Tag: Alexandria

FS Domestic Tours: New Neighborhood, New Equilibrium

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.

Blurry Summer

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.

Our First Foreign Service Pet, Part II

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.

Giving From Abundance

While abroad, many Foreign Service Officers find community through professional and social networks at the embassies or consulates where they serve. The Community Liaison Office at a post, known as the CLO, does a lot to foster this, hosting social events, planning outings, and celebrating American holidays. Participating in this community, which also includes locally engaged staff, can help us navigate a new environment while still holding on to a little bit of home. Especially during service at small or high-hardship posts, or where the culture is very different than in the United States, for example, the embassy community tends to be strong. Despite our perception in Uzbekistan that it was a bit of a fishbowl, that community was important in connecting us with information there, where we – and especially V, who’d had no Russian training – faced a higher bar to speaking the language, self-organizing domestic trips and outings, and performing daily activities. Alternatively, Australia was an English-speaking country where we were as likely to hang out with our Australian neighbors as with our American colleagues despite having two hard-working CLOs. Two posts – two different types of community, and yet both played the same role in terms of a community abroad.

And in Mexico, a much different scenario despite the warmth and hospitality of the CLO and the Mexican people. We arrived and departed during the COVID-19 pandemic, never fully settling in or getting a sense – beyond virtual events here and there – of what we understood had been a vibrant, robust consulate community. If that weren’t challenging enough, after a year of “we’re in it together” protective measures against the coronavirus, the whiplash of my feeling left behind when society decided 96% of people being safe actually was good enough and removed their masks as the Delta variant arrived and I suspected, correctly, that asymptomatic spread was occurring, made me feel erased from the consulate community in Juárez entirely.

Of course, we still had the broader El Paso community only four miles away – a key benefit of serving on the border. But ultimately it wasn’t enough, and as I could no longer stay safe in my workplace or expect the same chance everyone else there had received to emerge immunized from the pandemic, I decided to remove myself from that environment. It was in this context that I arrived just under three months ago in my adopted home state of northern Virginia feeling angry, isolated, and ejected from any sense of equity or belonging to the people and space around me.

Retreat: Home Leave 2022

This period of home leave between my third and fourth diplomatic tours has been a time to rest, recuperate, and set up life in the United States again after spending most of the last seven years abroad. At 35 business days, it has intentionally been my longest home leave since joining the Foreign Service. Counting from the day after our PCS travel to Virginia ended, to the day before my next assignment starts (holidays and weekends don’t count), I have taken exactly seven weeks. Uniquely, for the first time, I’ve spent it all on the east coast.

Anagen

It has been five and a half weeks since we ended our time in Mexico and returned to the United States, and it has been three weeks since we moved from the temporary hotel lodging into the northern Virginia house we rented for the next two years. Despite the house still being mostly empty and having to spend more time than we wanted cleaning in order to settle in, it does feel more like we are building a home here with each passing week.

Our 450 lbs of Unaccompanied Air Baggage (UAB) arrived nine days after we moved in. We’ve also purchased almost all the furniture we need for our home offices, dining room, living room, den, and bar area, even though pandemic-related supply chain issues have meant only half of it has actually been delivered so far. Mexican Customs also thankfully cleared our household effects (HHE) to depart Mexico without incident; the State Department notified me last week our HHE had arrived safely at a warehouse in El Paso, Texas, signaling the remaining 5,700 pounds of our things will catch up with us sooner than anticipated.

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.

Virginia or Bust: Tennessee, Snow, and Home at Last

The day we rolled into Tennessee was day three of our road trip from Ciudad Juárez to northern Virginia. As we checked into our Knoxville hotel and unloaded the cars for a third night in a row, we’d crossed nearly 1,500 miles (or three-quarters) of the trip and expected to make it to northern Virginia the following day.

I’d been living in the mostly dry warmth of the desert sufficiently long to use my weather app infrequently, although our last week in Juárez had been marked by infrequent sprinkles. But because Knoxville’s temps were dropping below freezing, we glanced at the forecast and realized we might need to slow our roll.

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