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.
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.
On October 19, the day that bids were due, I hedged my bets by adding one more job to my bidlist. So the final tally on the list I submitted was 11 jobs in nine countries. Since a mid-level consular bidlist with four to six bids is apparently a safe bet, I thought I had given decision-makers plenty of options to work with. But October 29, the unthinkable happened: Handshake Day came and went without a handshake for me.
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!
This month I am marking 13 years of federal service, and reflecting on some of the professional and personal lessons I’ve learned since coming into the federal workforce.
A few weeks ago, I went on a work-related trip to Melbourne, Australia’s second most populous city. Nearly thirteen years had elapsed since my prior visit, but it was evident that Melbourne still has a spirit all its own – it is definitely not Sydney, or Brisbane, or Adelaide, or Perth. Melbourne is one of Australia’s most diverse cities; often called Australia’s “cultural capital,” one-third of Melbourne’s 4.9 million residents were born overseas. Visiting the melting pot that is Melbourne to attend the Strong Cities Network conference on preventing violent extremism, amidst this year’s confluence of global politics, the threat of terrorism, and the halfway point of my tour as a political officer in Canberra, made me reflect on the immigrant experience in Australia and Melbourne’s successes in social cohesion.
Between November 2002 and August 2004, I served as a Peace Corps Volunteer in the Republic of Macedonia doing environmental education and management. At that stage of my life, I was in my mid-20s, single, and a recent San Diego State University graduate who hadn’t seen much of the world outside of California, Nevada, and northern Mexico. Every few years, I take a look back at some of the emails and letters I sent to friends and family during that time. Even though some of the writing is spectacularly convoluted and would have benefited from thorough editing, I do see glimpses within of the person I would become. Some of the letters, while not a complete perspective on my service, are also a heartwarming reminder for me of my young resiliency, hope, and the struggles I had in adapting to my new home. Although some days I succeeded better than others, the prevailing legacy of that time was an openness to seeing life through others’ eyes. I’m sharing a few excerpts of those letters home here.
If you have been reading my blog for a while, you know that I served my first diplomatic tour in Uzbekistan starting in 2015. Many of my blog posts while there were focused on things other than Uzbekistan; although I wrote about narrow aspects of my life, and chronicled our trips around the country, the list of unwise subjects to publicly write about in that particular environment was lengthy.
In retrospect, there may have been more “content” I could have produced about the unique parts of Uzbekistan had I been there under different auspices. There is no question that the high-fraud consular work, security posture, and challenges of being a non-mother in a society where women derive their place chiefly from motherhood all negatively affected my perspective at times. I also was very focused on not drawing attention to my whereabouts and activities too, especially when my blog “mysteriously” became accessible only by VPN. Another American I know succeeded much better in explaining and appreciating what he and his wife experienced during their three years in Uzbekistan. Thirteen months almost to the day on from my departure, it has been an unexpected delight for me to see Uzbekistan again through their eyes.
At least a couple of times a month, the Collecting Postcards blog receives questions via social media or email. Although I always answer readers directly, I have also wanted to address repeat questions more broadly by turning them into blog topics. I tried this in August 2015 with a feature I called “Your Questions Answered,” but lapsed in keeping it going. I’m going to try to relaunch it, so here are a few recent questions I’ve received: about access to American “stuff” while overseas, coping with distance from loved ones, making home wherever you lay your head, and balancing official duties with personal beliefs. Go ahead, ask a diplomat!
Before I moved to Australia in July 2017 to start my second diplomatic tour, I was pretty nervous about driving on the left side of the road. I’d done it before: a friend and I had spent a week in 2005 driving a little rental car around the island state of Tasmania. And I’d been a passive observer in 2005 and 2006 while studying at an Australian uni and riding the bus. But actually buying my own car with the steering wheel on the “passenger side?” And driving it around every day? A different story altogether. Colleagues here told me I would get used to it after a few months, and believe it or not, that ended up being true. And the thing that had worried me the most – staying left – was not even the hardest part. After several months, I have finally managed to collect some observations, lessons learned, and tips about driving down under, including what happened the first time I drove my Australian car. Buckle up!
In 1996, the United States Senate designated the first Friday in May as “American Foreign Service Day.” It is on this day that members of the Foreign Service around the world come together to recognize the work that our nation’s diplomats do. It is also a day to pay tribute to those we’ve lost; today at high noon, we at U.S. Embassy Canberra gathered at the chancery flagpole for a few moments of reflection and remembrance.
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.
At the end of January, I had back surgery to correct two herniated discs. One of them had been pressing on a nerve for more than a year, but it couldn’t be operated on due to an older bone infection in my foot. A month after I finally beat the infection with six weeks of intravenous antibiotics, I was cleared for the back surgery and it was booked. I was ecstatic. When I packed for the hospital, I packed three books, not realizing that I wouldn’t crack a single one. The first 36 hours were a bit of a harrowing experience, but I tried to right-brain my way through it by reminding myself that it would end. I needed no reminder that it was for the best. I’m only about ten days into my recovery now, but I feel like my fortunes are starting to turn for the better.
This past week, I took a big step on the road back to good health with a toe-straightening operation. Now that I’ve conquered the bone infection, it’s time to get my foot into a condition to resume wearing shoes without scraping and reinfecting my toe. In the ongoing saga of how-much-trouble-can-one-toe-cause, I am continuing along a trajectory toward wellness. And despite how un-Christmaslike southern hemisphere December weather feels to me, the season of gratitude is in full swing.
Wednesday afternoon Canberra time I walked into the consultation room of my orthopedic surgeon’s office and sat down on the elevated, paper-covered examination bed. Through the window behind me, Telstra Tower stood on tree-covered hills in the distance, looking like an omen from some futuristic society. I swung my legs slowly, looking left and right at my doctor’s diplomas, medical books, and family photos. In a few minutes, I expected him to walk through the door and tell me the prior day’s MRI results, followed by the date for amputation of my toe.