Last fall, our team in the Office of Children’s Issues paused our regular international parental child abduction casework and bilateral portfolios for a daylong retreat. In addition to team-building exercises and an in-depth examination of our processes to see where we might improve internal coordination and workflow, we also took a 10-minute walk over to the main State Department building near 23rd and C Streets in northwest Washington, DC.
As I have surely mentioned in the past, Foreign Service Officers receive housing as an employment benefit while serving overseas or while stateside for training. However, when actually serving in a domestic assignment, whether it’s a year, two years, or more, officers have to arrange and pay for their own housing. And a domestic assignment usually means a tour in Washington, DC – – one of the most expensive regions of the country. Many officers (and in particular single officers who have to manage on one salary) try and delay a domestic tour until they are well beyond entry-level pay for this reason, but it cannot always be helped.
After returning from our 10-day, whirlwind 2,000 kilometer road trip around the former Yugoslavia last summer, we only had one full day remaining in Macedonia before our flight home to Virginia. My husband V and I decided it made no sense to return the rental car to the airport, only to turn around and take a taxi back to the airport for our early morning flight less than 36 hours later. Instead we skipped going to the airport twice and paying for taxis in favor of just keeping the car and leveraging it for a short visit to my former Peace Corps homestay family.
They lived a couple of hours south of the capital city, Skopje, in the town of Demir Kapija. We knew paying them a weekday morning visit was probably not ideal; we were on vacation but that didn’t mean anyone else was. Fortunately, (a) it’s Macedonia and (b) we had already been in touch with them to align schedules. We certainly couldn’t visit everyone we wanted on this trip because of time constraints; for the first time, I never made it to the far east, back to the site where I had served as a Peace Corps Volunteer. But as they had once opened their home to me, I did not want to leave without seeing them. It seemed apropos that 20 years after first coming to Macedonia I was returning to where it all began.
The sunny August morning we left Sarajevo, it was harder than I thought it would be to find our way out of town. I don’t remember exactly why; some combination of narrow streets and Google Maps trying to lead me onto a pedestrian footpath might have had something to do with the smell of burning clutch and frayed nerves in the morning.
V, A and I worked together and managed to make a series of navigational decisions that – while not winning any efficiency awards – also didn’t result in any fender benders. Thankfully at least, when hearing how early we wanted to get on the road, our AirBnB host decided he didn’t need to do our checkout in-person after all and allowed us to lock the apartment and hide the key in an agreed-upon location. We eventually hit the highway east and later, due south for the last few hundred miles of our road trip.
The morning we departed Croatia, we said thank you to the beach house for the wonderful memories. We were sad to leave the coast, and drove alongside it until we began to ascend into the mountains. We had taken the road to Dubrovnik’s north rather than to the south, in order to stop for lunch in Mostar – a city none of us had visited – on our way to Sarajevo. The total distance would be around 165 miles; however, drive time minus stops would be close to 4.5 hours given the mountain roads.
Not long into our journey, before we had even crossed the Croatia-Bosnia border, we saw smoke off in the distance. Initially we didn’t think much of it. But as we continued, it became darker and more ominous, and soon after we ran into a forest-fire related roadblock and detour. The detour wasn’t well-explained by the gruff policeman, and took us a fair distance off the Google Maps path we had launched before leaving beach house wifi – slightly alarming since we were navigating without live internet. However, A saved the day with an offline Snapchat map, something I hadn’t even known existed since I haven’t opened my Snapchat app for eight years. (I know.)
After we jumped that hurdle, we then had a slightly not-so-hilarious situation with one of us, who shall remain unnamed, needing a bathroom where none existed within binocular range of the Bosnian border. After idling in the weeds and hoping inquisitive soldiers wouldn’t appear at any moment and ask us what the hell we were up to, we made it across afterwards without further incident.
On our second full day at the beach house, we woke up early, took a quick swim, and ate breakfast on the patio in preparation to go to old town. Initially the plan was for me to drive us the 12 minutes to the old quarter and find a place to park, but as I was dealing with some extreme vertigo out of the blue while getting ready, V and A – after lingering a while in the hopes I wouldn’t be delayed – were eventually convinced to take an Uber there without me. I had been unsuccessful in averting my head-spinning situation, and ended up vomiting several times, taking a Dramamine, and lying down. My head felt like a yo-yo on the end of a string, and as I lay still and miserable I had to keep one foot on the floor and a hand on the wall to avoid zero gravity sensations. But as is typical and hard to explain, my stomach did not hurt at all. After about a 90-minute nap, I reawoke in the silence of the empty house to the waves crashing outside. I sat up cautiously and ate some fake Pringles. The dizziness had subsided and it was as if it had never happened. I was going to old town.
It took us nearly five hours to drive the last 150 miles of winding mountain roads between Višegrad, Bosnia & Herzegovina and the Croatian coast. I rarely drove faster than 45 mph simply because the speed limit and conditions didn’t allow it, and I likely would have made even myself carsick. V and A were excellent passengers. V only complained once, and he was probably right; it really can be alarming to be a passenger and have no control as you roll through narrow tunnels black as night, uphill past slow trucks that drift into your lane, and around blind corners, every once in a while a bit too fast even with a driver as pokey as myself. We crossed the Croatian border without incident and the vast jewel of the Adriatic lay before us.
The town where V’s brother V2 lives, Kragujevac, is Serbia’s fourth-largest city with just under 175,000 inhabitants. Situated about an hour and a half south of Belgrade, Serbia’s capital, the region is proud of the more affordable living and rural beauty it offers while still boasting plenty of nearby shopping and amenities commensurate with the big city. V2 and his wife D – whose family hails at least three generations back from Kragujevac – made it a point to show us around, welcoming us to town with a dinner out that included a large group of their extended friends and family.
For the first five days of my trip to the Balkans, my husband V, my stepdaughter A, and I stayed in Macedonia’s capital city, Skopje, at his childhood home. We enjoyed quality time with his mom, and took over the upstairs portion of her home. V’s niece, the eldest of his brother’s six children, usually lived upstairs alone, but was away on extended holiday in Greece with a boyfriend.
We went shopping, hung out in cafes, visited with old friends, and spent time in the city center and the Turkish part of town known as Stara Čaršija, or the Old Bazaar. Sometimes A hung out with us, and sometimes she hung out with friends she’d made on her many prior family visits, including five years before while doing a summer internship at the Peace Corps Skopje office. During those days we also finalized the tentative plans we’d been discussing to rent a car for a 10-day road trip around Serbia, Bosnia & Herzegovina, and Croatia. Our itinerary was still a little flexible, but the purpose of the trip was twofold: to visit V’s brother who had settled in Kragujevac, Serbia with his wife and younger children, and to treat A to a couple of countries she hadn’t yet seen, albeit not for as long a duration as we would have liked.
At the end of July, I went to an Incubus show a couple of hours south of DC by myself. V and his daughters had already left a couple of weeks prior for the Balkans, and had been enjoying traveling together in Macedonia and Greece while I stayed home alone in Virginia, worked, and held down the fort. I would travel to Macedonia myself for a few weeks the day after the show. I was going to miss my 19-year old stepdaughter D, who had to return to the States before my arrival in Europe to prepare for her sophomore year in college in Tennessee. But V and my 23-year old stepdaughter A, who is in graduate school in North Carolina, would be awaiting my arrival to spend some family time with V’s relatives in Macedonia and Serbia, and the three of us were planning a road trip to cities across the former Yugoslavia, including Sarajevo and the Croatian coast.
I’m not yet ready to publish a reflection on 2022 as a whole, but as we get ready to welcome 2023, I added up my 2022 solo/sole driver road trip stats and was amazed.
In 2022, I received a promotion as a mid-level officer. It makes my head spin a little trying to figure out how to explain the Foreign Service promotion process to someone outside the FS, particularly to private sector folks who would likely expect diplomats’ promotions to be based on a complex set of 360 reviews, impressive projects, and reputational factors. (Pro tip: They’re not.) I’d like to share 10 things I’ve learned since I joined the Department in 2014 as a Foreign Service generalist about getting promoted (or not!)… I’m going for lay terms, but you be the judge.
I am months behind in my blogging. We are somehow now less than two weeks from the end of 2022 and yet – writing life-posts chronologically as I prefer to do – I’ve most recently only written about my May/June road trip to the west coast.
As I have dealt with personal and family illness, workplace disappointments from Juárez, the January curtailment halfway through my Mexico tour, and confusion from the suicide of an old friend for most of this year, this blog has not been the platform to write about some of the darker grief on my mind. I’ve had good blog posts in draft for months, on topics from our late summer trip to the Balkans, to getting promoted in the Foreign Service, to a follow-up to my wildly popular post about Foreign Service housing, all in various stages from partly-done to mere sketchy outlines.
In my previous post, I talked about how the semi-feral cat living in our backyard when we started our third Foreign Service assignment in Ciudad Juárez, Mexico became our first “traditional” pet since joining the diplomatic corps. The tortoises we’d adopted in Uzbekistan couldn’t be imported into Australia, and were better off in their native desert habitat. And there was no hope of bringing a wild Australian parrot or kangaroo back to the United States, so we’d experienced lots of animal love during our first two overseas assignments with none of the permanence. But that all changed during our third tour when my husband V caught a black cat he’d been feeding and looking after in our backyard for a year and a half and took him to the vet for a checkup.
V had named our kitty ‘Dzish,’ a Turkish word loosely translated meaning “blackest black.” (It’s pronounced like “Jeesh.”) And once he came home wearing a cone, he no longer roamed free in the backyard. Instead he became an indoor cat under V’s watchful eye until we departed Post two weeks later for home leave and our next assignment in the United States.
Many Foreign Service families have pets, and spend a significant amount of money transporting them around the world on one diplomatic tour after another. It isn’t easy or cheap to move pets between the United States and a foreign country of assignment, let alone to commit to doing so every 2-3 years. Between airline customer service, the stress of an international move (often by plane) with pets, complex shipping and courier requirements, vet paperwork, foreign country import and quarantine regulations, extra vaccinations, and the EXPENSE often stretching well into the four figures, it can get very stressful. Not to mention if you have elderly or special needs pets who don’t travel or relocate well, you may decide the best thing is to leave them behind with a friend or relative, if possible. And there’s always the worst case scenario: a large-scale crisis at a post where pets are not guaranteed a space on a limited evacuation flight out.
Some types of pets are generally more practical than others in this lifestyle, too – namely cats and smaller dogs. Of course, there will be officers who find a way to make it work for a time with fish, hamsters, and humongous dogs – in my view, adding more worries to an already complicated life. But the prevailing thinking seems to be pets are worth the hassle and complications posed by a Permanent Change of Station (PCS) move because of all they add to your life during calmer times. I was happy to forego that benefit until our most recent tour in Mexico; there we finally acquired our first FS pet, more than seven years into this lifestyle. A combination of seeing how much my husband V loved the animal, being on the border where all we had to do was drive home to the United States when we left our post, and knowing we wouldn’t have to move by air for at least three years all pushed me over the edge. After all, we can’t just live every day in the tight box the Department draws around us, even when coloring outside the lines makes it harder.