In my Foreign Service experience so far, overseas tours can be divided into three parts. During the first third, you are focused on settling in, waiting for your shipments to arrive, setting up your household, and adjusting to your work and surroundings. During the second third, you still have a learning curve, but feel more or less competent at navigating your personal and professional environments. You have friends, routine, and all your favorite places. This is the sweet spot. You aren’t moving, and the outcome of any bidding does not seem totally real…yet. You feel (gasp) ‘at home!’ And then comes the final third, when you have received your onward assignment. You must then balance what you have remaining to accomplish in-country with what you need to arrange moving forward. Ladies and gentlemen, we are rapidly approaching that final third.
Since our first month in Canberra, our Australian car has been a money pit and an ongoing source of dread. I’ve procrastinated writing a post about the situation for months because it had no clear resolution, and every time I thought about it, I felt too angry and frustrated. Truthfully, I’ve also had many other things to whinge about and I didn’t want to write one more bad-news entry! But I’ve come to the realization that this story could be of help (or at least entertainment) to someone else, and venting might actually make me feel better too.
Let me preface my tale of woe by saying that Foreign Service Officers (FSOs) switch overseas assignments every few years, and procuring and shipping cars can involve a significant amount of planning and expense. I’ve heard horror stories of fellow officers’ cars smashed in transit, sunk to the bottom of the sea in a shipping container, and emerged from years of government storage full of mold or insects. This isn’t going to be that kind of story. But it is a lessons-learned story about buying a lemon of a used car and our journey to discovering it. And buckle up: it’s a long and painful one. Although it’s common in the Foreign Service to buy cars from colleagues sight unseen, anyone along the continuum from unlucky to outright burned will tell you: buyer beware.
In mid-October, our HHE (household effects) arrived at last. Mr. Postcard has been hard at work unpacking it, several boxes at a time. At more than 120 boxes, the piles seemed like they were never going to end. But sure enough, more and more, the look of our house is starting to take shape as familiar and beloved items are unwrapped. My Felix the Cat cookie jar. My grandmother’s crystal rose and gold decanter set from her 1944 wedding. My fireproof safe. And so many things both sentimental and practical. Things I haven’t seen since our packout last May in Tashkent and in some cases, almost forgot about. I tend to easily and intentionally shed clutter and things I don’t love, especially in this lifestyle, so the things that arrived were precious. There are two boxes yet missing and being sought, and we are getting to the bottom of that, but for the time being we are trying to turn a house into a home. As we unload and reassemble and reimagine our things into the spots where they’ll live in this new configuration we are establishing, I remind myself that through the mess and chaos, at a certain point there will be a critical mass of things falling into place.
Today marks the one month point since our arrival in Australia. I’m grateful for so many of the advantages of being here, which are already obvious. If I’m honest though, I can’t help but notice that my settling in time has been marked by a number of inconveniences ranging from annoying, to painful, to downright comical (in the “what-else-could-go-wrong” sense). Every officer knows that the period of adjustment and settling in at a new post can be this way, even in a lucky first world posting and with lots of helpful colleagues. My time in Sydney in 2005 and 2006 was so charmed that I really wasn’t expecting to struggle so much at the beginning here. Is it bad luck? Karma from some offense committed in a prior incarnation? Being overly impatient with myself and others? No matter the genesis, I’ve tried persistently to see the glass as half full.
My husband and I were at San Francisco International Airport on a warm night in late July. Bags checked, phone calls made, dinner enjoyed, black passports in hand. Time to go. I strolled up to the departure gate in a long queue of passengers for the flight to Sydney, trying to appear nonchalant. In the pit of my stomach was this dread that one of the eagle-eyed Qantas gate agents would confront me about my carry-on baggage weighing two dozen kilos above the limit. They were all the right dimensions, but if anyone lifted them, they would have been aghast.
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.
My husband and I woke for the final time in Tashkent last Thursday around 02:00, showered, dressed, ate the last random food in our fridge, and lugged our suitcases out to the expediter vehicle. I’d felt a moment of sadness as I walked through the empty rooms of our house, and said goodbye to each room individually. After the baggage was loaded, I stood in the front yard for a moment trying to be present. I gazed at what had been my home for just over two years, and said my goodbyes and thanks.
On a hot, dry night in May 2015, I landed in Tashkent to begin my first diplomatic tour. My iPhone was shuffling through songs and settled on “The Heart of Rock and Roll” by Huey Lewis and the News just before the wheels hit the tarmac. My heart was excited and hopeful, and my mind was jumbled full of Russian and consular don’t-forgets. Over 105 weeks later, hours from flying away for good, I’m grateful for the best parts of being here, and even the tough parts. Five figure visa interviews. Eleven new countries…and one old. Road trips. Illnesses and injuries. New friends and colleagues. Probably way too many plates of plov cooked in sheep fat. And an inestimable amount of gratitude and hope for what comes next.
Spring can be a particularly angst-filled time for Foreign Service Officers on the summer bid cycle as they prepare to depart their posts for home leave, perhaps more training, and eventually, onward assignments. We call it a PCS move, or Permanent Change of Station. The details of PCS to-dos seem endless. From the complicated logistics of an overseas-to-overseas move, to meeting requirements for your new position, to completing a staggering list of duties designed to wrap up a life you’ve spent two years building – all while fully employed in your real job, saying goodbye to colleagues and friends in droves, and bucket-listing like crazy – it’s a lot to manage. Whether you can’t wait to finish your tour or the thought of departing makes you tearful, your launch will happen. Don’t get scorched on the launch pad.
You know that PCS (Permanent Change of Station) season is right around the corner when everyone is crossing those last regional destinations off their bucket lists. Or at the very least, indulging in a road trip to enjoy time with departing friends! The packing and organizing will get done one way or another.
On Saturday, September 5, after about 24 hours of travel, my husband arrived in Tashkent!
On Tuesday, thousands of pounds of household effects (HHE) including consumables were delivered to our home.
Given that I live a short drive from the embassy, I scheduled the delivery in the late afternoon so as not to interfere with visa interviews. I had a couple of business days’ notice while my shipment sat in Customs, so I was ready. Before the appointed time, I zoomed home to sequester my free-ranging yard tortoise into a shoebox. I dug out the shipping inventory in preparation to oversee the unloading of four huge wooden crates of our stuff, and steeled myself against possible aggravation.
Last Friday morning, I learned that within a couple of hours my vehicle would have its green diplomatic license plates and become street legal. I was already in possession of my Uzbek driver’s license and diplomatic accreditation card, so the issuance of dip plates was all that stood between me and the open road. The car had been sitting in the far corner of the embassy parking lot for nearly three weeks after clearing Customs, and I was grateful and elated that I would finally be able to take it home and stop going everywhere on foot or by taxi.
Over this past three day weekend (Happy 4th!), I have noticed two predominant types of posts on my Facebook newsfeed: those of my friends in the United States barbecuing and enjoying fireworks while decked out in red, white, and blue, and those of my Foreign Service colleagues taking the opportunity granted by an extra day off to travel to nearby countries.
Thursday, May 21, the night I arrived in Uzbekistan, I heard that my UAB (otherwise known as unaccompanied air baggage, or “air freight”) had beat me here. This was totally shocking for me (in a good way), as my air freight had only been packed out less than two weeks before.
I’ve heard dozens of times from officers in all different parts of the world that it generally takes UAB at least three weeks to arrive in Customs in the host country, sometimes longer.