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.
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.
In mid-June, after leaving California, I spent almost a week in Washington state teleworking and otherwise helping out my dad during my stepmom’s hospitalization. In late 2018, they had made their relocation from California to Washington permanent, selling their primary home outside Monterey and moving the last of their things north.
After enjoying the uber-green surrounds plus the most alone time I’d had with my dad in years – wonderful, but a sad result of my stepmom never being released from the hospital during the duration of my visit – it was time for me to start heading towards Virginia and home. “Back east,” as west coasters say. My dad and I checked the Volkswagen’s oil and kicked the tires, and then I set off on my first leg for Idaho.
After driving cross-country like an arrow in under four days, I arrived in my hometown on the last day of May and sat at my friend T’s grave. I then spent half of June teleworking from my mom’s house in California, and later made my way up to Washington state to see my dad and stepmom before turning the wheel back east towards Virginia and home.
I didn’t take much leave during my three-week road trip west. The deal I’d hastily cut with my office had been to work remotely from California so I could spend time decompressing with family while not leaving our team in the lurch. I did, however, voluntarily and consistently work on east coast time. I aligned my schedule with my colleagues’ by signing on at 5:00 a.m. west coast time, taking my lunch after my family arose for breakfast, and signing off by 2:00 p.m. Thus I was free relatively early each day to enjoy some sun and do whatever else I wanted. That mainly involved spending time with family and old friends, sitting quietly in the cemetery, or visiting places I had memories with T where I needed to be alone and process my grief.
Earlier this month marked 17 years of federal service to my country. 🇺🇸
Three agencies, five countries, two states, two embassies, one consulate, and countless duty stations and TDYs. It has been a wild ride. Hopefully I have at least a few years left in me before the bureaucracy drives me nuts and I have to retire and do something else!
Last August, I left Ciudad Juárez on vacation and drove across the deserts of Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, and Nevada to visit my family in California for the first time in about two years, logging 1,279 solo miles in just under 36 total hours. Five weeks ago in late May, I also set off west; the same destination in mind, but this time from Virginia. It was the biggest solo road trip I’d ever embarked upon, and I’d done so with less than 12 hours’ planning, deciding around 8pm on the Friday evening preceding Memorial Day weekend to leave Saturday morning and leverage three days off in a row to get out to California where I could continue remote working as I do here at home.
I was in a state of acute grief at having learned I’d lost an old friend and ex-boyfriend, T, to suicide and that – unbeknownst to me until late April – his family had buried him privately in our hometown in January. I was distracted, upset, unproductive. I needed answers, I needed to say goodbye, I needed to see my family.
I let my mom know I was coming. In the Foreign Service lifestyle, this would not always be possible. Fortunately, we are still in a pandemic and remote working up to 80% of the time, we are on a domestic tour, my car had recently been serviced, and I was on top of my laundry and bills. A few thousand miles could not faze me. I made a packing list and executed it. Barely four days later, I rolled up in front of my mom’s house with an extra 2,723 miles on the Volkswagen’s odometer and dirt from 13 different states on the undercarriage.
I technically started my job in the Office of Children’s Issues (CI) – part of the Bureau of Consular Affairs’ Office of Overseas Citizen Services at the State Department – back in early March after my home leave ended. The position is as a country officer working on international parental child abduction (IPCA) cases; CI functions as the U.S. Central Authority for the 1980 Hague Convention on the Civil Aspects of International Child Abduction.
In a nutshell, the convention is a treaty whereby the U.S. and other countries agree that matters of custody and visitation of minor children between parents should be decided in countries where children are habitually resident, without one parent removing the child to a different country in order to prevent or limit access by the other. In other words, we want to avoid or remedy situations where one parent abducts their child to (incoming) or from (outgoing) the United States.
More on that work at a future date, but for the time being, suffice it to say between training and onboarding, the time it took to receive a regional portfolio assignment, and various technical difficulties with getting up and running with the database access I needed to begin actually doing my job, the first several weeks weren’t as productive on my part as I’d expected. I felt guilty my colleagues were so busy while I largely spent March and April waiting to start working. I felt like I burned up a lot of time doing online webinars and bugging IT folks, and walking around my neighborhood at lunchtime only to return to an empty inbox.
Ten years ago today I passed the Foreign Service Oral Assessment (FSOA). The achievement was the last performance-based phase of my candidacy, and paved the way for me to enter our diplomatic corps two years later, once I passed medical and security clearances and once the Department’s hiring was robust enough.
The first week of March, I drove from our new home in Virginia down to Florida for my dear friend T’s baby shower. I’d made my plans in January upon receiving her invitation, and they hadn’t included flying; the freedom of road tripping in my trusty Volkswagen felt safer and more socially distant as the Omicron variant bled across the country. I also wanted to do some IKEA shopping, and perhaps stop in NC to see my matron of honor J and my stepdaughter A. It would be my last week of home leave, and thus my last immediate chance to get away and clear my mind before starting a new period of professional focus.