Life in the Foreign Service is a bit like a Choose Your Own Adventure book. There is a basic plotline that the story is going to follow (A-100, 2 directed 2-year tours, promotions, mid-level tours, etc.) but that main narrative can take more twists and turns than the Road to Hana, depending on the choices you make:
- Unhappy with your housing assignment? To appeal, go to page 5. To stick it out and find cool things about what you have, go to page 11.
- Struggling to find EFM employment? To publicly complain/blame others, go to page 14. To update your resume/interview skills and keep plugging away, go to page 21.
- Don’t know where to go on your next R&R? To spin the globe and pick a spot based on where your finger lands, go to page 23. To just go to Singapore and people watch at the Merlion yet again, go to page 31.
- Getting kicked out of your host country with less than 48 hours to prepare? To pack calmly and methodically and with thoughtful intent- Not an option. To pack after not sleeping for more than 24 hours and after working a 17-hour day- This is your only option. Turn the page. Keep reading.
With all its ups and downs, I know I live a charmed life and have no room to complain. I checked this book out from the library and refuse to return it, regardless of what lies on the next page or the one after that. Fines be damned.
Thad’s job with the Foreign Service allows us to travel the world, living in and visiting far-flung corners of the globe that seemed unattainable to my 8th grade self, sitting in second period World Geography with Mr. Shake, grumbling about having to memorize countries and capitals. (If only at the age of 14 I knew that I would visit Borneo multiple times and stand on the geographical center of the Asian continent and take a death-defying flight over Angel Falls and plummet down a hillside in a giant hamster ball in New Zealand. Maybe I would have focused more on the location names and less on the how to best color-code my map to get the right mixture of ROYGBIV before stashing it away in my knock-off Trapper-Keeper.)
The Foreign Service lifestyle has given me the chance to choose my own adventures that led to bathing with elephants, holding a koala, petting a panda (illegally, but I saw my chance and took it), cuddling a wombat, sharing my water bottle with a quokka, and swimming with dolphins and sea turtles.
But it has also taken some crazy turns that make me think it would have been nice to hold my place with a finger while I took a sneak peek at the outcomes of the options provided.
This last tour in Caracas took would definitely have been nice to cheat and see my full range of options before picking. (Not that I would pick differently, but maybe I’d change a few decisions along the way.) Getting pulled out (or kicked out, depending on your point of view) of the country with a mere moment’s notice meant leaving behind all of our personal belongings. As of right now, nearly everything in the apartment I have been living in for the last five months is not mine. I own two dish towels (thank you Shannon!) a vintage typewriter (long story about how it ended up here, but thanks Melys and Matt!) and what came out of Venezuela in my luggage a few months ago, including way too many scarfs and not enough sundresses. It was January and I had no plans to be here until June!
I do not have my photos from our time in Peace Corps China. I do not have the thoughtful Christmas gifts sent by friends and family over the holiday season. (My new Caboodle!) I do not have the ugly circa-1970 orange and yellow casserole dish that is perfect for a two-person family and that I love so much. I do not have the wall hanging my best friend quilted for me a few years ago. I do not have my hilarious #2 pencil costume for Halloween or my awesome beach hat that got to go to the beach one last time the weekend before we evacuated. I do not have the fertility gourd that was our going away gift from our danwei (Communist work group) leader in Chengxian. I do not have my books or my patio chairs or my super comfortable memory foam mattress topper.
This things are all still in my apartment in Caracas. The bed is made. The towels are hung. I could walk in tomorrow and take up my life without missing a beat. (I know this because our amazing housing team from Embassy Caracas sends me pictures each week, letting me know that all is well.)
There are so many things that I do not have, but all is not lost.
Today, I added one more thing to the collection of “items I own while on Ordered Departure.”
Today, a daring escape was made!
Today, I was reunited with an old friend who has been to sleepovers and family vacations and college and study abroad and Peace Corps and a million other places with me.
Zugly, my dear buddy that I wrote about in “Moments” successfully made his way out of Venezuela (I wonder if the immigration team photographed his visa on their personal cell phones, much like they did mine on my last trip out) and to Washington DC. It took the help of a wonderful member of our local staff in Caracas to get him on a plane (carry-on—no luggage hold for Zugly!) and bring him “home” so he’s ready to embark on whatever adventure story we pick up next.
We are still awaiting a final say on where our next book will be set- it could be Asia or South America or Africa or here in Washington DC. It is still up in the air, but wherever the globe stops spinning, I’m ready to choose. Ready to choose to be excited for the new adventure. Ready to rejoin the hunt for employment. (Hopefully it is a short one!) Ready to uncover a new neighborhood, meet new colleagues, and make new friends.
It is time. I am ready to choose my next adventure with Zugly in the suitcase and a promise to always add him to the top of the evacuation pile.
Moments. This last week has been filled with them.
All days are composed of moments, but most of them are mundane and just keep time moving forward. There is the moment while I am standing in line at the cafeteria with my grilled cheese sandwich. There is the moment when I ask the Dunkin’ Donuts guy if I can put $.28 on my credit card. (Answer: yes.) There is the moment when I am sitting with my nails under the dryer at manicure shop. There is the moment that I wake up at 1AM and pull my e-reader out from under my pillow, my body feeling as if it has had a nice nap, even though it is the middle of the night. And there is that moment when I am laughing out loud, alone in my apartment, to another rerun of Impractical Jokers.
These are the moments that come and go and we don’t think twice about them.
This last week though, has been filled with Moments- earning the respect of a proper noun.
There was the moment when I learned, via 11:50PM Tweet that our embassy in Caracas was going to suspend all operations and the last of our American colleagues were coming home. There was the moment when I saw pictures of the flag that flew so boldly over our hilltop embassy come down and fold into a tight triangle. There were the moments that same morning when I walked to work looking like a crazy lady with silent tears (and supposedly water proof mascara) spilling down my face as my WhatsApp was filled with photos of the final stages of our embassy closing. There was the moment when I met our returning colleagues at Dulles and was able to give them each a hug and thank them for sticking out the last seven challenging weeks. And there was the moment when I watched as our chargé d’affaires handed over the embassy flag to the Secretary of State, telling him he fully expected it back very soon.
Those are Moments with a capital M.
I knew the week had been rough, but I didn’t start thinking about it through this lens of moments until tonight. As I was cocooned out on the couch under my weighted blanket, watching some quality TV on Hulu (The Voice – don’t judge- I’m secretly in love with Adam Levine, although I do wish he hadn’t gone with the stupid knuckle tattoos) my mind was wandering and it suddenly came to a halt, as if my brain slammed into a glass door. (This is an apt simile since there was a period in my childhood that I seemed to have made full-face contact with sliding glass doors on a semi-regular basis.)
I know. That word means nothing to most people, but to understand the sheer devastation that this seemingly not-a-word-word brought on, we need to go back more than three decades.
Pinpointing the exact Christmas that Zugly showed up in my life is not easy, as is seems he has been a part of it forever. (Google tells me 1986 would have been the year, so that puts me at the ripe old age of seven.) Zugly is an adorably hideous monster that has been by my side for years. He has a plum-purple head with an enormous zucchini-like nose that flops around his face. (Flaccid would be a great term for it, but the connotations conjured by that single adjective take minds to a place that are not fitting for the childhood pal that he was!) For the first week or so of his life, he had these zombie-esque eyes that were ringed in green and yellow circles, but after a few nights in my grandma’s basement, getting smashed against the concrete wall, his psychedelic paint quickly wore off and he spent the next 30-plus years with the white orbs of a blind monster. Sporting a handful of pink-yarn hairs and a single pirate-like gold earring, he is a fashion statement like none other.
He might not be pretty, but he has been at my side through thick and thin. He was my go-to as a kid when I was afraid of the dark (I’d take myself to “Zugly-land,” an imaginary land inhabited by his fellow kind-hearted ogres to help ward off the monsters that might be lurking in the closet or under my bed. Ironic, I know, but irony as a literary device was lost on my elementary self.) He was a listening ear when middle school wasn’t always kind. (Put those weird cauliflower ears to work!) He was a pillow when I had my wisdom teeth out. He’s been to college in Utah, study abroad in the Dominican Republic, on vacations around the world and on four Foreign Service tours. (I think he has spent time on every continent except Africa and Antarctica. I guess I should have taking him to CLO training in Johannesburg a few years ago.) He was evacuated from Peace Corps China when our tour came to an abrupt end a few months early due to the massive 2008 Sichuan earthquake. And he has frightened more than one hotel housekeeper around the world. (I always love the ones who give him a bit of extra loving care, propping him up in the middle of a fancy king-sized bed as it he owned the room.)
But back to moments. I had another one tonight. Not a mundane cafeteria-time moment. And not a gut-wrenchingly emotional moment.
This was a quiet and personal Moment.
As our ordered departure from Caracas continues and its length and uncertainty are compounded, there is a part of me that fears I will never again see the things I left behind in the city. I’ve had this thought multiple times over the last seven weeks, but until recently, I discarded it as just unnecessary anxiety.
But the “what-ifs” are starting to creep in.
What if we don’t ever go back? (Fairly likely.)
What if we can’t get our stuff out? (I have a lot of faith in our team and the system, but this is a pretty unprecedented situation.)
What if all my clothes and shoes and books and typewriters and photos never make it back to the United States? (It is seemingly just stuff, but it is also so much more than that.)
And then, following that line of thought, as my brain made a mental walk through our apartment, my mind’s eye landed on Zugly.
What if Zugly never comes home?
I know how dramatic that sounds. The intensity could be pulled right out of one of the early afternoon soap operas that used to keep me entertained during my summer babysitting gigs. Drama to make a llama cringe.
But don’t discount the force of that moment- realizing that a possession, although it has zero monetary value but endless sentimental value, could be gone forever. There is no replacement. Clements might give me some money to cover the cost of a new Zugly (and all my other household items), but no eBay Zugly can replace the one with the irremovable bandage goo-stain on his nose from when I tried to cure his wart issue. No eBay Zugly will have his stuffing smashed out of his belly, making a perfect pillow, and into his feet so they balloon out like he is in the early stages of elephantiasis. And no eBay Zugly will have the rubber band of unknown age that holds together his fashionable bubble gum pink braid.
How Zugly got left behind is a much longer story, but one that boils down to optimism that we would return to our home and jobs in Caracas within a short time span. It is the same reason I didn’t pack up my desk and my wonderful colleague had to do it for me, emptying my drawers and shelves and files the last day the embassy was open for business. (My apologies for whatever weird things you found, Gerard!) I honestly believed that we were walking away for a few weeks or a few months at the most. I thought Zugly (and everything else) would be there waiting for me to return after a bit of grumpy time spent in the cold of a Washington D.C. winter.
It now appears that my DC moments are going to add up to more than I ever anticipated.
Moments are how we live our lives. They are hard to measure and easy to discount. But whether the moment is mundane or monumental, they are the building blocks of our lives. And, dramatic as it sounds, I’d love to have Zugly along for the next three decades of my moments. In a world that has gone Marie Kondo-crazy, this delightfully hideous monster sparks my joy.
Ordered departure from U. S. Embassy Caracas has brought with it a variety of challenges and more learning experiences than anyone really needs in such a short period of time. I have memorized the end date of every thirty-day increment between now and July 22. I can tell you daily amounts for lodging, M&IE, transportation, etc. for the Washington DC area for January through July. I can sort SEA payments vs. TDY payments, send GSO contacts, liaise with WHA, collaborate with CEFAR, and submit reports for FLO. Basically, if it is a series of capitalized letters that mean nothing to anyone outside of the State Department, I’ve got it covered. Also, on the more personal and awkward side of the learning curve (because who doesn’t love a bit of semi-public embarrassment?), I now know that when stress-induced stomach problems arise (these were lovingly given a politically insensitive name that I’ll not divulge here), one chewable Pepto tablet (cherry flavor, please!) every forty-five minutes keeps me professional and functional. Two qualities not to be underrated.
Exile status has also created another wrinkle in my day-to-day life. Thanks to our expulsion, I am now geographically single and have been for the last five weeks, with an end date yet-to-be determined, but maybe late March.
Hold the presses.
I just heard that the TBD date on the TDY is potentially getting pushed back even further.
Hey look! More acronyms! If this EFM thing ever doesn’t work out, maybe I can get a gig on Sesame Street doing letter games with toddlers and Grover. Or Cookie Monster. I was always a huge fan of Cookie Monster, although slightly horrified as a child by how much chocolate chip cookie he wasted in his cookie-eating frenzies. My letter-joining prowess would also be a good foil to the Count and his many numbers and my pasty skin would pair well with his purple hue. So, when life as a Foreign Service spouse gets tiring, I’m moving to Sesame Street to spend my days with Cookie Monster and the Count. Imagine those blog posts…
But back to the main event.
After arriving back in Washington DC, Thad was summoned to Managua to help fill in for their deputy consul position, a good fit for him professionally and a chance to spend time in another consular section. From there he has continued to do his Caracas work as well, so he is really working two full time jobs while living out of a suitcase and a hotel room. But he has volcanoes to hike, beaches to visit, and rum factories to tour, so don’t cry too many crocodile tears for him. And while he is hiking and snorkeling and drinking, I’m in DC and possibly going a bit feral.
Granted, I am good Monday-Friday from 7-5. Every weekday morning I’m up and showered and dressed, and I enjoy a bowl of cereal with real milk as I sit on my living room floor, scrolling through my blog stats (it’s a quick scroll!) and catching up on “must read” lists for the month. Soon enough I’m out the door, donning dusty mauve Chuck with my Calvin Klein dress in a style that can only be called DC-professional commuter. (I’ve rocked a similar look in Chengdu, Kuala Lumpur, and Caracas, but there is something that is just so “DC” about a woman in a dress and kicks of any kind. It’s not good, really, but it beats the heck out of hiking in heels.) Work keeps me busy. Answering emails. Making calls. Setting up events. Coordinating with the management team. Filming evacuation videos. (Two so far!) And just generally touching base with the officers and family members that are in DC, in Miami, around the country, and back home in Caracas. Days are demanding.
But, evenings and weekends are another story. As a bit of a homebody to begin with (don’t try to reconcile that statement with the fact that my preference would be to travel all the time), I am happy to walk in the apartment each evening, peel off the tights that are squeezing my guts but creating a smooth silhouette (shouldn’t we band together as women to banish Spanx-anything from our lives?) and hop into a pair of leggings, a t-shirt, and an oversized knit sweater. I’ll shuffle around the apartment in slippers like an old lady every night of the week if I don’t have something penciled in on the calendar. (Yes, penciled in. I love a pretty calendar to keep track of days and weeks. If it’s not scrawled in the agenda, it isn’t happening!) Home is where my books are piled on the nightstand, my computer is queued up to Project Runway All-Stars, and I’ve got makeshift writing space set up in the “dining room.” (Note to self: find a cute writing desk while in DC that will fit within the UAB parameters for your return to post.)
As content as I am changing from night pajamas into day pajamas on the weekends, it’s probably not the best option in the long term. But, I’m with people all day long. I definitely get my words for the day in. (If I had a Fitbit-type contraption that counted my words each day, I’d have all the badges. Maybe I should invent this. Instead of having to go out in the cold and walk to get “steps,” the wearer could work on their social game by upping their daily word count. If they don’t talk enough in an hour, the device would buzz on their wrist, reminding them to go chat with someone and get some human contact. At a preset number of words for the day, the wearer would get a nice little congratulatory message with some fireworks and more buzzing. When my ChatBit becomes a real thing, I’m going to be rich!)
I seem to have digressed a bit. (Shark Tank, watch out!)
The point is, my days are filled with people and planning and purpose and now that I come home to an empty apartment, I’m embracing the solitude- maybe too much. Yesterday, in one of my shuffles to the kitchen for Pop-Tarts (seriously, it has come to that), I realized I was talking to myself. Not in the “ask the wall the temperature because you are too used to Alexa” kind of way, but in a “hey, you’re cool, I’ll chat with you” kind of way. I can’t even remember what it was about- probably something having to do with thinking through plans for the week (what are the chances I am able to get that White House tour booked?) or what I need to get at the grocery store (Uncrustables!) or whether I remembered to book a manicure appointment for next Sunday afternoon (no, but they seem to be fine with walk-ins and manicures have become my ordered departure guilty pleasure), but I distinctly remember stopping mid-shuffle with the epiphany that I am possibly going a wee-bit batty.
I can’t blame it on lack of sleep and excessive stress like I did my fantastical packing skills. I can’t blame it on an upset stomach. (Those were nine miserable days. Really. The internet pretty much had me convinced that I had some kind of terrible intestinal cancer. Thank you, WebMD. It’s probably a good thing that I don’t know how to navigate the health care system in the US, or I’d now have a bill for a visit to a doctor to tell me I was stressed out and it made me poop. A lot. That’s a bit of ordered departure allowance saved!)
I blame it solely on my geographical singledom.
The irony of this all is, while writing about how living alone has turned me slightly less domesticated, I’ve added two new social events to the calendar. Seriously. Just in the last forty-five minutes. And of course, I said yes to both. (I want to do both, but I feel like I would have been obligated to say yes even if it was an invitation to a gall bladder surgery.) First, I am meeting a friend for dinner and a lecture about female animators at the Smithsonian. (It is cooler than it sounds, I promise. And even if it weren’t, I’d go because this is my first chance to meet said friend’s boyfriend. She and I became close in Kuala Lumpur and I’ve not met her new beau. She could have invited me to a hanging in Victorian England and I would have said yes, just to meet the guy she is spending her free time with these days. I’ve already promised not to tell any embarrassing Malaysia stories, although if he asks the right questions, I’m likely to spill all the beans.) And then I’m booked with a shopping and dinner date with a different friend and her son. (Wow. I just realized that my social life as a geographical bachelorette is entirely made up of being a third-wheel! I feel like there is some dissecting to be done on that topic…at a later date.)
Ordered departure has been many things in the month and a half I’ve been out of Venezuela. It has been walking away from colleagues and friends and a life in Caracas- at least temporarily. It has been way too many hours of unmentionable stomach issues. But it has also been reuniting with my colleagues and friends at Main State in Washington DC- at least temporarily. And it has been weekends of changing out of llama pajama pants and into turtle sweatpants. But, until the weather gets better and Thad gets back from the sunny days in Managua, I’ll make the best of my solitary hibernation and my slow slide into the nuthouse.
Photo credit: J. McDaniel