Tag: Foreign Service

:: making a house a home ::

A recurring theme you will hear people talk about in the Foreign Service is their household effects, most often referred to as their HHE.  As you move around the world from one post to another, your world of belongings follow you by boat and truck and other slow means of transport, and eventually arrive several months later.

Some posts don’t allow you to bring everything and so after a few moves you can easily find yourselves with things in numerous storage locations around the world.  Even the most organised person will end up having the wrong things in the wrong place. Whether it’s a 110V appliance in a 220V zone, a wardrobe of winter clothes in a hot climate or your favourite picture, it’s easy for things to get packed into the wrong box headed to the wrong place at the wrong time.

Trying to then store things that come that you don’t need, having to buy something you already own that didn’t get shipped, or selling something you can’t move, managing HHE can be frustrating at times.  That, combined with the long waiting game, the preparation that goes into the packout before any departure and the unpacking process upon arrival,  it’s understandable why this is a popular talking point amongst expats.

When you arrive at post there are a whole number of things that you end up waiting for, so it’s easy to find yourselves counting the days until certain things happen. Waiting to get into your assigned housing, waiting for your car shipment to arrive from some far flung place, waiting for your HHE, waiting for certain jobs to be posted – all things that go a long way to helping you feel like you can really enjoy the relatively short time you have in each two or three year post.

We have tried hard not to wish away the time until our stuff arrived and to instead maximise our time through other things, but this was sometimes hard.  I’ve lost track of the number of times we’ve said, ‘it’s coming’.  Glasses, measuring cups, large baking bowls, wood saw, herbs and spices, more than four forks, ironing board and our tools are just some of the things we have found ourselves looking for.  Added to that is the lack of pictures and decorations that would truly make the house feel like ours.  Though these are simple things that sometimes we don’t feel, there are other days where you feel like it’s hard to make any progress on anything.

In the grand scheme of things we have lived here quite well without any of these things, and so to some extent we wonder whether lugging these things all over the world is truly worth it.  We are extremely lucky with our housing assignment, the somewhat limited but useful Welcome Kit and furniture they provide, so really there isn’t any reason to complain.  But then we sit on our government provided sofa from the 80s, all scratched up from the previous tenants’ cats, with a back so low your head doesn’t relax, and we find ourselves dreaming of our lovely sofa and cushions that we bought with our wedding money ten years ago.

As I find myself using bread pans as mixing bowls, mugs for orange juice or a bucket as a toolbox, I do find myself thinking some of these little things will be easier when our stuff comes.  I’ve stayed busy working on projects that I could do without our things and so we’ve built a compost bin and headboard, prepared coat and tool racks, landscaped the garden and refinished the government provided outdoor furniture.  But now several of my projects are half finished as I wait for the saw, the masonry bits and drill, vegetable seeds and sewing machine so I’m reaching a point where I’m running out of things to do.

The timing is perfect however.  Two and a half months since we moved from DC, and nine months since we last saw our things in London, we are finally just mere days away from having our HHE delivered.

So how does this all work?  It’s a pretty simple process…

Step 1 – pack up your life to move
Step 2 – chase HHE
Step 3 – chase HHE some more
Step 4 – prepare for arrival of HHE at short notice
Step 5 – chaos
Step 6 – more chaos
Step 7 – even more chaos just when you thought it should be done
Step 8 – almost a home
Step 9 – home sweet home

Most people who know me know how much I love making a home and getting settled, fast, so hopefully we can find ways to skip steps 6 and 7 and go straight to 9.  We will have one slight complication to this whole process that may delay things a bit but it’s only a tiny thing that is just going to add to all of the makings of a lovely home – more on that later.

In the meantime hopefully this whole process will be smooth and fast and soon we will have all of the comforts and things special to us to truly make this house a home.

:: flag day ::

Imagine starting a new job, but knowing only that the initial training you receive is a mere precursor to something larger – but what that might be you have no idea. The prospect at first is that you can go anywhere, then you get the bid list and realise you are going to one of those locations, but you still have no idea which one. Each location has different training and departure dates and leads you down a nearly infinite number of potential paths, professionally and personally. It is all a bit much sometimes.

The bid list contains a rather lengthy list of positions in countries flung all around the world and is given to us during the first week of A-100, the first 6 week training class that all foreign service (FS) officers have to go through. That list can be altered either positively or negatively all the way up until the fifth Friday of training which is called Flag Day. Once we have the list we discuss with our loved ones where we want to bid high, medium and low. Every post on the list gets one of those designations and we submit the list and then try to ignore it for two weeks!

Luckily both of us looked at the list independently, at least as a first glance over, and came up with nearly identical preferences on our highs and lows, with mediums being largely inconsequential at this point. Further discussions, and amendments to the list, brought us to a consensus on 24 posts in the wide world that we would bid high. They were mostly in Central and South America, Africa and a few in Southeast Asia. These were the regions we were most interested in and so we submitted our list and hoped for the best.

Flag Day is a tradition in the FS and involves all class members and their respective families and friends.  In the front of the room are two very full racks of small flags that will be gone by the end of the event.  After a few introductions, they start by flashing up a flag on the big screen and announce a city and position and then, a name. There is no order, it’s completely random. You sit, and wait, maybe for 30 seconds, maybe for 30 minutes. With every flag you wait with anticipation to hear your name, with hope or excitement, or possibly dread.

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It is hard to explain the emotions you feel on Flag Day. For five weeks you have been sitting in classes learning about the Foreign Service. They give you a nice long list of potential places in the world that you will be going. Some are amazing, some less so, but all offer highs and lows and chances that will last a lifetime.

For weeks you research them, some more than others, and then you become convinced of ‘favourites’. The ones that you are somehow certain you are going to get. These aren’t just the ones you really want, but also ones you really would prefer not to see pop up on that fateful day. All the while you are hurtling towards a destiny wholly out of your control. It is hard to fathom how your life is going to change, not just in the short term, but the ripple effects that will emanate from this one day.

When you finally hear your name you go up and take the flag and you look happy, whether you are or not doesn’t matter because there is no such thing as a bad post. And then it is over and the next two to three years of your life are defined for you. You are able to start making life decisions again that aren’t predicated on a lot of what ifs. And you start to fantasise about your new life in some far flung corner of the world!

So on Friday 15 February, we filed into the room, accompanied by our families. All the students sit together in the front, with families behind, so unfortunately the two of us couldn’t be together to hear the news.  About twenty names in this flag appeared on the big screen:

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And before anyone could figure out where that was, they announced Maseru, Lesotho…and Charles Malinak!

It was a bit of a surprise as we were expecting a language designated post but once the news filtered through our consciousness and we did a bit of research we realised how amazing it will be.

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Lesotho (le-SOO-too) is a small mountainous country the size of Belgium surrounded by South Africa. Home to amazing mountain hiking opportunities, horseback riding, waterfall abseiling and even skiing, Lesotho is a small rural country.  It’s also very close to many places in South Africa, Mozambique and Botswana which will provide lots of opportunities for some great adventures! We have wanted to go to Africa for ages and so in a few months that is exactly where we will be living!

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Flag Day

For those who can brave the rather lengthy flights our door will always be open! We will be there for two years starting in July 2013 so start planning!  Exciting new adventures await us all in a place relatively unexplored – we currently wonder whether two years will be enough!

:: a separate beginning ::

Following a mad few weeks during which CW stopped working, we both spent numerous days sorting out things in the house and tried to see people and things we truly care about.  Finally a Saturday afternoon trip to Heathrow beckoned. It was very difficult to go our separate ways (temporarily) and only the knowledge that this is leading to bigger and better things could really prompt us to be apart anymore.

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Cora has stayed behind in London for the time being, which has included packing up the house and moving in with friends while finishing up some important work projects.

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Meanwhile, CW has gallivanted off to DC to join his 76 classmates in what is called the A-100 orientation class. This is a six-week training class that all FSO generalists take upon entry to the Foreign Service. It is a mixture of skills training, information dump and team building. My classmates are an amazing group – lots of former military, peace corps, lawyers, and generally successful people who speak lots of languages and have some great international experience. I am lucky and honoured to be a part of this fantastic 170th class!

The training included sessions on how to write diplomatic cables, speak to foreign audiences and not put your foot in it during a press conference or Q&A session. The last in that list was really good fun as we broke into small groups and were able to pepper one another with the most ridiculous questions we could think of and occasionally act rather rude. Our group may or may not have really gone overboard on those fronts! The training also included a rather eventful off-site leadership event, complete with a lot of drinking, a SNL type performance, and CW leading the entire class to success in the final exercise – overcoming the Death Star while wearing a bright orange winter hat and screaming a lot. It was a strange couple of days.

The time ticked by very quickly and we arrived at the fateful day when lots of family and friends would be in attendance to witness the great revelation of where our next two years will take us – flag day!

:: seeking global adventures ::

After years of attempts and more recently months of waiting, CW has joined the US Foreign Service!  We are so excited about this new career, and lifestyle, and the amazing global adventures this will bring!  To celebrate this new chapter in our lives we thought it would be fun to create a new blog dedicated to the unique fabulous, challenging, interesting, diverse, crazy and happy experiences we will have as part of this new life!

Getting into the Foreign Service has been an arduous process involving a written exam, some personal narrative essays, an all day oral assessment and then months of waiting for security and medical clearances. Following all that we then had to wait a few months before an orientation training class was formed and CW was called into it.  Fifteen months after he sat in the London embassy for the written exam, he walked into the Harry S. Truman Building in Washington, D.C. and swore the oath of office joining the State Department and becoming a Foreign Service Officer.

As part of this new role we will be sent to a new posting at one of the 275 embassies and consulates around the world around two or three years. There is the prospect of posts in DC as well, but the vast majority of our time in the Foreign Service will be spent out in the world and we are absolutely thrilled about that!

CW will be an officer in the management cone which means that he will be responsible for various operational elements of the missions overseas, though he will also have opportunities to serve in other capacities, including working on visa lines and directly helping American citizens who are either travelling or living in these foreign countries.

Cora is excited about the prospects for taking her excellent intercultural training and competence skills and applying them in new locations, as well as looking to expand our photography activities and maybe do other things in the local communities, such as volunteer or work at the embassy. There is a lot of uncertainty, especially without knowing where we are heading to, but we are confident it will all be for the good.

So, there you have it. We are off on new adventures to places unknown! We are extremely excited by the prospects of this new journey. The chances we will have to explore new countries, experience disparate cultures and interact with lots of interesting people are going to be too numerous to count.

Welcome to our new reality and hope you appreciate reading about our new global adventures!