We departed Post Ciudad Juárez this past Thursday and crossed the U.S.-Mexico border for the last time into El Paso, Texas, officially ending my third Foreign Service tour.
My last night of every overseas tour, I have traditionally bid the assignment goodbye with a post I draft and publish upon my departure the following day. As much chaos as a PCS entails, once the packout is over, the badge is handed in, and the suitcases are packed, I will find moments of calm to reflect upon such an exercise. I did so in 2017, in the wee hours before the expeditor came for us in Uzbekistan, filled with gratitude and nerves. I did so in 2019 as we wrapped up our last breakfast in Australia on the back veranda, when the only thing that kept my heart from bursting was that winter had made our vibrant, colorful yard cold and still.
And now I’m getting ready to do it again in 2022. This morning we will load up our cars and begin our nearly 2,000 mile drive across Texas, Arkansas, and Tennessee to our new home in northern Virginia. The end of this tour feels both too soon and like it should have happened months ago. I probably won’t truly understand how I feel about it for a long time, but it’s a definitive goodbye all the same. As we start over we will carry with us a piece of this place we barely got to know, and I will leave a piece of myself behind.
The new year has come and gone. In the week plus since my last blog post, and as the days tick closer to our Permanent Change of Station (PCS) packout, my tempo of pre-departure preparations has become more frenzied. I’ve come a long way, and given the amount we accomplished today there is still quite a bit to do tomorrow but we have made it to the home stretch.
Over the last two weeks as I’ve started preparing for our next Permanent Change of Station (PCS) move, I’ve also been what’s known in the Foreign Service as “Acting.” That’s when you cover your boss’s position while also covering your own, and it’s common during the holidays or transition seasons when many people request leave at the same time. Since I was also Acting for all of last December, my boss offered me the chance this year to take Christmas off. However, I’d elected instead to take leave in January for Orthodox Christmas and New Year; I’d wanted to take V to San Diego to show him old places I love, and to Tucson to explore new places together. Of course, since we subsequently decided to curtail, we need to prioritize packing out and returning to Virginia in favor of traveling for fun. I’ll still take a few weeks of home leave once we get to Virginia, but there won’t sadly be any desert or west coast involvement.
I will reflect in the future on the thoughts and feelings I have about things I won’t be getting to do here. For now, I am looking forward to returning to Virginia. I’m particularly grateful that it’s much easier to PCS from a border post than it is from posts that involve air travel. In my limited experience of three Foreign Service posts so far, it seems the more developed a country is and the more you set up your life there, the more difficult it is to unwind everything at the end.
As Christmas approaches, I am in a period of reflection and gratitude, but you might not know it from looking. This is the first year since 2006 that I haven’t put up a Christmas tree, and the only year I haven’t really bought Christmas gifts or sent a single holiday card. I’m not making Christmas cookies or any special holiday food. On the Autoimmune Protocol I can’t have the vast majority of it anyway, and modifying all the recipes would take more creativity and talent than I have at the moment. V didn’t put Christmas lights outside this year, or plug in our obnoxious inflatable snowman who rose with a wave for the last 15 years to greet anyone who approached our home for the holidays. It’s quite different than the enormous effort I made last year. And frankly all the years.
I’m not sad about it, although I admit it does sound sad. I love Christmas. Every time someone asks me, “Are you ready for Christmas?” with a bright smile, I smile back under my mask and say, “Yes I am.” I don’t say I am conserving my energy because I am exhausted, or it snuck up on me, or I’m busy covering my job and my boss’s job. I was doing all that last year too, and I still bought the gifts and trimmed the tree and cooked the dinner… even with a spinal cord injury!
I say I’m ready because we’re not doing it this year, so there’s nothing to get ready for. Our priorities have shifted: we are in full PCS mode. I have decided to end my assignment in Mexico, and in early January, we will pack out our house and return to Virginia.
As longtime readers of this blog know, since I launched in April 2014 I have never missed a month. Sure, there were a couple of times where I posted on the last day of the month, but I have never gone a month without posting something. And I was not going to start 2021 by messing that up! I don’t know why it matters to me; it is not as if missing a month means I can never come back. People who know me would not be surprised by me adhering to this all-or-nothing mentality though. I guess it’s just the way I am. Lest you think I need rules to govern me entirely, I actually do still very much enjoy writing for this blog; it’s just that the last two months have passed in a blur of work and one crisis after another that have left me simultaneously exhilarated and wiped out, which are stories for another day. So here I am at the eleventh hour with a short recap of 2020 and blog stats for the year.
Since our terrific socially-distanced trip to New Mexico six weeks ago for my birthday, V and I have been settling in to life in Ciudad Juárez together. It has been both great, and tedious, and prolonged, kind of like 2020.
Three years ago at this time, we were settling in to Australia, and as much as I love Australia, that was sure a bumpy period. I wrote then about the challenges of settling into a new overseas posting when everything keeps.going.wrong. My post was called Glass Half Full, and it was about the struggle to stay positive and keep things in long-term perspective. The attitude of my then-boss (who had nearly 30 years in the Foreign Service) inspired me to reframe some of my struggles as things to take in stride, no matter how much they all sucked in the aggregate.
Some of those lessons have been coming in handy again over the past few weeks; I have made progress settling in to my life here, and have racked up some small wins. But the difficulties posed by the ongoing pandemic, the steep learning curve of a new and busy job, managing a remote team, the general amount of time and effort it takes to wrap up a Permanent Change of Station (PCS) move, and most importantly, the fact that my husband V had to leave for a business trip seven weeks ago and still has not been able to return, have all weighed on me. Because I have been through a few bumpy PCS moves now myself, I know that it works out eventually. Some of the problems – like waiting for your diplomatic accreditation or household effects to arrive – resolve on their own with time and patience. Other problems require more energy. It is both helpful and necessary to keep reframing the inconveniences as temporary and part of the adventure, and reminding yourself that the settled life you had before was once something you had to build from scratch, too. But as one of my colleagues here on his 11th tour recently confessed, I like the beginning of each tour the least.
Typically when a Foreign Service Officer (FSO) arrives at a new post, they spend much of their first two weeks “checking in.” Check-ins consist of a variety of consultations with people in your section, the leadership of other sections, security and HR briefings, and one-on-one meetings with any people you supervise. There are also the practical matters of getting your badge, receiving your unaccompanied air freight (if you’re lucky), navigating between your house and the consulate or embassy, and generally orienting yourself and finding your way around your new environment. But my first two weeks were spent mostly quarantined at home, in line with Post’s 14-day stay-at-home policy for all new arrivals.
So how does checking in work in the time of COVID-19?
If you’ve been reading the blog for more than a couple of years, you’ve probably noticed that every time you see a post called “X Miles Later…” it means we just finished a Permanent Change of Station (PCS) move.
Previously, these moves have all been via airplane: my 2015 move to Tashkent for my first tour (6,329 Miles Later); our 2017 departure from Tashkent (6,498 Miles Later) quickly followed by our move to Australia for my second tour (7,572 Miles Later… which, by the way, brought my total airline miles in 2017 to a whopping 37.4K, a personal best); rounded out by our 2019 departure from Australia (5,225 Miles Later…). But of course this PCS was a little bit different, as we drove almost 2,200 miles across the south to our Mexican border post and no planes were involved.
We left Shreveport as early on Thursday morning as we could muster and set out for the Louisiana-Texas state line, less than a half hour away. It was to be our lightest day of driving at only (!) 369 miles. We also had a visit to my dear friend K in Fort Worth to look forward to before breaking for our final night in Abilene.
Last Tuesday morning, we woke up in Hoover, Alabama (just outside Birmingham) and headed for our next hotel stop in Shreveport, Louisiana. On the way, we planned to stop in rural Mississippi to visit W, one of V’s best friends who had retired there several years ago. In our 2013 wedding, W was a groomsman, and literally gave V the shirt off his back when V forgot the undershirt to wear underneath his tuxedo. So, a 454-mile driving leg in a pandemic or not, there was no way we wouldn’t stop and see W. But little did we know we would find a bit more trouble in Mississippi than we bargained for.
We said goodbye to D and left South Carolina on Monday, headed for Georgia on interstate 85 south. It was a morning full of minor irritants: between severe insomnia the night before, wheeling a luggage cart back and forth four times in the morning heat and humidity to load the cars, and getting stuck at a gas station for an inordinate amount of time dealing with low tire pressure, we didn’t say goodbye to D and get on the road until just after noon. We also missed the chance to eat breakfast with her, since she’d slept as poorly as we had and needed extra rest. Then we had one mishap after another trying to eat on our own – two places in a row closed due to the pandemic, another with indoor-only seating, a final had closed its breakfast menu 45 minutes before we arrived. I was pretty well ready to go back to bed and start over by that point! But instead we just got out of Charlotte; strong A/C, tunes, and a lovely resort in Alabama we knew awaited us made for a good trip once it did get underway.
Last Saturday we hit the road on our 2,000+ mile journey to my third diplomatic posting at U.S. Consulate General Ciudad Juárez, Mexico. Since Juárez is directly across the border from El Paso, Texas, our move is by car rather than by plane. After I’d received the assignment in late 2018, I’d perused blogs of others who had been posted along the Mexican border and read about how they turned their PCS moves into fun road trips. I collected information and daydreamed about places we could stop, people we could visit, and things we could see and do on the way to Juárez.
If someone would have told me that when we left, the United States would be in the middle of a national health emergency, that a viral pandemic would be sweeping the country and infecting millions, and that we would tear through the south like it was burning down rather than doing those fun things I’d planned, I would have been gobsmacked.
Since we found out just over two weeks ago that Ciudad Juárez moved to phase one and our Permanent Change of Station (PCS) move could go forward, we have begun preparing to leave the United States in earnest. Finally knowing our departure date has allowed us to do so many things that have been tangled in knots since the shelter-in-place orders started in mid-March. We are now less than two weeks away from departing for Mexico, and although there is still a lot to do, I feel like we have it pretty well in hand.