Sunday, September 8, 2013

Going to the Suitcases

So, at the end of each tour or training one very unpleasant situation comes in – the company comes and packs your 5000 lbs of crap and you are left with 2 suitcases per family member, each filled up with exactly 50 lbs of personally very important crap and you live out of those for the next one month until you land in either your next post or in training in Washington. After each tour overseas, foreign service officers must take a vacation in the good old U.S. for a minimum of 4 and a maximum of 6 weeks. It is called “home leave” and is mandatory. Imagine – we get a 6 week MANDATORY vacation. Mmmmm, hello, I love my job! Now, many people do not like this since the State Department only pays for the ticket back home and home leave has to be in the U.S. Hawaii counts, Cancun does not. The government does not pay for your lodging during home leave. As you can imagine, unless you own an unrented house in the U.S., the idea of spending a month living with your relatives, or renting an overly expensive villa on the beach or an RV, or in a hotel, all the while living out of suitcases is not appealing to the thrifty folks of the Foreign Service. But it must be done.
The idea is that United States diplomats should go back home once in a while to re-acquaint themselves with their core customers and constituency and remember who they work for – the U.S. I guess someone important in the Department was watching Apocalypse Now one dark, Washingtonian autumn night, saw Marlon Brando go rogue after spending one too many days in rural Vietnam and decided that U.S. diplomats need to come back home every now and then. I agree. Except for the suitcases part. Here is why.
On August 1 we bid a tearful goodbye to beloved Bangladesh. Fat Cat made a graceful exit the previous night, and so the Diplomat, Son and I headed over to Bulgaria for a little private vacation with Mom before returning to the U.S. for home leave. As our stuff was packed about a week before that, by then we had been living out of our suitcases in a way already. Each of us was equipped with two large suitcases and one hand luggage. It took a large van to take us to the airport. After 10 days in Bulgaria, the Diplomat flew to California to see his Sister and her family. After one more week, I left Bulgaria and flew to New York where I met with him. We were both dragging our respective 2 suitcases each. Son was having a good time with Grandma, his 2 suitcases partially unpacked for a month. In New York, thanks to the incredible generosity of good friends of ours, we stayed for a couple of weeks in a gorgeous apartment in Brooklyn. The suitcases were still not unpacked – we just pulled random crap out of them and wore whatever we found. It made looking for small items inside real fun. Then, on August 31, the Diplomat drove our newly acquired car to Virginia, I flew down on the U.S. Airways shuttle to Reagan Airport and Son and Mom arrived later that night on a United codeshare flight from Bulgaria. It merits noting that their plane landed at 7.30 pm and they came out almost two and a half hours later!!!! Two and a half hours, people – what in the world is happening on that passport control line?? It did not help my state of nerves that after the Diplomat and I had been waiting at the airport for them for about one and half hours and were just being convinced that my Mom had been taken to secondary and detained or something, I got a phone call from a formal sounding officer, who asked me nonchalantly whether I was waiting for someone that night at the airport. My stomach turned. Turns out Mom did not have the address of the place we were going to stay at and they needed it for the entry form. Sheesh.
We spent the next two days at our favorite American auntie’s place in Maryland for the Labor Day weekend (suitcases not even brought into the rooms) and then we finally moved into our current digs in Virginia, where we are going to spend the next 6 months studying the incredibly confusing language of Portuguese. Due to the lack of enough hangers, my suitcases remained unpacked for 3 more days until I finally made the obligatory pilgrimage trips for returning Americans to Costco and Bed, Bath and Beyond and supplied the apartment with vital housing essentials. Suitcases unpacked. Phew! It is nice to finally find the underwear you are actually looking for. Other than that, home leave was great.
Going to the suitcases during home leave (and any travel with multiple stops, really) is daunting, much like going to the mattresses is for the mafia during their wars. You rarely get to unpack anything during each stop since it is such an effort to stuff back everything inside (each suitcase magically ends being heavier and heavier each time!). Your clothes are always wrinkled , at times smell musty (especially if it was raining at the airport when your luggage was offloaded) and you end up using only the topmost clothes day after day after day. It does not help that you have packed 4 tennis rackets there as well so every time you try to look for a small elusive item like a bottle of Iboprufen which seems to move all over the packed suitcase with surprising alacrity for an inanimate object, you curse the stupid rackets and take them out and then put them back in, along with the 6 pairs of shoes you were convinced you will wear in New York City (which you did not).

We have been back for about a week now in Washington, DC and already had a week of language training. It felt good to walk on campus, wearing clean, ironed clothes.