture without your normal support network can be one of the most challenging things about life in the Foreign Service or indeed any peripatetic international career. I’ve been blessed to reach age 40 without ever losing a close friend or relative.

But six years ago this spring, while living in Budapest, my wife and I lost a beloved pet, Homer, a Labrador retriever who died unexpectedly when he was just a year old (see photo). Those who have never had a dog they really loved won’t be able to grasp what a deep loss this was for us but it was by far the hardest thing I ever had to deal with in my six years in the Foreign Service.

We got Homer while I was going through a difficult time coping with an illness and we quickly became inseparable. We didn’t have kids at the time, so Homer was our baby. We traveled with him, let him sleep at the foot of our bed, and spoiled him rotten with presents and treats. Every time I came home from work, he would be so deliriously happy that I often couldn’t wait to walk in the door.He was popular in our neighborhood in Washington, D.C., but when we moved to Budapest, he was like a rock star in our neighborhood, where everyone knew him by name and would linger at our gate for the chance to pet and hug him. We were the accredited diplomats, but he was the real cultural envoy.

We took him everywhere and one weekend while we were sitting in an outdoor restaurant at Lake Balaton, a few hours from our home, he started to have some sort of seizure at the table and within a minute or two, before we could get help, he was dead. He was just 14 months old and he died on the one-year anniversary of when we got him.

In the days to come, we consulted local vets to try to find out what happened. They concluded that his thymus ruptured, he went into shock and died. Just before he died, he was running around in the back yard of the restaurant, and we had thought that he swallowed something poisonous. If we had been in the U.S., we would have felt more confident that a restaurant wouldn’t have something toxic in the yard but in Hungary, we really had no clue.

I’m sure the vets in Hungary are just as good as the ones in the U.S., but at the time, we couldn’t help but wonder if their diagnosis was correct. We were at a loss to understand why our dog had died and having to try to make sense of it in an alien place was bewildering to say the least.

On my first day back at work, I was still grieving, and having to tell my co-workers what happened brought back all the emotions. I struggled to relay the news, which everyone had already heard through the grapevine, without crying. People were sympathetic but I couldn’t help but feel like no one had a clue what I was going through. I had been at post for only a few months and felt like no one knew me well enough to understand what a deep loss this was for me.

The worst part of going back to work was talking to my boss, who wasn’t an animal lover and clearly had no idea that I was grieving.

“Other than the canine misadventure,” he said, with a smile and a chuckle, “How was your weekend?”

Canine misadventure? I just looked at him puzzled, shocked really, at how he could consider our dog dying unexpectedly at a restaurant a “misadventure.” For us, it was a tragedy. Others have faced much bigger tragedies, but for us, it was a big loss nonetheless. I was speechless and had a sick feeling in my stomach. I had no idea if I wanted to cry or punch him and, to be honest, I was so shocked by his insensitivity, I don’t remember how or even if I responded.

My wife and I had each other to lean on and that’s more than single people have when they face a loss overseas. But my boss’s reaction drove home a point for me. I was in a place where no one, save my wife, really knew me or gave a damn about me. I needed a support network – my parents, my good friends and people who knew how much I loved Homer.

Many in the Foreign Service have suffered much more devastating losses than we did. And many are forced to decide if they can afford to fly home for funerals of friends or more distant relatives if they are in out of the way posts. Karen O’Neill DeThomas, for example, wrote a very moving story about the loss of her teenage daughter to meningitis, and after reading it, I felt like the pain we experienced was nothing compared to her loss. She said that her Foreign Service experience helped her cope with the tragedy and I think there’s something to that.

When you live overseas, whether in the Foreign Service or not, I think you are forced to become self sufficient in many ways and, if you spend time in developing countries, where there is poverty and suffering everywhere you look (Budapest certainly doesn’t qualify on that score), it can put your loss in perspective.

No matter where you live, the only thing that eases the pain of losing a loved one is time. When I think about Homer these days, I feel sad that my sons never got to meet him and that his life was cut so short. But I don’t focus on the tragic ending. I remember the joy he brought to us and others during his brief, but memorable life.

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[Photo credit: Dave Seminara]

A Traveler In The Foreign Service: A Guys Road Trip To Transylvania

In the Foreign Service, it’s easy to calculate who your best friends are. They’re the people who will come visit you in places like Khartoum, Yekaterinburg or Bujumbura. Diplomats who get posted to London, Paris, Rome and a handful of other cushy places find themselves running informal bed and breakfast operations, as marginal friends and distant relatives come out of the woodwork to claim a free place to stay.

We had several friends tell us that they planned to visit us in Macedonia but none made the trip. I expected an uptick in business when we moved to Budapest, but my first visitor wasn’t interested in the typical grand tour of Central Europe.
“I was thinking we should go to Romania,” said Ian, a good friend from St. Louis who had never been to Prague, Germany and a host of other far more celebrated European destinations.

“Why Romania?” I asked, more than a little surprised.Ian’s logic was that he could easily visit Prague or Vienna with his wife and perhaps even their three small children, but Romania would be a tougher sell. So we made a vague plan to spend a weekend in Budapest and then take a four- or five-day road trip to Transylvania and Ian was on our doorstep weeks later.

As we motored through the grubby, Americanized suburbs of Budapest on a Monday morning in March, heading east toward Transylvania with no set itinerary, we both realized what a rare treat it was to have a men’s getaway.

“It’s Monday morning and instead of being on my way to work in St. Louis, I’m here driving through Budapest on my way to Transylvania,” Ian remarked. “I like it!”

Our progress east was slow, on a two-lane road clogged with slow moving trucks, passing through forlorn little towns with homes built seemingly right on the road with no setback. As we neared the Romanian border, we passed ramshackle gypsy settlements and saw a few haggard looking prostitutes working the side of the road. I felt lucky that our greatest concern in life at that moment was who the Cubs would choose as their fifth starter for the upcoming season.

We were two married American men in a Toyota with diplomatic plates slowing down to get a better look at roadside prostitutes near the Romanian border on a Monday afternoon. Good times.

Romania had just joined the European Union less than three months before our visit and it was still a matter of speculation whether hordes of Romanians would vote with their feet. We saw many of the same major European chains present in Hungary, but the roads were dicier, there were a lot more farmers poking around on horse drawn carriages and there were plenty of old Dacia’s left over from the communist era sharing the road with souped-up Mercedes’s and BMW’s piloted by kamikazes who thought nothing of passing on blind curves, shoulders or simply right into oncoming traffic.

The roadside villages en route to Oradea defined unremitting rural poverty, but the soul crushing Soviet era apartment blocks that dominated the gloomy outskirts of Oradea seemed even worse.

The center of Oradea looked more promising, but even the colorful baroque buildings all seemed to be in need of a coat of paint. Oradea had been part of the Kingdom of Hungary until the conclusion of World War I, when Hungary lost a massive chunk of its territory, and as recently as the 1960’s, there were more ethnic Hungarians than Romanians in Oradea. But on this day, I didn’t hear any Hungarian speakers.

We had lunch at a garish looking Italian restaurant and on our way out of town, a gypsy gave me the finger after I took a photo of him hollering at his recalcitrant son.

It was dark by the time we reached Cluj-Napoca, a thriving metropolis once known as the Hungarian capital of Transylvania. We stopped at a shady looking hotel and a short young man in a vest showed us a cold, depressing room that was outfitted with what looked like prison furniture. According to our guidebook, the place featured an “erotic show” in the basement.

“What time does the show start?” I asked, even though we had no intention of checking it out.

The young man appeared confused so I re-phrased the question.

“What time do the girls start dancing?”

“No, no,” he said, “We don’t have girls here any more.”

A second hotel seemed even worse and they wanted 80 euros – a princely sum for a dump in Transylvania. We finally landed at a surprisingly posh hotel in a residential neighborhood that also provided some sort of vague “business solutions” and “consulting.”

“Where can we find the boyhood home of Gheorghe Muresan?” Ian asked the pretty girl at the front desk. “You know the basketball player, I think he’s from Cluj, Gheorghe Muresan!”

She eventually registered that Ian was referring to the bizarre looking, 7-foot-7-inch Romanian giant, who is one of the tallest and least talented players in NBA history.

“I think he lives in New Jersey,” she said.

We had read that Cluj was a happening town with 70,000 students and a thriving club scene; but we didn’t expect much on a Monday night. The first bar we hit was a stylish place that would not have looked out of place in Berlin or New York. It was about nine o’clock and the place had a smattering of customers.

“What time do you close?” I asked the barkeep.
“Six,” he said.
“Six?” I repeated, “As in six in the morning?”
He nodded his head.
“And does it get busy on a Monday?”
“It is getting busy all of the days,” he remarked.

We hit a stylish basement bar on the recommendation of a group of young women we met on the street and as Ian and I were chatting about our respective lives in St. Louis and Budapest, a woman came over to the booth and, before I knew what was happening, kissed us both on both cheeks, greeting us as though we were long lost friends. It took me a moment to register that it was one of the young ladies who had recommended the place to us.

The most outgoing of the group, named Adriana, wanted to know why we were in Cluj. It was a good question that I had no coherent answer for.

“In America hardly anyone parties on Monday nights,” I said. “So we had to come to Cluj.”

Adriana looked puzzled.

“I would think in the States you could party every night,” she said. “People have more money there than here, so why not?”

“Well, we could go out every night, but we just don’t,” I said before entering into a rambling discourse about how many channels most Americans get and the high cost of beer.

Ian and I hit another bar and somehow managed to stay out until almost 4 a.m. The place was still going strong when we left and I’m quite sure that the students danced until sunrise, if not later. An ordinary Monday night in Cluj is a lot like Mardi Gras in New Orleans, without the beads and flashing.

In the light of day, Cluj seemed like a city in transition. Sidewalks were being torn up, students and beefy gangsters in matching sweat suits hung out in trendy looking cafés, and we felt that it probably wouldn’t be long before the city became a popular spot for backpackers. Yet just minutes outside of town, there was no escaping the Old Romania and the generation that still made its living off of the earth, plying their trade with ancient looking farming instruments and horse drawn carts.

We had no reservations for Sibiu, our next stop, and were shocked that the first two hotels we tried were both sold out. We finally found a motel on the outskirts of the old town but had to park the car several blocks away, after trying in vain to navigate the city’s ancient street plan.

Sibiu is a strikingly beautiful town that is set right in the heart of some incredible Alpine scenery. It had just been named a European cultural capital and much of the town’s historic center had received an impressive face-lift.

The atmospheric streets all seemed to radiate out from a colossal square that was dotted with colorful Gothic, Renaissance and Baroque style buildings in keeping with the town’s Saxon heritage. Unlike Cluj, Sibiu was dead at night. Each night we ended up at the only place that seemed to be open late, a little street side kiosk that sold cold drinks and phone cards.

An enterprising young college student named Elena, who sat bundled up in the cold booth, worked the overnight shift.

“I work here at night because I’m saving up to buy a computer,” she explained.

“But when do you sleep?” I asked.

“I go straight from here to class in the morning, and then, if I can, I try to sleep after classes, if I don’t have too much work to do,” she said.

Ian and I were taken aback. In our culture, if you want something, you just go out and buy it. We pledged to return the following evening with a small contribution toward her computer purchase, but we returned the following night to find that she had the night off. The older woman who was there in her place seemed suspicious when we asked how we could contact her.

We thought about leaving the cash with her but decided not to because we didn’t want her to get the wrong idea about why two American guys were leaving cash for a young woman.

As we left town the next day, we talked about Elena and I felt like her willingness to stay up all night in a freezing cold kiosk was a reminder of how lucky we were to be American men on the loose in Transylvania with no reservations or responsibilities.

[Photo credits: Dave Seminara, CamilG on Flickr (Sibiu)]

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