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.
Tomorrow marks three weeks since V and I returned to Virginia and started the several months of training required for my next assignment to Mexico. A few aspects of the transition and settling-in process have been bumpier than I expected. Although moving to the U.S. (“home”) should be easier than an overseas move to a new country, in a lot of ways it isn’t. Without an embassy to help you set up your life (again), there is a lot of surprisingly tedious stuff to deal with on your own, and not much time to manage it.
During this Permanent Change of Station (PCS) from Australia to Virginia, between problems with our new apartment management, problems with timing our unaccompanied air freight (UAB) and storage deliveries, and problems with my car turning up damaged from two years of overseas government storage, the past few weeks have felt like one aggravation after the next. And all of that doesn’t even take into consideration my new full-time job of Spanish learning, and the challenge of going from two incomes back to one. However, on the bright side and after a lot of effort, expense, moral support from friends, and some luck, things are starting to settle bit by bit into place. (Warning: lengthy rant ahead.)
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!