The first week of March, I drove from our new home in Virginia down to Florida for my dear friend T’s baby shower. I’d made my plans in January upon receiving her invitation, and they hadn’t included flying; the freedom of road tripping in my trusty Volkswagen felt safer and more socially distant as the Omicron variant bled across the country. I also wanted to do some IKEA shopping, and perhaps stop in NC to see my matron of honor J and my stepdaughter A. It would be my last week of home leave, and thus my last immediate chance to get away and clear my mind before starting a new period of professional focus.
While abroad, many Foreign Service Officers find community through professional and social networks at the embassies or consulates where they serve. The Community Liaison Office at a post, known as the CLO, does a lot to foster this, hosting social events, planning outings, and celebrating American holidays. Participating in this community, which also includes locally engaged staff, can help us navigate a new environment while still holding on to a little bit of home. Especially during service at small or high-hardship posts, or where the culture is very different than in the United States, for example, the embassy community tends to be strong. Despite our perception in Uzbekistan that it was a bit of a fishbowl, that community was important in connecting us with information there, where we – and especially V, who’d had no Russian training – faced a higher bar to speaking the language, self-organizing domestic trips and outings, and performing daily activities. Alternatively, Australia was an English-speaking country where we were as likely to hang out with our Australian neighbors as with our American colleagues despite having two hard-working CLOs. Two posts – two different types of community, and yet both played the same role in terms of a community abroad.
And in Mexico, a much different scenario despite the warmth and hospitality of the CLO and the Mexican people. We arrived and departed during the COVID-19 pandemic, never fully settling in or getting a sense – beyond virtual events here and there – of what we understood had been a vibrant, robust consulate community. If that weren’t challenging enough, after a year of “we’re in it together” protective measures against the coronavirus, the whiplash of my feeling left behind when society decided 96% of people being safe actually was good enough and removed their masks as the Delta variant arrived and I suspected, correctly, that asymptomatic spread was occurring, made me feel erased from the consulate community in Juárez entirely.
Of course, we still had the broader El Paso community only four miles away – a key benefit of serving on the border. But ultimately it wasn’t enough, and as I could no longer stay safe in my workplace or expect the same chance everyone else there had received to emerge immunized from the pandemic, I decided to remove myself from that environment. It was in this context that I arrived just under three months ago in my adopted home state of northern Virginia feeling angry, isolated, and ejected from any sense of equity or belonging to the people and space around me.
This period of home leave between my third and fourth diplomatic tours has been a time to rest, recuperate, and set up life in the United States again after spending most of the last seven years abroad. At 35 business days, it has intentionally been my longest home leave since joining the Foreign Service. Counting from the day after our PCS travel to Virginia ended, to the day before my next assignment starts (holidays and weekends don’t count), I have taken exactly seven weeks. Uniquely, for the first time, I’ve spent it all on the east coast.
It has been five and a half weeks since we ended our time in Mexico and returned to the United States, and it has been three weeks since we moved from the temporary hotel lodging into the northern Virginia house we rented for the next two years. Despite the house still being mostly empty and having to spend more time than we wanted cleaning in order to settle in, it does feel more like we are building a home here with each passing week.
Our 450 lbs of Unaccompanied Air Baggage (UAB) arrived nine days after we moved in. We’ve also purchased almost all the furniture we need for our home offices, dining room, living room, den, and bar area, even though pandemic-related supply chain issues have meant only half of it has actually been delivered so far. Mexican Customs also thankfully cleared our household effects (HHE) to depart Mexico without incident; the State Department notified me last week our HHE had arrived safely at a warehouse in El Paso, Texas, signaling the remaining 5,700 pounds of our things will catch up with us sooner than anticipated.
We arrived in northern Virginia two weeks ago, and have been at an extended stay hotel suite on Temporary Quarters Subsistence Allowance (TQSA) until the house we rented is ready for us to move into. My orders authorized up to 60 days of TQSA, but fortunately our house will be ready this week and we were able to put enough survival furniture together until our household effects arrive to make things comfortable for the two of us.
I have been on home leave, but V has been teleworking literally beginning the day after we rolled into Alexandria on a freezing late afternoon and unloaded two carloads of stuff into the hotel. On my orders overseas he is always my Eligible Family Member (EFM) or “dependent,” but he is also a civil service federal employee in his own right. Therefore, when we departed Ciudad Juárez after my curtailment, his arrangement as a Domestic Employee Teleworking Overseas (or DETO) came to an end. Now that he is back at his regular duty station – Washington, DC – it’s back to business as usual for him… and in the pandemic that still means remote work.
Between the winter blues, studying Spanish, working on my New Year’s resolutions, and despairing over wildlife affected by the Australian bushfires, it has taken me a few weeks to get my act together enough to write this post, a post I would normally write in the first couple of days of the new year. But I didn’t want to skip it because there was some interesting data to reflect upon and it’s also a tradition, so finally…here it is!
In 2019, I wrote more posts and content than in any prior year, and the blog received – by far – its greatest number of both views and visitors to date. I also traveled thousands of miles across Australia, finished my role as a political officer in Canberra, and returned to Virginia to prepare for our next assignment to México. I also spent two weeks in Ecuador on a Spanish language immersion trip and visited eight U.S. states. In summary, 2019 was a year filled with movement, and a lot of change.
After wrapping up our second diplomatic tour in Australia, we spent the entire month of August on mandatory home leave in the United States, where I hadn’t been in 25 months (my longest time out yet).
As I described in my previous post, we spent the first week of our four-week home leave in Honolulu, Hawaii, where neither V nor I had ever been. We drove just over 300 miles around the island, and then we flew to California, where we threw our eight suitcases into a Nissan Pathfinder and spent three more weeks visiting family, friends, and touristing our way through California, Oregon, and Washington. Here are a few snapshots and highlights from the “mainland” part of our home leave, in which we drove 1,700+ miles through three states, after flying 7,683 miles from Canberra to Sydney to Honolulu to Sacramento.
In early August, V and I spent the first part of our home leave in Hawaii. Home leave is Congressionally-mandated vacation in the U.S. or its territories (you can cost-construct against your Home of Record) after an overseas diplomatic posting. Home leave is designed to help you reacquaint yourself with the country you are serving. It starts the first business day after your travel day (the day you land in the U.S.), and should last a minimum of 20 business days before your onward training or posting starts. I had counted backwards from the first day of Spanish class this coming September to determine which day we should depart Australia and make sure we took at least the minimum home leave.
Although home leave is required, it isn’t paid for; officers and their families have to juggle expenses and decide whether to visit family, go to a new place, or some combination. Going on vacation in a first-world country for a month, usually with no car or house, can be really expensive! Compared to our first home leave in 2017, this time I prepared better and saved up. Since Honolulu falls roughly 2/3 of the way between Australia and California, and neither of us had ever been to Hawaii before, it seemed like a terrific stopover point to kick off our home leave. Honolulu and the island of Oahu did not disappoint! In case you are curious or planning a visit, here are the things we enjoyed most – in no particular order – during our five nights and six days there.
Last Friday afternoon, we paused a moment in the foyer of our home to say goodbye and thank it for the last two years. Even though it was empty of our belongings, it still didn’t feel quite like “just a house.” We’d drug all eight of our suitcases and carry-ons out to the driveway right before the taxi arrived, and now they were loaded. It was time to go. We left all the keys, alarm fobs, and garage door openers on the kitchen counter, locked the front door for the last time from the inside and pulled it shut. We had a flight to Sydney, and then a flight to Honolulu to catch. I was about to break my longest streak yet outside the U.S. – two years, four days.
Foreign Service Officers (FSOs) have Congressionally-mandated “home leave” between overseas diplomatic postings. We are required to take a minimum of 20 business days in the U.S. in order to reorient ourselves and keep our ties strong. We don’t actually have to spend our home leave days at our home of record (HOR); we can be anywhere in the U.S. and its territories. However, unless an FSO is independently wealthy (ha), has a vacant property to stay in, or willing family members with homes large enough to host an officer and his/her spouse, kids, pets, and stuff for weeks on end, home leave for many can end up feeling like “homeless” leave.