Saturday, November 12, 2016

Handshake Day: The Day Formerly Known as Flag Day

I often  joke that I joined the Foreign Service so that I could finally live in a house with more than one bathroom.  Another reason is because I always need something on the horizon to look forward to, to wonder about, to plan for.  I endlessly spin the "What If?" wheel and try different lives on for size.  This is why the State Department's world map of our overseas posts is hung in front of our treadmill.  Therefore, while bidding season is certainly an anxiety-inducing process, it's the kind of anxiety that comes with a toy surprise at the end. 

Our first two tours were announced with an exciting Flag Day ceremony. I learned of our third tour (my second as an FSO), through an email that simultaneously was sent to thousands of officers worldwide who were bidding at that time.  In Juarez, with its crew of 48 entry-level officers, this made for yelps, gasps, smiles (no tears that I saw) and a lot of leaving our interview window (and some perplexed applicants) to hug each other.  But the mid-level process of informing bidders of their assignments is a horse of a different color. Although 2016 debuted the improved and abbreviated bidding season, it still d r a g g e d   o u t  over a week leading up to "Handshake Day" as bureaus made decisions of their top candidate(s), checked in with candidates to confirm interest and then re-shuffled their decks as needed. Prohibited from offering a final handshake (read: JOB) until October 31st this year, many bidders were pre-informed of their Most Favorite Bidder status for certain jobs in the week prior to Halloween.   

The "street view" of this process, however, was that day by day I heard from friends worldwide who had/had not gotten these "air kiss" emails (see this post for what that means).  Monday became Tuesday became Thursday without receiving any word from Consular Affairs, despite staring at my BlackBerry's little red New Message notification light and calculating and then re-calculating the time difference between Eastern and Eastern European Time.  Finally, just before going to bed on Thursday, the email arrived. It said that my bid for a particular position was being most favorably viewed (or something like that). 

Therefore, in keeping with the Flag Day tradition, I'd like to announce that we will be heading to....

The Netherlands Antilles?

Let me give you another clue:

Yup - back to the Mother Ship in Washington, DC. 

So now let's talk about some difficult stuff. Where to start?

First, when that BlackBerry red light blinked and I furiously typed in my password, saw a message from Consular Bidders and quickly scanned it, I was in our living room, winding down the evening and watching a bit of TV with my husband and my visiting mother and step father.  We'd just seen something - I don't remember what - that prompted my husband to start joking around and singing "Vamos a la playa!" because first on our bid list was a job in a popular island tourist destination in the Caribbean. This is a busy post with a huge need for consular officers, for which I already have the required the language score and for which the timing of our departure from Bucharest coincided nicely with the job's start date.  Meaning: I thought I had a very good shot at it. 

As I read the short message and saw that instead I was the top candidate for a domestic job ranked second on my list, I knew I had only a moment before I had to break his heart. 

You would now be correct in thinking, "Well then why did you bid on this job if you really wanted to go elsewhere?"  Because I had to list ten viable options. Because it's a great job. Because the position description, the conversations I had with the chief of the unit, the second in charge and the incumbent currently occupying the chair all made it sound like it was designed for me, my professional background and my personal interests. Because back in 2012 when I first saw someone who was doing this job - I thought to myself, "I want to do THAT!" 

That's why.  

The rest of the message said something like, "Where does this position rank on your bid list?" meaning, "And do you like us, too, or should we move on?"  I read it out loud to my husband and family and then in private conversation in our bedroom, my husband and I agonized over how to word my reply. I didn't want to lose this opportunity, but also wanted to let them know that, ahem, we really wanted to stay abroad. Essentially, this is a game of The Price is Right.  You contestant can have this beautiful washer-dryer set in front of you - OR - what's behind Curtain Number Two!  Because I certainly could have at that moment responded by saying, ehhhh - no thanks.  

Would this have endeared myself to the folks in Consular Affairs after selling myself so confidently for this position?  (I think that answer is obvious.)  

Would I have then been re-shuffled into the deck to become one of the unassigned on Handshake Day?  Possibly.  

Would I then be assigned to somewhere we really would prefer not to go at this time? Also possible. 

Did I swear to be worldwide available when I was hired? Yes. 

Had my husband and I discussed the eventual reality of going back to DC? Yes.  

So - what is it?

Let me now go back to the top of my posting.  Besides the jokes about joining the FS to have a house with more than one bathroom, I really joined so that we could live abroad and do really cool work at the same time. This was our plan from the day we met: to have an ex-pat life of fresh experiences and adventures, of feeling alive when faced with the joys and difficulties that come with living in new environments. But going back to the States, we'll just be regular ole' Americans. My husband will be a middle-aged guy looking for a job in a very competitive market with six years away from his usual profession and a desire not to return to that line of work anyway. One person's salary would barely cover our expenses in DC and drain all savings. More important - my husband has his own sense of pride and value that is very much tied to his being a productive member of society, having meaningful daily activities and the ability to carry his own financial burden. 

Further, moving to DC comes with some icky logistics. Not only does it mean we pay for our own housing in one of the most expensive U.S. cities, but also all the belongings and furniture the State Department kindly stored for us when we joined nearly six years ago will be delivered to our apartment within 90 days of our arrival. Please picture us in 600 square feet with cardboard boxes of text books, high school yearbooks and gardening equipment draped in colorful blankets. And paying 60% of our salary for the pleasure. 
I'm thinking...


Just add a litter box and two geriatric cats to the picture.

Please read this not as First World Whining, but as a real Foreign Service life tale with tentacles that reach out to zap sensitive nerves involving family member lives and difficult marital/family decisions.  (And we're not even a family of five trying to do the same thing - I can't even imagine what that'd be like.)

In the end, I am naturally an optimistic person who trusts that every turn in the road will bring unexpected pleasures.  We have always loved living in DC, a city that offers everything one could want (so long as they can pay for it and don't mind sharing it with millions of others).  I am excited about the actual job I will be doing and trust that when one does what they're passionate about - good things come.  I also have faith in my husband that he will have a more independent life and will be able to feel like an individual in his own right as opposed to the Trailing Spouse.  And maybe after all, it will really be like this:

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