Since our terrific socially-distanced trip to New Mexico six weeks ago for my birthday, V and I have been settling in to life in Ciudad Juárez together. It has been both great, and tedious, and prolonged, kind of like 2020.
It has been almost five months since the last edition of Your Questions Answered, so I thought I’d share some recent Q&A from the blog’s inbox, edited for length and clarity. In this edition, I’ll address how embassies decide which officers get language training (and how much), length of service vs. number of tours, whether officers serving on the U.S.-Mexico border can live on the U.S. side, and what consular officers do as they advance in their careers.
And as always, please remember these are my unofficial answers derived from my own experiences. Your mileage may vary.
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.
Today is el Día de la Independencia de México, or Mexican Independence Day. A lot of Americans think Mexican Independence Day falls on the fifth of May, but they would be wrong. (Cinco de Mayo actually commemorates a battle victory in Mexico’s war with France during the 1860s.)
No, Mexican Independence Day is on September 16. It was on this day in 1810 that a famous priest in the town Delores, Mexico rang the church bell and issued a call to arms. His shout, “The Cry of Delores,” marked the beginning of Mexico’s war for independence from Spain. If it weren’t for the coronavirus pandemic, I could have had a chance to see the re-enactment; every year on the eve of the holiday, the president of Mexico delivers “el grito” (the shout) from the balcony of the National Palace in Mexico City. But unsurprisingly, the festivities for 2020 have been mostly cancelled or virtual.
Since mid-March, the U.S. land ports of entry shared with Canada and Mexico have been closed to non-essential travel, according to the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), as a joint cooperative measure between the three countries to “limit the further spread of coronavirus.” (Non-essential travel includes travel that is considered “tourism or recreational in nature.”) Each month since the initial announcement, DHS has extended the closure for an additional 30 days. Most recently, the governments have agreed to extend the closure through September 21.
And as the COVID-19 pandemic continues and sister cities along the border like El Paso, Texas and Ciudad Juárez, Mexico are hit especially hard, DHS announced it would further tighten its restrictions.
Typically when a Foreign Service Officer (FSO) arrives at a new post, they spend much of their first two weeks “checking in.” Check-ins consist of a variety of consultations with people in your section, the leadership of other sections, security and HR briefings, and one-on-one meetings with any people you supervise. There are also the practical matters of getting your badge, receiving your unaccompanied air freight (if you’re lucky), navigating between your house and the consulate or embassy, and generally orienting yourself and finding your way around your new environment. But my first two weeks were spent mostly quarantined at home, in line with Post’s 14-day stay-at-home policy for all new arrivals.
So how does checking in work in the time of COVID-19?
If you’ve been reading the blog for more than a couple of years, you’ve probably noticed that every time you see a post called “X Miles Later…” it means we just finished a Permanent Change of Station (PCS) move.
Previously, these moves have all been via airplane: my 2015 move to Tashkent for my first tour (6,329 Miles Later); our 2017 departure from Tashkent (6,498 Miles Later) quickly followed by our move to Australia for my second tour (7,572 Miles Later… which, by the way, brought my total airline miles in 2017 to a whopping 37.4K, a personal best); rounded out by our 2019 departure from Australia (5,225 Miles Later…). But of course this PCS was a little bit different, as we drove almost 2,200 miles across the south to our Mexican border post and no planes were involved.
Today I mark 15 years of federal service.
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.
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.
Perhaps “isolation” is no longer the best way to characterize the way we are living, but in some regards it still feels very true. We continue to have the tedium of sanitizing all of our groceries and mail, wearing a mask when we go out, and trying to avoid touching any surfaces unnecessarily. But we have now made an effort to go outside more, venturing a 40 minute drive away for a hike at Mason Neck State Park in Lorton, VA. Wearing masks on the busy trail and later picking up takeout instead of going to our favorite local Mexican restaurant both highlighted the oddity of the times and made us grateful that things are starting to feel different. We also recently learned the gym in our building may reopen soon, with social distancing and mask requirements.
Today marks the 87th day of staying mostly home, teleworking, not seeing friends in person, and adjusting just about every aspect of our lives to avoid getting sick from the coronavirus. Although it’s good to self-isolate to protect ourselves, it can be really lonely.
Today marks the 60th full day since V and I went into self-isolation due to the coronavirus pandemic, and the end of the ninth remote work week. As we have hidden mostly indoors (and thankfully in an apartment with floor-to-ceiling windows), we have watched spring arrive in the Washington, DC area. With limited safe outdoor space close to our apartment, I have lamented “missing” one of my favorite seasons here. It isn’t yet hot and humid, and flowers, fresh breezes, and the occasional shower remind us to enjoy it while it lasts; the fetid swamp of DC summer will be here soon enough. Ordinarily, spring days here would be packed with people enjoying outdoor activities and spilling out onto sidewalks in packed brunch spots across the metro area.
But with the reality check of virus cases in northern Virginia continuing to rise and the Foreign Service summer transfer season postponed for a third time, I have tried to just accept the situation as it is and make the best of a lot of quiet time indoors.
The coronavirus pandemic has much of the country and the world stuck at home, and everyone is coping the best way they know how. For me, it is a mere worry and an inconvenience, as we were supposed to leave for our next assignment in Mexico last Saturday and now our departure date is unknown. For others, it is unbelievable fear, grief, and stress. This makes me feel both grateful and ashamed for my safe place to live, job, and food security. Although I am scared for my parents in their 70s and my nana in her 90s, and I myself am at higher than average risk for contracting the virus and developing life-threatening complications if I catch it, I have taken extreme precautions to keep this from happening. This of course is afforded by the many privileges I have, not least of all the ability to telework. I cannot equate my experience in isolation with the actual danger and trauma that millions of others are experiencing. And so I won’t.
Yesterday we passed the one month mark since we self-isolated in our Arlington, VA apartment to try and hide from the coronavirus. During that time, I have taken two walks for fresh air, sat outside my building once for 15 minutes, walked one time to the post office wearing a mask, and drove two miles to DC for blood tests at my rheumatologist’s practice – where I was the only patient.
For me, it hasn’t been enough; today on the third day of severe sciatica pain and back spasms, it became clear to me that I need to get more exercise, immediately. Being sequestered for weeks in a tiny apartment like an astronaut on a spaceship is not a normal condition for a human being. But on the other hand, maintaining social distance from other people in such an urban hot spot has to take precedence for V and I, who are both at higher risk to catch the coronavirus. My immune-compromised status has sufficiently scared us to just stay in the apartment, but the consequences of that for weeks or months on end are also undesirable. And so last night I was very pleased to discover on my 90-minute test walk (that I began just after 10 p.m.) that while others can have the sunny spring days, the nights are all mine.