Spring Break, Cyprus 2015
Today someone posted on the EFM, (Eligible Family Member) which means Foreign Service spouse, Facebook thread the question-that-is-not-asked. Essentially, "Do you hate the moving/not having a job/losing friends/not having a tribe/miss Target as much as I do?" The thread BLEW UP with the pros and cons of the foreign service life. I know readers come to this blog seeking information about expat life, especially with the State Department, so I just want you to know, many people straight up hate it.
Favorite Things People Love to Hate in the Foreign Service: Packing and unpacking. Talking to the household help about not washing the suits in the washing machine. Resumes that are shot to hell. Bad air, bad roads and houses chosen by someone else. Government-issued furniture. Not being able to sit next to our kids on 14 hour flights. Not having the internet. The time difference between where we are and where our family is, making Skype difficult. Some of us hate Skype. Bugs and lack of seat belts in taxis. Paying thousands of dollars for pet transport. That it takes two weeks to get anything from Amazon. Missing weddings, and worse, funerals.
You get the picture.
We have been overseas since 2006, ten years. One of the hardest parts of writing this is that I'm afraid I will sound like I'm humble-bragging. But the point is, or will be, for lot of people, the humble-bragging material--the benefits--don't balance out the hate.
Would we be happier if we were still in Portland, Oregon? Or if we moved back?
When we left Portland I had a great part time job that didn't exactly suit me and I was looking for freelance graphic design gigs. Perfect training for now, where I am in almost exactly the same situation. The other day my boss gave me a great assignment, something I've done before and was glad to take on again. Someone "relieved" me of that assignment because they wanted an officer doing it, not an EFM. What can I do? Go back to what I was working on before, enjoying the terrific colleagues in my section. And now that my boss has figured out I'm a actually graphic designer, we loaded Adobe Suite onto my machine and during the quiet times in the grants business, I've taken on graphics projects for the pubic diplomacy section. I love this job.
When Peter got the job with the State Department we had about $30K on a credit card that I use to cry about because I couldn't see how we were EVER going to pay that off. Once we were overseas, we paid it off in two years. Since then, aside from the mortgage, and the remainder of Peter's small student loan--which the State Department has paid off a big chunk of since we've been at a high differential post--we have been debt free. (We also drive a 16-year-old-car and our daughter goes to a state university. In spite of the Dyptique candles, we don't live like high rollers.) Our mortgage lender loved us.
We can pay for Camille to be in college and we'll be able to pay for Stefan on a pay-as-they-go system. They can graduate with no student loans.
I haven't mopped my own floor in 10 years. Except when we are home during the summer where I can't afford U.S. household help.
Have you been bitten by the travel bug? I remember literally crying when I was 28 years old because I hadn't been to France yet. Seriously, crying. Harder than I would about the future 30K on the credit card.
I really liked splashing in the Black Sea on the Bulgarian coast with my mom. Eating bacon buns in Latvia with Peter and his sister. Handing our ragamuffin of a dog to the mobile dog-groomer "ZooGollywood" here in Kyiv and having Bea pop out of the truck looking like a stuffed animal. Some people apparently don't get a kick out of being functionally illiterate. I like the slightly scared feeling of travel-- besides it's not that hard to learn to read the worlds salt and sugar, and you only make the mistake of mixing them up once. Per country. That edgy feeling of not being in your own country makes me feel like I have my eyes open.
Travel from the U.S. is expensive and sort of only for thoracic surgeons, or my teacher friend Gina who is a really good saver and doesn't buy Diptyque candles. Everyone in the State Department travels all the time. Summer vacations in Cyprus, Thailand, and Sicily. Christmases in Finland, Vienna or snow-skiing in Italy. They rent boats and sail around Greece or tour the wine caves of Moldova or become experts on all the Disneylands world wide. Couples go to Prague for the weekend. It's all normal. The U.S. is huge and isolated. Once you are out, you can fly from Hong Kong to Chaing Mai for a $150 dollars, round trip. (I just Skyscanned it! Why are we not in Hong Kong, or rather, Chang Mai?) So if you like to travel, I mean really like to travel, this is for you.
My colleague is so not at work this week, she and her husband are in the Maldives.
In Portland our kids went to the French school which was not expensive by private school standards. Assuming the tuition would have remained the same (unlikely) we would have spent $140K by now on school. Which never would have happened. They would have been in public school by 6th grade. With the State Department, they've gone to good overseas schools (not as great as private schools in Portland or San Francisco I don't think, a little uneven, but still, good.) and Camille for her last two years of high school went to boarding school in Switzerland.
The kids have gone on field trips to Berlin and Venice, and homestays in Istanbul and Munich. Camille volunteered at a girl's school in Kenya. When they try to make a list of the best pizza they've ever had, Pizzacato in Portland makes the list, but in first place, is a restaurant in Taormina.
They've put money in street musicians' guitar, violin or accordion cases using at least five different currencies.
When there was an explosion in a club in Bucharest, Camille was concerned about her Romanian friends. When there is an uprising in Ouagadougou or a war in Ukraine, none of this is abstract for my kids. They remember the biting bugs and the hotel with all the animal trophies in Ouaga. They've seen the tanks on the streets in Kyiv. The world is home.
I finally got to do my college semester abroad, and it was a Masters in Fine Art in a painting program at Brancusi's alma mater. For $2000.
I'm currently doing a painting workshop with a master classical painter and I take ballet lessons from a Russian ballerina. For two years, Camille practically lived at the riding stables. Stefan has had piano lessons from a Beethoven specialist from the Tchaikovsky Conservatory, (not just named after Tchaikovsky, but because he taught there), a teacher whose father plays piano for the national symphony in Ukraine and an American felon in Africa.
Peter loves his job as the medical officer, running the health unit. He's too busy, but he's happy doing what he does. And no one ever tells him to not talk so much with his patients. Now, he eats lunch every day with his patients. For someone who loves treating the entire person, this is the medical job for you.
I don't have to deal with the water company, the trash people or pay the electricity or natural gas. If I need something fixed, someone comes and fixes it. If I'm not working, Peter has to make that call for me. (At some posts you have to be on an embassy computer to put in a work order.) Some EFMs hate how that makes them feel.
Some EFM's hate how it makes them feel so much that they'd rather be in the U.S. Some find the very term EFM degrading. I myself prefer the term "Trophy Wife."
Sometimes the distance of a couple thousand miles from family drama is just right, but I do miss our sisters (Peter's as well as my own), nieces and nephews, friends, and especially my 93-year-old mommy. I hate living so far from Camille as she has started college. That's really been the worst.
We get twenty paid holidays and Peter has so many vacation/comp/leave days he can't even use them all. I've taken two months off every summer to take care of kids and reconnect with family for ten years. In Portland I would have had weekends and short visits, but never two glorious months of visiting with friends and family, drinking wine on week-nights.
At our jobs, we are serving our country, doing the work of diplomacy. I'm not your friend wearing a star-spangled fanny pack, but there is gratification helping your country, and the world, be the best version of itself.
We've sailed across the ocean on the Queen Mary, seen monkeys swing from trees in Africa, met Joe Biden and seen the Nutcracker at the Bolshoi.
I do miss Target. But not that much.
I went to four different elementary schools and my sister went to a different high school every year. Just because you live in the U.S. doesn't mean you don't move, or that your friends don't move away. Just because you live in the U.S. doesn't mean you, or your children, are happy.
Peter and I lived nine years in the redwood forest of Humboldt County, thirteen years in San Francisco, four years in Portland, Oregon. Maybe because we got into this later, it feels like just another chapter of our lives. We are half-way through this chapter, in 10 years Peter will have to retire. It's not easy though, the heart-wrench of moving kids away from their friends, learning who I can trust with my own heart at a new post, living with loss, of household items that have been ruined or lost, of friends, of family far away, move after move, place to place.
I can't say if it will work for you, but so far, we are still 100% in.