In my previous post, I talked about how the semi-feral cat living in our backyard when we started our third Foreign Service assignment in Ciudad Juárez, Mexico became our first “traditional” pet since joining the diplomatic corps. The tortoises we’d adopted in Uzbekistan couldn’t be imported into Australia, and were better off in their native desert habitat. And there was no hope of bringing a wild Australian parrot or kangaroo back to the United States, so we’d experienced lots of animal love during our first two overseas assignments with none of the permanence. But that all changed during our third tour when my husband V caught a black cat he’d been feeding and looking after in our backyard for a year and a half and took him to the vet for a checkup.
V had named our kitty ‘Dzish,’ a Turkish word loosely translated meaning “blackest black.” (It’s pronounced like “Jeesh.”) And once he came home wearing a cone, he no longer roamed free in the backyard. Instead he became an indoor cat under V’s watchful eye until we departed Post two weeks later for home leave and our next assignment in the United States.
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Many Foreign Service families have pets, and spend a significant amount of money transporting them around the world on one diplomatic tour after another. It isn’t easy or cheap to move pets between the United States and a foreign country of assignment, let alone to commit to doing so every 2-3 years. Between airline customer service, the stress of an international move (often by plane) with pets, complex shipping and courier requirements, vet paperwork, foreign country import and quarantine regulations, extra vaccinations, and the EXPENSE often stretching well into the four figures, it can get very stressful. Not to mention if you have elderly or special needs pets who don’t travel or relocate well, you may decide the best thing is to leave them behind with a friend or relative, if possible. And there’s always the worst case scenario: a large-scale crisis at a post where pets are not guaranteed a space on a limited evacuation flight out.
Some types of pets are generally more practical than others in this lifestyle, too – namely cats and smaller dogs. Of course, there will be officers who find a way to make it work for a time with fish, hamsters, and humongous dogs – in my view, adding more worries to an already complicated life. But the prevailing thinking seems to be pets are worth the hassle and complications posed by a Permanent Change of Station (PCS) move because of all they add to your life during calmer times. I was happy to forego that benefit until our most recent tour in Mexico; there we finally acquired our first FS pet, more than seven years into this lifestyle. A combination of seeing how much my husband V loved the animal, being on the border where all we had to do was drive home to the United States when we left our post, and knowing we wouldn’t have to move by air for at least three years all pushed me over the edge. After all, we can’t just live every day in the tight box the Department draws around us, even when coloring outside the lines makes it harder.
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September is National Suicide Prevention Awareness Month in the United States, and September 4-10, 2022 marked National Suicide Prevention Week, an annual campaign to educate the public and promote increased awareness about suicide. On a personal note, one year ago this month an old friend and someone important to me took his own life, so I’d like to use this post to discuss suicide awareness. Suicide is a heavily stigmatized topic many people avoid and consider taboo. But it’s not a contagious disease. It touches so many of us and is getting harder to ignore.
In fact, according to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention (AFSP), in the United States in 2020, there were almost 46,000 reported suicide deaths; a shocking 53% of them were firearm suicides. During the same time period, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports an estimated 12.2 million American adults contemplated suicide, 3.2 million made a plan, and 1.2 million Americans attempted suicide. (The true figure could be much higher, since some suicide attempts go unreported.)
Stop for a moment and consider the human toll beyond the statistics. How many friends, family members, classmates or coworkers are connected to each of those individuals? The AFSP estimates a staggering 53% to 85% of Americans have been affected in some way by suicide – whether it’s trauma from witnessing a stranger’s suicide, coping with losing a loved one, or suffering with suicidal thoughts themselves. You may know someone like this, or this may be you. So if you’re wondering whether you can do anything to help, the answer is yes. And I’m asking you to try. Suicide prevention is officially everyone’s business.
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In mid-June, after leaving California, I spent almost a week in Washington state teleworking and otherwise helping out my dad during my stepmom’s hospitalization. In late 2018, they had made their relocation from California to Washington permanent, selling their primary home outside Monterey and moving the last of their things north.
After enjoying the uber-green surrounds plus the most alone time I’d had with my dad in years – wonderful, but a sad result of my stepmom never being released from the hospital during the duration of my visit – it was time for me to start heading towards Virginia and home. “Back east,” as west coasters say. My dad and I checked the Volkswagen’s oil and kicked the tires, and then I set off on my first leg for Idaho.
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After driving cross-country like an arrow in under four days, I arrived in my hometown on the last day of May and sat at my friend T’s grave. I then spent half of June teleworking from my mom’s house in California, and later made my way up to Washington state to see my dad and stepmom before turning the wheel back east towards Virginia and home.
I didn’t take much leave during my three-week road trip west. The deal I’d hastily cut with my office had been to work remotely from California so I could spend time decompressing with family while not leaving our team in the lurch. I did, however, voluntarily and consistently work on east coast time. I aligned my schedule with my colleagues’ by signing on at 5:00 a.m. west coast time, taking my lunch after my family arose for breakfast, and signing off by 2:00 p.m. Thus I was free relatively early each day to enjoy some sun and do whatever else I wanted. That mainly involved spending time with family and old friends, sitting quietly in the cemetery, or visiting places I had memories with T where I needed to be alone and process my grief.
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Earlier this month marked 17 years of federal service to my country. 🇺🇸
Three agencies, five countries, two states, two embassies, one consulate, and countless duty stations and TDYs. It has been a wild ride. Hopefully I have at least a few years left in me before the bureaucracy drives me nuts and I have to retire and do something else!
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Last August, I left Ciudad Juárez on vacation and drove across the deserts of Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, and Nevada to visit my family in California for the first time in about two years, logging 1,279 solo miles in just under 36 total hours. Five weeks ago in late May, I also set off west; the same destination in mind, but this time from Virginia. It was the biggest solo road trip I’d ever embarked upon, and I’d done so with less than 12 hours’ planning, deciding around 8pm on the Friday evening preceding Memorial Day weekend to leave Saturday morning and leverage three days off in a row to get out to California where I could continue remote working as I do here at home.
I was in a state of acute grief at having learned I’d lost an old friend and ex-boyfriend, T, to suicide and that – unbeknownst to me until late April – his family had buried him privately in our hometown in January. I was distracted, upset, unproductive. I needed answers, I needed to say goodbye, I needed to see my family.
I let my mom know I was coming. In the Foreign Service lifestyle, this would not always be possible. Fortunately, we are still in a pandemic and remote working up to 80% of the time, we are on a domestic tour, my car had recently been serviced, and I was on top of my laundry and bills. A few thousand miles could not faze me. I made a packing list and executed it. Barely four days later, I rolled up in front of my mom’s house with an extra 2,723 miles on the Volkswagen’s odometer and dirt from 13 different states on the undercarriage.
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I technically started my job in the Office of Children’s Issues (CI) – part of the Bureau of Consular Affairs’ Office of Overseas Citizen Services at the State Department – back in early March after my home leave ended. The position is as a country officer working on international parental child abduction (IPCA) cases; CI functions as the U.S. Central Authority for the 1980 Hague Convention on the Civil Aspects of International Child Abduction.
In a nutshell, the convention is a treaty whereby the U.S. and other countries agree that matters of custody and visitation of minor children between parents should be decided in countries where children are habitually resident, without one parent removing the child to a different country in order to prevent or limit access by the other. In other words, we want to avoid or remedy situations where one parent abducts their child to (incoming) or from (outgoing) the United States.
More on that work at a future date, but for the time being, suffice it to say between training and onboarding, the time it took to receive a regional portfolio assignment, and various technical difficulties with getting up and running with the database access I needed to begin actually doing my job, the first several weeks weren’t as productive on my part as I’d expected. I felt guilty my colleagues were so busy while I largely spent March and April waiting to start working. I felt like I burned up a lot of time doing online webinars and bugging IT folks, and walking around my neighborhood at lunchtime only to return to an empty inbox.
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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.
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The post with a year-in-review and blog stats is usually the post I publish in January of a new calendar year. However, that didn’t happen this year for a few reasons. First and foremost, we packed out our house and departed our third diplomatic assignment before mid-January, so I was crazy busy with work and life transitions. Second, there were a lot of things in 2021 I hadn’t processed adequately by New Year’s or in a superficial way felt I didn’t want to reflect on or remember. And third, 2021 marked the first year the blog did not receive more page views than the year before. Every year since I started writing in 2014, the number of views and visitors have each steadily risen, making it something fun to announce the following year.
In January writing this post out of a sense of forced obligation – particularly at a time when I was honestly pretty down on a lot of aspects of this career as well as struggling with health and moving – didn’t seem like fun. So I decided to write about whatever was on my mind as it came to me, and shunt a blog stats post from last year off until a future date when I actually felt like doing it. And as the blog celebrates eight years today since its very first post, today seemed apropos.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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The title of this blog post sounds like one of those sensational click-bait articles you read because its title is too hard to resist. They usually turn out to be disappointing and filled with spammy pop-ups. This won’t be that kind of post. No spam, no gimmicks, no affiliate links. I’m not selling anything or trying to convince anyone of anything. And I’m not going to tell anyone how quick and easy it was to lose 100 pounds, because honestly, it wasn’t. At times it was very difficult, especially at the beginning. It also isn’t my intention to suggest being overweight is unacceptable or something in need of correction; we – and in particular women – hear enough of those messages.
What I will do is share my honest journey to lose weight and regain my health after five years of illness and injury, which was necessary and medically indicated for me. I will outline my weight loss strategies and the lessons I learned to satisfy the curiosity of the many who have asked me how I did it. But I want to caution that although my methods worked for me, they won’t necessarily be successful or appropriate for everyone. This is simply what has worked to bring me to the place where I am today. I have learned a huge component of a weight loss journey is knowing yourself well enough to understand what your individual triggers, strengths, needs, preferences, organizational style, medical history, and discipline will require and allow. And speaking of reading, like most things I write, this post is not a quick scroll. It was a complex and personal journey and not easy to write out. I tried to organize it in a way that’s easy to read and follow, but like the journey itself, I didn’t find shortcuts in getting to the end.
However, I hope the road I took and my results will be inspiring, interesting, and motivating to others. So if you’re interested in why I decided to lose 100 pounds in 2021, how I succeeded, and 12 lessons I learned in doing so – keep reading!
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