Sunday, February 01, 2015

Home Leave 101

 After nearly four years in the Foreign Service, we're now enjoying our first home leave.

So first, a definition:
The purpose of home leave is to ensure that employees who live abroad for an extended period undergo reorientation and re-exposure in the United States on a regular basis.  

You can read the entire description, definition and all sorts of regulations and exceptions in the link above, but the gist is that after coming from a posting abroad (yes, being five miles from the Texas border is still considered being abroad), we're mandated to take a minimum of 20 business days on U.S. soil. "U.S. soil" includes all 50 states plus Commonwealths (Puerto Rico and the Northern Marianas), Possessions, and Territories (Guam, American Samoa and the U.S. Virgin Islands), but please don't ask me what the difference is between these last three categories.  When you're hired, you choose a home leave address of record, which can really be wherever you like from that list. Uncle Sam will generously pay to send you from your posting abroad to your listed home leave location. If you choose to go somewhere else, say to spend this month re-Americanizing yourself in the U.S. Virgin Islands instead, some fancy calculation is done to compare the cost of getting you (and family) to your island paradise vs. to your parents' house in Hoboken, NJ (for example).  You are then responsible for paying any overage between the two costs. This is called a "cost construct."

Seattle, WA is our home leave address, but as we've had a stable renter in our house there whom we don't want to evict for just one month, plus our home leave will take place in late January and February - not generally considered the best months in the Pacific Northwest - we opted to go to Florida and cost construct instead. 

Nearly one year ago, with our departure date from Juarez fixed, and the starting date of Romanian training known, we did heaps of research and finally chose to rent a house in northern Florida's Gulf Coast, thereby joining thousands of retired Canadian and Great Lakes residents as part of the great snow bird migration.  Coming off-season as we did, is not only less expensive, but also less crowded and finding a house available for the entire month was not too difficult. 

So here we are, and I gotta' say it's pretty cool.  

First of all, when was the last time you had one calendar month in which nothing more was expected of you other than remaining in the U.S.?  I think I was 15. Truly, other than basic personal hygiene, not crossing an international border is our only responsibility. Home leave is different from vacation because of the luxurious lack of expectations or lingering responsibilities.  When you go on vacation, that pile of stuff on the kitchen table will still be there to greet you when you return. Your inbox will continue to accept messages which will require your attention and action at some point, and you will still have to weed the garden, deal with that tiresome coworker and fight that horrible traffic wherever you live when the rosy glow of your vacation has worn off.  

In contrast, home leave, by definition taking place at the END of an assignment, comes without that mental baggage.  I have no further responsibilities to my job nor our house - loved them as I did - in Juarez. I have no expectations from my assignment in Bucharest yet either, and unlike in AP English in 11th grade - there is no required summer reading list for Romanian language training.  Oh I suppose I could try to be a real go-getter and find some language tapes to get a head start, but it's not at all expected and frankly would be just a bit more than annoying to come to class on the first day all full of little phrases I learned to (mis)pronounce during home leave. Yeah, instead I'm just going to unplug and let my brain rest this entire month. 

We've now been on home leave (which does not include the three travel days it took to get us and the Tabbies to Florida in the car - more on that later) for just over a week.  We're getting acquainted with the new environment and have already chosen our favorite grocery store and have located the PetSmart (I'm already on the second box of cat litter). We've walked on the beach each day, even if that meant we were wearing sweaters and hoods a few of those days.  We've completed a very complex 1000 piece puzzle; have had my husband's brother and sister-in-law visit for four days; have dug into new books and crossword puzzles; and have begun to catch up on a bunch of bad TV and too many morning news shows.  Really, all the stuff you WOULD do if you had the time - which is all we have now.  

Coming from a border posting, we're fortunate to have our car with us already.  But the great majority of folks coming back for home leave will do so in a plane, and therefore will not only have no home, but also no car.  This is why many of us refer to it as "homeless leave," that month of couch-surfing and relying on the kindness of friends and family.  Some of my younger coworkers have told me that returning to their parents' home, sometimes even to their childhood bedrooms, can be fun for the first week, but just awkward thereafter.  Because we're allowed to drive our cars to and from post, many leaving border assignments choose to do lengthy road trips and have filled their Facebook pages with pictures from National Parks throughout the American west. As we have the Tabbies to tow, spending more time on the road did NOT sound like a viable nor enjoyable option.  So we're staying in one place and letting friends, family and adventure come to us instead. 

Besides being the dead of winter and not wanting to spend our month stuck inside to escape the drear, we chose Florida as we're also "trying out" the region to see if some day we may want to live here. Next home leave will be during summer and so we may be renting a house in Oregon or along a lake somewhere.  But that's just our decision, and in my free time I've been thinking of other things that people could do on home leave. Here are a few ideas:
  • Rent an apartment or house in that region of the U.S. that has always intrigued you.
  • Schedule the minor surgery or dental work you've been putting off.
  • Rent a cabin in the woods and finally get started on the Great American Novel.
  • Take a course in something you've always wanted to learn, like French cooking, watercolor painting, Tai-Chi or playing the harmonica.
  • Use the time to buy a house or to remodel one you already own. 
  • Put all the bureaucracy of life in order: Wills; Insurance policies; Documents in your safe deposit box.
  • Hike all/part of the Appalachian or Pacific Crest trails. 
  • Work on your tennis, golf or poker game obsessively. 
  • Binge re-watch entire seasons of your favorite TV shows or Cary Grant's life work.
  • Actually put together your wedding photo album before your 15th anniversary comes around.
  • Staying in DC? Try to visit a different Smithsonian museum each day.
  • Buy a box of books from the Goodwill and see how many you can get through.
The Tabbies have continued to adjust to our mobile lifestyle and took to three days on the road exceptionally well.  Naturally, they prefer being settled now and are especially liking that we're home all day (i.e. available to tend to their needs). Toby spends a lot of time watching the neighborhood go by outside his screen door and sniffing the new smell of salt air.  My husband has kitted himself out with a fishing license and tackle and is determined to pull something out of the water.  I discovered and have gotten back to the late 1700s on one side of the family. And we've barely cracked Week Two.

Once again, I will leave you with a few pictures of our move east and where we've landed:

Daphne in the crow's nest perch. 
Dodger watches west Texas slip from view. 
Toby found my lap in San Antonio and didn't give it up until we hit northern Florida.

Toby didn't take well to leaving the hotel rooms each morning. "No really, it's small, but it's cozy! We'll be fine here; we don't need to leave!"

But once we got to the new house - well, he got pretty comfy. 
Finally here!

We've been getting to know the locals...

fighting the crowds...

and generally just finding a good spot to rest for a bit.


  1. Your cats are awesome travelers. Love the photo of tabby in the "car seat!"

  2. Thank you! Yes, they surprise us that at their ages, they are just getting more and more confident about it all and are so open to the new environments and trusting that we'll be there to care for them. We do everything we can to keep their routines consistent to help them through the changes.

  3. This comment has been removed by the author.

    1. DB Gates - Sure, I'd be happy to chat with you. I'd rather not publish my email address here on the blog, however. But I can be found on Facebook under my name, which it sounds like you might already know?

  4. Hello - This may either be a really awful time or a really great time for this. I am an EFM working on an MPA. I am currently doing a pseudo research project (ii is "pseudo" in that we don't have time to do a complete research project, we are just "going through the motions". One of the motions is to do an interview. I'd like to interview your husband. It should take about 30 minutes. If he'd be willing to talk to me, he can reach me at: Martin_K_Phillips on Hotmail.
    BTW - I love your ideas for home leave. I always have to bite my tongue when I hear people complain about "having to take" home leave!

  5. Great post for someone considering the career. Enjoy your home leave. Thanks!

  6. Question, do you get paid during home leave? My gut says "no", but then I can't see how hundreds of FSOs and FSS can budget for a month off work without getting paid, especially since most don't have homes to go "home" to.

    1. Hello Sara, yes our home leave time is earned (maybe one day per month? I'm not sure) while we're abroad and then used between tours, like vacation time. So we're still earning our salary, but naturally have to pay our own housing. How much home leave one can take depends on some horse trading between you, your losing post and your gaining post, and between overseas tours there's a 20 work day minimum.