Regardless of personal circumstances, life for most of the world has become stranger and more disconcerting by the day. When things will return to normal, no one knows. For me, it isn’t the staying home that is so odd, because I stay home a lot and as an introvert, guilt-free time alone is always welcome (although I’d gladly trade it for this pandemic to not exist).
On one hand, about a month out from a planned permanent change of station (PCS) move, it feels like there is a lot more I should be doing than laying around and watching films. Given the uncertainty, though, I’ve become OK with a certain amount of paralysis and have given myself a pass to do what I can, without a lot of expectations about how it all turns out. I don’t feel like I need to be busy every moment, or even justify why I feel that way. Priorities have come down to the basics. Suddenly time – arguably the most precious resource I have had during my adult working life – has become drawn out and surreal.
Last Sunday afternoon after a farewell brunch in the neighborhood with our friends J and M (with whom we elbow-bumped and did not hug for the first time ever), V and I drove a couple of hours south and checked into a hotel in preparation for a weeklong FACT training.
Otherwise known as Foreign Affairs Counter-threat Training, FACT is held at a special facility in rural Virginia that offers a space for firearms training, tactical driving skills, simulated burning buildings, detonations, and related activities that wouldn’t be possible to do in a more urban area like at the Foreign Service Institute (FSI) in Arlington. The idea is to practice situations that could arise during overseas service so if they do happen, we’re ready.
We did FACT in the spring of 2015 before our first post in Tashkent (where someone threw a bomb at the embassy after I’d been there four months). I signed up for it this time many months ago while we were still in Canberra because these days, FACT is mandatory for all Foreign Service Officers (FSOs) worldwide every five years, and not just those going to high-threat posts. Subsequently, it can be very tough to get in during your preferred timeframe, and I wanted to be certain that we would tick the box before getting to Ciudad Juárez.
So V and I checked into the hotel and spent about an hour unpacking and setting up the small room. We had brought lots of food and medicine in case we ended up having to shelter unexpectedly in the hotel because of the coronavirus.
We had also opted out of taking the shuttle bus down from Main State and stuck to the safety and freedom of our own car. We enjoyed what could have been our last dinner out for weeks or longer, where we listened to a live mariachi band and regaled each other with our Spanish. We returned to the hotel and planned to settle in for the night.
Shortly before 20:00, my phone rang with an Arlington number. I ignored it because the robocall struggle is real. It rang again, so with misgivings I answered. On the other end of the line was an apologetic voice from someone at the State Department indicating that FACT – for which we were supposed to be suited and booted at 06:40 the following morning – was cancelled. No, no one knew when it might be rescheduled, but I should pursue a waiver before going to Post.
V had felt strongly that FACT would or should be cancelled. Since it is a national security-related course, like ConGen (the training consular officers do to receive their consular commissions, conferring legal ability to adjudicate visa cases) and ConGen was going ahead, I didn’t think FACT would or could be cancelled. We had packed our backpacks with hand sanitizer, Lysol wipes, and cold medicine and prepared to make the best of it.
I found out later that a few FACT students from the prior week had become ill, potentially with the coronavirus. In retrospect, it probably was the smartest thing to cancel the training, but adding one more administrative task to my plate or one more barrier to getting to Post didn’t seem like the answer in that moment either. (And as it turned out, ConGen also ended up cancelled.)
Since those who came on the shuttle from Main State were spending the night and returning the following morning, we did the same. It was dark, I’d consumed a giant margarita, the Sanders/Biden debate was about to start, and I just did not have the heart to pack everything up all over again and drive two hours home to unload.
Monday morning early, V did another Hail Mary grocery shopping (the second in about as many days) as I showered and packed up the room. Then we loaded the car and headed home. We haven’t left the apartment since then other than to dump trash, pick up mail, or accept a couple treat food deliveries. That was six days ago.
Since then, I have spent a total of about 10 minutes outside, breathing the cool night air as I waited for a food delivery. I could have, should have gone for some walks this week, but as V diligently teleworked, I was fretting about arrangements for our upcoming PCS move and watching approximately 673 Netflix movies instead.
This week, I tried to balance my need for rest and social distance time with the need to get certain PCS-related things done. Although it is unclear how the coronavirus will affect the upcoming transfer season, especially given that the Department has authorized departure and no-fault curtailments for FSOs and their families worldwide, I can still report some progress towards our PCS.
– Most importantly, we were notified this week of our housing in Ciudad Juárez! Our house looks awesome, filled with light and plenty of space. We will have three bedrooms, three and a half bathrooms, an office, an eat-in kitchen, formal dining room, living room, family room, small back patio, and a two car garage with a large balcony over the top. One of the best things is that it is a three minute drive from the Consulate, a five minute drive from a private hospital, and only about nine miles from the U.S.-Mexico border. I feel very grateful for this house and I am looking forward to unpacking our UAB and HHE there and making it ours someday.
– The Post Language Waiver authorizing me to come to Ciudad Juárez with a Spanish score of 2+/3 was approved, and I am not technically required to take any more Spanish training at FSI. However, I am required to join the Post Language Program when I get to Juárez (which I would have done anyway, because I did it in Tashkent and loved the 1:1 tutoring) and retest within a year.
– I filed my challenge to my Spanish End of Training test (EOT) speaking score of 2+, in the hopes that the result will be overturned in favor of the 3. I didn’t need to challenge it, since the waiver had already come through, but as I have said before, I didn’t agree with the result and students have the right to challenge, so I did.
– I enrolled in a bunch of online trainings to give me something more to do while teleworking.
– I followed up on the status of our Mexican visa applications. What I learned was that the Mexican Embassy in DC temporarily ceased some operations due to coronavirus concerns, but since they have our diplomatic passports I hope they will adjudicate our cases in due time.
– I requested our packout for late April, and sketched out a driving route day-by-day of how we would get from Arlington to El Paso, TX, but given the current situation I didn’t confirm anything or make any hotel reservations. It is very weird, because in normal circumstances I would have 100% done that already.
– I started some research for the second car we’d like to buy. Right now we’re leaning towards a three year old Toyota 4Runner, but we’ll see what happens. I don’t want to take anything too nice or flashy to a border post, for obvious reasons. The timing of when and where to buy it is a bit confusing, because ultimately I want to drive it to Mexico and get diplomatic registration and plates for it. I’d also like to buy it outright to avoid asking lender permission to export it from the country, so we have been saving money like mad to avoid needing a loan. (Longtime readers know I’m all about the cash purchases, ha ha!)
– I’ve also been researching the tangly issue of car insurance in border posts, and how to extend the Virginia registration on the Volkswagen: at 10 years old, Hilde is too old to import to Mexico as a diplomatic vehicle, nor does the Consulate’s P.O. Box in El Paso confer Texas residency or eligibility to register a vehicle there. But Virginia registration requires an annual safety inspection prior that I wouldn’t be able to comply with, so… it’s a bit tangled up there. Hopefully I can take my orders to the DMV soon and get somebody to let me re-register it early for three years.
Unfortunately, there was an error in my orders with the wrong training end date, which triggered a flurry of bureaucratic emails under the impression we were vacating our housing two weeks early. I pushed back on that and I think soon my orders will be amended and under control. It is kind of unfortunate and annoying, because I basically have a couple of days left to give 30 days’ notice at the apartment, and although I would really like to go to Post on time as scheduled, the instability and fluidity of the current situation makes me hesitant to potentially lose our place to live if we need to stay on longer.
The U.S. and Mexico announced this week that both countries would close the border to non-essential travel. This, apparently, would not affect V and I traveling to Post, because of our diplomatic status. It just isn’t clear right now if it will be safe to go to Ciudad Juárez on time, but that is what we are hoping for.
So I’m in a wait-and-see mode in many respects, on these issues and several others. I can’t really complain. We have work to occupy us, we have a safe and clean (if tiny) apartment to stay in, and the paychecks keep rolling in. It is just strange, and very ambiguous. So many of our colleagues are in the same position, or worse. We feel fine, and we are going to keep doing our best to get through these trying times.
I am grateful and proud to be part of an organization that is working so hard around the world, often at great risk to FSOs and their families, to fly the flag at this time. Who is out there right now assisting American citizens in trouble overseas, promoting our economic and cultural interests, and protecting our national security? Diplomats, that’s who.