Monday, April 29, 2013

Welcome to Kosovo!

Written Sunday, 21 April 2013

I am amazed at how warmly we have been welcomed to Kosovo.

The welcome began before we even arrived.

It’s normal for us to have communication from foreign service personnel before our arrival—we’re guaranteed that because of the sponsorship system and because we ask the CLO to add us to their email list before our arrival. But the first time we are face-to-face with someone saying “Welcome to this country” usually is at passport control, if the passport control officer is feeling friendly; otherwise it’s when we meet the expediter or our sponsor. This time it happened early.

Our last layover of the journey from Cambodia to Kosovo was in Frankfurt, Germany. When we boarded the plane, I was surprised to see that it was a little one—only four seats across. Alexa chose to sit between Mama and the window, with Daddy across the aisle. In order to buckle Alexa into the seat using the CARES harness, I needed to fit the strap around her seat, inside the closed tray table of the passenger behind her. As I was doing this, the man seated behind me offered his assistance, since the angle was a little awkward for me. Of course this interaction led to a casual conversation in which he asked how long we would be visiting Pristina. Upon hearing that we were moving there, a big smile broke out and he heartily said “Welcome! You are welcome in Kosovo! You are American, yes?” (I paraphrase, because I don’t recall the exact words—I was distracted by Alexa throughout the conversation—but that definitely was the sentiment.) The man proceeded to assure me, and Jeff once he realized we were together, that Americans are loved and welcomed in Kosovo. He appeared genuinely delighted that we were moving to his homeland, and his two travel companions seemed equally pleased.

That was the first in-person welcome we received, but it was far from the last. The personnel at the airport were friendly and welcoming. The other travelers smiled at Alexa and stared apparently in awe at Cleo and Isis, who were loudly voicing their displeasure at being confined to their travel crates for 24 hours while being moved from place to place with no evidence that “their” humans were anywhere close by. When given the opportunity to go ahead of us through doors and turnstiles—we were slow, with the stroller, Alexa, and three carts of luggage—not a single person took us up on it. They smiled, shook their heads, and gestured for us to go ahead; they were happy to wait.

When we exited the airport and reached the public access area, we were greeted by our sponsor and no less than three Kosovan men employed by the embassy—two of them drivers (one vehicle for the bags and another for the people). Our excessive and excessively heavy baggage was loaded in no time, the carts disappeared, and we all piled into the car for the trip to our new house.

During the drive, Jeff and our sponsor chatted. It turns out that they have a lot in common, from technological knowledge to movie preferences. While they talked, I focused on Alexa. She’s a great traveler, and she did well the entire trip, but she needed to know she had my attention right then—and it’s a good thing she had it. When I interrupted the conversation with “She’s about to throw up!”, the response was immediate: the car was pulled to the side of the road, our sponsor (also a parent of young children) leaped out and got Alexa unbuckled and out of the car, and the driver was handing over a packet of wipes by the time she threw up the little that was in her stomach. I even managed to catch it in my hand and keep it mostly off her clothes (I know, gross, but it was the instinctive response, it worked out well, and I’m sure other parents understand).

No worries, Alexa is fine. We discovered during our time in the States last December that Alexa seems to have a little bit of an issue with riding in a car, particularly if she’s been under stress—such as having almost all of her toys and familiar things disappear, saying good-bye to a distraught Ming Ming, and getting nowhere near enough sleep on a journey that even the most travel-hardened adults would dread. She threw up the one time and has been fine ever since.

After our little incident, we proceeded without further difficulty to our new house. I only need one word to describe it: home. Maybe not fully home, not yet, but it definitely will be. I won’t say too much about it now, because I’m sure I’ll do another post all about it, complete with pictures. The key thing is that it is very warm and welcoming, right down to most of the walls, which are a warm beige rather than the drive-me-batty white that adorns most embassy housing when we first move in.

We hadn’t been here long before the doorbell rang. Our office sponsor and his family live just down the street, and his wife and young son had come by to welcome us and bring us dinner: biscuits, a pasta dish that earned five yummies from Alexa, a Jell-O dessert, and chocolate chip M&M cookies. She also kindly took Jeff on a spur-of-the-moment trip to a nearby supermarket, as we discovered just before her arrival that the cat litter I’d ordered hasn’t made it here yet. Later that evening, after the work day—Jeff wisely decided not to go in Friday afternoon after all—our office sponsor showed up to welcome us as well.

On Saturday, we continued the settling in process. We spent the morning—a long morning, thanks to Alexa’s jet lag—unpacking, then met our other social sponsor (they’re a married couple who both work at the embassy). She drove us all to the supermarket and put up with my questions and my repeated expressions of awe at the sheer size of the place … it may not have everything we can get back home, and honestly not even some things we could get in Cambodia, but I haven’t been in a supermarket that large, with that many options, since the U. S. She offered to let me browse the entire store—they sell much more than groceries—but I focused on my list, not wanting to keep her in the store for the three hours it would have taken to explore it fully. It turned out to be good that I didn’t browse too much, as Alexa hit her limit halfway through and started insisting “We need to go home. Lexa doesn’t want to be at the store. Lexa wants Lexa’s mouthie!” All of that was code for “I need another nap NOW!”

When we arrived back home, Jeff and our sponsor sent me upstairs to get Alexa down for her second nap of the day—jet lag is a beast, especially for a preschooler—while they unloaded the groceries. After our sponsor went home, Jeff walked down to our office sponsor’s house to borrow their internet connection and ask a few questions. He came back with two menus for pizza delivery, which is one of the first things we seek out in any new home. The settling in process goes so much more easily if I have an  option other than cooking every night, especially until I figure out what’s available to cook at the new location and until I receive my own pots, pans, and baking dishes.

We spent the remainder of the day yesterday and this morning unpacking, though we did take a break to introduce Alexa to the nearby playground, which was a big hit. At this point, we’re completely unpacked and pretty close to as settled in to the house as we will be until our UAB arrives. Right now, Jeff is test driving a car that we’ve tentatively agreed to buy from a departing diplomat, as tuk tuks aren’t available here and taxis aren’t particularly cheap or convenient.

I may be misremembering, but I don’t think I felt as settled in either Cairo or Phnom Penh after living there for two or three weeks as I feel right now, after just two days in Pristina. I wouldn’t say that I have friends yet—it takes me a while to give anyone that title—but we’ve met two couples who have been very friendly, and I anticipate that we will be friends with both of them. Now we just need to find a solid church and develop some friendships from among its membership, and I need to make an effort to get to know a few more embassy folks, and Kosovo is gearing up to be a very enjoyable post.

Welcome to Kosovo, indeed.

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Fare Thee Well, Cambodia

As I write this post, I will be leaving my home in Cambodia in approximately 24 hours. There will be the ride to the airport—not too far, really, but in the rush hour traffic, it will seem so incredibly far. Then we’ll arrive at the airport, check in to our flights—hopefully with no last-minute issues regarding the cats’ reservations in the hold of our plane—and wait. I probably will be surprised yet again by how small the airport is; I never seem to remember just how small it is compared to what you would expect for a capital city’s connection to the world. We’ll wait for several hours, as our allowance for rush hour traffic probably will put us at the airport, checked in, and through security with more time to spare than we would prefer, but we know not to test our luck when it comes to traffic.

How will I feel tomorrow? I’m not certain. Probably stressed most of the day, as I finish the packing, take a last shower to hold off the grime of the journey as long as possible, and prep the welcome kit for pickup by embassy personnel sometime after our departure. Once we’re in the van, my anxiety will shift focus: the packing and preparation will be done, but the next hurdle will be delivering the cats to their check-in area, and preferably leaving them with some confidence that they will be cared for adequately. Then, finally, I’ll be free to relax—at least as much as it is possible to relax in an airport with an almost-3-year-old who’s approaching, and then passing, her bedtime.

Underneath those emotions, I expect to feel others. Excitement about what God has in store for us in Kosovo. Anxiety about our adjustment there, especially Alexa’s and mine; Jeff tends to have an easier time of it, since his daily routine doesn’t change as much as ours. Sadness at leaving our friends here in Cambodia. But what I wonder is how I will feel leaving Cambodia itself—the country, and the city of Phnom Penh—not just at leaving my friends here.

In the past, I’ve felt nostalgic for places that I was leaving before I even left. I would look out the car window at the trees lining the highways in Maryland, or the domed mosques in Cairo, and I would feel a sense of loss. I’ve felt that here, too, right after we were asked to leave early and again when the date was set. I would look out the side of the tuk tuk—no windows needed—and see the distinctive Cambodian rooflines, the monuments, and the parks, and I would feel a sense of loss, a grief that these scenes no longer would be everyday sights for me. I haven’t felt that for a while, probably because I’ve felt busier and under more stress with this move than with past ones. It’s sad to say, but the fact that neither Alexa nor I have been sleeping well the last few nights is probably causing me to feel less of an emotional connection with the whole country!

Regardless of my emotions right now, I do know that I will miss Cambodia. I will miss the spirit houses outside each building, the brilliant saffron robes of the monks, the friendly greetings from strangers I pass on the streets. I will miss the people and their dedication to children, their willingness to work extremely hard, and their commitment to education and self-betterment. I will miss the stories of people like our long-distance driver, who could have had a good government job because of the identity of his wife’s relatives, but who chose to make his own way in life instead. And I will miss my housekeeper, not only because of how clean she keeps my house, but because of the obvious love with which she and my daughter regard each other, the humor she brings to our days, and the insights about Cambodian life that our conversations have given me.

Right now, Cambodia is a country caught between two worlds. Rural Cambodians live much as they have for centuries—no electricity or running water, strict social rules that give everyone a role, and hard work. Urban Cambodians enjoy more modern conveniences, but still miss out on many that Westerners consider basics (washers and drying machines or dishwashers, for example); they have a more relaxed attitude about what behavior and dress is proper; and most still work very hard. In each Cambodian with whom I have regular interactions, and in most Cambodians with whom I’ve had more intermittent or single interactions, however, I’ve noticed commonalities: intelligence, a strong work ethic, and a desire to be and to do better—for themselves and for their country. Maybe I’ve interacted only with the cream of the crop; stories certainly abound about lazy workers and corrupt officials, but my experience—with my housekeeper, our tuk tuk driver, our driver for long trips, the employees at our favorite children’s venue, the locally employed staff at the embassy, the movers who packed our things—has been different. My experience has been of a society that wants to retain the best of the past while pushing forward into a better tomorrow. And I wish them the best of luck, and more importantly, the blessing of God, in that endeavor.

Fare thee well, Cambodia. I will miss you.

Monday, April 15, 2013

Soft Landings

When we arrived here in Cambodia, the transition was difficult for me—so difficult that Jeff asked a few times if I needed to curtail our tour here and go back home to the States. I’m not certain why it was so difficult for me here, but I have a few theories: a part of me didn’t want to settle in too deeply here because of the recently experienced reality that I could be ripped away at any time with little warning and without my consent; the logistics of being here with a young child were more difficult than the logistics of being in Egypt without a small child; I was more well-informed and better prepared for life in Egypt than for life here. I believe that all of these factors played a role in my difficult adjustment. They were not, however, the most important factors, though they are the ones I blamed at the time.

I believe that the reason why it was so difficult for me to adjust to life in Cambodia is that Julia wasn’t here. Who is Julia, and why have I not mentioned her before? Julia is a friend whom I met in the U. S. shortly before she and her husband moved to Egypt, where Jeff and I soon moved as well. We were there together for most of my three years in Egypt—and I have mentioned her before on the blog, once in passing by name that I recall. While talking about what I’d been doing with myself since our arrival in Egypt, I said “I've gone out for a least a couple of hours most days with Julia, who is walking me around Maadi to help me get familiar with my new neighborhood.”

Along with our wonderful office sponsors, Julia played a critical role in helping me to settle in and feel at home in Egypt. She’s a high energy, outgoing woman who loves to explore—and she had done a lot of exploration in the time in which she was in Egypt before my arrival. When I did arrive, she was eager to take me out exploring and show me everything she’d found. I never doubted, in Egypt, that anything I wanted to see, do, or buy had been seen, done, or bought by Julia, by one of her many contacts, or by our office sponsors. I stepped out of a supportive network in the U. S. and stepped into an even more supportive network in Egypt. I never felt alone or insecure, and I felt lost and confused only as long as it took me to pick up a phone, send an email, or walk to the nearby apartment where Julia was living. Over time, I developed other friends, but Julia, along with our office sponsors, was there immediately to support me through the hardest days, weeks, and even months: the first ones.

When I arrived in Cambodia, I didn’t have a Julia. We had a good sponsor, but she and her husband both worked and were not available for casual exploration during the day—and even if she had been, Alexa’s jet-lagged sleep schedule wouldn’t have allowed me to take advantage of it the way I did with Julia in Egypt. Jeff’s office sponsor didn’t really get involved with any non-office-related settling in activities like our office sponsors in Egypt had. And I’m really bad about recognizing when I desperately need social support and reaching out for it—the very thought of asking for help makes my palms sweat and my stomach lurch. I had no social contacts here, and although I needed them, it took a while for me to find them.

Then I met Jen.

We’d visited a couple of churches, only to realize immediately that they weren’t for us, before hitting pay dirt at the third. We realized quickly that we had some doctrinal differences that made the church a less than ideal fit for us, but the people were so incredibly friendly … and we needed that so much … and so we decided to tolerate the doctrinal differences and accept the friendships that were offered so freely. We eventually realized that we could not tolerate the doctrinal differences after all, and we left that church, but before we left, we made my first friends, and Jeff’s first non-embassy friends, here in Phnom Penh.

Chris and Jen welcomed us to that church immediately. We quickly became friends with them—they came over for pizza and just to hang out; we sat near them at church; Jen became my go-to question answerer. Jen introduced me to a playgroup, which provided me with the social contacts for which I’d been longing. She offered to share a tuk tuk with me to attend those playgroup meetings, so I rarely showed up on my own and I never got lost on the way, not even when it took almost an hour to get to one friend’s rather distant house. By the time I met Jen, I’d already figured out most of the practical things I needed to know, but she introduced me to the part of Phnom Penh that I needed more than the practical part—she introduced me to the social circle where I would make my home for the rest of my time here.

Too soon, Chris’s contract expired, and due to organizational policy, he was unable to renew it. We’d known from the start when the contract would expire, but promises had been made about waiving the rules and letting him stay for another year, and by the time it became clear that they really would be leaving Cambodia, there wasn’t a lot of time left. Practically overnight, I watched Jen go from crying at the thought of leaving to being excited to begin her life back home. I watched her say her good-byes to the playgroup. I heard her schedule last lunches, brunches, and dinners with those to whom she was closest. And to my shame, I felt hurt and abandoned. Although I was glad that she was happy about leaving—she had no choice, so much better for her to accept it than to dread it—I worried about what my life would become after she left. I had leaned on her more than she realized, and I was not eager to stand on my own.

After Chris and Jen left, my life continued. Without Jen to lean on, I slowly began to feel more like a part of the playgroup, rather than like Jen’s friend who also comes to playgroup. One of the drawbacks of being an introvert is that it takes me a long time to connect with people—and often, once I connect with one person, I allow that one person to be my link to the group rather than becoming part of the group myself. That’s what I had done with Jen, and it wasn’t until after she left that I forced myself to make more of an effort. That effort was worthwhile; there are some wonderful women in the group, and I’m extremely glad to know them—but it was an effort.

Not long after Jen left, about the time I started feeling at home in Phnom Penh and in the playgroup, Jeff and I met a new family at a church we visited, the one we’ve attended since that time. Jesse and Sarah, along with their adorable daughter, were new to Phnom Penh. Jeff and I both realized quickly that we enjoyed this family, and we wanted to be friends. And we did become friends. I offered what assistance I could to Sarah, remembering well how lost I felt those first few months. I couldn’t help with most of the practical issues Sarah faced—the embassy takes care of most of that for us—though I could help with some things, like where to find cornstarch or other specific grocery items. And I could introduce her to a group of good women who could help her a lot more than I could—the playgroup.

Eventually, Jesse and Sarah started a Bible study group. We were the first to join, and we offered our house as a meeting location. The group grew in number and in closeness. We developed a whole circle of shared friends and acquaintances, rather than just the his-at-the-embassy, hers-at-playgroup circles we’d had before. The way I see it, the friendship, the support, and the social network that Jesse and Sarah have given us far outweigh anything that we’ve given them—and when you add in the understanding and encouragement and friendship that I feel from Sarah personally, I definitely come out ahead.

Apparently Sarah disagrees.

As we’ve gotten ready to depart Phnom Penh later this week, I’ve said my round of good-byes, much like Jen said hers so many months ago. The playgroup hosted a Kosovo-themed party in my honor, to which Sarah and Clara rode with Alexa and me. The Bible study had a very special time of sharing and prayer for our family—and although Sarah was unable to attend because Clara was ill, she was the one who organized it all. Our church had a special prayer time for us—no doubt suggested by Jesse and/or Sarah. And at every turn, Sarah has made it clear that she will miss us, that she will miss me, that she is sad to see us go and really would rather we didn’t. In a note that Jeff found for me after our last Bible study meeting and that I always will treasure, Sarah credited me with making her adjustment to Phnom Penh easier than she anticipated.

I’ve been thinking of Jen a lot lately, seeing some similarity between my situation when she left and Sarah’s situation now. Jen was my first friend in Cambodia, and I was Sarah’s. Jen introduced me to the playgroup, as I did Sarah. Jen provided both practical and social support that I desperately needed, and I provided what support I could to Sarah. I hated to see Jen leave, and Sarah isn’t very happy to see me go.

But there are vast differences, too, between my situation and Sarah’s. Sarah has branched out and made more friends—she’s fully a part of the playgroup already, and she has social networks outside of it as well. Sarah and I lean on each other in different ways, whereas my friendship with Jen was more one-sided, with me needing much more than I gave. There is no doubt in my mind, and hopefully none in Sarah’s, that she will thrive for as long as her family remains here. Yes, there will be hard times (there always are, especially when living in a country and a culture not your own), but she has everything she needs to push through those times. I see her already befriending and supporting new arrivals, providing them with the soft landing that we all need so much when we first arrive in a new country.

The soft landing that Julia and our office sponsors gave me in Egypt.

The soft landing that I didn’t have at first here, but that Jen tried to give me as soon as she met me, and that the ladies of the playgroup extended after Jen’s departure.

The soft landing that I tried to give Sarah, though she returned the favor much more than she realizes.

The soft landing that Sarah is giving now to those new women who cross her path.

I think of all these adjustment periods, the soft and not-so-soft landings I’ve seen and experienced, and it drives home to me just how important friends are—how important these friends are. Not only Julia, Jen, and Sarah, but the ladies in the playgroup. The men and women in the Bible study. The men and women who were in our life group back in Egypt, and the women in my Bible studies there. The men and women who were our “office family” in Egypt. All of those people who come together to help each other and support each other and just live life with each other during these times of transition and adaptation. Those people who become an international family. And most especially, those people who keep an eye out for newcomers, making a deliberate choice to help them.

I’m grateful to these people—to Julia, to Jen, and to Sarah; to the members of the playgroup and the Bible studies and the churches to which I’ve belonged; and to God, for channeling His blessings through His people and for putting us into each other’s paths to help and support each other.

And I’m hopeful that not only will I meet my next Julia, or Jen, or Sarah soon after my arrival in Kosovo, but that I will have the opportunity to be someone else’s Julia, or Jen, or Sarah, both in Kosovo and wherever I end up next—even if that’s the United States.

Friday, April 12, 2013

Anatomy of a Foreign Service Move: New Beginnings

Arrival at Post: Sponsors, Briefings, and Settling In

When we arrive at post, we will be met at the airport by up to three people: an embassy driver, an expediter (if useful at that particular post), and our sponsor. The purpose of the driver is pretty obvious—he’s the man who drives the embassy van or SUV to get us from the airport to our new home. Occasionally, a private driver will be hired or the sponsor will drive his or her personal vehicle, but most personal vehicles aren’t large enough for an incoming family and their luggage.  The expediter is a local whose job is to ease the process of newly arrived (and departing) individuals through customs, immigration, and baggage claim (or through check-in). The expediter usually collects his clients’ passports, hustles his clients to the front of the line, speaks rapidly in the local language, waves the newcomers’ passports around, collects the baggage, and then ushers the newcomers into the presence of their sponsor before handing back all the necessary stamped paperwork and disappearing back into the airport to meet his next client.

The sponsor’s role is a bit more nebulous, but ultimately more important for helping newcomers adjust to post. In most offices at most posts, newcomers end up with two sponsors: an office sponsor and a social/official/CLO-assigned sponsor (CLO being the Community Liaison Office, which generally makes life easier for diplomats and their families at post). The office sponsor helps the incoming employee figure out how things work in the office. The social sponsor helps the incoming employee and family figure out how things work at post in general. One duty of the social sponsor is to meet the newcomers at the airport, take them to their new home, and make sure that everything’s okay there, at least initially. The social sponsor also contacts the newcomers before their arrival to offer any assistance possible—from answering questions to collecting packages that arrive before the newcomer does to soliciting a grocery list and providing the requested supplies so that the newcomer doesn’t have to go to the supermarket immediately upon arrival (of course the newcomer reimburses the sponsor for the groceries). The sponsor also is responsible for getting the newcomer to the supermarket within the first couple of days and usually provides dinner for the new family on the day of arrival. It is expected that the sponsor will make an effort to introduce the newcomers to some people socially and in general be available for the next several weeks to answer questions as they arise.

A good sponsor is vital in helping newcomers adjust to post, and we've had the whole range. Our sponsor here in Cambodia was a great asset to us; she answered questions, picked us up from the airport, bought our starter groceries, left lasagna in our fridge for dinner that first night, took us to the supermarket, and introduced us around. We're still friendly with her, and we're thankful for her assistance. In Egypt, we were both cursed and blessed—our social sponsor was MIA from the start. I think we exchanged a couple of emails before our arrival, but she never solicited a shopping list, and she was out of town on our arrival day. Her supervisor picked us up at the airport, and when we arrived in our apartment, we found her idea of our necessary supplies: sardines, Jewish rye bread, bell peppers, a frozen Cornish game hen, seltzer water … I forget what else. But after the explanation from her supervisor that she was away from the city that day, we never heard another word from her. That was the curse. The blessing was our office sponsor—sponsors, actually, a married couple who both worked in Jeff’s office and who lived across the hall from us. They took us out for dinner the night of our arrival, they had solicited and fulfilled our shopping requests, they took us to the commissary once a week until our car arrived, they answered every question we asked and volunteered useful information about which we didn’t even know to ask … they, and the rest of Jeff’s office, stepped in and fulfilled the social sponsor’s role in a way that I don’t think any single sponsor ever could.

But back to arrival day—newcomers are met by the driver, expediter, and sponsor, and they are taken immediately to their new home. Depending on the time of day and the sponsor’s choices, they may be left there for the day, possibly with dinner in the fridge ready to be reheated, or they may be left for a while to freshen up and rest before going to the sponsor’s home or to a restaurant for dinner. The first order of business, of course, at least for me, is to explore the house. Next comes unpacking suitcases and making beds—I have no hope of feeling at home until the bed is made and ready for sleeping, preferably with my own sheets. Either the embassy General Services (GSO) employees or the sponsor will have unpacked the welcome kit and made the bed, but I typically unmake the bed and replace the sheets with my own, which go with us in the suitcase. Nice sheets are one of the things that make a place feel like home to me. Jeff has his own priorities—he unpacks and sets up any electronics that we brought with us or sent ahead. This will be our first move with Alexa old enough to feel either lost or at home, so it remains to be seen what we’ll need to do straight off to help her feel comfortable. I suspect we’ll make her bed and pull her “babies” out of the suitcases, possibly set up the welcome kit TV or a laptop so she can see that “Uh Oh” (Curious George) is still available to her.

In addition to going to the supermarket within the first few days, Jeff will report to work immediately. For this move, we’re arriving early afternoon on a Friday, and he’s indicated plans to go in that afternoon if at all possible—we don’t want to wait until Monday to obtain his government-provided mobile phone. Sometime the next week, Alexa and I will go in with him and attend a newcomers’ briefing. In this briefing, we’ll hear presentations from the CLO, the health unit, and the RSO (Regional Security Office), as well as from anyone else who has something of relevance to say to newcomers. Afterward, I’ll have my photo taken and my badge made, so that I’ll have unescorted access to the embassy compounds.

While Jeff settles in to his new office, I will be figuring out how to run a household at the new post. This process will be complicated in Kosovo by the fact that we most likely won’t be able to move straight into our permanent housing. [Update: After writing but before publishing this post, we discovered that the situation has changed--we probably will be able to move straight in to our permanent housing. I left this paragraph in for informational purposes, though, as the scenario described here isn't that uncommon.] The embassy maintains a pool of housing that is assigned to employees based on position and family size—position being of importance primarily for those diplomats with representational duties (those who are required to throw parties for local officials must have homes that are suitable for entertaining). Each time a family departs post, their housing undergoes a process known as the “make-ready” in order to prepare it for a newly arriving family: necessary repairs are made, walls are painted, and occasionally furniture or fixtures are upgraded. It happens fairly often that the departure-arrival schedule doesn’t quite leave enough time for the make-ready. When that happens, newcomers are assigned temporary (“temp”) housing. In our case, it isn’t that there wasn’t enough time between someone else’s departure and our arrival; it’s that the Department didn’t allow child dependents into Kosovo for many years because of the violence in Kosovo’s relatively recent history, and now that families with children are being assigned there again, they have to expand their housing pool with residences large enough for larger families. They are entering long-term leases to acquire the necessary residences, but new residences require work before embassy personnel can move in; electrical wiring has to be inspected and often redone to something approximating U. S. code, for example. Our assigned housing is new to the housing pool, and we’ve been told it will be ready “sometime in the April/May time frame.” So we’ll probably be in temp housing for a while. Our temp housing is much closer to the embassy than our permanent housing, which will help with those first couple of weeks, but it will prolong the instability in our lives.

Eventually we will move into our permanent housing. At some point, our UAB will arrive and be delivered to us. If it arrives before we move into our permanent housing, we’ll probably accept it gratefully. After we receive our UAB, we will return the welcome kit to GSO. At some later point, our HHE will arrive. If it arrives before we move into our permanent housing, which is unlikely, it will be held at a warehouse until we’re in a position to accept delivery.

Other than waiting for our things to arrive, it’s a lot like settling into any new home … with the addition of learning a bit of a new language, enough of a new culture to avoid offending people, and usually learning how to drive and cross streets in accordance with new rules.  We try to make friends, both within the embassy community and outside it. We search out a church. We explore the local shops, sights, and foods. We settle in, and it becomes our normal life.

Starting Over: The Cycle Repeats

Once we’ve been at a typical two-year post for a year or so, often less, the Department publishes an internal document called the bid list … and the process starts all over. The only difference is that once we’re at a post, we often (but not always) have the option to extend for a year rather than bid on a new post. The decision to extend has to be made before the bid list comes out, so that Jeff’s position isn’t listed as available if it isn’t—we have to decide whether we want to stay where we are for a third year when we still haven’t come close to settling in there, and we don’t even know what the other options will be. In Egypt, we extended and were happy with that decision—at least I was, despite the Revolution and evacuation; Jeff was pretty well ready to leave, I think, even before the Revolution. In Cambodia, extending wasn’t an option. It should be an option in Kosovo, so we’ll be making a decision mere months after our arrival. Whether we extend or not, however, the whole process will begin again less than two years after our arrival.


Foreign service families live in a constant state of change. We always are planning a move, moving, or adjusting to a move; sometimes we’re planning the next move while still trying to adjust to the last one. This is the life we signed up for. It’s stressful. It’s exhausting. It taxes our psychological and social—and sometimes financial—resources. But it’s also exhilarating. It’s eye-opening. It stretches us and grows us and gives us a perspective on the world that I never imagined. So whenever I complain about our lifestyle, about the stresses and changes and difficulties involved, bear with me, because they are real, and they are significant. But also remind me: This is the life we signed up for, and it’s worth it.

It’s worth it because we have the opportunity to experience new cultures at a level deeper than what the average tourist experiences (though not as deep as what the long-term resident experiences). We see sights that most Americans only see on television, in magazines, or on the internet. We get to make friends, not only from the host country, but from so many other countries, as we befriend missionaries, teachers, aid workers, and businessmen. These opportunities and more combine to make this serial expat life an unbelievable, unforgettable experience. Yes, there is stress, and there is change, and there is difficulty—but the benefits far outweigh the drawbacks, at least to us.

If you’re a friend or family member wanting to know more about our lives and to understand the terminology we toss around, I hope this series has helped you with that. If you’re considering a foreign service career, or if you’re a new foreign service officer preparing for your first post, I hope this series has helped you gain an idea of what to expect—and I hope that as you go through the process for the first time, that you realize that you’re not crazy; it really is stressful and exhausting, and it’s completely normal for you to wonder at times whether this lifestyle is worth all the hassle. For some people, it isn’t. For me, it is. For you? That’s a decision you’ll have to make.

Anatomy of a Foreign Service Move, Part:
5: New Beginnings