As I have surely mentioned in the past, Foreign Service Officers receive housing as an employment benefit while serving overseas or while stateside for training. However, when actually serving in a domestic assignment, whether it’s a year, two years, or more, officers have to arrange and pay for their own housing. And a domestic assignment usually means a tour in Washington, DC – – one of the most expensive regions of the country. Many officers (and in particular single officers who have to manage on one salary) try and delay a domestic tour until they are well beyond entry-level pay for this reason, but it cannot always be helped.
The sunny August morning we left Sarajevo, it was harder than I thought it would be to find our way out of town. I don’t remember exactly why; some combination of narrow streets and Google Maps trying to lead me onto a pedestrian footpath might have had something to do with the smell of burning clutch and frayed nerves in the morning.
V, A and I worked together and managed to make a series of navigational decisions that – while not winning any efficiency awards – also didn’t result in any fender benders. Thankfully at least, when hearing how early we wanted to get on the road, our AirBnB host decided he didn’t need to do our checkout in-person after all and allowed us to lock the apartment and hide the key in an agreed-upon location. We eventually hit the highway east and later, due south for the last few hundred miles of our road trip.
On our second full day at the beach house, we woke up early, took a quick swim, and ate breakfast on the patio in preparation to go to old town. Initially the plan was for me to drive us the 12 minutes to the old quarter and find a place to park, but as I was dealing with some extreme vertigo out of the blue while getting ready, V and A – after lingering a while in the hopes I wouldn’t be delayed – were eventually convinced to take an Uber there without me. I had been unsuccessful in averting my head-spinning situation, and ended up vomiting several times, taking a Dramamine, and lying down. My head felt like a yo-yo on the end of a string, and as I lay still and miserable I had to keep one foot on the floor and a hand on the wall to avoid zero gravity sensations. But as is typical and hard to explain, my stomach did not hurt at all. After about a 90-minute nap, I reawoke in the silence of the empty house to the waves crashing outside. I sat up cautiously and ate some fake Pringles. The dizziness had subsided and it was as if it had never happened. I was going to old town.
It took us nearly five hours to drive the last 150 miles of winding mountain roads between Višegrad, Bosnia & Herzegovina and the Croatian coast. I rarely drove faster than 45 mph simply because the speed limit and conditions didn’t allow it, and I likely would have made even myself carsick. V and A were excellent passengers. V only complained once, and he was probably right; it really can be alarming to be a passenger and have no control as you roll through narrow tunnels black as night, uphill past slow trucks that drift into your lane, and around blind corners, every once in a while a bit too fast even with a driver as pokey as myself. We crossed the Croatian border without incident and the vast jewel of the Adriatic lay before us.
The town where V’s brother V2 lives, Kragujevac, is Serbia’s fourth-largest city with just under 175,000 inhabitants. Situated about an hour and a half south of Belgrade, Serbia’s capital, the region is proud of the more affordable living and rural beauty it offers while still boasting plenty of nearby shopping and amenities commensurate with the big city. V2 and his wife D – whose family hails at least three generations back from Kragujevac – made it a point to show us around, welcoming us to town with a dinner out that included a large group of their extended friends and family.
At the end of July, I went to an Incubus show a couple of hours south of DC by myself. V and his daughters had already left a couple of weeks prior for the Balkans, and had been enjoying traveling together in Macedonia and Greece while I stayed home alone in Virginia, worked, and held down the fort. I would travel to Macedonia myself for a few weeks the day after the show. I was going to miss my 19-year old stepdaughter D, who had to return to the States before my arrival in Europe to prepare for her sophomore year in college in Tennessee. But V and my 23-year old stepdaughter A, who is in graduate school in North Carolina, would be awaiting my arrival to spend some family time with V’s relatives in Macedonia and Serbia, and the three of us were planning a road trip to cities across the former Yugoslavia, including Sarajevo and the Croatian coast.
I’m not yet ready to publish a reflection on 2022 as a whole, but as we get ready to welcome 2023, I added up my 2022 solo/sole driver road trip stats and was amazed.
In mid-June, after leaving California, I spent almost a week in Washington state teleworking and otherwise helping out my dad during my stepmom’s hospitalization. In late 2018, they had made their relocation from California to Washington permanent, selling their primary home outside Monterey and moving the last of their things north.
After enjoying the uber-green surrounds plus the most alone time I’d had with my dad in years – wonderful, but a sad result of my stepmom never being released from the hospital during the duration of my visit – it was time for me to start heading towards Virginia and home. “Back east,” as west coasters say. My dad and I checked the Volkswagen’s oil and kicked the tires, and then I set off on my first leg for Idaho.
After driving cross-country like an arrow in under four days, I arrived in my hometown on the last day of May and sat at my friend T’s grave. I then spent half of June teleworking from my mom’s house in California, and later made my way up to Washington state to see my dad and stepmom before turning the wheel back east towards Virginia and home.
I didn’t take much leave during my three-week road trip west. The deal I’d hastily cut with my office had been to work remotely from California so I could spend time decompressing with family while not leaving our team in the lurch. I did, however, voluntarily and consistently work on east coast time. I aligned my schedule with my colleagues’ by signing on at 5:00 a.m. west coast time, taking my lunch after my family arose for breakfast, and signing off by 2:00 p.m. Thus I was free relatively early each day to enjoy some sun and do whatever else I wanted. That mainly involved spending time with family and old friends, sitting quietly in the cemetery, or visiting places I had memories with T where I needed to be alone and process my grief.
Last August, I left Ciudad Juárez on vacation and drove across the deserts of Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, and Nevada to visit my family in California for the first time in about two years, logging 1,279 solo miles in just under 36 total hours. Five weeks ago in late May, I also set off west; the same destination in mind, but this time from Virginia. It was the biggest solo road trip I’d ever embarked upon, and I’d done so with less than 12 hours’ planning, deciding around 8pm on the Friday evening preceding Memorial Day weekend to leave Saturday morning and leverage three days off in a row to get out to California where I could continue remote working as I do here at home.
I was in a state of acute grief at having learned I’d lost an old friend and ex-boyfriend, T, to suicide and that – unbeknownst to me until late April – his family had buried him privately in our hometown in January. I was distracted, upset, unproductive. I needed answers, I needed to say goodbye, I needed to see my family.
I let my mom know I was coming. In the Foreign Service lifestyle, this would not always be possible. Fortunately, we are still in a pandemic and remote working up to 80% of the time, we are on a domestic tour, my car had recently been serviced, and I was on top of my laundry and bills. A few thousand miles could not faze me. I made a packing list and executed it. Barely four days later, I rolled up in front of my mom’s house with an extra 2,723 miles on the Volkswagen’s odometer and dirt from 13 different states on the undercarriage.
The post with a year-in-review and blog stats is usually the post I publish in January of a new calendar year. However, that didn’t happen this year for a few reasons. First and foremost, we packed out our house and departed our third diplomatic assignment before mid-January, so I was crazy busy with work and life transitions. Second, there were a lot of things in 2021 I hadn’t processed adequately by New Year’s or in a superficial way felt I didn’t want to reflect on or remember. And third, 2021 marked the first year the blog did not receive more page views than the year before. Every year since I started writing in 2014, the number of views and visitors have each steadily risen, making it something fun to announce the following year.
In January writing this post out of a sense of forced obligation – particularly at a time when I was honestly pretty down on a lot of aspects of this career as well as struggling with health and moving – didn’t seem like fun. So I decided to write about whatever was on my mind as it came to me, and shunt a blog stats post from last year off until a future date when I actually felt like doing it. And as the blog celebrates eight years today since its very first post, today seemed apropos.
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.
In mid-November, I connected Veterans Day, a Mexican holiday, and one day of leave to a weekend, which equaled five days off. I crossed the border and took another solo road trip, this time across Texas to San Antonio and Fort Worth. In San Antonio I visited the Mission San Antonio de Valero (better known as the Alamo), Missions San Jose and Concepción dating back 300 years, and the city’s famed Riverwalk. I actually liked the Riverwalk so much I went there both during the day and later at night – thanks to my awesome AirBnB tiny house hosts who let me know the city would be turning on the holiday lights my first full day in town.
After a couple nights I headed to Fort Worth to see my friend K, who had visited us in El Paso in May during a trip home to Arizona to see her parents. K and I served in Peace Corps Macedonia together 18 years ago, and lived near each other for a handful of years in DC after I finished grad school in Australia. She was also a bridesmaid in my wedding, but this is the closest we’ve lived to one another in years. V and I had stopped by her place on our way to Juárez during the pandemic summer of 2020, and I was determined to make it back out there.
A couple of weeks after we returned from our Iberostar vacation, I sat in my office tangled up in bureaucracy and my to-do list. Finding myself in need of solace and something to pull me into the future, I scrolled quickly through AirBnB options for the weekend. A bunch of cabins in some wooded mountains caught my eye. I remembered Cloudcroft, NM was less than 120 miles away. Doable for a short hiking trip, and startlingly, we’d not been there yet. My boss, born and raised in El Paso, had told me about the town of less than one thousand inhabitants the year before. Sitting at an elevation of almost 8,700 feet above sea level, nearly a mile higher up than Ciudad Juárez, there the golden desert landscape transformed into a green alpine coolness we’d never seen in the southwest. I texted V, “Want to get a cabin in the woods for an overnight this weekend? There are pine trees.” At first he didn’t believe me. I didn’t mention it might be cold. Then the affirmative answer came back pretty quickly.
The morning V and I left with my dad and stepmom L for our flight to Cancun, we were up and packed well ahead of time. We even ate a good breakfast. They’d been visiting us in Juárez for a few days and we’d kept it low-key, hanging out around home and El Paso. But like most travel days, our control of things ended when we left the house. The shuttle I’d booked to Ciudad Juárez’s airport, where I’d never been and which required travel through a red zone, arrived a few minutes late and was a small sedan – not at all a “shuttle.” The trunk could only fit three carry-ons, so we had to ride three to the backseat and V in the front, all four of us somehow holding our large wheeled bags on our laps with V’s backpack slung behind my head in the back window. At first I was ticked off and embarrassed. I had explained when making the reservation we would be four adults, two traveling internationally, with luggage! Dad and L are in their 70s. I apologized to them but they are tough and good sports. After a few minutes we took selfies and started laughing about our stupid predicament. At least we all fit in the car, which to be honest I hadn’t been so sure was possible when it first rolled up.