Saturday, May 15, 2021

Tour extension: We'll be here for a while

 Yesterday I did something that surprised me; I deleted the Excel sheet from my computer that I'd saved a few months back containing the projected job vacancies for the upcoming summer bidding season.  Starting last year, I began poring over this list, color-coding the assignments by preference, adding notes about the jobs, daydreaming about the locations and trying to imagine which one would eventually be mine.  It's one of my favorite things to do, second only to Zillow house hunting. Hey, there's no harm in seeing what a little farm house on 10 acres in Eastern Oregon costs these days.  Or maybe a 6th floor condo with bay view in Bellingham.  Or three years in Istanbul, Minsk or Addis Ababa.  In each activity, I'm imaginging my new life, the people I'll meet, the stories I'll hear, the landscape I'll soak in, and I find all that absolutely irresistable.  Which is why deleting my list of possible posts to bid on was completely out of character. 

I did it because my husband and I got some news while on our vacation back to the U.S. these past few weeks.  For the first time since the pandemic iron curtain dropped on us all, we got on a plane and spent two weeks in another world.  At least that's what the U.S. felt like after being in El Salvador for 20 months.  I sound like the mother of a toddler counting time like that, but like a toddler's parent - I want credit for all the time served.  Now that sounds harsh against Central America's "Pulgarcito" (little thumb), and that's unfortunate because living in El Salvador is by no means a punishment. It just felt really good to touch base with the familiar, to hug family and friends, share favorite meals over dinner and have the names of places we used to know come back to life. ("Why don't we meet up at Picnic Point? We can stop by the Fred Meyer just off 196th on the way there and pick up some lunch from the deli counter.") Not to mention the awesome yogurt selection and excellent Vietnamese food.  

I should get back to the news.

I deleted my projected vacancies list because I won't be bidding this summer. While on vacation, we got  the word that our tour in San Salvador had been extended by 13 months.  Yup - the family train will now stay in this station for four years plus one month.  This wasn't something unexpected or unwanted, but rather something we requested.  At certain posts, usually those with higher hardship pay, including El Salvador, employees can request a one year tour extension.  The Department doesn't always approve these requests, and as with the assignment process in general, we're often left picturing our fate at the end of one of these wooden sticks.

A rare view of the Consular Affairs assignments war room

I submitted my extension request back in March, and when we left on vacation in the final days of April without having received the Department's response, I was starting to get a bit nervous.  In fact, I'd started refreshing my projected vacancies list more frequently.  But now that it's official, we're back to buying green bananas and multi-packs of canned mushrooms.  I even bought some very pink shorts and dust covers for all my suits as this tropical life will continue until September 2023. 

After only a year here, when I began pestering my husband about how he'd feel spending a year learning Albanian - no doubt I saw a shiny assignment on the projected vacancies list, I'm so incorrigible - he responded, "Why don't we just extend HERE?"

This caused an immediate reaction in me, something like this:

As much as I was cheering for El Salvador and our life and work here, the notion FOUR years in one place, ONE place, got me real itchy under the collar. 

But he was right.  

Here's the math behind why this is the right decision, and perhaps this can serve as bidding advice to anyone wanting it.  First, given the worldwide cessation of routine visa and passport services due to the pandemic (the fancy way of saying just about all fee-producing services stopped for a long time), Consular Affairs is in dire budgetary straits.  In cable after cable and bi-weekly broadcasts from HQ, we Consular employees have learned about the belt-tightening, which now has us looking like this:

One of the ribs they removed was the hiring of any new family members into consular sections.  Considering my husband has six years' experience in consular work, and none in other embassy sections and is of a "semi-retirement" age, both of which could make his finding a job at a new post more difficult.  He has a good job now where he likes his colleagues, knows what he's doing, uses his Spanish every day, and has interesting dinner table stories to share (that part is for me).  

We live in a country we like, with pleasant weather, beaches and mountains in easy reach, set in an interesting region to explore, in a U.S. time zone for keeping up with family, and only a short flight to Houston, Miami or Atlanta.  Naturally none of our family live in those cities, but it's an easy enough connection to get where they do.  We like our house and live minutes from work and most importantly, the cats love their life here, especially in the garden my husband has whipped into shape.  

Bridget blending into her new habitat

Seamus displays his response to our extension via interpretive dance

I have my own reasons to stay here, too.  First, I find my work endlessly fascinating and have a team of five local staff and three family member employees whom I adore.  I know that as a supervisor I'm not supposed to say that, but instead I should highlight their professionalism, the skill with which they complete their work, blah blah, but really - I truly enjoy each one of them and am incredibly proud about what we collectively accomplish every day.  Plus we have a good few laughs along the way, which is like gold in my book.  

Finally, I get along very well with my new supervisor and the rest of our consular management team, and one of my favorite A-100 classmates will soon be joining us. 

Yes, I know what you're thinking: I've just cursed the rest of our tour by saying all the above.  It occurred to me, too.  But I counter that unpleasant feeling by remembering that if we were to reshuffle the deck this summer by bidding, there is absolutely no guarantee that we'd end up with anything resembling what we have now.  Sure, it is technically possible we'd be assigned to Vancouver or another dream post, but it's far more likely we'd end up in distinctly NOT Vancouver.  I won't name places where we'd, errrr, really rather not go, because I truly believe in the pricinple of one man's trash is another man's treasure. So just trust me that there are places where I would rather take a year of leave without pay versus move there. 

It won't be fun writing four EERs on the same subject matter no matter how interesting it is (see last post regarding my thoughts on our annual employee evaluations). This could also reduce my chances of promotion, but no decision comes drawback-free and these are the ones I've accepted. I'll just complain about them later.

One final thing about tour extensions: they come with mandatory 20 working days of home leave in the U.S. mid-tour.  This is why the extension was not for one year, but for 13 months. We're not allowed to be abroad for more than 42 months without home leave, and this extension brings us to 49 months overseas.  Generally, home leave is the most delicious thing on earth, comprised of one full month (at least!) of paid vacation between tours, to re-Americanize ourselves, free from the burden of thinking about work piling up that so often comes with regular vacations, no work phone to check/not check/check anyway, and not yet saddled with the pressure of language training. 

Regular home leave 

But mid-tour home leave is slightly (sarcasm font) less tantalizing in that we WILL have work piling up in our absence. We WILL be burdening our coworkers who have to cover for us. Cats are NOT enthusiastic travelers nor are lawns and gardens self-caring, so we'll have to arrange for lengthy cat and home care.  Plus, as the employee, I will be in paid home leave status, but this is not afforded to family member employees. Therefore if my husband accompanies me (we're not yet sure if he must), he'll have to either take leave without pay or use up all his vacation time, or likely both.  And let's not forget that one month is a LONG time to couch surf, no matter how much we love our family, so we need to plan to spend at least a month's income on food, lodging and transportation.  Sounding less delicious now, eh?

Mid-tour homeless leave

So that's where things are now and where they'll be for a while.  Family and friends who get my homemade calendars for Christmas featuring our current country are now slumping their shoulders imagining three more years of beach and volcano pictures. I hear you, and I'll work on that.  But it's nice to know we're settled for a while longer, and the hugs from the local staff upon hearing the news were pretty cool, too.  It'll be all right. 

Saturday, March 20, 2021

10 Years In: Foreign Service Retrospective and Future Thoughts

 Very recently I hit my ten year anniversary in the Foreign Service.  Aside from a 12 year stretch as a riding instructor, this is the longest amount of time I've ever had one job.  

My first thoughts: That was fast! 

My second thoughts: Isn't it time to do something else?

Let me admit that in the past year or two, I've had itchy feet to do something different, as if there were another chapter still in me to be lived.  Some little bit of favorite dessert that I've tucked away in a corner of the fridge for later.  This "something else" has a nebulous shape: just something creative, a life under my own direction with unstructured time to travel, write, photograph, watercolor, tend the garden and pet the cats. Who wouldn't want that? 

In a series of long walks on unending stretches of the Costa del Sol, my husband and I have had some good "what are we going to do with our lives?" navel-picking (his term) conversations. 

Long beaches for long conversations

Of the very few conclusions we reached, which admittedly stands a good chance of being a) forgotten, or b) reconsidered, was that our current life already gives us the opportunity for travel and certainly for immersion in a place that regular tourism doesn't.  (Or at least tourism that we could afford.)  Second, although perhaps this should have been first, is the practical aspect of getting off the government wheel. Frankly, we need to keep saving for our dottage and there's no better way to do that than to keep our heads down and keep going.  

Now that that's decided (although see caveats above about our fickle nature), I've changed my mental pacing on the next ten years, knocking it back a gear from a dash to get onto the next greatest thing, to a steady chug.  More of a slow down and smell the roses sort of mentality, if you will. And you know what? Instead of feeling resigned, I feel more settled, like I don't have to wait to do what I really want, maybe I can start doing it now. 

Therefore, let this anniversary serve as a time to appreciate the best (and some of the worst) of this past decade in the hopes of fueling the next, and as proof that I can get through it and maybe keep on enjoying it along the way. 

Where to start? At the beginning. 

I loved the camaraderie of having two orientation classes: First as a Foreign Service Specialist and then as a Foreign Service Officer and excitement of TWO flag days!

FS Specialist Class - 2011

FS Officer Class "A-100" -2012

And now the moment we've all been waiting for...

Checking out our assigned house/apartment at post for the first time. THIS is the stuff!

Bogota: Now THAT'S a door!

Suburban life in Juarez

Daphne explores the house for the first time. 

Bine ati venit (welcome) to Bucharest's apartment life. 

Virginia apartment for our DC hardship tour.  

Notice the bikes in the living/dining room and mismatched furniture as we furnished the place from second hand stores. 

We love our San Salvador garden and you get used to the concertina wire quickly. 

Arriving at post to meet a great social sponsor who stocked your fridge, collected your pre-shipped boxes of cat food and litter, and took you out to dinner in your new neighborhood.

On the flipside - the social sponsor who promised all of the above and then suddenly had to go away on your arrival day, giving you less than 24 hours' notice that you were essentially on your own.  Yeah, that happened, too. 

Seeing the Embassy, Consulate or office for the first time and finding a campus with spots for outdoor lunches, walking paths, a pool (twice), cafeteria, landscaped grounds and an office with a window.  

Okay - I lie.  I've never had an office with a window, unless you count my visa window.  In fact, my first office, and by that I mean the entire Economic section shared by six people, was a repurposed supply closet.  No, not joking.  

Trying not to panic when your boss asks you to do something and not only are you not sure how to do it, you're very sure you have no idea what s/he is even talking about.  Like arranging for on-tarmac pick-up at an international airport for a VIP. (You can even DO that?) Yes, and there's a weird code name for it, too that I've forgotten. Picture your boss passing your desk on the way out the door and casually saying, "Oh hey, make sure you arrange for a Charlie 10 pick-up, too, 'kay?" 

Hearing some high-level muckety-muck talk about energy security policy and finding myself completely engrossed in the topic even though I'm a consular officer and likely will never have to deal with this, and then realizing he's the said-same muckety-muck for whom I arranged a Charlie 10 pick-up during his VIP visit to my last post.  Suddenly feeling all warm inside that I was part of something bigger than just the piss-ant details of the visit. 

Working on the Summit of the Americas in Cartagena

Watching the presidential motorcade arrive with our embassy local staff and seeing they were as excited about seeing Obama's arrival as I was. 

Getting to explore old-town Cartagena.

Hearing the spontaneous gasp and seeing tears of relief from an immigrant visa applicant after telling him/her that their visa has been approved. Knowing that after years of living undocumented in the United States, now for the first time they can return to their family and job without the daily fear of possibly losing it all. This happened a LOT in Juarez. 

Hearing the spontaneous gasp and seeing tears of shock from an immigrant visa applicant after telling them they were permanently barred from entry because when they were 19 they presented their cousin's U.S. birth certificate to border authorities in order to go shopping in Texas with friends.  Sadly, this also happened more than a few times in Juarez. 

Consulate 4th of July in Juarez with some of the women it was such a pleasure to call coworkers.

Juarez: Life on the X

Bien venidos a Mexico!

Settling into the first few weeks of FSI language class: pens, highlighter and a freshly creased open notebook arranged in front of me, reviewing the class schedule and flipping through the text book.  Feeling excited, optimistic and just a bit anxious about the prospect of realizing that in six months I would be professionally conversant in a language I had heretofore never heard. 

Crying in the FSI bathroom at month 5.5 of language training with a real conviction that I will never be able to pass that %$#@ language exam.

Back at Hogwarts!

Ole' Ben here to remind us why we're here. 
Going to work with my husband on our first day in Bucharest. For the first time, his embassy job was perfectly arranged to start upon our arrival. This was a landmark occasion as opposed to the many months' or years' wait of interviews, security clearances, dashed hopes and final resignation of unemployment that so often befall the spouses who agree to join this life to support our careers. 

Being the embassy's Fourth of July celebration MC, on stage with the Romanian Military Band, and presenting the Romanian President and our Ambassador to the crowd in Romanian, that language I had been crying about just two years prior.  Afterwards, kicking off my heels and dangling my feet in the embassy pool, glass of wine in hand, alongside two colleagues in quiet celebration that we'd made it through our second consular tour together and soon would each be headed to different parts of the globe. 

Arcul de Triumf on Romanian National Day

Castelul Peles, Sinaia, Romania

Pomp and ceremony of the 4th of July celebration in our final days in Bucharest

Standing in front of my umpteenth Con-Gen class (the consular officer general training class) to speak to new officers about the slippery slope of consular malfeasance. As the bright, shiny pennies raise their hands with "what if...?" questions, I find I can field them somewhat confidently from the experience I've gained overseas and during my tour within Consular Affairs headquarters. Geez, when did that happen? Wasn't I just a riding instructor a few years back?

So much more fun to see FSI as a teacher than as a student. 

Stepping out of the international airport for the first time and being struck immediately by the tropical humidity and absolute cacaphony of birdsong. Well hello El Salvador, nice to finally meet you!

Observing elections with a local colleague as part of a 15-team mission spread out across the breadth and width of the country. Feeling like a war correspondent as I slipped on the tan vest with "Electoral Observer" embroidered on the breast and hung my photo credentials around my neck. Chatting with other observation teams from around Latin America and comparing notes on what we'd been seeing. Realzing that what we'd been seeing was democracy in action via the peaceful transfer of power. 

Counting the vote in front of party representatives. 

Voter roles and an observer. 

Observer chatting with electoral officials. 

Volcano view over San Salvador.

Fishing village of Los Cobanos.

Over dinner, or the occasional gin and tonic, sharing work stories with my husband and realizing that he has as much consular experience as an family-member employee as I do as an officer. In fact, he knows 95 percent more than I about American Citizen Services and has accepted 100 percent more passports applications than I ever have. Like it or not buddy, it seems you've made yourself quite a career here. 

Not just listening in, but sometimes even contributing, to discussions on topics that later end up in the headlines as policy. 

Realizing that the feeling of "What am I doing here?" on the first day in a new office is getting a little less scary with each new assignment. 

Want to know what I don't love so much? Employee Evaluation Reports, the dreaded annual "EER" upon which our tenure and promotion are based. Once a year work stops as we each sweat over what to include, what to leave out, how to explain stuff while not coming off as an insufferable braggart nor a decorative doormat. ARGH. Everyone hates them, trust me, it's not just me. In fact, I remember a friend saying that when she left the Foreign Service for greener pastures, the first thing on her mind was "NO MORE EERs!"  

But some of the best perks of this job have been the local staff we've gotten to know along the way.  Maybe we've just been incredibly lucky in our assignments, but we've worked with only highly capable, friendly, welcoming, local colleagues who've put up with our thousands of questions and our regular mangling of their language. They've shared insider travel advice and told us the names of birds, trees, or food. They've taught us phrases to get us in trouble and ways to sound less foreign and pointed out cultural differences when we've wondered why things are the way they are. We've had far too many laughs, and we've learned who really runs the show.  

We had a great time with this crew!

Looks like we just might stick it out for another ten.  Well, we'll see...

Sunday, January 24, 2021

Best Laid Plans

Best laid plans of mice and men often go awry.  -Robert Burns

I was excited for our plans yesterday to pack our bikes into the back of the car and head to an expansive, hilly park at the base of the San Salvador volcano.  It's not far away from where we live and is criss-crossed with walking and biking paths, but for no good reason we've only been once before and never with our bikes.  Given the blue skies, light breeze and no humidity - it was the perfect day to get out and get moving.

Bike patch sculpture that is surprisingly accurate.

Although we're a few months into the dry season, the landscape is still blooming and the Salvadoran national tree, the maquilishuat has just started opening its pink flowers. I double take each time I see these as they look like huge Japanese cherry trees in bloom.  We headed out along a wide bike path running between a busy highway and the park, cruising under a few maquilishuat trees.  

Lovely day for a bike ride, no?

We'd only been cycling about 15 minutes when we passed a small stable alongside the path.  There was a man delivering full water buckets to the horses, so of course I had to stop and ask him about his charges.  The tidy stable was a mounted police base with four large horse stalls below and living quarters for the officers above.  A clothesline full of uniform pieces and t-shirts waved in the breeze under the trees alongside the stable block, near a stack of firewood, an ashy pile of burned garbage and a small cooking fire heating a pot of something for the officers' lunch.  I chit-chatted with the officer for just a few minutes about the horses, what breed were they? ("criollo" = local horse), which was his? (none, we all switch horses) and some basics about where they patrolled and why.  He told me that besides patrolling the enormous and steep park (i.e. perfect for a mounted patrol), just ahead on the trail there was an underpass tunnel that used to be successful grounds for thieves hoping to relieve joggers and bikers of their possessions, so this extra patrol base was added to help control that "delinquencia."  I thanked him for the information and interruption and we pushed back on down the trail. 

Police horse having some lunch and a fresh bucket of water.

Just a few minutes later the bike path dipped down a hill to the aforementioned underpass tunnel.  Approaching it, I could see every surface covered in graffiti.  My husband was ahead of me and had paused at the exit of the tunnel (only about 20 yards long) to wait for me to catch up.  Next to him was a runner who was stopped and perhaps fiddling with his phone or something.  

The first piece of spray paint art caught my eye immediately and so I paused on my bike to snap a picture of it.  The graffiti looked like a mix of art and turf-claiming tags, and so I was a bit anxious stopping to take the picture. The bird seemed an innocent and beautiful piece, but an expert on reading gang tags I am not. Perhaps MS-13 and Barrio 18 are recruiting new artistic talent these days?  

Pretty graffiti bird and likely some bad stuff I can't read. 

It was a split second later that I heard the BANG! directly at my feet. 

I'm always amazed at the amount of information one's brain can process in a split second.  They say that dreams, which can feel like feature-length movies with unfolding plotlines and complex character development, may really just be minutes long, and using that processing speed, my synapses fired off a few hypotheses: 

First reaction, my go-to when surprised or upon stubbing my toe, was to scream something REALLY LOUDLY that was not particularly family-friendly. May have started with an "f" or "s."

Next my brain conducted a full-body scan to see if/where I'd been shot. No pain, no blood, still standing - good. 

A millisecond later theory two developed: firecracker. El Salvador, especially at holiday time, is all about fireworks, bottle rockets and firecrackers of all descriptions. Wouldn't be hard to believe that someone came across an unexploded something in a pants pocket and put a match to it. With the highway overhead, I figured someone had chucked a lit firecracker out of a passing car, you know - just for laughs. Or were they standing just above me on the overpass even now? Were they watching? Did they choose me on purpose? Why? The bastards!

At that same time, my husband's brain was running through a similar list of possibilities.  He immediately looked at the jogger dude standing next to him, gauging a local's reaction of how possible the bang they heard could've been a gunshot. Completely unperturbed by the noise, the guy just laughed at my scream and did nothing else to react.  My husband's thought process, not saturated with the same surge of adrenaline as mine was finally able to come to the most logical conclusion, which was verified as I scooted up to him. 

Irreparable hole

Damn! The front tire tube had blown out leaving a good-sized hole and the airless tire was already resting on the rim.  

I'd never had this happen before and so that option hadn't even occurred to me. Plus, living in a country with - shall we say - a certain notoriety for violence, it was not completely out of the realm of possibility to think I'd been shot at. (In Juarez that outcome would've been far more likely, but my brain didn't go that far into weighing the relative possibilities.) Quickly comparing notes while I caught my breath, my husband admitted that gun shot was also his first thought, followed by becoming instantly pissed off that the other dude had taken the "sucks to be you" attitude, laughed, adjusted his ear buds and headed on down the trail without so much as a "Como está?"  His calf tattoo "Death is just another great adventure" explained it all. 

Breath caught and senses regained, my husband pulled out his tire repair kit, but his good effort at a gluing a patch on the bust tube proved futile. We decided that I'd walk the bike back (no choice, really), wait with my new police officer friend and horses at the stable (sensible), and he would ride on ahead and return in the car, parking alongside the highway to pick me up (trust me - everyone does this and for far less emergent reasons).  

With our plans for a day of bike riding now shot (too soon?), we decided to make the best of the day and find some lunch instead.  He pointed the car up the road that winds its way up to "El Boqueron," the blow-off part of the San Salvador volcano that rises above the city.  Part-way up, we pulled into Plaza Volcan, a terraced tree-house like complex of little restaurants on the uphill side of the road and plunked ourselves down to enjoy cold drinks and a thin-crust pizza for lunch with an awesome panorama of the city and coastal mountains. 

Frothy basil-infused lemonade? Yes please and thank you!

Now that's a table with a view.

We live down there!

Flowering landscaped terraces and a choice of little restaurants. 

Best laid plans. 

We'd set out for an afternoon of exercise and fresh air.  We ended up with a good story, a tasty thin-crust pizza, and a new favorite spot for a meal.

El Salvador, you never cease to surprise.