Regarding what makes a house a home…

In the course of a day our house has been transformed. It was a welcoming place, with ¬†familiar books on the shelves and pictures of relatives on the end tables. There was a Pakistani rug on the floor, and Dominican painted tiles on the walls. We had an Afghan blanket hanging on the wall, and an Italian vase on a window sill, both wedding gifts. In the past few months our collection of baby toys has grown considerably, and those toys have found their way to every corner of the house as their owner’s throwing arm has improved.

Yesterday it was all packed away. All the books, rugs, paintings, photos, vases, and most of the toys went into boxes and onto a big truck. Some of it will meet us in Washington, but most of it will stay wrapped up until it arrives to meet us in Riyadh after maybe a year and a half. The house is empty now. The white walls are blank. There’s a new echo to the house as there are no carpets or curtains to absorb the sound. It doesn’t quite feel like the same place.

A house is different from a home. A house is walls, doors, a roof, and floors. A home is harder to define. It’s a place where our experiences find life. A place soaked in meaning. It’s the pictures on the walls, the games in the cupboard, the food on the table, and the people who you share it all with. Home is the experience that happens in the house.

This house has been a good home to us. Under this roof we have shared meals with many beloved friends. We’ve had parties. We have rested away the exhaustion of long days at the visa window. We have learned how to be parents. And JJ has never lived anywhere else.

Watching the physical symbols of home go into boxes is a melancholy experience. It means we are leaving soon. But we also know that home is not our stuff. Home, for our family, is finding love and belonging in all of the new places that we are blessed to experience. This summer we will rest with friends and family in many places where we have known home before, and where we can still taste it. And in the coming months and year we will find home in new places, just as we have before.

It’s a little scary. I fear that maybe this time will be different. Maybe it won’t work out quite as well. Will I be able to learn Arabic? Will I stink at my job? Will I make any friends? Change brings doubt.

But for me, home is wherever I find the beautiful woman, the growing baby, and the neurotic chihuahua with whom I am sharing this empty house for the next few weeks. With them around I know it will all work out, and for that I am thankful.

Regarding others who serve…

My first tour of duty as a Foreign Service Officer is almost over, and I can confidently say that I know a lot now that I didn’t know when I got started. My Spanish is a bit sharper. I can talk your ear off about immigration law (which I promise not to do in this post). I know that chile de arbol is not something to be eaten on a whim. I’ve begun to appreciate the ins and outs of the complexities of this large organization for which I work. I’ve learned how to put together an itinerary for the Principal Officer, and how to get a dozen people in as many offices to “clear” on a cable that I want to send out. Some of these lessons will stick with me for a long time, and others will no doubt have to be relearned (chile de arbol always looks so good on the plate).

But among the most wonderful things that I have come to appreciate in the past two years is the critical role played by our locally employed colleagues in our work and communities overseas. I’ve written a fair amount about what it is like to be a part of the large, diverse, quirky family of American Foreign Service Officers, spouses, and kids that spans the globe, hops from country to country, always saying hello and goodbye to each other. The uninitiated might have the impression that everyone at my office is an American Foreign Service Officer. How untrue that is!

The vast majority of employees who work at the Consulate here in Ciudad Juarez (and at just about every post globally) are local folks. They are Mexicans, most born and raised right here in Juarez. We Americans are a minority at work, despite the fact that it is the U.S. Consulate. And our Mexican colleagues do a vast quantity of the work that keeps us running every day. They provide security to the Consulate compound, and in our residential communities. If something breaks at our house they come around to fix it. Our Mexican colleagues input the visa cases into the computer, wrangle the documents that I need to make a visa decision, and print up the final product. If I make a mistake, or get lost on how a certain part of the law works (a common occurrence), it is most likely one of our immensely qualified and experienced Mexican colleagues who helps me to find a solution. We have Mexican analysts who investigate our particularly challenging cases, and provide us with detailed information to bring the case to resolution. When I went on TV to talk about visas I had a locally employed friend and colleague sitting right there with me to help answer questions from the fast talking reporter.

In other parts of the building our Mexican colleagues are working to cultivate a strong relationship between our Consulate and local media, businesses, and other organizations. Our Mexican management team makes sure the rent is paid on our houses, and that the lights and water and computer network in the building keeps working. And to see that this massive team of people all get their paychecks every two weeks. There’s a fantastic team of Mexican cooks in the cafeteria who keep us very well fed. This Consulate is a massive operation, and it runs primarily on Mexican power, with English and Spanish being swapped out and traded for one another at a pace that I imagine is frustrating for the monolingual.

It’s easy to take this environment for granted after one has been here for a few months, but every so often something happens that reminds me how remarkable this all is. Just this week, for example, we had a retirement party. A gentleman by the name of Alex, who is one of just a few locally employed supervisors, finished up 29 years of work for our Consulate and will now get some well deserved rest. He began his career taking documents from applicants at a window and putting together files. He finishes up as the boss of more than 20 people, overseeing much of the work in one of the busiest visa sections in the world, reporting to and trusted by the unit chiefs (officers). If something is broken, he’s the guy who knows how to fix it. He has worked under six U.S. Presidents, at least a dozen Consuls General, and goodness knows how many American supervisors. He has had a direct impact on the smooth adjudication of millions of visas. This man is a giant of experience, and an example of service.

During his farewell ceremony he gave a very gracious speech. He talked about how as a young man he remembers walking past the old U.S. Consulate building in downtown Juarez, and dreaming of getting a job there. He shared how glad he was that it had come to pass. Other speeches were given. His colleagues praised his warmth and wisdom. A statement from the Ambassador was read, praising his service and accomplishments. He was honored with plaques, gifts, and applause. It was made known that his service was appreciated.

We talk often about those who serve their country, and rightly so. There are many who forego the comforts of a life at home, proximity to family, higher paychecks, and even safety in order to uphold the law, protect our national interest, and generally be of service. But we don’t often talk about those from other countries who serve OUR country, sometimes making the same sacrifices and face the same risks that we do. I have Mexican friends and colleagues who have done jobs at U.S. Embassies in Kabul and Baghdad.

The lesson that hit me full on in the face this week, and that I hope to carry with me throughout my career, is that there are many of us who serve, and many who deserve recognition. Yes, we the Officers do a service. But so do our partners and kids, who face the challenges of life abroad and open a window to American culture to our friends and neighbors. And so do our locally employed colleagues, who support us in our work, and provide expertise and muscle that we would be lost without. There are many who serve the United States in many different ways, and we aren’t all Americans. I hope that I am able to remember and honor this fact as I move forward in my career.

And perhaps the most beautiful thing that grows out of this is the friendships. I will be very sad to leave this Consulate, possibly for the last time, in three weeks. Not necessarily because I will miss the work (there’s always more), or my fellow officers (I’ll see most again), or the food (Mexico is a short plane ride away). I will mostly miss this big beautiful group of Mexicans who started off as just people at the office, but who have ended up as people who I joke around with, talk about life and kids with, banter with on facebook, share birthday cake with, enjoy parties with. They have ended up as friends, and that will make the leaving all the harder.

Capture

Regarding the last bottle of hot sauce…

Our time in Juarez is nearing an end. In 37 days we will close the book on this tour. That’s about 24 more days of work. Five more Saturdays. Maybe a thousand more visa interviews conducted. Fewer than 100 more tacos to eat. The countdown is on, and moving fast.

The mathematics of departure hit me in an unexpected way this week. I was cooking scrambled eggs, as I do every morning. I cut the veggies, heated the pan, scrambled the eggs, and whisked in a dash of Salsa Valentina, for a little flavor. I love this sauce. It is ubiquitous in this part of Mexico as Heinz Ketchup is back home. It’s in every grocery store, and on the table at lots of restaurants. Its uses are many. I’ve had it on tacos, in eggs, on potato chips at sporting events, and even in my beer at a fancy restaurant. Some of my Mexican colleagues keep bottles of Valentina at their desks to drizzle on their lunch. Valentina is just a part of life here, and it has occupied a place in our fridge ever since we arrived.

And it hit me, as I scrambled my eggs, that this is my last bottle of Valentina in Mexico. I won’t eat enough of it in the next 37 days to merit buying another one. This bottle might travel in the cooler in the car (if CBP lets it past), a nostalgic reminder of the borderland, until it ends its life in a recycling bin somewhere. It makes me feel a bit sad.

There are so many last things when you move away from a place. Last day at work or school. Last lunch with that special friend. Last time at a favorite park, or restaurant, or market. We sometimes notice when we are doing these last things, and mark the occasions with appropriate grief, or reflection, or maybe happiness if it is something we are glad to leave behind. But more often we don’t even know that we are doing something for the last time. I had no idea that I was buying my last bottle of Valentina when I took it off the shelf a few weeks ago. I just did it like it was a normal thing. It makes me wonder what other last things I have done without noticing. And what others will come to pass.

I am sad to leave Juarez. There are many places and people who I will miss deeply as we move onto the next adventure. We have made amazing friends here. We have eaten fantastic meals. We’ve worked hard, and found meaning in that work. We have added to our numbers as we welcomed little J into the world, and adopted Luci the chihuahua from Chihuahua. Our time in Juarez has been special, and watching it end is not easy.

We could say that every ending leads to a new beginning, which of course is true. But that doesn’t make the endings any easier.

So I intend to experience these next few weeks reflectively and deliberately, like the conclusion to a good book or movie. A pleasant denouement that allows me to treasure what has been good here. There is a lot of work to be done as I clean out my desk and as we pack up the house, but I will pause to enjoy the taste of that hot sauce, and those tacos. I will contemplate the oven-hot wind that blows on my face as I dodge pot holes on my bicycle. I will enjoy time with my Foreign Service friends, treasuring the fact that we share parallel journeys to different destinations, and eagerly anticipating the growth of these friendships, despite the oceans that will soon separate us. I will appreciate time with Mexican friends and colleagues, enjoying the warmth of the conversation, and the jokes in Spanish (that I understand a little bit better all the time). I will think about the visa applicants, and the lessons they teach me about the deep and wonderful connections between these two great countries. The next chapter will begin soon enough, but I plan to enjoy this one until the last letter in the last paragraph.