As longtime readers of this blog know, since I launched in April 2014 I have never missed a month. Sure, there were a couple of times where I posted on the last day of the month, but I have never gone a month without posting something. And I was not going to start 2021 by messing that up! I don’t know why it matters to me; it is not as if missing a month means I can never come back. People who know me would not be surprised by me adhering to this all-or-nothing mentality though. I guess it’s just the way I am. Lest you think I need rules to govern me entirely, I actually do still very much enjoy writing for this blog; it’s just that the last two months have passed in a blur of work and one crisis after another that have left me simultaneously exhilarated and wiped out, which are stories for another day. So here I am at the eleventh hour with a short recap of 2020 and blog stats for the year.
I always know it has been too long between blog posts when too many half-developed ideas jumble together in my mind, clamoring to get out before they morph into something else with the passage of time. I try to think through my ideas, make them distinct, articulable, frame a coherent narrative from which I can draw conclusions. But sometimes it is not until I just release the words to the page, as it were, that the cross-currents of thoughts begin to flow in one direction and I understand what it is I want to say better than I could when I left it in my own mind. It is almost as if writing is my process of thinking; whether and to what extent I succeed in making a point is another matter.
This isn’t everything, but it’s all true.
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.
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.
In the last 10 days, tremendous progress has been made towards our move to Mexico, which froze in time when the coronavirus pandemic lockdown started in March. First, U.S. Consulate General Ciudad Juárez transitioned from phase zero to phase one in what the Department calls the “Diplomacy Strong” framework, harking a continuous three-week decline in COVID-19 cases in Juárez and green-lighting moves for incoming officers. Second, we sought and received a packout date for later this month, freeing us to divide our possessions between air freight and car carry (since we are driving), and things we will finish, donate, or leave behind. These two key steps have unlocked all the tasks that we couldn’t do when we had no idea when we were leaving – post office change of address, purchasing a second car, planning our driving route and making reservations, and more.
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.
Today was the 17th straight day of isolation inside our apartment. Two days ago, V broke his streak with a grocery run so epic, it took us almost two hours to wipe down and sanitize all of the items one by one with Lysol wipes, get rid of extraneous cardboard packaging, and soak all the fruit and vegetables in warm soapy water with just a hint of bleach. Today, I transitioned from social isolation to social distancing by going for a two-mile walk in the urban jungle of Arlington, VA.
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.
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.
I was heartbroken to wake up yesterday morning and learn that for the first time in its 59-year history, Peace Corps would totally suspend its operations and evacuate thousands of Peace Corps Volunteers (PCVs) worldwide due to the coronavirus outbreak.
The past week has been one of the strangest and most fluid in recent memory. We had a national emergency, a roller coaster stock market, travel restrictions, and the World Health Organization declared a global health pandemic. We even got in a full moon, time change, and a Friday the 13th for good measure. But it wasn’t just strange in an abstract way; witnessing panic-buying behavior and empty store shelves, coupled with news of school closures and rippling nationwide event cancellations drove the potential catastrophic impact uncomfortably close to home for many.