It has been six months since the last edition of Your Questions Answered, so in this post, I will share some questions recently asked and answered by the blog’s email box – as always, anonymously and without attribution. In this edition, we discuss the rewards of consular work, being single in the Foreign Service, what I know now that I wish I knew when I’d joined the Foreign Service, financial matters like savings and what expenses Foreign Service Officers should plan to budget for overseas, and the typical Foreign Service “car.” Enjoy!
Three years ago at this time, we were settling in to Australia, and as much as I love Australia, that was sure a bumpy period. I wrote then about the challenges of settling into a new overseas posting when everything keeps.going.wrong. My post was called Glass Half Full, and it was about the struggle to stay positive and keep things in long-term perspective. The attitude of my then-boss (who had nearly 30 years in the Foreign Service) inspired me to reframe some of my struggles as things to take in stride, no matter how much they all sucked in the aggregate.
Some of those lessons have been coming in handy again over the past few weeks; I have made progress settling in to my life here, and have racked up some small wins. But the difficulties posed by the ongoing pandemic, the steep learning curve of a new and busy job, managing a remote team, the general amount of time and effort it takes to wrap up a Permanent Change of Station (PCS) move, and most importantly, the fact that my husband V had to leave for a business trip seven weeks ago and still has not been able to return, have all weighed on me. Because I have been through a few bumpy PCS moves now myself, I know that it works out eventually. Some of the problems – like waiting for your diplomatic accreditation or household effects to arrive – resolve on their own with time and patience. Other problems require more energy. It is both helpful and necessary to keep reframing the inconveniences as temporary and part of the adventure, and reminding yourself that the settled life you had before was once something you had to build from scratch, too. But as one of my colleagues here on his 11th tour recently confessed, I like the beginning of each tour the least.
We left Shreveport as early on Thursday morning as we could muster and set out for the Louisiana-Texas state line, less than a half hour away. It was to be our lightest day of driving at only (!) 369 miles. We also had a visit to my dear friend K in Fort Worth to look forward to before breaking for our final night in Abilene.
Last Tuesday morning, we woke up in Hoover, Alabama (just outside Birmingham) and headed for our next hotel stop in Shreveport, Louisiana. On the way, we planned to stop in rural Mississippi to visit W, one of V’s best friends who had retired there several years ago. In our 2013 wedding, W was a groomsman, and literally gave V the shirt off his back when V forgot the undershirt to wear underneath his tuxedo. So, a 454-mile driving leg in a pandemic or not, there was no way we wouldn’t stop and see W. But little did we know we would find a bit more trouble in Mississippi than we bargained for.
We said goodbye to D and left South Carolina on Monday, headed for Georgia on interstate 85 south. It was a morning full of minor irritants: between severe insomnia the night before, wheeling a luggage cart back and forth four times in the morning heat and humidity to load the cars, and getting stuck at a gas station for an inordinate amount of time dealing with low tire pressure, we didn’t say goodbye to D and get on the road until just after noon. We also missed the chance to eat breakfast with her, since she’d slept as poorly as we had and needed extra rest. Then we had one mishap after another trying to eat on our own – two places in a row closed due to the pandemic, another with indoor-only seating, a final had closed its breakfast menu 45 minutes before we arrived. I was pretty well ready to go back to bed and start over by that point! But instead we just got out of Charlotte; strong A/C, tunes, and a lovely resort in Alabama we knew awaited us made for a good trip once it did get underway.
Last Saturday we hit the road on our 2,000+ mile journey to my third diplomatic posting at U.S. Consulate General Ciudad Juárez, Mexico. Since Juárez is directly across the border from El Paso, Texas, our move is by car rather than by plane. After I’d received the assignment in late 2018, I’d perused blogs of others who had been posted along the Mexican border and read about how they turned their PCS moves into fun road trips. I collected information and daydreamed about places we could stop, people we could visit, and things we could see and do on the way to Juárez.
If someone would have told me that when we left, the United States would be in the middle of a national health emergency, that a viral pandemic would be sweeping the country and infecting millions, and that we would tear through the south like it was burning down rather than doing those fun things I’d planned, I would have been gobsmacked.
For the first time since early March, last Friday we welcomed other people into our home. But they weren’t guests; they were masked movers coming to pack so we could finally leave for Mexico, three months late to the day.
Since we found out just over two weeks ago that Ciudad Juárez moved to phase one and our Permanent Change of Station (PCS) move could go forward, we have begun preparing to leave the United States in earnest. Finally knowing our departure date has allowed us to do so many things that have been tangled in knots since the shelter-in-place orders started in mid-March. We are now less than two weeks away from departing for Mexico, and although there is still a lot to do, I feel like we have it pretty well in hand.
Regardless of personal circumstances, life for most of the world has become stranger and more disconcerting by the day. When things will return to normal, no one knows. For me, it isn’t the staying home that is so odd, because I stay home a lot and as an introvert, guilt-free time alone is always welcome (although I’d gladly trade it for this pandemic to not exist).
On one hand, about a month out from a planned permanent change of station (PCS) move, it feels like there is a lot more I should be doing than laying around and watching films. Given the uncertainty, though, I’ve become OK with a certain amount of paralysis and have given myself a pass to do what I can, without a lot of expectations about how it all turns out. I don’t feel like I need to be busy every moment, or even justify why I feel that way. Priorities have come down to the basics. Suddenly time – arguably the most precious resource I have had during my adult working life – has become drawn out and surreal.
During week 13, we entered the second half of our 24-week Spanish program. Since we had changed classrooms, instructors, and classmates the week before, we were more or less still adapting to the new ecosystem. Another adaptation was the start of Phase 3; week 13 was the first week we had two topics to discuss (immigration and narcotrafficking) instead of doing the lessons in our online platform. That meant that we spent even more time debating, preparing structured presentations, and learning new ways to express opinions on these and ancillary issues.
If the theme for the first four weeks of Spanish class was accepting whatever came my way without saying no and letting it all wash over me, the theme for the past week has been playing along. I don’t mean that in the sense of “humoring” the program or instructors in any way. What I mean is that I’m trying to do what they ask me to do, in the way they are asking me to do it, in order to learn quickly and demonstrate that I can build fluency.
I play along – I learn the vocabulary and text building blocks they give us the best I can, and I try to deploy them when I produce speech. When I mispronounce something, I try again. When I don’t understand something, I ask for clarification. In summary, I try to work with I have without trying to be perfect or make the curriculum anything other than what it is. So far, this strategy is working pretty well.
Tomorrow marks three weeks since V and I returned to Virginia and started the several months of training required for my next assignment to Mexico. A few aspects of the transition and settling-in process have been bumpier than I expected. Although moving to the U.S. (“home”) should be easier than an overseas move to a new country, in a lot of ways it isn’t. Without an embassy to help you set up your life (again), there is a lot of surprisingly tedious stuff to deal with on your own, and not much time to manage it.
During this Permanent Change of Station (PCS) from Australia to Virginia, between problems with our new apartment management, problems with timing our unaccompanied air freight (UAB) and storage deliveries, and problems with my car turning up damaged from two years of overseas government storage, the past few weeks have felt like one aggravation after the next. And all of that doesn’t even take into consideration my new full-time job of Spanish learning, and the challenge of going from two incomes back to one. However, on the bright side and after a lot of effort, expense, moral support from friends, and some luck, things are starting to settle bit by bit into place. (Warning: lengthy rant ahead.)
We’re only a few days now from leaving Australia. The majority of things we have been whittling away at for a couple of months now are crossed off our to-do lists (see also PCS Update I and PCS Update II), although there are still several important things to either do or just get through. Although I’m sure there will be unexpected last-minute stresses as there usually are with a Permanent Change of Station (PCS), and I’m entering an unbelievable fifth week of being sick, I’m feeling like overall we’re in the home stretch.
Before I get to the last post in my travelogue about our Ghan train trip across Australia, I thought it was time for an update on our upcoming Permanent Change of Station (PCS) move from Australia to the U.S. and eventually, onward to Mexico.
My posture towards the PCS is swinging back and forth between hyper-preparation and organizing everything, and hiding in my bed doing nothing. Both conditions may present even during the same hour. Ha ha! But whatever I do, it will not stop the inevitable: we are leaving Australia in less than three weeks’ time.
After a wonderful but long day on Victoria state’s Great Ocean Road, we looked forward to a day of sightseeing in Melbourne, followed by an overnight ferry trip with the car to Tasmania. I hadn’t sailed on the Spirit of Tasmania since my grad school days in 2005, and I was excited about getting back to one of my favorite places in Oz. Only this time, I would sleep in a cabin with a bed rather than on the floor, and I wouldn’t have to drive on the left for the first time upon arrival!
[This is the second post in a series about the Australian road trip I took last month with my mom and V. If you missed the first post, you can find it here: Bush Capital to Great Ocean Road (Aussie Road Trip, Part I).]