If you’ve been reading the blog for more than a couple of years, you’ve probably noticed that every time you see a post called “X Miles Later…” it means we just finished a Permanent Change of Station (PCS) move.
Previously, these moves have all been via airplane: my 2015 move to Tashkent for my first tour (6,329 Miles Later); our 2017 departure from Tashkent (6,498 Miles Later) quickly followed by our move to Australia for my second tour (7,572 Miles Later… which, by the way, brought my total airline miles in 2017 to a whopping 37.4K, a personal best); rounded out by our 2019 departure from Australia (5,225 Miles Later…). But of course this PCS was a little bit different, as we drove almost 2,200 miles across the south to our Mexican border post and no planes were involved.
We crossed the border at the Stanton Bridge in El Paso, Texas on the last day of July. As we did so, I had the distinct impression that it would be a flashbulb memory; a demarcation between “Before” and “After.”
And I felt it would also become something we would talk about in years hence, when the concrete becomes abstract and almost symbolic, the way V and I say things to each other like, “Remember when we moved out of our DC apartment in 2009 and were so happy to have our VA apartment that was twice as big?” or “Remember when we were in the Maldives and saw that shark?” or “Remember how we used to walk to the Department of Education and get salads for lunch the first year we knew each other?” We have almost 14 years of things like that now, some of them almost feeling like they belong to another life. Thousands of memories and impressions both in the individual and the aggregate have created our life well-lived, and this would someday be one more memory like that.
We followed our sponsor R and his family through the streets of Juárez. I gaped around at the traffic, the shops, and the gas stations. Sitting at an intersection, I saw a restaurant called “Buffalo Flaming” (complete with a very roasty and fierce-looking orange buffalo on its sign) and tried to take a picture to text to V, but wasn’t fast enough.
We eventually drove into a gated community and pulled up in front of our house. R put the garage door up, but once we saw how narrow the inside of the garage was, we just parked haphazardly across the driveway to make it easier to unload. R helped us figure out our keys and get in, and pointed out the welcome kit. The air conditioning was blasting and the house was nice and cool.
R bade us farewell a while later to get his kids some dinner, and V and I set about sanitizing and putting away the groceries we had just bought from Albertson’s (…in another country!) and checking out the welcome kit. To my dismay, there was no hand soap or even dish soap. The welcome kit is always… unpredictable, but these are items I have received in both my previous posts, and so it never occurred to us that they could be omitted, especially during a pandemic, or to buy them at Albertson’s. But hey, we had a corkscrew!
Even after we unloaded two SUVs full of stuff, and I began to sanitize the outside of the crates, V somehow had the energy to walk to a nearby convenience store and try to purchase some dish soap. But since he doesn’t really speak Spanish, I laughed to see him return with two different products… but both the equivalent of Pine Sol.
He is such a good guy that he went back and tried again, miming hand and dishwashing and giving the boys who worked at the store some entertainment. His success allowed us to be able to unpack the welcome kit and wash all the dishes, glasses, and flatware that hadn’t been unpacked, cleaned, or put away upon our arrival. One thing that was done was that our bed was made, and toilet paper placed in the bathrooms, and for that I was very grateful.
Being able to PCS in a car was just awesome, I realized again and again, as we unpacked seven 60 quart tubs from home, including grocery staples we hadn’t finished up before leaving Arlington, good knives and towels, dishwasher detergent pacs, and even my favorite bedding – all stuff that I’d never had the first night after a plane PCS.
The first night is kind of a blur. All I remember is that I ate something (?) improvised for dinner, laughed at some Mexican game show on TV with V for a few minutes, and went to bed fairly early but in good spirits, glad for the lack of jet lag disorientation but sensing I was getting a second wind, and desperate to slip into sleep before insomnia took hold.
The following day was a Saturday, and my intention had been to spend the day cleaning and putting things away. However, our suspicion the night before that the upstairs air conditioning was malfunctioning proved correct; I woke up sweaty and dehydrated as the indoor temperature climbed to 81 degrees.
We spent most of the day trying to fix it, texting with our sponsors who did get the Facilities duty officer to come and fix it (after two separate trips to our roof, punctuated by a trip to a third location to retrieve a part), and in the meantime we sat downstairs together and read through the folder of papers we had been given. The seven days of driving had unsurprisingly caught up with both of us, and I spent the rest of the day lying in bed, trying to watch a movie and drifting in and out of sleep.
Sunday was much more productive. We made a list of things that needed to be bought or fixed or dealt with in the house, planned out the use of each of our four bedrooms and 4.5 bathrooms, and put the Pine Sol, some hot water, rags, and a welcome kit bucket to good use, scrubbing down the inside and outside of the old wooden closets and making sure all the dresser drawers were clean of debris and dry before putting our clothes away.
The lack of drawers or cabinets in the bathrooms and laundry room threw me for something of a loop, and I piled up things from the cars to put away without knowing fully where it would all fit. (And this is without 6K lbs+ of HHE and UAB!)
It is probably the thing I like least about the Foreign Service lifestyle; moving across the world and receiving your shipments in stages, usually once the host country has issued your diplomatic accreditation and allowed your household effects to be imported duty-free. In the meantime, your move is dragged out for weeks, months, or even a year, as you wonder about the fate of your prized possessions, put things away only to have to reorganize it all again when the rest of your stuff shows up, rejoice or fret about differences between your previous and current residences, and ask yourself if you should just replace your small metal garbage cans for the umpteenth time.
The reactions of FSOs and their families to this disorder vary. Some take it in stride more than others. Some spend a lot of money replacing things that are on the way, which I haven’t been able to bring myself to do for many reasons, even if it would make me happier in the short-term.
I tend to vacillate between seeing it all as an adventure and making the perfect the enemy of the good, retreating to my bed and leaving the piles everywhere for an inordinate amount of time. As in, if it can’t be perfect, I’m not ready to half-ass it yet, which people who don’t know me would probably look at and incorrectly assume that I was super chill with the mess. It’s actually the opposite, but I’m probably just too exhausted to do anything about it.
Having been through this before and knowing that we will manage to settle everything the way we want when it’s possible to do so is enormously comforting.
A few of my recently-arrived colleagues are in temporary housing, and one in particular was on vacation away from his prior post when the pandemic started. He was caught out and never had the chance to return; when his shipments arrive here, they will have been packed out by someone else. So I am counting my blessings and embracing the empty house, which I know won’t be empty for long.
Remembering how difficult and prolonged our settling-in period was in Canberra – between bureaucracy, purchasing a lemon of a car, V’s unemployment, and my spinal cord injury/bone infection disaster – I would say that we were batting a thousand our first weekend in Juárez, no matter what small bumps there were in the road.
In my next post, I will talk about what FSOs usually do during their check-in process to a new embassy or consulate, and how that has been different for me here due to the pandemic.