Sunday, January 04, 2015

Oh the Glamour of Being a Diplomat

There is a cliche complaint in the Foreign Service world, but frequently cliches got their start in some good, old-fashioned truth:

Pack-out sucks.

There, I've said it. 

Yes, this also sounds like a true first-world complaint so if this doesn't garner any sympathy - I can understand that.  My goal in writing this is to offer warning to anyone thinking of joining the Foreign Service and imagining the glamorous life of a diplomat, dashing hither and yon around the world between cocktail parties and Serious Work.

Let me dash that image first and lower your expectations a tad.  Instead, imagine the life of a postal employee who has to reevaluate all their worldly possessions every two years, pack them up and move somewhere else. For this post, I'm going to get into the details of that last bit.

We're less than three weeks from leaving post. In this time frame we're expected to pack-out so that our belongings can clear customs while we're still here in the country, or something like that. Meanwhile we get to live out of the "welcome kit" for our final weeks (provided one has remembered to request it from the warehouse that is).  Some folks don't remember this and are left waving goodbye to the moving crew in a completely empty house. 

What all does pack-out entail? This year, it meant that for three solid days my husband and I have touched every single belonging of ours and had to designate each item one of to the following categories:

  1. Will never use again = give away to charity, friends, housekeeper, co-workers
  2. May use again, but not at the next post, maybe because of space restrictions in new housing, electricity changes in new country or wrong climate = long term storage
  3. Will use again, but not in the near future (ie holiday decorations, wrong-season clothing, camping gear etc...) = Household Effects aka HHE to arrive approx 3 months after arrival at next post
  4. Will need to use within one month/shortly after arriving at training or at new post = Unaccompanied Air Baggage aka UAB, still takes about a month to arrive even though the "A" in the name seems to infer AIR travel to the destination
  5. Must use on a regular basis = stuff into luggage/car and hide from movers so they don't pack it into long-term storage by tragic accident
Each category now has to be moved into a separate physical space in our house so as not to get mixed up with the other categories.  The Tabbies and category five will be hiding in our bedroom while the swarm of bees moving crew goes about their work wrapping and boxing everything up tomorrow.  We've packed-out five times in fewer than four years now and so far have had only one broken tea tray (we glued it back together) and one plastic frame (we got a new one). Not a bad record, the credit going completely to the various moving crews who have done all the heavy lifting (pun intended). 

The Foreign Service hiring process should include evaluation on the elements of the pack-out process, which draw more on logistics and planning skills than anything else. It is not for the faint of heart, the pack-rat nor the procrastinators among us. Having pets or children only complicates matters, as it requires imagining exactly what arriving at wherever will look like, and what will be needed vs. what will be available. This year, we're heading to home leave first, so we need to plan for litter boxes, cat food bowls, climate-correct clothing, books, and other things to keep us occupied for one month.  And all that must fit into our car.

Arriving for training at the Foreign Service Institute, we have to have a supply of business-casual clothing for the Northern Virginia climate, plus paperwork and files for travel/ transfer orders and vouchers, Department ID badges that we haven't used in two years, and any language materials we may have picked up along the way. 

Arriving at post, we need fancy meet-the-Ambassador clothes, appropriate work clothes which will completely depend on your post and assignment and climate, extra photos for the obligatory country ID cards, PLUS the same lengthy list and quantity of survival equipment for pets and family members who will now be stuck alone in new house or apartment while we head off to work.  

ALL this needs to be completely planned in the few days before pack-out!

Now do you see why I'm complaining?  

In 24 hours the brunt of it all will be over for us and we will be enjoying the comforts of our scraped-bare home and the contents of the welcome kit.  The thoughtfully provided sugar bowl and creamer set will complement the cup of tea I will boil up in the single cooking pot. We can dish out fruit cocktail or sorbet from the small carved glass bowls offered for such occasions, but then we'll retire to bed under the single, fleece throw blanket and coverlet offered to warm us in our over-the-garage bedroom (ie no insulation) in January's sub-freezing temps. Ahh... I shouldn't fuss, the welcome kit did provide us with four of each plate, bowl and piece of silverware, cleaning tools, an ironing board and iron, and very thoughtfully, a TV and an ashtray for late nights of stress relief after the whole ordeal. 

To illustrate my little rant, I offer the following glimpses into our real-life example:

No, No! Not another pack-out and move! Wake me when it's all over.

Advice: Separate all items into UAB, HHE, Storage and Luggage.
This was our living room, now is our UAB room. Can you judge what 450 lbs looks like?

Just leave us a bit of space, please. It's a simple request.

For HHE. And why do we have so many pillows?

Last year's welcome kit sheets were turquoise zebra print. This year we're more muted with beige stripes, gray blanket and chocolate and strawberry pillow cases. Any guesses whose side of the bed is whose?


  1. Nice description of the dreading first world problem - PACK OUT. Sending you best wishes and good luck thoughts from up north!

  2. Tabbies,

    I wanted to express how appreciative I am regarding this blog. As someone on one of the FSS registers, I am concerned about a potential future career in the foreign service with more than a couple cats....

    If you don't mind, I have some cat-specific questions....Do you find it particularly difficult to move around with the cats in tow? Have you run into any issues regard vet care or finding suitable food? Did you get your tabbies used to traveling prior to joining the foreign service?

    Thank you again for the great blog!


  3. Hello Christopher,
    Thank you for your nice comment. To answer question the most simple way: yes, it is difficult to move with cats. It is ALWAYS something to consider: what will the Tabbies' lives be like in this place or that one? I couldn't live with myself if my career choices caused them to suffer. We think about this when bidding and when thinking ahead to future goals. But it's not impossible certainly, it just takes extra work. As it would if we had children with us. Here is a post from a while back with some more thoughts on the subject:
    I hope this is helpful, and best of luck with your path and decisions.