Sunday, September 14, 2014

The Life Cycle of a Foreign Service Posting

Just the other night, my husband and I were sitting outside in our back yard, no doubt I was chatting about the weather and probably he was sipping a beer and listening, and I commented on how the feeling of fall was in the air already.  Although it's still warm here, even hot in relation to other parts of the country, there's a distinct feeling of a different sort of warmth, a different angle to the sunlight and a different smell in the air that says "winding down" instead of "heating up."  The roses are looking tired instead of ostentatious; the trees are starting to drop their leaves and some days even start out overcast - which would never happen in April, May or June.  I notice fewer hummingbirds zipping by and I half-expect to see our cardinal friend return to over-winter with us. 

All this reminds me that time is passing and that we won't see another summer in Juarez. We've had the last of our 108 degree days.  This then causes me to think about the life cycle of a Foreign Service posting in general, because like the seasons or like a real lifetime, it has a distinct pattern to it.

It all starts with Flag Day for a first tour, or the day an assignment is confirmed via email for all subsequent postings.  I equate this to the day one learns about a pregnancy: some people are jubilant, some are scared, some are taken by surprise, and some have been working to make this come true for years.  Either way, knowing one's assignment is an equal mix of excitement and trepidation - especially the first time, much like knowing that a baby coming.  

Then, also like a pregnancy, there are months and months of preparation before the big day arrives. In the FS, we call this language training, and it often comes with as much anxiety and morning sickness as having baby on board.  During this time, especially if you're assigned to a "consumables-allowed" post, you'll start buying copious amounts of things in preparation for the move/birth and preparing the pets and other kids for How Life Is Going To Change. (Consumables are the hundreds of pounds of STUFF that you can pre-buy because you won't be able to find it where you're going - like Kraft Mac-n-Cheese, toilet paper that isn't waxed, laundry detergent, ibuprofen etc...) And if you happen to really be pregnant AND going off to a consumable post - you'll have to estimate how many diapers an infant will use in the next six months.  Just in case, I recommend tossing in a few extra. But I digress.

About a week or two prior to departure/delivery day comes pack-out. This is the day(s) when the movers come to take away all your worldly possessions and leave you sleeping on an air mattress or on your sister's couch.  In keeping with my pregnancy analogy, hopefully you won't be on someone's couch, but perhaps you will be packing your go-bag for the hospital. 

D-Day: Departure
Tears, well wishes and a taxi to the airport/hospital.  The cats say, "I knew it!" in the realization that they were right about the bad omen they felt when their beds and scratcher were packed up by those bad men. The other kids are left with a sitter.

The most exciting day when you finally get to see what your new city, and more important, what your housing assignment is like.  Or, the day when you look into the little one's eyes for the first time. 10 fingers and toes and does she/he look like you or your spouse equates to: How many bathrooms? Closet space? Is there a yard or a balcony? What about air conditioning?  These can be make-or-break issues to a happy assignment (but I think you're supposed to love the kid regardless of how it comes out). 

First Day at Work
Absolutely no different than your first day in kindergarten.  Someone takes you in to work/walks you to the school bus; you don't know your way around; you're nervous; you hope your boss/teacher/the other kids are nice; you don't know when or where you're supposed to have lunch; and you hope you picked out the right outfit.  

First Month at Work
You're going through training and are starting to figure out what's expected of you.  
With luck you have a good teacher/trainer and the other kids are still nice.  You know your way to the cafeteria and bathroom by now. You know your way home or which shuttle to get on, but still get lost trying to find the front office/principal's office and do so with equal amounts of trepidation.  You're eager and you want to meet new friends and you're starting to figure out which kids you like to hang out with. 

Month Three
Like the start of sixth grade, you know your way around the playground and your friends and life outside of work/school are becoming more important.  Now comes the beginning of the awkward adolescence where you want to prove yourself as capable, and are starting to take on more responsibilities, but are still just the new kid. You want to be included in all the after school/work activities, and in fact probably feel pretty slighted on Monday when you see on Facebook that there was some fun party or weekend outing that you didn't get invited to, but you're also beginning to gravitate towards a like-minded set of friends.  Even though my husband and I generally have little interest in the whoop-it-up parties that last until 0300 that our 20-something coworkers put together, we still want at least to be invited, to be thought of as someone they'd like to have present.  In the early months, not being included stings, whether or not you wanted to go. 

Month Six
You've made it to high school! But this time offers a mix of confidence and that awkwardness as you cross from being the senior "new kid" to the junior "she/he has been here long enough to know better" employee.  About this time you're feeling more secure with your responsibilities, maybe are even ready to lend a hand to those who arrived after you. Perhaps you're considering volunteering for a new assignment, like a rotation into a different section or a TDY?  You have a routine of favorite restaurants, bars and neighborhoods in your still-new city and are seeing the seasons come and go for the first time.  This is the period of enough confidence to make you feel good, but yet still the newness enough to not be bored or jaded. 

The One Year Anniversary
Top of your game! You're fluent, proficient, have seen everything once and calmly work your way through new challenges.  In real life, this could be your senior year in college. While you're still full of energy and enthusiasm for what you're doing now, the turn of the one-year mark changes the mental calendar from one of counting up, to one of counting down.  You're playing the back nine now.  You're getting your first annual employee review/college degree, and there is still a lot of time left to really spread your wings, to make your mark, to figure out what you'll be remembered for. People come to you for advice now and you're already looking ahead and are bidding on your next assignment. 

Month 18
Mid-career professional now, you're well-established and know your strengths and weaknesses.  You have a strong set of friends and are no longer bothered by not being invited out by those you may not have really had that much in common with anyway. And it's okay like that.  Your reputation is already set and nothing short of sparking an international incident or initiating a productive peace dialog between warring nations will really change that reputation.  You know where you're going next and are taking leadership roles in your current position.  All is good. 

Month 21
Okay, now you're getting tired and it's time for retirement.  You're checking off all those places you wanted to visit from your bucket/before we leave this continent list and frankly, already have one foot out the door. Sure, you're still healthy and all, but your work ethic may be slipping a bit, or just propped up by the knowledge that you still want a good final annual review/chance to get into heaven. 

Month 23
People start suggesting that you all get together for one last time to see that favorite place or eat at that great restaurant "before you go."  Your best friends are also leaving one by one and are being replaced by bright, shiny new faces that you just don't seem to have as much energy to be excited about anymore. After all, you're not going to be around long enough to really know them anyway, so maybe your good manners slip some and the real you comes out more than before.  Every day is casual Friday.

Month 23 and Two Weeks
Day by day, you're just going through the motions until the day comes when they finally come pack up all your stuff.  You're living in the borrowed "welcome kit" of household items that aren't yours; your house isn't the same and the kids and pets are getting that sinking feeling again.  Nobody expects anything of you at work except that you leave your affairs in order.  Basically, you're in hospice now and just waiting.  

Departure Day
One final sad set of goodbyes and tears.  Last hugs with whichever close friends are still around, and promises that this isn't really goodbye, but rather see you later.  You take one last look around, close the door and give back the keys/your Blackberry.  
Your work here is done and it's time for the long journey home. 

Reincarnation (For those who believe in this sort of thing.)
WooHoo! Now you're on your one month vacation called Home Leave/heaven where you are briefly reunited with all the friends and family you can manage before heading back to FSI to start all over again. 

Scroll to top of page and repeat.

And the cycle repeats itself as we move through the larger cycle that is a life itself in a Foreign Service career.

Enjoy it.