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.
It makes me sad to write this post, because it means that later today we leave Australia. We arrived on a cold winter day two years and four days ago, full of anticipation and excitement and hope for a terrific tour. And then all of the years and months and weeks and days and hours dwindled down as we worked and traveled and struggled and celebrated and laughed and worked and worked some more, until they ran out. And yesterday as I walked out of the embassy for the last time with nothing but my purse and some souvenirs, I couldn’t help but feel overwhelmed with how lucky I have been to serve here.
Earlier this month, we combined our last three-day weekend in Australia with our last road trip to Sydney for the 11th annual Vivid – a festival of “light, music and ideas.” Vivid didn’t exist when I lived there as a grad student, and last year we missed it, but I thought it would be fun to see to see the Sydney Opera House and Harbour Bridge lit up, and to check out the light installations at the zoo and Royal Botanic Gardens. We also did a couple of coastal walks, ate delicious food, saw a grad school friend of mine, and visited the Anzac Memorial’s recently completed WWI centenary exhibition.
Although we were only in Sydney for two nights, the trip reminded me of how much I love Sydney and what a beautiful city it is. There is often debate among embassy colleagues about our favorite Australian cities. I cannot fault Melbourne, Brisbane, or anywhere else; I have never been anywhere in Australia that I did not like. But Sydney holds a special place in my heart as my former home. In the intervening years, it has been full of changes. But many delightful old ghosts come back to life for me with each visit, and sharing that with V is terrific for me. It was good to be there one more time, with less than eight weeks remaining at Post.
Over the years, I have received lots of questions about housing benefits in the Foreign Service (FS) – primarily what my houses have looked like, if I liked them, and whether I got to pick them. Foreign Service Officers are assigned government-owned (or leased) housing to live in during overseas tours as a benefit of our employment. There can be a misconception that diplomats overseas “live like kings,” but where we live is much more about what is available within the applicable regulations – and sometimes that isn’t great – unless you are an ambassador or deputy chief of mission with a representational residence. (For more on housing sacrifices made by FS families, please read this really terrific article by former FS spouse Donna Scaramastra Gorman, “The Reality of Being a Foreign Service Spouse.”)
Whether you feel like your FS housing is an odd temporary space to put up with, or adore it and cherish it as your own home, the topic of housing inspires a lot of discussion – worry and questions, complaints and gratitude, and plenty of laughs. One post in an FS-related Facebook group asking for submissions of the strangest FS housing quirks led to hundreds of comments and hilarious photos that had me in stitches. I had a submission or two of my own, but so far we have been very lucky. Here I share my perspectives, along with never-before seen photos of our official residences from our first two tours in Tashkent, Uzbekistan and Canberra, Australia.
Each year on April 25, Australians and New Zealanders hold a day of remembrance to honor their fallen service members. Anzac Day was originally meant to commemorate the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps (ANZAC) volunteer soldiers who landed at Gallipoli, Turkey on April 25, 1915. The battle at Gallipoli, sometimes also called the Dardanelles Campaign, was the first time Australian and New Zealand troops fought together in World War I. More than 11,000 ANZAC soldiers were killed and a further 23,500 wounded at Gallipoli. In the decades that followed, the holiday broadened to honor the fighting Anzac spirit that is a large part of the national identity.
All over Australia, Australians mark Anzac Day with dawn services, marches, and remembrance ceremonies, and reflect on the lives of those who persevered and died protecting the freedoms and values we enjoy.
On Saturday, December 22, 2018, the United States government underwent a partial shutdown due to a lapse in appropriations, and V and I became two of the 800,000 federal employees furloughed without pay. This was my fourth furlough in 13+ years of federal service, but this one felt like it could potentially go on a lot longer than the others. Five weeks later, the longest shutdown in our nation’s history came to a temporary end with the passage of a continuing resolution, days before we planned to miss our second paycheck and our dental and vision plan (paid for through payroll withholdings) was about to start direct-billing me.
As I have said many times, I do not publicly discuss politics or comment on U.S. policy in my personal capacity. That is not going to change. There are a million people out there already doing that, and some even with considerable acumen. However, there are some takeaways I would like to share on the shutdown from my overseas perspective.
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.
As the end of the Foreign Service bidding cycle came to a close, all of the waiting and ambiguity I thought would end upon that long hoped-for handshake instead deepened into more waiting, frustration, bureaucratic entanglements, and medical clearance issues. I am working on it and hopefully will be able to announce our onward assignment in the coming weeks. In the meantime, the feeling of getting very close to a good outcome, only to keep getting further away while jumping over unexpected obstacles in my path has been dogging me. Someday I will tell that story.
Today, I’ll tell a different story in the same vein, about a day in March 2003 during my first couple of months as a Peace Corps Volunteer in the Republic of Macedonia. Originally entitled, “All For a List,” I wrote this piece about trying so hard to do something simple and being foiled, and foiled, and foiled some more. I silently raged against the machine, I almost lost patience, I almost let it get my goat. When the most straightforward situations devolve into total clown shows, it is the ability to laugh when you want to cry that keeps you resilient. I meet much bigger challenges more easily now, but for me that day in 2003 still marks how far I’ve since come in learning patience, thinking on my feet, and innovating on the fly. It is a snapshot in time of learning to build resiliency, and finding the calmest path to the destination you want. Don’t miss the scenery along the way!
A few weeks ago, I went on a work-related trip to Melbourne, Australia’s second most populous city. Nearly thirteen years had elapsed since my prior visit, but it was evident that Melbourne still has a spirit all its own – it is definitely not Sydney, or Brisbane, or Adelaide, or Perth. Melbourne is one of Australia’s most diverse cities; often called Australia’s “cultural capital,” one-third of Melbourne’s 4.9 million residents were born overseas. Visiting the melting pot that is Melbourne to attend the Strong Cities Network conference on preventing violent extremism, amidst this year’s confluence of global politics, the threat of terrorism, and the halfway point of my tour as a political officer in Canberra, made me reflect on the immigrant experience in Australia and Melbourne’s successes in social cohesion.
Between November 2002 and August 2004, I served as a Peace Corps Volunteer in the Republic of Macedonia doing environmental education and management. At that stage of my life, I was in my mid-20s, single, and a recent San Diego State University graduate who hadn’t seen much of the world outside of California, Nevada, and northern Mexico. Every few years, I take a look back at some of the emails and letters I sent to friends and family during that time. Even though some of the writing is spectacularly convoluted and would have benefited from thorough editing, I do see glimpses within of the person I would become. Some of the letters, while not a complete perspective on my service, are also a heartwarming reminder for me of my young resiliency, hope, and the struggles I had in adapting to my new home. Although some days I succeeded better than others, the prevailing legacy of that time was an openness to seeing life through others’ eyes. I’m sharing a few excerpts of those letters home here.
If you have been reading my blog for a while, you know that I served my first diplomatic tour in Uzbekistan starting in 2015. Many of my blog posts while there were focused on things other than Uzbekistan; although I wrote about narrow aspects of my life, and chronicled our trips around the country, the list of unwise subjects to publicly write about in that particular environment was lengthy.
In retrospect, there may have been more “content” I could have produced about the unique parts of Uzbekistan had I been there under different auspices. There is no question that the high-fraud consular work, security posture, and challenges of being a non-mother in a society where women derive their place chiefly from motherhood all negatively affected my perspective at times. I also was very focused on not drawing attention to my whereabouts and activities too, especially when my blog “mysteriously” became accessible only by VPN. Another American I know succeeded much better in explaining and appreciating what he and his wife experienced during their three years in Uzbekistan. Thirteen months almost to the day on from my departure, it has been an unexpected delight for me to see Uzbekistan again through their eyes.
At least a couple of times a month, the Collecting Postcards blog receives questions via social media or email. Although I always answer readers directly, I have also wanted to address repeat questions more broadly by turning them into blog topics. I tried this in August 2015 with a feature I called “Your Questions Answered,” but lapsed in keeping it going. I’m going to try to relaunch it, so here are a few recent questions I’ve received: about access to American “stuff” while overseas, coping with distance from loved ones, making home wherever you lay your head, and balancing official duties with personal beliefs. Go ahead, ask a diplomat!
In 1996, the United States Senate designated the first Friday in May as “American Foreign Service Day.” It is on this day that members of the Foreign Service around the world come together to recognize the work that our nation’s diplomats do. It is also a day to pay tribute to those we’ve lost; today at high noon, we at U.S. Embassy Canberra gathered at the chancery flagpole for a few moments of reflection and remembrance.
Earlier in April, I went on TDY (temporary duty) from U.S. Embassy Canberra to U.S. Consulate Sydney to cover a short staffing gap. Although I was only in Sydney for a week and a half, it was a fantastic opportunity to help out the mission while learning how to do a different job. And of course, I was able to spend time in one of my most beloved former home cities – and visit old haunts, old friends, and even my postgraduate alma mater, Macquarie University. It was rewarding, it was fun, and it was even a little bittersweet.
This past week, I took a big step on the road back to good health with a toe-straightening operation. Now that I’ve conquered the bone infection, it’s time to get my foot into a condition to resume wearing shoes without scraping and reinfecting my toe. In the ongoing saga of how-much-trouble-can-one-toe-cause, I am continuing along a trajectory toward wellness. And despite how un-Christmaslike southern hemisphere December weather feels to me, the season of gratitude is in full swing.