Like the Monarch butterfly from Mexico, or the Wildebeest across the Serengeti - it's once again time to plan the great Foreign Service migration.
Unlike our two-legged and two-winged friends, the FS migration is planned well before it actually occurs. I'm not sure who has it better: the animals who, feeling something in their DNA, pack up the kids and leave the next day...
the FSO who agonizes for months over which direction to go - taking into consideration their family's job prospects, the kids' school, their pets, the climate, the security situation, their medical clearances and, oh yeah, their own career trajectory - and even then still has to wait a year before rounding up the kids and hitting the trail.
I'm voting for the Wildebeest option.
However, like animal migrations, our destinations are also determined by others in our herd, rendering us unable to completely control where we'll end up. We accept that it could be the desert, it could be the mountains, or it could be the lush plains we've always longed for. But at the least, we hope there'll be a watering hole and food nearby (oh, and possibly a nice extra bedroom we could turn into an office or guest room - you know how folks like to pop in).
Our herd leaders are blunt about the realities of where we may end up, saying things like: "Hmmm... they'll likely be sixty bidders on that job, so...." and then letting the sentence trail off. This tells us we may need to "rethink our options," and "have you considered Siberia? I hear the schools are getting heat now." Which is the Foreign Service equivalent of warning us that our planned route may have both lions and tigers ready to prevent us from our reaching the fertile plains.
|Kids, this too could be your new post!|
|I'm not going ANYWHERE.|
How Does it Work? The Nuts and Bolts
At this time in the summer bidding season, we're all just working off the "projected vacancies" list to start whittling down our choices. I'm planning to stay in a consular job, so the projected list at my level currently has about one hundred options. By the time the hippos and hawks pick it over, I assume the real bid list in September will have substantially fewer options, but it's a good start for now.
The first step is to comb through this long list and scratch off places we do not want to call home for three years. Experience (and nearly every lunch table bidding conversation) has taught me that my version of hell is someone else's heaven, so I don't feel fussy or judgy disregarding whole sections of the globe. There truly is a key for every lock.
Decision Making Criteria
The next step is to look at the language requirements for each assignment: what do I already speak AND have a valid language exam score for (they last five years, or are permanent at the elusive 4/4 level)
what am I willing to spend a good portion of the next year learning? Here is where being a domestically assigned bidder is a detriment. If I get assigned to that cool job in Tirana I've been eyeballing, let's say, we would have to continue paying our rent for that year of Albanian training, as opposed to someone coming for the same training from overseas who will receive per diem (i.e. the Department will pay for temporary housing) for the length of their training. That's a BIG difference, and depending on your family size and therefore your rent - that's at least a $25K difference. Yes, I'd still receive my salary, but my husband would have to decide between continuing to work, or learning the language of the country where he'll be living, shopping, looking for a job, talking to taxi drivers, neighbors, waiters etc... It's an unenviable decision. Therefore we've decided to bid ONLY on English or Spanish speaking posts and avoid that year of language training that would cost in rent likely all the extra hardship differential we'd earn from living in a difficult country to begin with!
However, I just re-took my Spanish exam and received an embarrassingly low score that is leaving me feeling like not wanting to ever have to go through that process again. So while I am bidding on Spanish-required posts, I'm actually rooting for an English-speaking assignment and a few years to regain my pride before tackling the language testing process again. This is actually how I feel (but then again, the wound is still fresh):
|Screw you guys. I'm going home!|
Besides language tests, there are other factors to consider...
I'm always fascinated by the little details that contribute to our decision making, not only in bidding, but in life in general. For example, the first time I visited my (now) husband's apartment - I saw that his bachelor kitchen was not only super tidy, but also perfectly organized and stocked. I'm not talking shiny appliances he'd bought and didn't use, I mean a well-used waffle maker, a food dehydrator, a full selection of spices and a fridge containing more than ketchup, beer and a loaf of bread. It was a pretty much a done deal at that point for me.
So despite what we hear about making logical, progressively challenging career-based decisions, here are some examples of what REALLY drives the ship for many of us:
- Personal safety: Terrorism threats notwithstanding, I'm talking about the daily safety threats one might face just going to work and the market every day. At first one post on our list sounded like the REAL Foreign Service experience: a once-in-a-lifetime and think-of-the stories-you'll-have kind of place. But after hearing about the level of rape (both men and women) and everyday violence that is common to the capital city, I promptly scratched it off our list. Guess we won't be going to Port Moresby...
- Favorite sport availability: If you're an avid sailor, you're likely not crossing your fingers for Ukraine, Mongolia or Zimbabwe. I surveyed riders and posted a whole list of equestrian opportunities worldwide here, knowing there's quite a cadre of us who won't go where riding isn't available. Hello Buenos Aires!
- Allergies: Love Ciudad Juarez as I did, it was likely the most allergic place I've ever lived. Dozens of us were tormented by the desert's dust and plant life (for me the tumbleweed) and would reconsider spending a few years sniffling, sneezing and generally not breathing. Sorry Juarez, we loved you!
- The Screamer: We all hear of officers who are prone to bad tempers and scream at colleagues. We shake our heads and wonder how the heck they are still employed, but worse - how they were promoted. But they're out there, and with every horror story, I take down a name. (And I mean actually write it down on a scrap of paper I keep somewhere safe.) It doesn't matter how lovely the country and local cuisine is if your work day is spent dodging verbal assaults. One big KNOCK WOOD that I've been spared that thus far.
- The Weather: I'm a four-seasons kind of person, and by that I don't mean a buggy and humid summer, a blizzardy winter with bad roads and a soggy, gray spring. (Sorry Virginia.) Romania - at least for the two years we were there - had the perfect climate for me. But then, so did Juarez (allergies notwithstanding) with its bright blue skies ranging from crisp 30s in winter to the daily 100s of June. I always forgave the heat when I saw those wide, clear skies and felt the dry heat. Bogota, on the other hand, with its year-round 64 degrees and partly cloudy skies had me grabbing a sweater before heading out every day because one little breeze or a big ole' cloud would bring on the shivers. Nyet to Vladivostok for me.
- Internet Speed: Yes, this sounds like a real first-world problem, but I actually scratched a post off our list after hearing that it has some of the world's worst connectivity. Besides limiting communication and entertainment options, this could also chop my husband's online English teaching possibilities off at the knees. Sorry Addis Ababa!
And finally, my favorite example:
- Lack or presence of good sidewalks: A former colleague with two very small kids told me she once narrowed her bid list down to only cities with good sidewalks they could push a stroller down. Welcome to Panama!