We have spent most of this summer taking a long vacation that the State Department requires all Foreign Service families to take in between tours of duty. The Foreign Affairs Manual states that “the purpose of home leave is to ensure that employees who live abroad for an extended period undergo reorientation and re-exposure in the United States on a regular basis.” We have been on the road for six weeks, visited 18 states, and seen a lot. This short series is my effort to tell you what I learned during the reorientation. Read part one here.
The journey has ended, at least for the moment. The car has been emptied and the suitcases stowed under the beds in our Arlington apartment, waiting to be loaded up again for our move to the Middle East in a little less than a year. Books have been put on the shelves, and pictures on the walls. We are home, for now, as much as any Foreign Service family is ever really at home. K and J explore local parks and libraries. I have become another one of the countless lanyard-wearing coffee carrying workers who scurry through Metro stations every day to staff the desks and sit in the conference rooms of our Nation’s Capital.
My mind often wanders back to a breakfast we enjoyed on an August morning in the middle of our trip. It was at a small restaurant in the neighborhood I grew up in. The building was once home to a bagel shop, before switching to a sandwich shop, both cookie cutter chain places. Now it’s an independently owned juice and sandwich shop, run by a family who hail from Mexico City originally. They serve up fresh smoothies and “aguas frescas,” along with a decent selection of breakfast treats that made us feel right at home. I chatted with the owner for a little while. He moved to the U.S. when he was young. Spent years waiting tables and washing dishes, saving up to be able to start his own business. Now he’s done it. The food was amazing . The company was even better.
I spent an awful lot of time over the last two years working on Immigrant Visas. The work can be challenging, and repetitive. It can come to feel a bit mundane. What makes it come alive is the awareness that each and every case represents the story of someone who is on a journey. Looking for something better. It was neat to wander into this little restaurant and encounter someone who had already been on that journey, and who is now living out the American dream, and making one part of our country a little bit brighter and tastier. It was neat to be reminded of why the work matters.
Now, as I ride the metro every day, and sit in Arabic class, attempting to get my head around the difference between ح and ه, it is tempting to fall victim to how mundane it feels. I liked our long road trip, and I liked being in the mix of things in Mexico, and I’m not sure I’m built for sitting in a classroom.
So I return, in my mind, to that little juice shop. I think about what a joy it was to speak Spanish with the owner. I hope I will eventually be able to do that in Arabic. To explore new perspectives and build new friendships in a way that only shared language allows. Language is a door to all sorts of exciting things, and I get excited when I think of the hundreds of Officers like me who are now studying dozens upon dozens of different languages. I think of the work they will do using those building blocks of vocabulary and grammar. The problems that they will solve, and the bridges that they will build. Nelson Mandela said “If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in HIS language, that goes to his heart.” These officers will be able to speak to the hearts of many by the time they finish their course work.
So I won’t fall victim to routine. I will remember that the work we do overseas has an impact back home, whether we see it or not. Everything is connected. And I guess that’s why we keep going with the endless and often frustrating cycle of packing, unpacking, goodbyes, hellos, unfamiliar places, new routines, and longing for what is left behind. We do it because we understand that everything is connected, and that our job is to use those connections to make the world a bit better. And sometimes that starts with figuring out the difference between ح and ه.