Your Questions Answered, Volume III

Over the past few months, blog readers have emailed me some great questions. I responded to the messages, but wanted to also turn them into a public post. In this edition of Your Questions Answered, I talk about managing household “stuff” and purging before a PCS move, as well as tips for foreign language learning, and more about what political officers do.

Go ahead, ask a diplomat!

Q. I’d love to read more about your standards for items that you own, and how you set the bar when you potentially bring “stuff’ into your house…I’d also love to read about how you purge before a move.

A: I had to laugh a little at this question, because the writer said she imagines my home decor as ‘Danish-style minimalist’. She would probably be disappointed to know that my house is actually filled with government-issue heavy dark wood Drexel Heritage furniture and (sparingly) decorated with brightly-colored items from trips to Bosnia, India, Panama, and beyond. I’m less about the clean lines, birch wood, and a modern aesthetic, and more about, well, less.

However, she was right that I am picky about what I bring into my house. It might sound kind of rigid to say I have “standards,” and I can’t really speak from any real expertise here – just my own experience. Your mileage will surely vary. But I suppose what comes in and goes out is based on three main things: preferences, personality, and lifestyle.

First, I genuinely dislike clutter. In our house, there is a place for everything, and everything is more or less in its place. I don’t like to spend time looking for things, so whatever comes in needs to “live” somewhere sensibly. My husband is not a cluttery person either, and we tend to work cooperatively on “home infrastructure,” so we have little conflict in this area.

Second, I am not an impulsive shopper. I’m cautious about spending money on something unless I really love it (and plan to keep it indefinitely), know exactly what I am going to do with it, and where I am going to put it. If I’m unsure of those criteria, I don’t buy. I also tend to buy the highest-quality items I can afford and then keep them for a very long time. This naturally means that I buy less, and less often. My husband also hardly ever buys things, so that closes another avenue to things coming in, and we don’t have pets or kids at home, so we are able to really clamp down on what we have in a way that some people can’t.

And third, and maybe most importantly, we move every couple of years. It’s not a throwing-things-in-a-truck-and-driving-to-a-different-part-of-town kind of move. Foreign Service moves are complicated, risky, expensive, involve international customs and rules, storage, and can draw out over a timeframe of months or even a year.

That means I have to inventory, insure, and make decisions — to ship by air or sea or suitcase, store, sell, give away, recycle, or discard — about every single item we own, from cars to rubber bands, roughly every other year. I never have the chance to become a pack rat, because things can’t settle into place for long before I have to make a decision about them all over again. And there is something helpful about having to touch everything you own every couple of years; if you can’t reimagine it in your current or future space, it needs to be gone.

I admit I used to be one of those people who was sentimental about things, and felt obligated to hold on to things people gave me out of guilt. Re-gifted things I had no use for. Books I didn’t want to read. Decorations and knick-knacks that didn’t suit my tastes. I am happy to say that eventually, I let go of most sentimentality by releasing items to others who could use them, and also gave myself permission to be free of other people’s “stuff.” I don’t feel guilty about it, because my husband and I are the ones in charge of the sanctity, appearance, and feeling of our home. I will not be ruled by stuff, which has a tendency to multiply and crush the happiness it seductively promises to create.

When I purge before a Permanent Change of Station (PCS) move, I am relentless in going through everything and grouping things together so that when we unpack, it is less work. Getting a bunch of stuff delivered to my next post at taxpayer expense that I haven’t gone through in years, or paying overweight household effects shipping fees because I couldn’t get my life together to sort through my own stuff both get a nope from me. I think it is just easier to cull what you are going to ship beforehand – when at least, in theory, it’s put away in your home and easier to deal with – than trying to sort it out from boxes on the other side.

You are also going to have things for one country that you won’t need in another – shower curtains when all your showers have doors. Vacuum cleaner you don’t want to run off a transformer. Dining room table when your house already comes with furniture. And it goes on. Some people keep everything for a rainy day. Others sell or give away everything after each post and start over. We’re somewhere in the middle. You don’t really know what your new place is going to be like until you get there, so it’s just more decisions you have to make and hope for the best.

No matter how well you organize and purge, though, moving in the Foreign Service will bring you to the brink of despair and exhaustion at least once, and that is even if nothing major goes wrong. I have been that person sitting on the dusty floor with a bottle of wine, and a cup and bottle opener from the post welcome kit. The volume of everything while you’re working and getting ready for huge changes in your family is totally overwhelming. You have to give yourself time to prepare; before our exit packout from Tashkent we started slowly, but several weeks early, and that made it much smoother.

If you or your family struggle with volume or organization of stuff, try and work together to be more intentional about what you buy. If you’re on the fence about getting rid of some things, put them out of sight for a week. Chances are, at the end of that week, you’ll know whether you can release them or not. If you struggle to a larger extent, or have some compulsive behavior around accumulating things, you could consider hiring an organizational coach who may be able to help you identify the sticking points in spending habits or decision-making that are holding you back.

Right now it seems like the whole internet is losing its collective mind over the Marie Kondo tidying series on Netflix. One thing that I really agree with her about is that everything has to have its place in the house. In my opinion, if you don’t set things up like this, you’re always going to have clutter piling up, and you’re always going to spend time looking for things you can’t find, or worse – spending money to replace them. Ugh.

The keys for me in having an organized home that is not a nightmare to move have been to be restrained (minimize unnecessary input), and intentional (be willing to make rational decisions that allow output). Once you get in the habit of being organized and not spending money on stuff you don’t really need, and if you can break sentimental attachments to things, it does get easier.

Q. I was wondering what it was like learning languages and if it gets more difficult or easier as you advance to different posts. Are there any tips for it that you pick up over the years?

A: This is a really good question. I think some people have tremendous aptitude for learning foreign languages, and others less so. But of course – a key tenant of receiving tenure in the Foreign Service is the ability to get off language probation. Most officers, even those who claim to suck at languages, develop working-level proficiency or higher over the course of their careers in several languages. But it can be a real slog, with some officers spending a year or even two years in full-time professional language study at the Foreign Service Institute in Arlington, VA.

If you have ever read my February 2015 post about my struggles to learn Macedonian as a Peace Corps Volunteer in 2002 (Encouragement for the Troubled Language Learner), you’ll see that I have been there and done that. I went on to eventually do pretty well in the language, and years later parlayed my understanding of Macedonian into studying other Slavic languages, including Russian when I joined the State Department.

My personal experience has been that learning languages gets easier along the way. Partly because you get more comfortable expressing yourself outside of your mother tongue, and partly because you develop successful study habits and patterns to help you along. Although, some of my more seasoned colleagues have told me that the older they get, the harder it is for them to learn languages effectively. And to be fair, encountering a very difficult language after successful study of easier languages might feel like hitting a wall. I don’t know. I think it depends on the person and a lot of other factors.

During A-100 I took a number of language learning aptitude batteries which are meant to predict what kind of languages you may do well in. I scored very high in my ability to detect audio stress patterns, differentiate between similar tonal sounds, memorize and retain lists of vocabulary words, and accept unfamiliar syntax. I was also able to correctly identify many dozens of distinct languages with which I am only peripherally familiar. However, I know that I am not particularly great with verb tense conjugations and grammar rules.

Whatever your starting point is, I think having a positive attitude about your ability to study a language is the foundation to success. Here are my own language study tips I have picked up along the way.

It really helps if you want to study the language and find it beautiful to your ear. If it is a language you have to study, for a job that you don’t particularly want, in a country you aren’t particularly excited about, you will have to find your own motivation to give it a chance. When I studied Russian, I was so thrilled and cared so much about speaking well that I was probably a huge dork. Hopefully this will be you. If not, try to find the beauty in the language.

Make mental and physical space for study. Clear your mind and mentally prepare for the challenge of language learning. Get organized beforehand and collect whatever materials you will need – pens, notebooks, phone apps, highlighters, index cards, earplugs – whatever. Create a space where you only study. It shouldn’t be where you sleep, watch Netflix, or goof around on social media.

Language learning is not linear. Some days you will be plugging along and understand things. Other days you will feel like a total moron and wonder what you missed. Be patient with yourself and keep going, one step at a time – even when it feels like you are slipping backwards.

Be a good steward of a positive environment in your class. If you study a language in the Foreign Service, it is likely you will be in a class of less than four students; my brother’s joking advice to “sit in the back” was not going to fly! In some cases, you may be the only student. (That is about to be a whole lot of one-on-one time with an instructor!) Understand that your classmates may have different learning styles, may be coming out of many years of studying a similar, or totally different language, may be coming out of a hardship assignment, or may be unhappy about being in the class. I was so fortunate in my Russian study to have a class with two other awesome students who really wanted to learn, R and L, and eventually, at the end as we tested out, BB. We supported each other, boosted each other up, laughed with and not at, and made a safe space for learning. We were never once competitors, and became (and still are) dear friends. We tried hard not to pollute our tiny ecosystem when one of us had a bad day.

– Speaking of bad days: work on your resiliency. Don’t allow negative self-talk or self-deprecation to become the norm (e.g. “I can’t do this”). Take breaks when you need to, and celebrate your successes, no matter how small.

Accept the grammar and syntax, and avoid the urge to make mechanical translations from English. It may sound right to you, but it isn’t. Let your brain try to work in the order of the new language. It will happen over time, I promise. My Russian instructor S one time finally lost patience with me for trying to add articles to Russian nouns instead of declining them. “I don’t understand why you’re not using declinations!” he burst out in a rare display of annoyance. “You sound like a peasant.” My mouth dropped open, and just as I was about to argue, I laughed and said, “OK.” He was a Russian linguist, and he was right.

Watch films, TV, and listen to the news in the language you are studying. Listen to the cadence and rhythm of native speakers. Try and note the way culture influences the language and particularly what things don’t translate well into English (or your mother tongue, if not English). Let it wash over you. Discuss what you heard with your classmates and instructor.

Make it fun. Going to a restaurant and ordering off a menu. Taking advantage of any fun cultural activities, holidays, or festivals where you could use the language. This will help you put the language into action, and emphasize that a language is so much more than words.

TALK. Talk to native speakers. Talk to your plants. Talk out loud to your phone and then listen to the recording. Make mistakes and keep talking. Practice, practice, practice. How it sounds in your head doesn’t count. It’s normal to understand more than you can express, and although listening correctly will help, talking will ultimately bridge the gap.

Ask questions. A lot of learning a language is accepting that it makes sense. If you can understand why it is the way it is, you will probably remember it better. I have to do this often with grammar because for some reason it just doesn’t sink in well.

Q. You mentioned currently being a Political Officer. I was wondering what that entails exactly and what do you do on a normal day?

A: I have meaning to do a separate feature, something along the lines of “a day in the life” feature of a political officer for some time now. Maybe the furlough over the past three weeks put me in the wrong mood to do it, but eventually I will.

In the meantime, you know that FSO generalists work in either the political, economic, management, public diplomacy, or consular tracks.

Political and economic officers in particular are considered ‘reporting’ officers. In other words, we give insight to decision-makers in Washington about what is going on in our host country to help support, explain, and inform U.S. policy. It means our jobs are generally one-third passing policy messages (sometimes referred to as demarches) back and forth between Washington and the host government, one-third writing cables to a USG audience to inform U.S. policy on particular issues, and another third managing visits to our embassies or consulates from Washington officials. 

Public diplomacy officers spend time on grants programs, public speaking and outreach, messaging, and cultural and exchange programs. Consular officers spend their days working on immigration cases, doing visa interviews, helping U.S. citizens, and fighting fraud. Management officers might be busy overseeing an embassy’s motor vehicle fleet, or doing procurement.

On a day-to-day basis, though, the job of an FSO generalist (especially during their first or second tour) might cover many other things too. You may work in an out of cone assignment or have a split-cone portfolio (like I do now, with political and consular). But even if you work in cone, you’re sure to do other tasks to support cross-cutting Mission goals.

You might speak to student groups, sit on your embassy’s housing or community association boards, brief the ambassador on an issue, do online trainings, interview Fulbright applicants, build a relationship with a local contact who can inform you on their government’s views by inviting them to lunch or coffee, attend a conference or meeting, represent the embassy at another country’s Independence Day celebration, or any other number of things. It seems sometimes like no two days are the same. (I wrote about that a little bit when I was a consular officer in Tashkent; see Variety = Spice of Life from February 2016.)

But there is one thing we all have in common while overseas, irrespective of cone: we are the faces of America, and it’s our job to engage with the host country in whatever issues our portfolio covers.

Right now I cover counterterrorism, countering violent extremism, human trafficking, narcotics, transnational crime, the Middle East, Gulf, and Africa, and a lot of security issues, so as you can probably imagine, I get to have a lot of cool and important conversations with my Australian foreign affairs colleagues. Sometimes I even go over to Australian Parliament House for a meeting – the Australian equivalent of Capitol Hill! 

On a normal day, I spend time in meetings and responding to emails, talking to my Australian counterparts about any big news or developments I’m tracking in my portfolio areas, writing, delivering policy messages, working on projects, connecting with our own law enforcement and interagency colleagues within the embassy, and staying on top of the news and my cable and email queues.

One of these days once the furlough is over and I am feeling inspired, I will do a weeklong “day in the life” exemplar – there are typical things that we do, but the job can also vary widely from day to day and capturing a whole week would be a great way to show that. It would probably also illuminate for me how much time in the day is eaten up by just pure government employee-type bureaucracy!

I hope I was able to answer at least a few questions with this post. Please write to me at, Tweet @pennypostcard, or post on Facebook @collectingpostcardsblog if you have questions, and I would be happy to try and answer.

  3 comments for “Your Questions Answered, Volume III

  1. January 16, 2019 at 16:27

    “I will not be ruled by stuff, which has a tendency to multiply and crush the happiness it seductively promises to create.” Love this line. I am crushed but happily so.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. January 16, 2019 at 16:34

    “we are the faces of America” True, and you (and the rest of our diplomatic service) get a thumbs up. Thank you! And let’s get you guys paid even.

    Liked by 1 person

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Sarah W Gaer

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