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.
Two weekends ago, V returned after an eight-week work trip to Washington, DC to help me celebrate my birthday. As if that weren’t great enough, the Columbus Day holiday also made it a three-day weekend. Longtime readers know what that means – a road trip out of town. But socially distanced and in the great outdoors, given the current situation.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
After waiting on the register for almost a year and five months, it was on this day in 2014 that I received “the call” to join the U.S. Foreign Service. In other words, I was invited to become a diplomat. It was my favorite Cinco de Mayo ever, and one of the most exciting days of my life. Accepting the offer marked the end of my three-year quest for the professional opportunity of a lifetime – my chance to be a part of the 178th Generalist A-100 Class at the Foreign Service Institute (FSI) in Arlington – and the beginning of a whole new career and lifestyle. Finally, my candidacy had been successful and I was in! The last six years haven’t been perfect, but given the chance, I’d do it all again.
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.