Did That Just Happen?

At the end of April, I unexpectedly spent just under a week in New England. The work-related trip was on my radar for a couple of months, and as it relates to streamlining immigrant visa case processing I knew it was a priority for the Department. In spite of this, for a variety of reasons it looked like it was going to be cancelled or at least postponed up until nearly a week out.

For my part, I was busy at post, didn’t have a pressing interest in going to the U.S. just then, and had a big event coming up in Tashkent the following weekend for which I was control officer. As I’m shifting from the non-immigrant to the immigrant visa portfolio this summer, I’ll be overseeing implementation of upcoming changes in our related business processes, and I knew eventually I’d be the one to go. But I didn’t focus on it too much until days beforehand when the funding cite suddenly came through. Suddenly the tentative preparations I’d made to go “just in case” were key.

The meetings I needed to attend at the National Visa Center in New Hampshire were to be held between a Tuesday and a Thursday, and the workshop organizers wanted me in to fly in the day before. Instead, I opted to come into Boston on the weekend on my own dime. (A weekend in Boston vs. a weekend in Tashkent waiting to fly out? What was the question?)

For my first leisure time in the U.S. in 50 weeks, I reserved myself a rental car, a suite at the Fairmont Copley Plaza, and Google-mapped places to shop, eat and run errands. Hell, it’s my weekend, after all. (Sometimes.)

Fairmont Copley Plaza, Boston, MA

Several of my embassy colleagues were on the flight from Tashkent to Frankfurt, and we spent the morning in a restaurant swapping out our mobile SIM cards, eating omelettes and sipping cappuccinos and prosecco until the time to go our separate ways. It was a fun way to pass the time, good food and good people, gaping around the duty free and feeling like a kid in a candy store.

When I arrived at Logan International, I breezed through the Customs and Immigration process by using the line for officials, diplomats and airline crew. The CBP officer inspected my diplomatic passport and Uzbek visas and asked me what I do at the embassy. I told him I’m a consular officer, the subtext being, “I write those visa interview adjudication notes on foreign nationals that help CBP officers decide whether or not to admit people at our borders.” He nodded, gave me a big smile and welcomed me home. His accent told me that he was Australian-born which made me smile back. I turned on my iPhone and noticed that AT&T had remembered to temporarily reactivate my mobile phone so my DC number was ready to use. When I arrived at the rental car area there was no line, and after reviewing my account the agent told me to pick any car on the lot and by the way, you’ll have complimentary satellite radio. Yes sir, I missed this country, I thought.

Thus began about 45 hours of sleeping, eating, trying on clothes, eating seafood and everything novel I could find, working out, walking around, getting my hair and nails done, and trying to take in as much of Boston as I could.

Getting ready for the magic of Macys!

Although I was eagerly on my way to try on clothes for the first time in a year, I literally stopped to check out beautiful architecture, watch ducklings and smell the roses in Boston Public Gardens.

Trinity Church, Boston, MA

From the outside, my activities during my quick time in Boston probably looked like consumerism run amok. I feel like I sprinkled cash all over the eastern seaboard. While I did take advantage of everything available to me, what was happening was actually much more about gratitude and appreciation: for where I was born, for the paved roads, for being able to speak English, for customer service, for efficiency, for the overwhelming choice of well, everything. I bought four cans of dry shampoo because I can’t get aerosols through the diplomatic pouch, and I was pleased as punch to tuck those into my suitcase.

It was also just amazing to see people everywhere acting in a way that I can relate to. People spoke English, stood in line without pushing and shoving, and conducted themselves in a civil manner. I was anonymous – no visa applicants lying to me or yelling at me or acting entitled; I was actually treated with the respect I deserve. Solvency was the norm. People had real jobs, ties and plans, and real money, in real banks, that they could access. Press was free. Internet worked and pages weren’t blocked. No one followed me. Everywhere was the obvious understanding that both men and women have equal rights to appear in public, to receive education, and to pursue personal and professional goals as they see fit. The worst rudeness or driving in Boston didn’t hold a candle to Tashkent. It was truly as relaxing as rushing around in an unfamiliar place could possibly be.

The time spent at the National Visa Center in New Hampshire was short, but fascinating. If you have ever had a job where your work is one link in a long process, and then you finally get to see what happens in the workflow before it arrives on your desk, you will know what I mean.

Unfortunately, I spent three of four evenings there running around doing errands and hitting up Target, Best Buy, Ulta, Sephora, Trader Joe’s and more. Many of my foreign colleagues came with me and got a crash course on American shopping. You have never seen four women separate so fast in different directions as when we walked into Target with a 75 minute deadline I’d set. I don’t think I ate a proper dinner at a normal hour the whole week – I was more focused on getting new color correcting and contouring palettes, taking full advantage of the American version of Netflix, buying medication and electronic equipment, and packing my cooler full of dry ice and frozen gourmet perishables to bring back.

The time was even more compressed by the fact that I was jet lagged and on my second day in New Hampshire my husband was medically evacuated from Uzbekistan for a non-emergency but urgent condition. Although I knew he was fine, I was worried that he was by himself and always trying to calculate time difference between our two cities and what he might need. I have been medically evacuated myself during my time in Peace Corps and I know how much it sucks. I was even worried about my work event that was happening in a week and a half, and hoping that things were on track. It was *not* a normal trip; I literally spoke to no one on the phone except my mom and that was about something urgent, and when my dad asked me if I could take a couple weeks off and come to California we both laughed. Next year, I said. (Next year at this time I will probably be on home leave in California for several weeks and that will be awesome.)

The day after the workshop ended I gazed around Portsmouth in the morning and checked out the WWII memorial (obviously), mailed a package to my mom, tried to get shoes repaired, then headed back to Boston for my flight, making a snap decision to run one more errand although I hadn’t eaten one bite of food since the day before. I almost came to regret it when I was delayed by a broken down semi-truck in the tunnel leading to the airport and sat in traffic for 45 minutes without moving. As I finally approached the rental car return area, I made a wrong turn on the way to gas up the car and the road looped me…back to the tunnel. I came close to not being able to check my bags and also surprisingly close to tears.

It was a little stressful, but I made it thanks to the rental car company actually driving me, in my rental car, to the departure area. After getting fined for heavy baggage, I stood in the long security line with my diplomatic passport in my hand. A TSA agent approached me and opened an entire line just for me. People stared daggers. I said, “Is this the line for late diplomats?” and he replied, “It is now.” Beyond awesome.

Just before boarding the plane to Frankfurt I managed to make two important phone calls and buy a sandwich and the biggest possible coffee from Starbucks. It eased the pain of a very uncomfortable flight: a Russian family next to me who weren’t fans of showering regularly let their kids kick me and invade my seat (luckily I had the language skills to partially deal with this, much to their respectful astonishment), the man in front of me spent all eight hours fully reclined, and a flight attendant actually spilled, of all things, milk on my blanket. I tried to upgrade to business class or first, and the Lufthansa flight attendant could barely look at me when she said those things had to happen before take-off. So, fielding sympathetic looks from German ladies sitting nearby, I did what any reasonable person would do: I knocked back several plastic cups of wine and talked to the little girl about the pictures I got her to focus on drawing. #Nowthatsdiplomacy

All that absurdity was eased by my seven hour flight from Frankfurt to Tashkent that looked like this:

I got connected to the motherland and rebooted successfully. Until next time, America.

P.S. – All my cheese stayed frozen and made it fine.

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Sarah W Gaer

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