On August 1, I started counting down the hours until our Flag Day ceremony as soon as I arrived at the Foreign Service Institute. Eight and a half hours until 15:30. Just eight and a half more hours until I find out where my first assignment as a U.S. diplomat will be. Despite my best efforts and intentions, I hadn’t slept much the night before, more out of sheer adrenaline than actual nerves.
Our class took a field trip, which was a wise distraction on the part of our deputy coordinators.
Even though I have friends in the class and get along with everyone, I felt so alone that morning. On the bus, I sat by myself and stared out the window – not nervous, but not quite content. Feeling like I needed a friend but unable to say it, and no one read my mind. It was like everywhere I went that morning and afternoon, I was nearly completely alone, while surrounded by people who were smiling but not at me.
In general, I have to say that I love solitude. If given the chance, I would usually pick being alone over being with someone else. I guess for me, being alone feels more like being with me than really being lonely. My inner world is so rich.
But there is a stark difference between wanting to be alone, and feeling like you’ve been left alone. Passed over for better company, or maybe for better moral support. Every time I saw a friendly face, the eyes seemed to just look right through me. It was disquieting. I was also perplexed that every time I tried to engage in a conversation, I was distracted and unable to focus. Maybe it was like when I was a kid, and thought if I closed my eyes that no one could see me.
When we reached our destination, we passed through security and there was an issue with my last name being spelled incorrectly on the advance information provided. I was called out in front of everyone to come up to the window and someone joked, “You’re in trouble.” I felt the irritation and embarrassment rise in me, and as I looked around for support I saw only blank eyes looking back at me. I provided additional information to the agent and he retreated back through a door, by which I waited, leaning against the wall. Eventually I again heard my name yelled by a handful of people on the other side of the room, apparently for the second or third time, and I trudged over to collect my ID and badge. I stood there for a moment alone, and then realized I could get back on the bus, so I did.
The most connected I felt to anyone during the field trip was when I was getting up from finishing my lunch. As I picked up my handbag, I inadvertently caught the eye of a stranger, probably in his late thirties or early forties, sitting a few tables away with two of his colleagues.
I couldn’t help but notice that he was handsome to a ridiculous extent. It almost struck me as funny. As in, how could he just be sitting in this cafeteria wearing that suit and looking like that? The directness and intensity of his gaze stunned me momentarily and after several long seconds I finally looked away, feeling like I had just touched an electric fence. When I glanced back, he was still looking at me, and the two other guys were now also, leaning towards him and saying something. He threw an open, friendly smile my way and I thought, Hey, I guess I’m not invisible after all. I found myself smiling back, and turned and walked out of the room.
And then there were only 45 minutes remaining until the ceremony, and as our buses arrived back at the campus, my classmates’ family members were beginning to arrive. I got off the bus, and magically it seemed that everyone disappeared. I saw people who I wanted to talk to, but I couldn’t keep up. It seemed that people were waiting for each other, but no one waited for me or looked to see where I was.
I walked back to the Visitor Center by myself feeling like I was in a dream. I thought, I’m probably overthinking this. I was expecting my husband shortly, and so, seeking a few moments of practical solitude, I ducked into the dark, empty women’s bathroom inside the cafeteria.
As I stood in front of the mirror, I fixed my makeup, brushed my teeth, applied lotion and perfume. I took a long look at myself and thought, This is as good as it gets. I spent a few minutes mentally reflecting on everything I had done to get to that day. I basically had a talk with myself and said, Stop letting yourself get punched in the feelings. Everyone else is worried about themselves, so pay attention to what is about to happen.
There were a surreal few seconds where I looked at my reflection and was quite sure I’d never really seen my face before. I willed the name of my post to appear in ghostwriting on the mirror. (It did not.) So I took a deep breath and thought, This is it.
I located my husband outside, and we rushed towards the auditorium as hot August rain began to drizzle down. The volume of the buzz from classmates and family members who already filled the room was loud and getting louder. A giant “Welcome to Flag Day” sign was projected onto a large screen, and I grinned, remembering it from the Facebook feeds of friends in the past as they experienced their own Flag Days.
I tried to figure out where to sit, and couldn’t find any of my usual sidekicks to sit with. All of the officers were sitting in the front several rows, along both sides of an aisle, and all of the family and friends were in the back of the room (which was woefully lacking in chairs for such an enormous group). I asked a couple of my classmates if I could sit with them, and lo and behold it seemed that someone was already sitting in every chair.
So I sat down in the empty front row by myself and tried to be patient. As people started to file into seats and settle down, I waved across the room to a couple of people and mouthed, “Good luck!” Only one person saw me and gave me the thumbs up. For a second, I thought, This is not the way I thought this was going to be. My husband (who is even more handsome than cafeteria man) grinning, waving and snapping photos of me convinced me that I was there and that it was real. He couldn’t find a seat, either, and elected to stand along the wall in the front next to FSI staff, with his press pass hanging around his neck like he worked there. The brazenness of it made me smile.
My 100 classmates should have filled 100 chairs, but it seems that there were 101 chairs…and one of them was on my left. I joked with people walking by that they should sit with me, or that everyone should move down so the empty chair was at the end of the row. But no one did, and it stayed empty, like a placeholder for an ally I didn’t have. I imagined people I respected and admired and pictured them sitting in the empty chair by my side, and I grinned despite feeling idiotic.
The ceremony commenced as our Career Development Officers (CDOs) and deputy coordinators filed in. It took three coordinators to carry in all of the flags that would be handed out, amidst wild, shrieking applause.
Our main coordinator made introductory remarks, and then our class mentor Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs John D. Feeley entered the room to a genuine, standing ovation.
A high-ranking woman whose name I missed from Human Resources approached the microphone and explained that flags would be projected one by one onto the screen, the post and job would be announced, and then a name would be called. She wouldn’t go in alphabetical order, and countries with multiple assignments would be called out of order.
And so it started with the flag of Saudi Arabia, which I didn’t recognize. It was green, with Arabic writing and a sharp sword underneath. There was an audible gasp from the family and friends section of the room. The first name was called, and the crowd went wild.
For the first half-dozen names, I tried to take notes, and then quickly gave up; names were being called so quickly that I didn’t have time to scan the sheet, locate the job, write in the name, and clap before the next flag was already being called. I put my list and pen on the empty chair to my left and gave each of my colleagues the loudest applause I could.
And then somewhere around ten or fifteen names in, the speaker said, “Tashkent, consular.”
I held my breath. Uzbekistan, one of my highest-ranked bids.
And then she said my first name, followed by my last name. She pronounced my name correctly, was my first thought. Then one-thousandth of a second later I bounded out of my chair realizing, It’s mine! My husband managed to get a video clip of me shaking hands with PDAS Feeley and accepting the flag while smiling for the official photo.
I was dimly aware of my classmates applauding and cheering me, and distracted, I almost returned to my chair without picking up my training folder a few steps to the left. I pivoted and took it, and sank into my seat, barely registering that my name was spelled incorrectly on the folder and on all the documents inside. I’m going to Uzbekistan, I thought, grinning like mad. A glance at the training schedule showed I would be leaving in May 2015, and studying the Russian language rather than Uzbek. Winning, I thought.
After the ceremony ended, I emailed my immediate family, sent a text to my former boss at Peace Corps, and then posed for pictures with my husband to put on Facebook and announce the good news. I made it a point to circulate and chat with as many classmates as I could, congratulating them and hearing what their first impressions of their assignments were.
My husband and I, realizing the Overseas Briefing Center would still be open for another thirty minutes, decided to hustle over and check out any DVDs on Uzbekistan, and read the post reports.
Then we attended the post-Flag Day happy hour at the Arlington Rooftop bar, the same location where our Welcome Party was held on June 29, the night before our first real day. I had such a sense of déjà vu being there, and thinking about what I’ve learned over the last five weeks that I wished I’d known from the outset. But instead of looking back, I looked forward, and in two hours’ time we managed to talk to almost every single person there, and their families. I admit it was dorky, but I brought my flag into the bar.
Later we went to dinner in Old Town Alexandria, and sat outside on the patio enjoying Balkan specialties. A couple of old, good friends turned up to our table in true Balkan-style spontaneity after their own dinner out to drink wine with us on the humid, cloudy summer evening.
It’s a good thing that I was with me today, or I would have felt crushed by loneliness.
I am thrilled, humbled, grateful, excited, and ready to serve my country as a consular officer in Uzbekistan. The more I learn about the post and the country, the more lucky and excited I feel. I will be the only one from our class going there, which is a cool thing, however, I will probably be studying Russian language with the handful of classmates headed to Moscow.
I can’t wait for the last week of A-100 to wrap up so I can swear in and start area studies. How did I get so lucky?