Photo credit: W. Penny
Photo credit: W. Penny
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.
Being unceremoniously kicked out of a country is not a lot of fun. (Okay, there was some ceremony. Mr. Maduro made our expulsion very public and was seemingly thrilled with sending the Yankees packing.) There is a lot of heartache and tears in the process. Simultaneously it feels like you are abandoning your colleagues and their fight but also some (guilt-filled) relief that the next time you go to the grocery store there will be food to purchase and your queue wait-time will be minimal. This whole crazy situation is compounded by the fact that we have no idea what is going to happen or where we will be a few weeks from now, a couple of months from now, or by mid-summer. Back in Caracas? (Hopefully!) In D.C., still assigned to Caracas, continuing to work with the embassy and Venezuelan people? (Possibly.) Reassigned and looking for a new job/building a new community in Wuhan? Singapore? Lagos? Copenhagen? Panama City? (Not impossible.)
Going on ordered departure, saying goodbye, wrestling with conflicting feelings, and living with a daily dose of uncertainty are not easy, but that doesn’t mean this whole experience hasn’t been without its moments of levity.
When a dictator gives you 72 hours to leave a country and then your leadership and security teams decide that safety requires a more expeditious departure, preparing to go becomes a bit of a circus. For clarity’s sake, here was our “out of Caracas” timeline:
-Wednesday (mid-afternoon)- Mr. Maduro PNGs entire embassy
-Thursday (6AM-8PM)- Working at the embassy, getting officers and families ready to depart
-Friday (morning)- On a plane out of Venezuela
There’s not a lot of wiggle room there. And I’m not really a wiggly person, but I am a planner and it doesn’t matter how many times I talked to people about being prepared, there is no way to be fully ready to turn your world upside down in a matter of hours. For me, this (along with the literal zero hours of sleep Wednesday night to Thursday morning) played out in some very strange packing choices.
After a day of controlled chaos at the office, I came home to find my suitcases laid out on the bed and ready to be packed. (For some reason, Thad, who had worked overnight the night before, so was home earlier than me, didn’t want to do my actual packing. Sometimes when I look at what I did/did not bring, I think he may have made better choices. At least then I may have had a winter-weather appropriate number of socks.) I started with work clothes, knowing that I’d be coming into the office in Washington. Dresses, skirts, blouses, camisoles, cardigans, blazers, ankle pants. I’ve got a pretty extensive and random selection of things to wear into Main State each day. (Thank you packing cubes! It is amazing how much more I can get in a bag with the Tetris-like assistance of these miracle-working plastic bags.)
Great. Office-wear is covered.
Next, casual/weekend clothes. This is a bit trickier as with the amazing weather in Caracas, jeans and a light shirt or a cute dress were my go-to options outside of work. Getting kicked out of amazing weather in January left me short on options that were DC-in-winter-appropriate. I grabbed what I could that would layer- mostly the couple long-sleeved cotton shirts that I kept for airplane travel, since I am always freezing as I rocket through the sky at 30,000 feet.
So far, this is all fairly standard. But this is where it all started to fall apart.
You see, late in the day we found out that American Airlines was going to give each of us a third checked suitcase for free, knowing that we were in a difficult situation. I feel like it is this bonus-bag that was my undoing. With two good-sized REI duffel bags cradling the load, I stared at an older paisley-patterned suitcase that has seen many overseas trips. What would I do with that extra space suddenly available?
That’s right. With packing seemingly under control, and pushing 10PM, I decided it was absolutely necessary that I load an entire suitcase with shoes. Black pumps, black dress sandals, gray heels, nude pumps, nude dress sandals, dusty rose Chucks, sky blue Chucks, bright aqua Chucks, black flats, brown flats, riding boots, tennis shoes. All of them strategically layered into the bag to ensure maximum space usage.
Did I not know I was coming to the land of DSW? I can get on the metro just a block from my apartment and be at two different DSWs on opposite sides of town in less than 20 minutes. Why did I need to empty my shoe closet?
But that’s not all.
You see, my shoe-tcase also had a huge pocket on the inside of the opening flap. Not big enough for shoes, it still seemed a waste to not fill it, so in when the scarves. Yes, scarves. Not winter scarves that would ward off the below freezing cold that I would walk to work in each morning for the next month (and counting), but fun and colorful “fashion” scarves, meant to pull an outfit together, but not necessarily to provide warmth of any measurable amount.
Which scarves made the cut? Let’s see. Blue and white with red crabs, gray with forest critters, magenta with tassel-y fringe, white pleated, coral and pink stripes, purple Count of Monte Cristo, blue chevron, Old Navy floral, Johannesburg teal with white elephants, and pink variegated. Yes. I brought ten non-functional (other than cute!) scarves with me on evacuation.
It isn’t over.
So, three suitcases (and one backpack) are packed with clothes and accessories, but my handy-dandy luggage scale says I still have some weight allowance and I know, especially in those expansive duffels, I have pockets of space left.
If you are packing up your life, what, other than clothes do you take?
The answer was easy: books.
I had a couple of piles of unread books on my nightstand, which I dreaded leaving behind. (Again, it did not seem to register with me in the fog-of-PNG that I was headed to the land of Amazon 2-day shipping, Barnes and Noble, and airport bookstores.) In went the books.
I evacuated twelve books from Caracas.
When push came to shove, it was books that I was pushing and shoving into the crannies of my bag, smashing everything together so that the zippers would close.
Before those zippers made their final onomatopoetic slides, there was still time for crazy to find a few more ways to wriggle into my luggage. Because, as I am figuratively watching the world burn, of course I need to shove my favorite throw blanket and a super weird and random stuffed sheep into the bag. To be fair, the throw blanket is the one that rests on the back of the couch and I sit under every day regardless of how warm it is outside because I love the coziness of a blanket anytime of the year.
The sheep though.
I have no idea.
The sheep was always on the bed in the spare room- a room that was largely used as storage space for our immense OTC medicine stash we brought to Caracas, as well as home to the suitcases and linens. Why I even wandered into that room on Thursday night is a bit of a mystery and then, as I scanned the space, why the sheep is what stood out as a “must go” item, I will never know! Whatever the reason, the sheep now sits on the dresser in my temporary apartment, judging me with his weird little smiling face on a daily basis.
At the end of the day, stuff is just stuff and I have very little in Caracas or here that cannot be replaced. (My wedding jewelry is already squirreled away with my sister-in-law, having never made the trip south to begin with.) It’s not a matter of what is here or what is there in terms of value, but more just a reminder of how ridiculous the combination of no sleep and lots of work stress can be. My evacuation pack-out brain was obviously not firing on all cylinders (evidenced also by the fact that I used a full ½ of my carry-on space to bring a Costco box of Rice Crispy treats to the airport to share because I was convinced officers and families were going to be starving. I did give out about half of the foil-wrapped treats, but still have probably twenty more still in the box, awaiting, I guess, our return flights to Caracas).
But, for the foreseeable future, if you’re in DC and you’re looking for some size 9 women’s shoes, a cute scarf, of just a sense of humor about this whole departure, I’ve got you covered.
Photo credit: W. Penny