I’ve now spent three Christmas seasons in Australia (2005, 2017, and 2018), and have been lucky enough to experience some of the delightful differences between celebrating an Australian vs. an American Christmas.
Over the last month, work has been exceptionally busy. Between holidays, short staffing, high-level visitors, and a number of extra projects, there has not been much downtime. As an introvert, I have been trying to manage energy and pace myself in order to say “yes” to the maximum amount of personal and professional opportunities. Sometimes I don’t really have a choice, because, work. Not only do many aspects of my job require a high degree of extroversion that I can’t opt out of (managing my political contacts, public speaking, delivering policy talks on a range of issues with little notice, and the list goes on), when you serve as an FSO overseas, the line between work and personal time often gets blurred. After-hours rep events. Visitors from Washington. Travel. Conferences. It goes without saying that there are times you have to say no in the name of energy and self-preservation. But there are other times where if you can (or must) rally just a little longer, it will help you leverage the most of your limited time with key others. I have surprised myself lately with the ability to overcome that dreaded sense of “I don’t feel like doing this just now,” without becoming totally drained.
In my Foreign Service experience so far, overseas tours can be divided into three parts. During the first third, you are focused on settling in, waiting for your shipments to arrive, setting up your household, and adjusting to your work and surroundings. During the second third, you still have a learning curve, but feel more or less competent at navigating your personal and professional environments. You have friends, routine, and all your favorite places. This is the sweet spot. You aren’t moving, and the outcome of any bidding does not seem totally real…yet. You feel (gasp) ‘at home!’ And then comes the final third, when you have received your onward assignment. You must then balance what you have remaining to accomplish in-country with what you need to arrange moving forward. Ladies and gentlemen, we are rapidly approaching that final third.
I remember the afternoon in August 2014 that I got my flag for Uzbekistan, surrounded by my cheering A-100 colleagues. And I also remember the hot summer evening in June 2016 when I received my second tour assignment to Australia and stood bolt upright in my Uzbek wallpapered living room.
And very early this morning, I had that moment again. I checked my work BlackBerry and saw an email with the subject line “Handshake.” I actually waited almost 30 seconds to click on it, fumbling for my glasses and barely breathing.
On October 19, the day that bids were due, I hedged my bets by adding one more job to my bidlist. So the final tally on the list I submitted was 11 jobs in nine countries. Since a mid-level consular bidlist with four to six bids is apparently a safe bet, I thought I had given decision-makers plenty of options to work with. But October 29, the unthinkable happened: Handshake Day came and went without a handshake for me.
Whenever there is a three day weekend – be it for a U.S. or a local holiday – I’m generally keen to go out of town, taking advantage of an extra day off without using leave. And back in August, I’d planned ahead for a quick getaway up to Brisbane, the capital of Queensland state, for the Veterans Day weekend.
Last Friday night, we attended the 243rd United States Marine Corps (USMC) birthday ball at Australian Parliament House. Although I don’t love formal events held at 6pm on work days (especially before a three-day weekend when I have an early flight out of town), we rushed home from work, threw ourselves together, and had a nice time.
As the end of the Foreign Service bidding cycle came to a close, all of the waiting and ambiguity I thought would end upon that long hoped-for handshake instead deepened into more waiting, frustration, bureaucratic entanglements, and medical clearance issues. I am working on it and hopefully will be able to announce our onward assignment in the coming weeks. In the meantime, the feeling of getting very close to a good outcome, only to keep getting further away while jumping over unexpected obstacles in my path has been dogging me. Someday I will tell that story.
Today, I’ll tell a different story in the same vein, about a day in March 2003 during my first couple of months as a Peace Corps Volunteer in the Republic of Macedonia. Originally entitled, “All For a List,” I wrote this piece about trying so hard to do something simple and being foiled, and foiled, and foiled some more. I silently raged against the machine, I almost lost patience, I almost let it get my goat. When the most straightforward situations devolve into total clown shows, it is the ability to laugh when you want to cry that keeps you resilient. I meet much bigger challenges more easily now, but for me that day in 2003 still marks how far I’ve since come in learning patience, thinking on my feet, and innovating on the fly. It is a snapshot in time of learning to build resiliency, and finding the calmest path to the destination you want. Don’t miss the scenery along the way!
This month, I celebrated a milestone birthday and welcomed my visiting dad and stepmom to Australia. Getting a family visit as a Foreign Service Officer, even to an “easy sell” country like Australia, is a relatively rare chance to catch up and share a bit of your FS world with loved ones you don’t see often enough. The ‘promised’ influx of visitors during our tour in Australia has not materialized; our time here is two-thirds over, and my dad and L were our first visitors! I’m not really surprised: after all, Canberra isn’t Sydney or Melbourne. And although Americans are fascinated with Australia, relatively few actually get here – less than 1% of Americans traveled down under in 2017. Although my dad and stepmom could only stay a week, we had a great time with them, touring Canberra and saying goodbye to my 30s on a road trip to the South Coast.
The Summer 2019 bid cycle officially ends tomorrow! That means that bidders are finalizing and submitting their bid lists, and hoping that all their lobbying and interviewing pays off with a great onward diplomatic tour assignment. In less than two weeks, handshakes start, and no one wants to be left without a job when the music stops.
This past May when V and I went to the Hunter Valley Food and Wine Festival, I saw a flyer for a hot air balloon fiesta to take place at September’s end. March was our first hot air ballooning experience in Canberra, an experience we both wanted to do again. So I bought our fiesta tickets almost as soon as we returned home, in anticipation of celebrating our fifth wedding anniversary in a hot air balloon over vineyard country. And last weekend, we did just that.
By the time you’re halfway through your second tour, third tour bidding goes from an abstract concept to very applicable. The end of first and second tour “directed assignments” means the beginning of your own advocacy to get your next Foreign Service position. What was previously in the hands of your Career Development Officer (CDO) is now your process to manage. No more percentages of high, medium, and low bids like in A-100. No more justifying your top 30 ranked jobs like in second tour bidding. Now you hunt for a handful of jobs, and go after them.
That’s right: Third tour bidding means a lot more than sending in a list and waiting anxiously for Flag Day or an assignment email. Identifying projected vacancies, reaching out to incumbents, and lobbying decision-makers is now your responsibility. You may be thrilled to get the “permission to persuade,” or you may be a little freaked. But regardless, boldly forward – an entry level officer has been tapped to take your place, and it’s up or out you go.
In this first of a short series about third tour bidding, I will talk about how I’ve prepared, why it can be a little intimidating for first-timers, and what we’re crossing our fingers for.
Last week, I worked from our consulate in Sydney for two days and attended an American Citizen Services (ACS) training for consular officers posted to Sydney, Perth, and Melbourne. Ninety percent of the time, I work in the embassy in Canberra as a political officer, but every once in a while, my particular portfolio allows me to do some consular work too. This is especially important to me because I’m consular-coned, and I’m also the only consular officer in the embassy. From sharpening my skills on working death and arrest cases, to making citizenship determinations, to bonding with my consular colleagues and friends, my whirlwind 48 hour trip to Sydney after an interesting and busy week of political meetings and writing in Canberra was a morale boost and a chance to pivot my focus. How much do you know about ACS?
No, not us – a small Macedonian dog named Kikiriki (“Peanuts”) who we’ve been caretaking for the last four months. Her owners, our dear friends J and M who previously served in Canberra, made it to their onward assignment in Pakistan and sent for her. So on the morning of September 11, we gave Keeks our typical Foreign Service goodbye: “See you on the other side somewhere!”