1,940 Miles Later…

We arrived in northern Virginia two weeks ago, and have been at an extended stay hotel suite on Temporary Quarters Subsistence Allowance (TQSA) until the house we rented is ready for us to move into. My orders authorized up to 60 days of TQSA, but fortunately our house will be ready this week and we were able to put enough survival furniture together until our household effects arrive to make things comfortable for the two of us.

I have been on home leave, but V has been teleworking literally beginning the day after we rolled into Alexandria on a freezing late afternoon and unloaded two carloads of stuff into the hotel. On my orders overseas he is always my Eligible Family Member (EFM) or “dependent,” but he is also a civil service federal employee in his own right. Therefore, when we departed Ciudad Juárez after my curtailment, his arrangement as a Domestic Employee Teleworking Overseas (or DETO) came to an end. Now that he is back at his regular duty station – Washington, DC – it’s back to business as usual for him… and in the pandemic that still means remote work.

Our house in Ciudad Juárez was the smallest house we’ve had at an overseas post since we joined the Foreign Service. But going from that house into a hotel suite that’s essentially a small one-bedroom apartment – with a cat that still isn’t totally used to us or being a solely indoor cat – still hasn’t been the easiest experience. But all things considered, it’s worked out well and we’ve been comforted to know we’re soon going into a bigger house where we can really put things away. We’re lucky to have had room for the things we brought in here without tripping over ourselves, as well as a kitchen with an oven, stove, and microwave – all things V made sure were included when he made the reservation. There is also a laundry room downstairs that’s new and clean and doesn’t cost anything to use.

My schedule is my own until I start my bridge assignment in mid-February, and since I’m not working I’m not concerned that my jewelry and work clothes are packed away. I haven’t looked for them once, or even my hair dryer. I don’t need much but a few pairs of jeans and workout pants, a warm coat and gloves to get me through these freezing cold winter days of errands and lists, and the odd day laying around doing nothing because it all feels like too much. The waterproof boots I secured loose into a tiny space between the Volkswagen’s back door and my vitamin bag seemed like an afterthought in Juárez’s warm January; I’ve worn them more days than not in snowy Virginia.

As V teleworks through the days I have been able to start to reestablish our life here a bit. I’ve been to our new house several times to collect the mail and intercept packages. I sent out dozens of New Year’s/We’ve Moved cards in lieu of my holiday cards that never happened. I’ve been transferring my prescriptions to a new pharmacy, going to medical appointments, setting up new blood work and healthcare, doing a lot of medical research, and paying bills. I also had to finish up some work things related to my own performance appraisal, work on medical reimbursements, and various other projects that seemed to chew up the days and even some of the nights. V set up all the utilities at the house during his lunch breaks from work, no small feat.

Both cars passed Virginia’s required annual safety inspections and got their windshield stickers. Those who have lived in Virginia will know, this is an actual thing and it’s tied to your ability to register your car with the DMV. (Our cars are registered through late 2023 anyway, but the stickers only last a year and we took them off in Mexico when they expired.)

Federal employees returning from an overseas assignment have two weeks to get this done when returning to the Commonwealth of Virginia from overseas, but driving around with that sticker conspicuously absent made me feel like I was begging to be lit up and pulled over as soon as I crossed the state line. So I kept a copy of my orders in the glove compartment of each car and carried my State Department badge and diplomatic passport for good measure. The Toyota passed inspection in one morning, at a gas station across the street from our hotel. But for the Volkswagen it was a bit more irritating (which had nothing to do with the car itself).

First I took Hilde to the Volkswagen service center where I’ve been going for almost 12 years to replace a burned out fog light and see about a chip in the windshield that happened in 2020 when I was driving through Mississippi en route to Juárez. Volkswagen told me they didn’t “do windshields,” but I researched the regs and decided because the chip was less than an inch, not in my sight line, and hadn’t changed in 18 months, I didn’t need to do anything about it. So then I drove Hilde over to a shop near Volkswagen (and about a half hour from our hotel) to actually perform the safety inspection. After a two-hour wait (in which I went for a long walk in 25 degree weather, one day after getting my fourth COVID vaccine and with a malfunctioning thyroid that made me feel like the temperature was around 2 degrees), I learned that Hilde had failed the safety inspection on two counts.

Not only had a Volkswagen technician previously installed my left headlight incorrectly, but the on-call mechanic that consulate employees frequently depended on in Ciudad Juárez to change flat tires had actually put on a tire for me backwards, the night before I’d left for my road trip to my mom’s in August 2021. I did some quick mental math and realized between that California road trip, my hail Mary to San Antonio and Fort Worth in November, and our PCS warrior voyage, I’d put over 8,000 miles on that tire installed incorrectly, at least 7,000 of those high-speed freeway miles. (I later verified that mileage almost exactly with the starting odometer pic I took before hitting the road to my mom’s, since I haven’t cleaned photos off my phone in forever.)

So Hilde got a black “rejection” sticker, which I’d never actually seen before. I felt surprisingly pissed off and defensive about this and for a brief moment considered removing the sticker, and then thought better of it. Why should she fail anything because some technicians couldn’t be bothered to do their jobs? She continued to perform admirably. I drove around fuming for three days before my appointment to spend almost four more hours getting both problems corrected – at my expense, of course, as well as having paid for the original faulty work – and received the correct sticker. No more safety inspection hassle for another year.

We also took our cat Dzish to the vet to get his feline leukemia booster shot, and did some major furniture shopping. Because we are about to move into an unfurnished home, and our shipments probably won’t be here until April or so, we won’t have our bed to sleep in. This is a much different situation than we’ve been in when returning previously from overseas, when we went directly and temporarily into PCS Lodging in Virginia between assignments and our household effects sat crated awaiting our arrival to the next destination.

We went to look at Sleep Number beds, but were almost as surprised by the 12-week lead time as we were by the prices. Supply chain issues at the moment are making it hard for us to find almost everything we want, from barstools to cabinets. So we have been frequenting the “buy less” groups and Facebook Marketplace. In that way we decided to temporarily take a bed from a friend of a friend until our beds arrive, and we can pay it forward by donating it to an Afghan refugee network, per the bed’s owner’s wishes.

We also spent several days taking measurements and looking for sectional couches until we finally settled on one for our den, which should arrive in about a month. We also purchased desks for ourselves and had an adventure buying a cherrywood dining room set from a wealthy couple about to retire to Florida. A colleague turned us on to the GoShare app, which is apparently the Uber of on-demand, third-party moving company platforms. It wasn’t cheap but it worked very well and the three-man crew who came did a terrific job. We currently have a dining room table with six chairs, a china cabinet, and a sideboard/buffet sitting in our empty home: that furniture until February will be about the only things that belong to us there.

January 22, 2022

I don’t know what this period of time feels like, exactly. It both is and isn’t home leave, because home leave traditionally happens on the west coast with my family. Getting there in winter, while the omicron variant rages, with two SUVs full of stuff, while V needed to work and we needed to get situated over here on the opposite coast didn’t make sense. Things aren’t normal with us, but they are OK. And we can see that things aren’t normal here either; gone are the traffic jams I remember from living here for more than nine years previously. I looked out from the window of an empty metro car the other day upon half-empty cold streets which used to be bustling with office workers and professional life. I have walked through a couple of pretty empty malls. Signs scream that things are on sale, but it doesn’t always seem that way, and I don’t see a lot of shoppers.

Last week I tried on several pairs of jeans in an empty store where I used to shop in my 20s and 30s. It had moved to a different floor in a familiar mall. While picking them I’d set down my purse and coat without worry. It was my store and not a soul was around. I looked tired, hair grown out more than seven months without highlights. I peeled off layers of clothes to try on smaller and smaller pairs. Never did anything not fit, which I’m not sure has even happened to me in my adult life. I tried to recognize myself. I bought all the ones I wanted but no one has really seen how they look on me because I’m not around anyone and I’m always wearing my too-big coat.

There is a kind of resolute sadness and determination that seems to hang over this whole area. Maybe it’s COVID worries and limitations that seems to have people putting their heads down and getting through their days, but I suspect everyone has their own difficulties that contribute. It’s my health problems, the sad end of my tour, all the things we have to do, and the challenges ahead. It’s all of it, with little of the fun to balance out the undefinable, foreboding, languishing feeling that prevails until we remember there are opportunities to live side by side with all of this and accomplish what we can in a day. In the midst of all this, a PCS.

I’m kept going by the certainty that the transitional period always feels like chaos and the fear you will never get everything how you want it, but experience tells me we eventually do get everything squared away. The more effort we make and the sooner the better, which is why we have come so far in two weeks. Sure, a PCS is a big money hemorrhage and a pain in the neck. But, we’re good, and with every day we get closer – to better weather, to a house in order, to not living out of bags.

We are rebuilding our lives and hoping by spring things on a macro level will feel good and fall into place again. In the meantime, every day is precious and not to be overlooked for its own micro joys. We will get there like we always have – it’s the Foreign Service way.

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