Typically when a Foreign Service Officer (FSO) arrives at a new post, they spend much of their first two weeks “checking in.” Check-ins consist of a variety of consultations with people in your section, the leadership of other sections, security and HR briefings, and one-on-one meetings with any people you supervise. There are also the practical matters of getting your badge, receiving your unaccompanied air freight (if you’re lucky), navigating between your house and the consulate or embassy, and generally orienting yourself and finding your way around your new environment. But my first two weeks were spent mostly quarantined at home, in line with Post’s 14-day stay-at-home policy for all new arrivals.
So how does checking in work in the time of COVID-19?
My first two weeks of work at the consulate in some ways were very similar to the past few months in Arlington; being on my laptop, checking emails, and attending meetings with the American Citizen Services team. I had been remote, and I was still “remote.”
But it did feel different being here at last, in Mexico, in our home. Especially since my predecessor has departed and the role is fully mine to step into. There were two other main differences too – simultaneous to work, we were also trying to unpack and organize the house, and I was given a meeting schedule of *virtual* check-ins to attend.
The first day, I did physically go into the consulate where my sponsor H met me and helped me find my way to HR and the security office. There I applied for my consulate badge and my diplomatic accreditation, and filled out tons of paperwork to effect my transfer from FSI and the start of my overseas payroll allowances.
The IT office assigned me a work iPhone, and I also picked up our mail that had been accumulating in the consulate’s mailroom for a couple of weeks thanks to my USPS mail forwarding order. But after a couple of hours I was done and returned home. It was eerie and empty at the consulate, like coming in on the weekend, and I wanted to limit both my exposure to other people and other people’s exposure to me, given our long and perhaps risky drive to Mexico.
Later that first afternoon, I had a check-in with my boss over WhatsApp audio, and some folks stopped by to instruct us on the security features of our residence.
Over the following two weeks, I would work completely from home. Initially, V and I shared an office in the fourth upstairs bedroom. However, since he also teleworks full-time for his job in Washington, our competing meeting schedules and us both constantly being in the background of each other’s video calls got too disruptive, so I staked out the little upstairs den as a second office and set myself up there.
Prior to 2020, I would not have believed that I could have attended all of the below virtually via WhatsApp, Google Meet, Zoom, Teams, and WebEx, but it did happen! In addition to attending regular section meetings and introducing myself at the senior staff meeting, I had one-on-ones with the heads of public affairs, the political/economic section, consular management, immigrant and nonimmigrant visas, the fraud prevention unit, law enforcement partners, general services, the community liaison office, and facilities.
The point of all these one-on-ones is not only to understand better what people do here, where our shared equities and opportunities to work together lie, and how to access consulate services, but also to put faces with names. It is harder to do this when you can’t just walk into someone’s office, but a virtual meeting is better than no meeting because in 2020, life goes on.
I also attended a couple of town halls and meetings with my counterparts across Mission Mexico (which is made up of the embassy in Mexico City and nine consulates, of which Ciudad Juárez is only one). I even set up a couple more consultations for myself and my boss, who had arrived three weeks before me, with offices in Washington that it made more sense to talk with once we were both here.
And of course, one of the most important things I did during the first two weeks was carve out one-on-one meeting times with the four entry-level officers and one dozen locally-employed staff in our unit. As their supervisor, not being able to familiarize myself with all of them in the office as we would do during normal times led me to connect with them however I could. Normally coming to a new posting I would always set up formalized, scheduled one-on-one meetings with colleagues, even though we would all see each other every day. In the absence of that opportunity, the individual video calls were even more important to me – a chance for us to break the ice, get to know one another better, and start to lay the foundation of our working relationship.
The only time we left the house during the first two weeks – for the most part – was for essentials, including a run to Ciudad Juárez’s Costco, and a quick trip across the border to Home Depot.
We also went together with a consulate motorpool driver to the immigration office with our visas to apply for our residency permits. We were approved, by the way, so we are legal!
At the end of our two weeks, I had to take V to the airport in El Paso. Unfortunately, he had to take a work-related trip back to Washington – in the space of one afternoon, rewinding seven days of driving. Not to mention the first time either of us have flown since the pandemic started, which felt like both a terrible idea and an unavoidable necessity.
Almost as unfortunately, I drove the Volkswagen that day and as we headed towards the airport, the engine light started flashing. One emergency trip to the local Volkswagen shop for me with my hazards on after pleadingly explaining that I couldn’t drop the car off and wait a few days, as I lived in Juárez and needed to get home under my own steam – and one Uber ride alone to the airport for V – and everything was all right again. But it was not the goodbye I wanted, especially as he might be gone for several weeks. At least we got to eat a nice outdoor breakfast first!
With the Volkswagen fixed, I was able to rescue my afternoon and get some shopping done on the American side of the border. Hilde, thank you, thank you, in retrospect, for not breaking down in the queue to cross the border and waiting until I hit the I-10 onramp to have your little meltdown.
During our quarantine period, a couple more people in the consulate community came down with the coronavirus. So although there were times we did have to go out, we stayed away from people, wore masks, and sanitized everything we touched or that came into the house, just like we had in Virginia. It was a good reminder that the virus here is alive and well, and that while El Paso’s disaster seems to have leveled off for the time being, at least on the Mexican side of the border cases are continuing to rise.
Stay safe out there, friends.