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.
Since we drove home on March 16 from Glen Allen, VA and our failed attempt to participate in Foreign Affairs Counterthreat (FACT) training, we have been sequestered in our apartment. I took the trash out once to the chute in the hallway, combined with one trip to check the mail. Another day I went to my car to take a scan of my registration card. And once I sat outside for 10 minutes under the night sky waiting for an ice cream delivery. That means I have been out of the apartment for a cumulative total of less than 25 minutes over the course of the last 18,720 minutes, or 312 hours, or 13 days.
V has dumped the trash and recycling and checked the mail a few times, and collected ~ I think ~ three Seamless/Door Dash takeaway deliveries. (Coming back into the apartment necessitates a tedious process of hand washing, using Lysol on our keys and the doorknob, changing clothes, etc., especially after we found out this week that someone in our building is infected with the coronavirus and is still in and out of common areas to walk her dog. We are also following the grocery and takeout container cleaning protocol outlined in this doctor’s YouTube video.)
Other than that, we have been enjoying the solitude, teleworking, having some laughs, fretting about our move, talking and FaceTiming with people, and trying to find the end of Netflix.
During this past week, I was in the State Department’s Mexico area studies course put on by the Bureau of Western Hemisphere Affairs (WHA) at the Foreign Service Institute (FSI). It was similar to the two week Russia/Eurasia course I did in 2014 while preparing for my assignment to Uzbekistan. Most area studies classes at FSI are regionally-focused, but the complexity, depth, and breadth of the U.S.-Mexico bilateral relationship means Mexico has its own dedicated course, and it was both useful and fun. Narcotics, crime, migration, American Citizen Services emergencies, difficulties in determining citizenship, film, art, culture, indigenous issues, trade, mariachi bands, and tacos – what else do you want?
I just finished the fourth week of Spanish language training at the Foreign Service Institute (FSI) in Arlington, where the State Department sends its diplomats and staff for training ahead of overseas assignments, sometimes for months at a time. In my case, late next spring I will become Deputy American Citizen Services (ACS) Chief at our consulate in Cuidad Juárez, México, so I get six months (24 weeks) of Spanish. FSI teaches dozens of languages and tradecraft courses, so you’ll find employees from across the U.S. government studying there, too.
For me, the change of pace from a busy political section at our embassy in Australia – where the bilateral relationship is huge – to sitting in a small classroom for several hours per day has been nice, but challenging in its own way. It’s also crazy to think I am one-sixth done with Spanish already! My first progress evaluation is on Monday, so this is a good place to pause and reflect.
In 2018, I didn’t once set foot outside Australia. Although I have lived abroad four times (for periods ranging between 13 months and 25 months), previously the only country I had spent the entire calendar year from start to finish in without ever leaving was the United States. This past year, I focused on exploring Australia through domestic travel, recovering my health, and gaining a deeper understanding of work as a political officer. I also made some changes to the blog that boosted its visibility and attracted some new audiences. Here I take a look back at where we’ve been in 2018.
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.