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.
Two weekends ago, V returned after an eight-week work trip to Washington, DC to help me celebrate my birthday. As if that weren’t great enough, the Columbus Day holiday also made it a three-day weekend. Longtime readers know what that means – a road trip out of town. But socially distanced and in the great outdoors, given the current situation.
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.
Today is el Día de la Independencia de México, or Mexican Independence Day. A lot of Americans think Mexican Independence Day falls on the fifth of May, but they would be wrong. (Cinco de Mayo actually commemorates a battle victory in Mexico’s war with France during the 1860s.)
No, Mexican Independence Day is on September 16. It was on this day in 1810 that a famous priest in the town Delores, Mexico rang the church bell and issued a call to arms. His shout, “The Cry of Delores,” marked the beginning of Mexico’s war for independence from Spain. If it weren’t for the coronavirus pandemic, I could have had a chance to see the re-enactment; every year on the eve of the holiday, the president of Mexico delivers “el grito” (the shout) from the balcony of the National Palace in Mexico City. But unsurprisingly, the festivities for 2020 have been mostly cancelled or virtual.
Since mid-March, the U.S. land ports of entry shared with Canada and Mexico have been closed to non-essential travel, according to the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), as a joint cooperative measure between the three countries to “limit the further spread of coronavirus.” (Non-essential travel includes travel that is considered “tourism or recreational in nature.”) Each month since the initial announcement, DHS has extended the closure for an additional 30 days. Most recently, the governments have agreed to extend the closure through September 21.
And as the COVID-19 pandemic continues and sister cities along the border like El Paso, Texas and Ciudad Juárez, Mexico are hit especially hard, DHS announced it would further tighten its restrictions.
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.
I just finished the fourth week of Spanish language training at the Foreign Service Institute (FSI) in Arlington, where the State Department sends its diplomats and staff for training ahead of overseas assignments, sometimes for months at a time. In my case, late next spring I will become Deputy American Citizen Services (ACS) Chief at our consulate in Cuidad Juárez, México, so I get six months (24 weeks) of Spanish. FSI teaches dozens of languages and tradecraft courses, so you’ll find employees from across the U.S. government studying there, too.
For me, the change of pace from a busy political section at our embassy in Australia – where the bilateral relationship is huge – to sitting in a small classroom for several hours per day has been nice, but challenging in its own way. It’s also crazy to think I am one-sixth done with Spanish already! My first progress evaluation is on Monday, so this is a good place to pause and reflect.
Tomorrow marks three weeks since V and I returned to Virginia and started the several months of training required for my next assignment to Mexico. A few aspects of the transition and settling-in process have been bumpier than I expected. Although moving to the U.S. (“home”) should be easier than an overseas move to a new country, in a lot of ways it isn’t. Without an embassy to help you set up your life (again), there is a lot of surprisingly tedious stuff to deal with on your own, and not much time to manage it.
During this Permanent Change of Station (PCS) from Australia to Virginia, between problems with our new apartment management, problems with timing our unaccompanied air freight (UAB) and storage deliveries, and problems with my car turning up damaged from two years of overseas government storage, the past few weeks have felt like one aggravation after the next. And all of that doesn’t even take into consideration my new full-time job of Spanish learning, and the challenge of going from two incomes back to one. However, on the bright side and after a lot of effort, expense, moral support from friends, and some luck, things are starting to settle bit by bit into place. (Warning: lengthy rant ahead.)
Over the years, I have received lots of questions about housing benefits in the Foreign Service (FS) – primarily what my houses have looked like, if I liked them, and whether I got to pick them. Foreign Service Officers are assigned government-owned (or leased) housing to live in during overseas tours as a benefit of our employment. There can be a misconception that diplomats overseas “live like kings,” but where we live is much more about what is available within the applicable regulations – and sometimes that isn’t great – unless you are an ambassador or deputy chief of mission with a representational residence. (For more on housing sacrifices made by FS families, please read this really terrific article by former FS spouse Donna Scaramastra Gorman, “The Reality of Being a Foreign Service Spouse.”)
Whether you feel like your FS housing is an odd temporary space to put up with, or adore it and cherish it as your own home, the topic of housing inspires a lot of discussion – worry and questions, complaints and gratitude, and plenty of laughs. One post in an FS-related Facebook group asking for submissions of the strangest FS housing quirks led to hundreds of comments and hilarious photos that had me in stitches. I had a submission or two of my own, but so far we have been very lucky. Here I share my perspectives, along with never-before seen photos of our official residences from our first two tours in Tashkent, Uzbekistan and Canberra, Australia.
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!
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.
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.)