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.)
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.
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.
A couple of weeks ago, my husband and I talked about whether or not we were homesick, and what, if anything, we missed from the United States (the “who” being a given).
It started when I made a comment about missing something I wished I could have (which usually goes hand-in-hand with an inadvertent failure to be grateful for the present and whatever’s right in front of me). I don’t remember now whether it was avocados, or Ambar, our favorite Balkan restaurant that we frequented on Capitol Hill during our years in DC, or something else. But it was something I was surprised to learn my husband had really enjoyed at the time but didn’t much miss.
On Saturday, September 5, after about 24 hours of travel, my husband arrived in Tashkent!
Happy Uzbek Independence Day!
As long-time readers will recall, last year during Uzbekistan’s annual holiday commemoration my husband and I were both still living in Alexandria, Virginia. We celebrated by swimming in our pool and then heading to Rus Uz in Arlington to consume traditional Uzbek delicacies.
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.
This blog post is dedicated to the people who sent me questions about my life here in Uzbekistan via Facebook, LinkedIn, and email. If you have a question you would like me to answer in an upcoming post, please contact me through one of those mediums or comment this post to let me know! I will tag these posts “Your Questions” in the future.
I’ve unintentionally been on hiatus from blogging for the last few weeks, as I ramp up to meet new responsibilities and additional training at work. All is going well and I have plenty to keep me occupied.
At work, more days than not I look up and ruefully see that I’ve been there 10-11 hours and probably should trudge home, through the dust, to my quiet sanctuary of a home. The only thing that could possibly make it feel more like home would be the much-anticipated arrival of my husband, and our HHE sea freight, in that order.