Last fall, our team in the Office of Children’s Issues paused our regular international parental child abduction casework and bilateral portfolios for a daylong retreat. In addition to team-building exercises and an in-depth examination of our processes to see where we might improve internal coordination and workflow, we also took a 10-minute walk over to the main State Department building near 23rd and C Streets in northwest Washington, DC.
Tag: Settling In
I technically started my job in the Office of Children’s Issues (CI) – part of the Bureau of Consular Affairs’ Office of Overseas Citizen Services at the State Department – back in early March after my home leave ended. The position is as a country officer working on international parental child abduction (IPCA) cases; CI functions as the U.S. Central Authority for the 1980 Hague Convention on the Civil Aspects of International Child Abduction.
In a nutshell, the convention is a treaty whereby the U.S. and other countries agree that matters of custody and visitation of minor children between parents should be decided in countries where children are habitually resident, without one parent removing the child to a different country in order to prevent or limit access by the other. In other words, we want to avoid or remedy situations where one parent abducts their child to (incoming) or from (outgoing) the United States.
More on that work at a future date, but for the time being, suffice it to say between training and onboarding, the time it took to receive a regional portfolio assignment, and various technical difficulties with getting up and running with the database access I needed to begin actually doing my job, the first several weeks weren’t as productive on my part as I’d expected. I felt guilty my colleagues were so busy while I largely spent March and April waiting to start working. I felt like I burned up a lot of time doing online webinars and bugging IT folks, and walking around my neighborhood at lunchtime only to return to an empty inbox.
Giving From Abundance
While abroad, many Foreign Service Officers find community through professional and social networks at the embassies or consulates where they serve. The Community Liaison Office at a post, known as the CLO, does a lot to foster this, hosting social events, planning outings, and celebrating American holidays. Participating in this community, which also includes locally engaged staff, can help us navigate a new environment while still holding on to a little bit of home. Especially during service at small or high-hardship posts, or where the culture is very different than in the United States, for example, the embassy community tends to be strong. Despite our perception in Uzbekistan that it was a bit of a fishbowl, that community was important in connecting us with information there, where we – and especially V, who’d had no Russian training – faced a higher bar to speaking the language, self-organizing domestic trips and outings, and performing daily activities. Alternatively, Australia was an English-speaking country where we were as likely to hang out with our Australian neighbors as with our American colleagues despite having two hard-working CLOs. Two posts – two different types of community, and yet both played the same role in terms of a community abroad.
And in Mexico, a much different scenario despite the warmth and hospitality of the CLO and the Mexican people. We arrived and departed during the COVID-19 pandemic, never fully settling in or getting a sense – beyond virtual events here and there – of what we understood had been a vibrant, robust consulate community. If that weren’t challenging enough, after a year of “we’re in it together” protective measures against the coronavirus, the whiplash of my feeling left behind when society decided 96% of people being safe actually was good enough and removed their masks as the Delta variant arrived and I suspected, correctly, that asymptomatic spread was occurring, made me feel erased from the consulate community in Juárez entirely.
Of course, we still had the broader El Paso community only four miles away – a key benefit of serving on the border. But ultimately it wasn’t enough, and as I could no longer stay safe in my workplace or expect the same chance everyone else there had received to emerge immunized from the pandemic, I decided to remove myself from that environment. It was in this context that I arrived just under three months ago in my adopted home state of northern Virginia feeling angry, isolated, and ejected from any sense of equity or belonging to the people and space around me.
Retreat: Home Leave 2022
This period of home leave between my third and fourth diplomatic tours has been a time to rest, recuperate, and set up life in the United States again after spending most of the last seven years abroad. At 35 business days, it has intentionally been my longest home leave since joining the Foreign Service. Counting from the day after our PCS travel to Virginia ended, to the day before my next assignment starts (holidays and weekends don’t count), I have taken exactly seven weeks. Uniquely, for the first time, I’ve spent it all on the east coast.
It has been five and a half weeks since we ended our time in Mexico and returned to the United States, and it has been three weeks since we moved from the temporary hotel lodging into the northern Virginia house we rented for the next two years. Despite the house still being mostly empty and having to spend more time than we wanted cleaning in order to settle in, it does feel more like we are building a home here with each passing week.
Our 450 lbs of Unaccompanied Air Baggage (UAB) arrived nine days after we moved in. We’ve also purchased almost all the furniture we need for our home offices, dining room, living room, den, and bar area, even though pandemic-related supply chain issues have meant only half of it has actually been delivered so far. Mexican Customs also thankfully cleared our household effects (HHE) to depart Mexico without incident; the State Department notified me last week our HHE had arrived safely at a warehouse in El Paso, Texas, signaling the remaining 5,700 pounds of our things will catch up with us sooner than anticipated.
1,940 Miles Later…
We arrived in northern Virginia two weeks ago, and have been at an extended stay hotel suite on Temporary Quarters Subsistence Allowance (TQSA) until the house we rented is ready for us to move into. My orders authorized up to 60 days of TQSA, but fortunately our house will be ready this week and we were able to put enough survival furniture together until our household effects arrive to make things comfortable for the two of us.
I have been on home leave, but V has been teleworking literally beginning the day after we rolled into Alexandria on a freezing late afternoon and unloaded two carloads of stuff into the hotel. On my orders overseas he is always my Eligible Family Member (EFM) or “dependent,” but he is also a civil service federal employee in his own right. Therefore, when we departed Ciudad Juárez after my curtailment, his arrangement as a Domestic Employee Teleworking Overseas (or DETO) came to an end. Now that he is back at his regular duty station – Washington, DC – it’s back to business as usual for him… and in the pandemic that still means remote work.
Your Questions Answered, Volume VI
It has been six months since the last edition of Your Questions Answered, so in this post, I will share some questions recently asked and answered by the blog’s email box – as always, anonymously and without attribution. In this edition, we discuss the rewards of consular work, being single in the Foreign Service, what I know now that I wish I knew when I’d joined the Foreign Service, financial matters like savings and what expenses Foreign Service Officers should plan to budget for overseas, and the typical Foreign Service “car.” Enjoy!
Ingratitude, and In Gratitude
I always know it has been too long between blog posts when too many half-developed ideas jumble together in my mind, clamoring to get out before they morph into something else with the passage of time. I try to think through my ideas, make them distinct, articulable, frame a coherent narrative from which I can draw conclusions. But sometimes it is not until I just release the words to the page, as it were, that the cross-currents of thoughts begin to flow in one direction and I understand what it is I want to say better than I could when I left it in my own mind. It is almost as if writing is my process of thinking; whether and to what extent I succeed in making a point is another matter.
This isn’t everything, but it’s all true.
Trying Not to Pick Things Up By the Lid
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.
The Land of Enchantment
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.
Glass Half Full, Redux
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.
It’s Not Cinco de Mayo
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.
A Tale of Three Border Crossings
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.
Checking In to a New Post, Pandemic Style
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?
2,184 Miles Later…
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.