Over the years, I have received lots of questions about housing benefits in the Foreign Service (FS) – primarily what my houses have looked like, if I liked them, and whether I got to pick them. Foreign Service Officers are assigned government-owned (or leased) housing to live in during overseas tours as a benefit of our employment. There can be a misconception that diplomats overseas “live like kings,” but where we live is much more about what is available within the applicable regulations – and sometimes that isn’t great – unless you are an ambassador or deputy chief of mission with a representational residence. (For more on housing sacrifices made by FS families, please read this really terrific article by former FS spouse Donna Scaramastra Gorman, “The Reality of Being a Foreign Service Spouse.”)
Whether you feel like your FS housing is an odd temporary space to put up with, or adore it and cherish it as your own home, the topic of housing inspires a lot of discussion – worry and questions, complaints and gratitude, and plenty of laughs. One post in an FS-related Facebook group asking for submissions of the strangest FS housing quirks led to hundreds of comments and hilarious photos that had me in stitches. I had a submission or two of my own, but so far we have been very lucky. Here I share my perspectives, along with never-before seen photos of our official residences from our first two tours in Tashkent, Uzbekistan and Canberra, Australia.
Before you arrive in-country, your post is likely to send you a questionnaire about your housing preferences. I always find these a little bit difficult to respond to. If I haven’t been to the city before, how am I to know what part of town I want to live in? Or whether the small, modern apartments would be “better” than the larger, suburban houses?
Someone will tell you that the internet is faster in the north than the south. Someone else will tell you what neighborhoods are closest to the “good” schools. Some will suggest places closest to the embassy or consulate to minimize commute time. At the end of the day, all you can do is conduct your own research and ask around, but – in my opinion – try not to be too set on any particular outcome, or assume you know more about the areas than you do – because generally it all works out.
So you might tick the boxes for a yard for your dog, short commute (to be a one-car family), and say why YES, we would be willing to take care of a pool! But that doesn’t mean that you will get those things. You may end up in an apartment 45 minutes from work with no yard. That’s because someone else – and not you – will pick your house.
In 2015, we knew a couple of months before arriving in Tashkent that we would be moving into a brand new, three-story house that no one else had ever lived in. In fact, our social sponsor emailed us a few pictures of it and it was still under construction!
Before and after:
Although we were surprised to hear that we would spend our first three weeks in-country in a hotel while waiting for the embassy to finish the house’s make-ready, we understood that the family living there had departed one day before our arrival. And our gamble to bring gardening tools and patio furniture also paid off – we were going to a rambling suburban rancher with a large wraparound lawn backing up to a pine forest.
I have served on two housing boards and I know firsthand the challenges of assigning housing. In general, the board would love nothing more than to get every incoming officer as much of what they would like as possible. However, they also have to act as good stewards of the taxpayer dollar and follow rules about size entitlements (based on officer rank and family size), consider what is available in the housing pool when the officer will arrive, and not allow houses to sit empty for more than a specified period before they are reoccupied. (At a handful of posts, the officer receives a housing allowance and is responsible for finding, leasing, and furnishing his or her own house, but that is an exception rather than the rule.)
And the housing board does all of this within the constraints of what is available on the local market for Post to rent or buy. If you are in a high-threat post, you may be living in a hotel or on a compound. If you are living in a country that does not have reliable electricity and plumbing, your house will be affected by local utility providers and those circumstances. As we say in the FS, “It depends,” or “Your mileage may vary.”
And, if you’re living in Central Asia, you are going to have lots o’ textured and glittery wallpaper, along with massive chandeliers! If that is not your aesthetic, vent to a friend and then smile and make the best of it.
When it’s not what you would pick
One of the biggest complaints in the FS is that someone’s housing is weird or not what they expected. This ranges from style complaints about the embassy’s Drexel Heritage dark furniture and local eccentricities with light switches or doorways, to real horror stories about insect or rodent infestations, exposed wires, floods, and more. The good news is that if the house is owned by the embassy (or a landlord with whom they will interface on your behalf), by and large things that are really wrong are going to get fixed. Eventually. With sometimes a lot of service requests. And sometimes you will be frustrated that you would have fixed it better, had you been allowed.
But the lack of bay window in your dining room? The brass bathroom fixtures? The million bookshelves you don’t need that the embassy says it doesn’t have warehouse space to take back? The pink kitchen that is ugly as sin or the master bath with zero counter space? This is where you might have to take a deep breath, have a laugh, and work to determine what you can – and cannot – do to make the house feel more like home. In other words, “Suck it up, cupcake.”
Looking at my kitchen wall in Tashkent would leave me unable to suppress a grin even on the really tough days.
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On the other end of the spectrum, you have the super-picky, super-controlling officer (or spouse) that just has to have a certain aesthetic (that doesn’t exist where they’re going) or they will be miserable. I am sympathetic to this – it is your life, and this will be your home for two to four years. Waiting for “someday” to feel “at home” is not a good idea in a career that could have you overseas in government housing for decades.
But these people – while entitled to their feelings – are also setting themselves up for a lot of disappointment (and probably making themselves look like a spoiled ass in front of local staff, who would probably love to have the house). Your house will be your sanctuary in a foreign land, but you won’t totally be able to make it – or living abroad – bend to your will. The more flexible you can be, the better experience you will have – and believe me, I say that as someone who cares a lot about how things look.
Making it work
So, what I’ve found works best is to be honest and succinct in the questionnaire. We list three strong prioritized preferences rather than a laundry list of wants. We usually focus on getting a free-standing house, close to the embassy or at least somewhere quiet, and with a yard and lots of light. We hope for the best, and then try and make what we get ours.
Laugh at the tacky wallpaper you can’t tear down. Make peace with the weird room you have to walk through to get to the other weird room. See what flexibility you may have in changing some things around – like taking down the embassy curtains, or painting (keep in mind that when you pack out, you will likely have to return everything back to its original state).
At least you can bring some order to the disorderly; when I was alone in Tashkent for the first four months, I did a perimeter check of the house, made sure all the external doors and their bars locked, tested every key in the pile, labeled them, and locked them in a key box.
Before… and after!
One of the things I loved best about our house in Tashkent was the size. Although it was brand new, some of the construction was a bit shoddy, and I didn’t love that the house was designed like long hallways with individual rooms branching off each side.
However, the space more than made up for it – besides the kitchen, living room, formal dining room, master bedroom, my office, laundry room, and 2.5 baths, we also had a basement utility room; a large storage room with shelving for our consumables; a room I turned into an office for my husband complete with air and heat; an extra bedroom that swallowed a queen bed, dresser, nightstand, and a gym-sized treadmill and elliptical trainer; and three more guest bedrooms (one of which I turned into a closet complete with chandeliers and a white armchair).
Storage!!! It was good that the embassy also gave us a second large utility freezer in the basement, because I was not kidding about my salmon, Ben & Jerry’s, guacamole, bacon, and a host of other consumables not available in Uzbekistan that I ordered from Ramstein Air Force Base. We’re talking about two years, people, in a pouch-only post that bans liquids over 16 ounces.
Ready for the apocalypse, or maybe just a big par-tay with Americans:
Below L to R: Part of my closet; second floor landing; front yard tortoise hibernation burrows (Jamshid and Arslana slept in there yearly from roughly November to March!)
Even though it is probably true that I would not pick out this decor if this were my “own” home, I have to say it grew on me over time. For me, any place where we hang our stockings, celebrate holidays, share meals, tears and laughter – that’s home.
Our house in Canberra is pretty terrific too, and the first time we came with our friend M to see it (a couple of weeks before it was move-in ready), we saw a kangaroo standing in the brush across the street. Its ears swiveled and twitched as it took us in. It was the first roo V ever saw and a great welcome!
It’s not the newest or fanciest house – and most officers here prefer to be in a more urban area (not us!) – but there is just something about it that has felt so comfortable for us. More so than maybe we would have otherwise, we have been at home a lot during this tour – counting several weeks combined of government shutdown, V being out of work for several months, and me being on medical leave twice post-surgery.
No courtyard wall here to keep out the world, no barbed wire. We know and socialize with our neighbors. Most of the people on our street are retired, but still throw block parties a couple times a year.
The house has four bedrooms (two shown below, and two we turned into offices for ourselves), a kitchen, a living room, a family room, a dining room, 2.5 baths, and a two car garage. It really is terrifically spacious, and the layout of the house just flows from one place to another in a really lovely way. Whenever people come over they always compliment the floor plan and marvel at how much space we have for the two of us.
Not to mention, we have an amazing yard, which my husband has taken wonderful care of, including fixing the broken sprinkler system, weeding and removing seasons of leaves, and making a tiered vegetable garden out of reclaimed wooden pallets he sourced for free. We also have an apple tree and a cherry tree which attract a lot of native birds.
Foreign Service housing can vary so much, and it’s fun to daydream about what your next residence will look like. I know that going into a one-bedroom apartment in Virginia for several months of training later this year will be a rude awakening for the two of us, who are used to having a lot more space to ourselves. But that is the real estate hell that is northern VA – I paid the price for several years and know there is no way we could afford houses like we have been fortunate enough to live in overseas in the DC area.
And once we are in that little apartment, before long… we will start wondering about our housing in Ciudad Juarez.
In an upcoming post sometime in the next month, I plan to write about the native Australian birds that have regularly visited our yard and brought us a lot of joy and entertainment. The above photo is just a teaser – readers will be amazed at the parrots!