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.