Friday, March 8, 2013

Life in the Foreign Service

I realize the title of this post is kind of vague, or maybe a little too big of a topic to cover in one post. But in the past few weeks, I've experienced many of the highs and lows of this lifestyle. It's been a roller coaster, and frankly, I'm pretty sure that's just the way life in the Foreign Service is. It's a bizarre, sometimes surreal existence, to the point where I often refer to everything else as "the real world." Because whatever this is, it sure as hell doesn't feel like normal.

A few weeks ago, we were in Paris on vacation for the second time since moving to Russia. That was definitely one of the highs. It's funny, because we're not exactly close to Paris here (we could fly direct to Paris from DC in less time than it takes to get there from Yekaterinburg), but there's this sense when you're living abroad that you're supposed to travel. You also get a lot of vacation time in the FS, and getting local and American holidays adds up to even more time off. One of the perks of hardship posts is that you get paid more, too, so it's easier to travel internationally. Which is a good thing during a long Siberian winter.

Unfortunately, my trip to Paris was under a shadow, because my grandma got really sick the night before we were scheduled to leave. I didn't talk to my mom until our layover in Frankfurt, when my luggage was already checked through to Paris. Even worse, I couldn't get a good connection on Skype from the airport lounge, and it took about seven phone calls to find out if my grandma was even still alive at that point. I debated going home, but between being sick myself, Jack being sick, the fact that I'd have to get to L.A. and back within our time in Paris, the amount of time spent traveling, and the amount of money it was going to cost, it didn't seem practical. I was lucky to get to talk to my grandma on the phone a couple of times while I was there, but the entire trip I felt completely torn and horribly guilty. There I was, enjoying my time in Paris, when I knew there was a very distinct possibility I would never see my grandma again. She told me not to come home. My mom told me not to come home. I told myself it was okay not to go home. I still don't know if I made the right decision.

By the end of my trip, my grandma seemed to be improving a little. I thought about going home then, but I had work training in Istanbul the following week, then a friend coming to visit, then my sister and another friend coming to visit, followed by going to Moscow for three weeks. I hoped if my grandma could hold on for a few more weeks, I could go home from Moscow and see her then. But two days ago, I woke up to a text from my sister saying my grandma had gotten worse and was back in the hospital. By the time I spoke to my mom that morning, she had already passed away.

My grandma was a wonderful person who deserves a post of her own (which she will get when I can gather my thoughts enough to do her justice). For now, suffice it to say I miss her very, very much. I don't have any regrets about our relationship - I know she knew how much I loved her. I called and wrote about once a month, I sent her photographs of Jack and kept her up to speed on his latest milestones and mischief. I regret not having the chance to say goodbye, but I'm also glad my last memories of her won't be in a hospital room. Most importantly, I regret not being there for my family when they need me. Personally, that's the single hardest part of living abroad, especially in as remote a place as we live. It was bad enough when we lived in D.C. and most of our family was on the west coast. Now, it's a logistical nightmare.

Don't get me wrong - this is an amazing way of life and in the end, I do think it's worth the sacrifices. But there ARE sacrifices. We found out recently that my grandpa has a brain tumor. My mom and uncle are in the process of moving him up to Oregon, where my uncle lives, so he can be close to family. I'm once again in the position of having to decide when (and if) I'm going to be able to see him. Once again, I have no idea what to do.

But amidst all the sad news, there have been wonderful things, too. Jack is starting to speak Russian. I made some amazing friends during my training in Istanbul. My good friend and I just had a fabulous time catching up in Yekaterinburg, and tomorrow night my twin sister and one of my best friends will be here. Next week we're going to explore Moscow together, and Jack will get to spend a few weeks going to daycare with other American kids. France was lovely despite worrying about my grandma, and we just booked a flight to Spain in early May. None of these things would have happened without the Foreign Service, and I'm grateful for each and every one of them.

For right now, all I can do is hope I'm making the right decisions, no matter how difficult they may be. And I guess in the end that's all any of us can do, whether we're in the real world or not.

3 comments:

  1. Mara, I am so sorry to hear of your loss. You are right, being away from family at critical times is, I think, the hands-down worst thing about the FS.

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  2. Mara, losing someone is never easy but being abroad makes it so much less real and you can feel very alone with the reality of it all. Hoping you get a chance when you're in the states next to remember your grandmother well, even if it's delayed grief. Wishing you peace now!

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  3. Hi Mara - I stumpled across your post and just wanted to share that I was in a similar situation as you when my husband was in the FS. We were on a vacation in Vienna when I found out that my grandma had taken a turn for the worse. I cut our trip short and booked a flight to Chicago (where I'm from) but while I was on the layover in Washington I called my mom and learned that my dear grandma had passed a few hours before. I was so sad that I didn't make it back to see her one last time. It is so hard to know what the right thing to do is. I'm really sorry for your loss and totally understand your guilt.

    Best,
    Jen

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