Saturday, September 02, 2017

Becoming Domesticated

It's Saturday of Labor Day weekend in the American capital. 
BBQs, a long lazy lakeside weekend, maybe a camping trip, still wearing shorts, a big glass pitcher of lemonade and the sound of pond frogs in the evening - right?

For some, I'm sure.  But for us, it's pouring rain and feels more like late October than early September. I have an urban view from our temporary Oakwood apartment of thousands of other peoples' apartments. Our car is still somewhere on the Atlantic mid-way between Belgium and Baltimore where hopefully the cargo ship won't get hit by Hurricane Irma, and all our BBQ stuff is in our HHE (household effects), which have arrived on US soil - but are awaiting customs clearance and then delivery to our permanent apartment in two weeks.  And I just spent an hour assembling evidence for my case against Telekom Romania proving that I did indeed cancel my account and stop using their cell service in early July and therefore shouldn't have to pay the $100 bill they're trying to stick me with because THEY failed to turn off the service when requested. 
(But at least I had a nice cup of tea while doing it.)

THIS is what I pictured when imagining returning to the US.

And this is what we got.

Hurrumph.  It's all part of becoming domesticated. 

Once the fun of home leave and the novelty of living back in the US wore off (read: I quit being on vacation and went back to work), the reality of life in a crowded, expensive, sprawling metropolitan area hit us.  With six weeks at my new assignment already in the can, it feels like we're still living in limbo.  This no-man's-land covers both personal and professional territory:

On the work front, oh sure, it's to be expected that finding one's place in a new job is accompanied by a period of unsettled adjustment. Like borrowing a friend's well-worn flip-flops - it feels like I'm trying to fit into someone else's footprint and haven't made my own yet. I'm getting to know my new co-workers and my boss, and am trying to make a good impression without it feeling forced - like when you tell all your best stories in the first half-hour of a date and then just have to smile and pick at your fries the rest of the evening. Then there's the concern about how the hell I'm going to reach the high watermark left by my beloved predecessor.  I should also mention it took 9 (count 'em NINE) work days before my computer account was transferred from EUR Bureau to WASH Bureau to CA Bureau, all the while I just sat like a decorative plant in my cubicle and read over my co-workers' shoulders.  I find myself lost in meetings chock full of updates on acronym-titled-projects with unfamiliar people whose name and spot on the org chart escape me. I keep referring to my new civil service colleagues as the Locally Employed Staff and I'm still turning the wrong way off the elevator to get to my office. Geez.  

(Sidebar: I just Googled "new job confusion" to find an image that might fit this description and nearly all the returns were pictures of medical or military workplaces. Oh dear.)

But who am I to squawk? At least I HAVE a job.  
My husband started his search about an hour after my DC assignment was confirmed. That was last November.  He began by applying for federal jobs that would utilize his four years of specialized training and experience picked up in both the Juarez and Bucharest consular sections. Then came the federal hiring freeze.  While still scraping the barrel for the few federal jobs which are sneaking in under the freeze's radar, he added a layer to his search by including any type of ESL teaching work. This makes sense as he hopes to gain more experience in a field that could be both freeze-proof and valuable at our next overseas post. Still nothing (so far), but a good volunteer gig starting in a few weeks.  Like bringing home a new baby, every well-meaning friend is full of "Well have you tried...." tidbits of advice, which at first were graciously received but now are verging on annoying because yes, he has tried that, he is signed up with that service, he does visit that website, and he has considered that angle - and still the outcome remains the same.  The reality is that it kind of sucks to be middle-age and stumping for a job in a highly competitive field in a very expensive city. Period.

The kind of advice that never makes you say, "Thanks! I hadn't thought of that!"
 On the personal front, we're taking advantage of the Department's Home Service Transfer Allowance which gives us per diem to help with the costs of a temporary apartment, meals and "incidentals" for 60 days.  During this time, we'd expected to be apartment searching, but as it turned out - while on home leave in Maryland, we found an apartment advertised online and popped over to Virginia to see it and sign a lease.  Fortunately, it seems to be an easy commute to my new office and very close to FSI in case we have language training for our next assignment (see that - always looking ahead to "But what comes next?").  The place will be ours in mid-September at which time we'll receive our HHE and re-take possession of all stuff the Department stored for us when I was hired 6.5 years ago.  All that stuff that I didn't know what to do with but couldn't bear giving away and didn't realize would come home to roost in a small apartment some day.  My husband has been looking forward to culling this assortment of treasures for years. 

With all this griping - I must admit that I do really like my work and DC is a great city to live in. In fact, the only reason we considered a domestic assignment was because the particular job seemed to fit me perfectly - and once I've feathered my nest and have asked my boss the requisite 5,476 questions about how to do everything, I imagine I'll start feeling like my old self.  They say ("they" = nearly every speaker who gave advice in nearly every Entry Level Officer training you've attend since joining the Foreign Service) that our third tour should be in DC. This is so we learn how the Department's sausage is made and can meet people on whom we will hopefully make positive impressions who can then recommend us for our next overseas tour.  

Yup, that's pretty much how it works.

In the meantime, I've decided to treat this domestic assignment like an overseas one. Instead of just putting my head down and serving my time while paying over half my salary in rent, I look forward to exploring parts of the country we've hardly seen.  Taking the train to Philly or Boston while we're so close.  Flying to Miami for a long weekend in January.  Maybe even seeing NYC at Christmas alongside thousands of Romanians I've issued visas to for the very same thing. Who knows - maybe my husband will find a wonderful and fulfilling job and we'll want to extend our DC adventure for another tour.  

But until then, I'm just going to make another cup of tea and enjoy watching my favorite American re-runs without having to log into the VPN.  

And what's not to love about free museums?!