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.
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.
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.
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.
The last two weeks have been eventful, as I’ve juggled full-time Spanish study, illness, and lots of social events. With only a week left until my End of Training (EOT) test, it has certainly come down to the wire!
This past week of Spanish has been the most arduous for me yet. We have less than a month to go in our 24-week program, by which time we must earn a 3/3 on the End of Training test (EOT) – with the numbers indicating levels of speaking and reading, respectively – in order to go to our foreign assignments. Our instructors and learning consultants are hitting us with so many assignments and activities at once it has made my head spin. The workload and intensity have jumped dramatically in the fourth and final phase. But the instructors aren’t torturing us to be mean. They want us all to make that steep climb to success in the short time remaining. And for that, we have to be constantly reading, talking extemporaneously, and stuffing ourselves full of as much español as humanly possible.
The last five weeks of Spanish since I’ve returned from Ecuador have been characterized by three things: the holidays, getting sick, and the pressure of my formal pre-end of training evaluation.
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.
Over this past holiday season, we have been lucky to celebrate Thanksgiving with friends, reconnect with people we haven’t seen in a while, travel out of town, and enjoy a quiet Christmas at home. All of that has meant a lot, since our Christmas ornaments are at a port warehouse in Long Beach along with the rest of our worldly goods, and coming home to Virginia has felt at times more like a way station than anything else. Before our NYE celebrations planned for later tonight, I wanted to send some good end-of-decade vibes out into the world.
During week 13, we entered the second half of our 24-week Spanish program. Since we had changed classrooms, instructors, and classmates the week before, we were more or less still adapting to the new ecosystem. Another adaptation was the start of Phase 3; week 13 was the first week we had two topics to discuss (immigration and narcotrafficking) instead of doing the lessons in our online platform. That meant that we spent even more time debating, preparing structured presentations, and learning new ways to express opinions on these and ancillary issues.
Three important things happened during the past two weeks of Spanish. One, I passed my second progress evaluation. Two, we hit the midpoint of our 24-week program. And three, the Spanish Department shuffled students and instructors to create new classes. The latter two things were painless and turned out great. The first, well, that’s a different story. Buckle up, things are going to get uncomfortable.
During the past two weeks as we have worked our way towards the end of phase 2, the course has shifted slightly in content and structure, foreshadowing expectations for phases 3 and 4. Since we are getting closer to the halfway point of the 24-week program, we are supposed to complete our “building the base” activities so we can move into professionalization and consolidation of what we have learned. As my second speaking and reading progress assessment looms first thing on Monday morning, this post is a short update before I buckle down and disappear into my preparation for the next 72 hours.
During the past few weeks, the amount of coursework and difficulty of my Spanish class has started to accelerate. Our tasks have become more complex, at least for me. I have found myself more frustrated that my performance in class activities does not seem commensurate with the amount of effort and study I put in. I also feel mentally tired, experience procrastination and brain freezes, and need more alone time to recover. Of course, I am not bad at everything, and I have good days and bad days. I guess it is typical at this point to think you suck when you’re actually doing OK. The whole two steps forward, one step back thing.
I don’t recall feeling as “on” all the time during my FSI Russian class (2014-2015). It wasn’t easier, but our activities felt less intensive. The expectations were also definitely lower. However, I have also been heartened by a couple of special opportunities to help my learning – an invitation to a side course in consular Spanish, and a possibility to travel to South America on an immersion language trip.
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.