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...