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.
It’s a little hard for me to believe, but November 11 marked fifteen years since I left my home in California to become a Peace Corps Volunteer (PCV) in the Republic of Macedonia. Me and 19 other trainees attended a two day Staging workshop in Washington, DC before heading overseas, arriving in Macedonia’s capital, Skopje on November 15, 2002. I had pursued my PCV candidacy at that point for about fourteen months: during my senior year in college, beyond the September 11 attacks, and through a bewilderingly bureaucratic set of recruitment hurdles. Being brave enough to get on the plane and leave for the Peace Corps started a process that forever altered the trajectory of my life.
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.
It took us about eight weeks from the time we arrived in Canberra to really get out on the weekends and start to explore the city. Sure, we’d spent precious weekend hours running what few errands one can during non-business hours here: Setting up banking, assessing the offerings of Australian Costco, and even having blood drawn. Lots of things are slowing our jump from survival mode to enjoyment mode. My husband looking for work. Car trouble, repeatedly. And of course there was my six week hospitalization, my full-time job, and having everything we own on a cargo ship somewhere. At a certain point, we decided not to let anything stop us from having some fun – not the freezing cold weather, not the 24 inch chest catheter tube coming out of my upper arm, and not the fact that our lives are in boxes and we don’t know where our socks or cheese grater are. In October, as spring began to warm the Southern Hemisphere, we’ve been out and about in Canberra.
Earlier this month, I sat propped up in my hospital bed listening to an orthopedic surgeon and an infectious disease specialist address me with gentle concern. For a fourth day, intravenous antibiotics flowed into my veins through a clear tube. Beneath my red rubber-studded hospital sock, the fourth toe on my left foot felt scalded and rotten. Discolored, deformed, twice its normal size, and sporting an open wound, even the nurses said it was a stunner. I’d been neglecting it for almost two years, and my slo-mo crash was finally starting to burn. (Note: I won’t be too graphic, but the medically squeamish may wish to give this post a pass.)