Saturday, February 12, 2011

Foreign Service Life: Things I Wish I Had Known A Year Ago

Wow, I can't believe it's been a year already. Or should I say that I can't believe it's only been a year?

Two very different statements, to be sure, but both accurately reflect how I feel as I look back on the past 12 months of our lives in the Foreign Service. So much has happened in such a short amount of time that it completely boggles my mind.

When we arrived in Falls Church, VA on February 11, 2010, I had no idea what to expect. All I knew was that I wasn't in Florida anymore.

There were plenty of things I didn't know, though. Things that would have made the past year easier. It's impossible to write a letter to my past self, but I would like to share some things that I feel could be potentially beneficial to new Foreign Service Families.

HOUSING: If you aren't happy at Oakwood, relax. Overseas housing is generally much nicer than your temporary DC abode. I don't make this statement based solely on our experience, but also on the numerous photos I have seen on Facebook and in other FS blogs. Also, don't be discouraged by the decor...make it your own. Some (not all) posts are able to take furniture back to storage. What this means is that you can bring/buy your own stuff to give your new home a splash of personal style. We've recently purchased new couches and a lamp, and will certainly continue adding to the house over time. In fact, we sent back an entire bedroom's worth of stuff in anticipation of a future makeover.

UAB/HHE: Carefully consider what items you place in your Unaccompanied Baggage and Household Effects shipments. We were newbies and had no clue what to do. Our UAB consisted of all of the clothes that wouldn't fit in our suitcases, and all of our pots and pans, linens, and small household appliances. Granted, it took a month longer than it should have for our UAB to arrive, so we were living out of our suitcases anyway....but once the UAB did arrive, we found ourselves wishing we had thrown some movies, books, board games, etc in there. Typically, the Embassy/Consulate will provide you with a welcome kit that contains household essentials like pots and pans, linens, and small household appliances. This is supposed to tide you over until your HHE arrives. What this means is that you don't need to pack this stuff with your UAB. Use your UAB for your clothes and a few fun items to entertain yourself with as you acclimate to your new home and await your larger HHE shipment.

UAB/HHE (Part 2): Oh, and don't be too attached to your stuff. After sitting in a non-climate controlled facility for months, then traveling thousands of miles, you might find that some of your stuff arrives damaged...or in some cases, not at all. We lucked out with minimal damage (mild marring of some cardboard DVD cases), though we've heard some strange stories from other people.

PERSONAL TRANSPORTATION: If you own a car, and are married or partnered, make sure that any vehicle that you want to bring to post is in the officer's name...and do it early. The US government is currently unable/unwilling to ship a vehicle overseas that does not list the FSO as owner or co-owner on the title. If you are an officer and your spouse/partner is sole owner on the title, have the conversation today about either transferring ownership or selling the current vehicle and buying a new one together. Title transfers take time, and this is not something you want to be dealing with any later than two months prior to departure.

EMPLOYMENT: One of our chief concerns in starting this new life was that we would be leaving a life in which we had always been able to carry each other on our insurance policies. As of this writing, same-sex partners (and even unmarried heterosexual couples) are unable to enjoy federal benefit coverage as domestic partners. As such, finding employment at post was crucial. Depending on the post, there will either be several, a couple, or no jobs available. This is something they tell the spouses early on, so as not to create unrealistic expectations. From what I can tell, with rare exception, if you are going to get a job at post, it will happen once you arrive at post. Feel free to apply while in DC, but don't become disheartened if you are not selected to fill a particular position. It may not be your location, not your qualifications, that are limiting you. A bird in hand is worth two in the bush, after all.

EMPLOYMENT (PART 2): I did not want to work in the Embassy/Consulate. No sir, no way, no how. This was TJ's career choice, not mine. I was happy to follow along and reap the benefits of a life abroad, but I didn't want to get absorbed into the government life myself. Sure I needed insurance, so I of course had to work there. But I wasn't going to like it. Except, I do like it. I love it. My current job responsibilities are admittedly routine but undoubtedly interesting. I learn something new every day, get to practice my mediocre Spanish, and contribute to the mission goals in a tangible way. And, after 1.5 months of sitting at home without internet, tv, or, well, anything, it was great to get out of the house and socialize. I have met some of the nicest, most interesting people since I started working at the consulate on December 20th. As comfortable as I was with my life in Orlando, with the handful of good friends that I had there, it's impossible to deny that this new life, especially when you actively participate in mission affairs, allows you to meet a larger quantity, quality, and variety of people than you ever could living in the states....or sitting on your keister at home while the officers do there thing at work. In fact, I should have posted this yesterday, but I was out at a happy hour and tequila tasting with my new office mates.

PETS: Oy, this one is so hard to talk about. I love my babies, I really do. In fact, our ability to bring them with us was one of our selection criteria for our first post. But between having to dope them up on Benadryl (at vet recommendation) and stop every four hours for a potty break to get them to DC last February, and all of the money, stress, and time involved in getting them to Mexico in December, I just simply don't know if we will be able to bring them with us consistently. Mexico was a bit of a hassle because everyone was dealing with a new process, so maybe we'll give it one more go just to be certain...but right now it's not looking so hot. If we don't bring them, I'm going to make grandma take care of them. We love them too much to not keep them in the family. But spending thousands of dollars to ship three pets every two years is untenable. I guess what I can say on the matter is that, as a pet owner, I understand how precious your four legged friends are. Just make sure you are committed to the expenses involved. And if you aren't a pet owner yet, please do your research before taking the leap.

DOMESTIC STAFF: Buyer beware is all I can say about this one. Sometimes you'll find good help. Sometimes you'll find bad help. And sometimes you'll just find good help that will steal your iPad.

PERSONAL IDENTITY: Moving to Falls Church, VA meant that TJ had finally achieved his goal of joining the Foreign Service. But what did the fruition of his goal mean for me? It meant that I had to leave my home, my friends, my job, my life...and what, exactly, did that say about me? At the time, I guess I thought it meant that I was less of a contributor to our family. That what I had to offer wasn't as important. That even I didn't care about my life, if I was so willing to say goodbye to it. Sure, I was excited to partake in the adventure, but part of me felt resentful about the whole thing. It led to a few pretty heated arguments, all of which have thankfully come to a positive, constructive conclusion. Some families aren't so lucky. For all of you trailing spouses, EFMs (Eligible Family Members, and MOHs (Members of Household) out there, all I can say is that you are important. Not just to the officer that you are accompanying, but to the mission as a whole. Your presence should bring peace and happiness to your home. It should create an island in the storm, an escape from the stress of work, a happy reminder of days gone by in a previous life. For the Foreign Service community as a whole, you are a reminder of why the officers are here in the first place: to protect the interests of Americans at home and abroad. You are why they do what they do. Leaving your old life behind doesn't mean that it wasn't important, and it doesn't mean that you have nothing to offer. Anyone that is willing to leave it all behind is a person with strong character and a heart full of love and adventure. Swallow your pride. Your energy can be channeled into something positive, whether that be finding employment, continuing your education, or helping those in need. Never forget that.

LANGUAGE STUDIES: If you are moving to a country that requires the study of a foreign language, then by all means, STUDY THE LANGUAGE. Officers are of course required to become proficient, but family members have an option. TJ and I decided that what would be best for us would be for me to continue working remotely for our first six months in DC, then take a two-month intensive Spanish course right before leaving for Guadalajara. Great in theory, but this course of action resulted in the arguments mentioned above, and, worst of all, a minimal understanding of Spanish on my part. Next time, I'm taking the full course. You should, to.

And this leads us to the final thing everyone should know.

MISTAKES WILL HAPPEN. You just have to roll with the punches and learn from your experiences so that things will run smoothly (hopefully) when you transition to your next post.


  1. Wow Aaron this sounds like one heck of an adventure. Who knew you went through all of this, this past year. I have to say though going through this as hard as its been. Makes you sound like you appreciate life so much more now. As opposed to just getting by you sound like your living and enjoying life. Here is to another great year for you. Miss ya buddy. Derek Bellerose.

  2. Just found your blog while searching for information on Guadalajara - we are moving there in August (husband=FSO). Thanks for all of the insight - and look forward to meeting y'all in a few months! And congrats on your one year mark!

  3. Anytime...that's what it's here for!

  4. One suggestion...yes, bring stuff like games and the like in your UAB, but still include the necessities, including appliances, dishes, towels, etc. In our two posts, they have wanted the welcome kits returned once the UAB arrived. It varies post to post, depending on size and whether they need the welcome kit for other folks transferring in.

  5. Ohh good to know. Here in Guadalajara, they don't want it back until the HHE arrives. Ahh. Consistency. I mean, lack thereof.

  6. thanks for this, very helpful...i'm sending it around...

  7. Hi, Aaron. Thanks for that paragraph about EFMs. I needed to hear it today in dark and cold Sweden, far away from my people and career in California.

  8. Thank you for this info!! Very helpful!