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


  1. I stumbled across your blog and love it! I'm with AID and just got assigned to my 2nd post. It will be my first tim doing a multicontinental move (1st post/home/2nd post). As a new blogger, I appreciate the time and effort it takes to write detailed posts. Thanks so much for taking the time to describe your expereinces. I've learned so much that will be helpful in my move. Blessings:)

    1. Thanks for the comment, Simone! I'm glad this was useful for you. Good luck with your upcoming preparations and move--let the roller coaster begin :)


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