Updated: Sep 20, 2022
Less than three months left at post! I realize I haven’t been writing as much on this blog as I used to, but this might change soon. I’ve got an exciting move to Mumbai coming up and living in an entirely new part of the world always awakens the writer in me—writing is part of how I process life.
The reason I haven’t been writing as much lately is partly due to my latent winter depression and partly because of—I’m sure all bloggers go through this periodically—a hesitance to share my personal thoughts and views with a readership that only occasionally reveals itself to me through emails and comments.
Also, I just haven’t felt that my two-year posting in Berlin has been very Foreign Service-y. When I lived in Nigeria or Pakistan something strange or funny I wanted to write about happened almost every day. Even in the sleepier corners of the world, like Armenia and Uruguay, I usually had enough culture shock and travel adventures to keep my writer spirits up. Living in Berlin and traveling around Western Europe, in comparison, is pretty mundane.
My predictable days
Every day it takes me an uneventful 10-minute bike ride to get to work, which is a far cry from my last posting in Armenia where people would honk and holler at me, or my first posting in Nigeria where biking was out of the question and the only way to get to work was driving a car on the chaotic roads with no rules but plenty of swinging car doors, sharp metal spikes and heaps of trash to avoid.
Consular work in Berlin is also predictable. While it’s still true that every day in the consulate is different because I deal with dozens of different cases per day, the American Citizen Services (ACS) cases in Germany are tame in comparison to other places. Once a week I might see an ugly custody case, a tragic death, or a mentally unstable person who needs a ticket to go back home, but other than that I just process passports and consular reports of birth abroad.
Before I became a consular officer in Berlin I’d heard much wilder stories about ACS. In Nigeria, a consul had been required to travel to the Muslim-majority north to bury a deceased citizen with his own hands, because nobody else was willing to touch the corpse for cultural/religious reasons. My current supervisor regales us with stories of drug cartel killings from when he was posted in Mexico, of which I probably won’t ever forget the one where a drug lord killed his girlfriend and buried her with her arms crossed to show off his name that was tattooed on both of them.
I’m not saying Berlin is a consular backwater where nothing ever happens though. The Afghan evacuation effort last September had all of consular team Germany involved in one way or another—spending a week at the Ramstein military base to assist Afghan Americans definitely made me feel part of the action again. Even now, with the war in Ukraine nearby, there is some spill-over action in the form of dealing with destitute Ukrainian Americans asking for visas, emergency passports, and help with looking for missing family members.
It looks like all of this is about to change when I go to work and live in India. As I prepare for my upcoming move to Mumbai I’m making a mental checklist of all the things that are going to make my life a lot more challenging. I only just started reading Maximum City, a popular book about the city of Mumbai through the eyes of a repat, and the list grows longer with every couple of pages I read.
In Mumbai there will be no eating food without risking some bacterial disease. There will also be no more assuming that internet, appliances, or light switches work when I turn them on. And when I’ll leave the house the chance of being confronted with abject poverty is going to increase tenfold, while the chance that I see a Porsche Carrera (the favorite retirement car in my current neighborhood) cruise down the street will change conversely.
The change is welcome in many ways. I’m happily sorting through my clothes to box up everything that spells “winter.” I’m looking forward to the tropical climate in Mumbai and even more to the total change of perspective that living on a different continent always evokes. My last three postings have all been in Europe and even though it’s true that there is never a dull moment in this type of job, I’m ready to test myself in a totally new environment again.
PCS (aka: to-do list from hell)
Before I start my new position in Mumbai, however, there is the minor issue of the Permanent Change of Station (PCS) process. Mention the acronym to any Foreign Service Officer and you’ll send shudders down their spine. Having done it five times previously doesn’t make the process easier; I’m just more cleareyed about the amount of work involved, for which I have to find time during the weekends and after hours, because the Berlin consular section is only speeding up during the spring.
Here's what I’m looking at: organizing inspections and pack-outs of my household goods and personal vehicles; returning current house to original state, including painting walls; getting Department approval for my travel plans and home leave; reserving tickets for going back to the US and onward to India for the whole family; registering for training and booking accommodation in DC; enrolling children in school in Mumbai; canceling local contracts; submitting Indian visa packets; medical check-ups and bloodwork; submitting work evaluation forms; changing address; closing local bank account; transferring accounts to new post; completing any and all forms to make sure I don’t take any Department-owned IDs, phones or radios with me; and generally making sure I don’t owe anybody money after I leave. And, of course, saying goodbye to friends and family I probably won’t see for a long time.
So far, I’ve been a bit in denial about the fact that I’m leaving so soon. I don’t like to be with one foot out the door already when I reality I have several months left at post. There’s still much to do before mentally checking out: work projects to complete and a European spring to be enjoyed! But my imminent departure is inevitable and so are all the things I have to do to make it go smoothly.
The saving grace is fantasizing about home leave: between foreign postings diplomats spend 4-6 weeks on paid leave in the United States; a concept that includes any U.S. territory including Hawaii. Besides visiting family that leaves quite some time to go explore a new part of our beautiful country, so exciting travel plans are in the making!