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Yesterday, I read a letter to the editor in my hometown newspaper.  May 5 was Foreign Affairs Day, a day when Americans are asked to honor the people who serve our country overseas.  The letter just reminded people of our commitment to public service and the sacrifices we make.  It was nice.  Then I read the first – and so far only – comment:  “I applaud Rex Tillerson’s call for a 9 percent reduction in force.  The State Department has gotten out of control.”

The State Department has gotten out of control.  Huh.  Okay.  I’m guessing that the commenter doesn’t know a whole heck of a lot about State, so I thought it might be good to demonstrate just how “out of control” we are.

  • Out of control State Department employees like me spend much of our careers living and working overseas, and no – we’re not sipping champagne in Europe.  I mean yes – of course we have embassies and consulates in Europe, but we also have them in other parts of the world that aren’t so nice.
  • And speaking of Europe, many Americans love to travel to Europe and unfortunately, shit happens.  You lost your passport, you pocket was picked, you got sick and needed to be hospitalized, or – heaven forbid – something worse.  Out of control foreign service officers like me are there for you.  We’ll take your call at all hours of the night (believe me, I have); we will print a new passport for you; we will arrange for you to get money if yours was stolen; if you’re destitute, we will find a safe place for you to lay your head until you can get on your flight home; we will go to the hospital to visit you, contact your family, and help you navigate this foreign hospital system.  If you’re the victim of a crime, we will help you report it to the police and stay with you as long as you need us.  If you’re the perpetrator of a crime, we will still be there for you.  We will visit you in jail regularly and make sure you are treated fairly.  We’ll give you a list of attorneys who can help you defend yourself in court.  We’ll be there for you even if you’re guilty.
  • If you’re a bit more adventurous, we’ll be there too.  We will travel eight hours or more over treacherous roads in dangerous territory, putting our own lives at risk, to help secure your release from kidnappers.
  • Hey, you want to expand your business into this new foreign market but you don’t know exactly how to do it?  We can help.  We will put you in contact with reputable business people in your field, set up meetings for you, and help you understand the market.
  • Your kid wants to spend a gap year wandering through South America?  Cool.  We’ve got all kinds of info about every country in the region.  Everything from entry and exit requirements to the political/economic climate to the safety of the airport runways. We can tell you about human rights issues in country; scams you and your kid should be aware of; parts of the country you might want to avoid because of criminal or terrorist activity.  We can tell you about the government, the country’s infrastructure, its medical system, and available social services.

And on and on.  This list is endless.  We can do all this and more because we are there.  Every day.  Away from our friends and families.  We miss birthdays, holidays, baptisms, weddings, and funerals.  I know what you’re thinking:  nobody’s forcing you to have this career.  You’re absolutely right and that’s my point.  We chose this life because we love the U.S.  We make the sacrifices and miss those special milestone events because we believe in public service.

Yeah.  We are so freakin’ out of control.

Fifteen years ago today, I started this crazy adventure called the Foreign Service.  I took an oath to support and defend the U.S. Constitution.  And I’ve done that every day since, in places like Albania, Belize, Italy, Nigeria and Washington, DC.  I don’t regret a minute of it.

So next time you hear someone say the State Department is bloated, out of control, or a waste of U.S. tax dollars, think.  Think of this blog post and the many others out there that are also highlighting the great work of State Department and its foreign and civil service.  Think about our commitment to the United States.  Think about what you would do if we weren’t out there.  And then find a State Department employee and say thanks.

You’re welcome.

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Ten years ago this month, I embarked on a crazy adventure.

I’d officially been in the Foreign Service for about a year, going through orientation, then consular training and political tradecraft, and finally Albanian language classes.  Albania:  my first overseas assignment.  The adventure was about to begin.

It was a strange time.  My emotions were all over the place.  I was really excited, really looking forward to starting the “real” work of diplomacy.  I was thrilled for my friends and colleagues, who were going to exotic locales and setting out on their own wild adventures.  I was a little sad, too.  Living in DC had been fun.  I made some fantastic friends.  When my sister moved back from Santiago, Chile, she moved here and we shared an apartment.  And I was so scared.  I mean, Albania?!?  What the hell was I thinking?  I distinctly remember saying exactly that to my sister:  what the hell was I thinking?  Let’s think about it:  here I was, a young, single, African American woman heading off to an isolated, former communist country whose leader had closed the borders for decades.  What would I think of them?  What would they think of me?  And why in the hell was I leaving the comforts and conveniences of the United States?

All valid questions.  But my sister reminded me that I knew the answer:  because this was my dream.  I was going to go places and do things that most people never even think about, and of those that do – many find all kinds of reasons for why they can’t.  “You’ll be fine,” she said.  “You’ll have fun.”

She was right.  I was fine.  Still am.  I did have fun.  Still do.  I met some wonderful people – Americans and Albanians – in Albania; I travelled all over that country and around eastern Europe.  I also made a few trips to Turkey, Greece, and Italy.  My sister even came to visit!

Since then I’ve served in Belize, Italy, and Washington, DC.  I’ve learned a lot.  I’ve grown a lot.  I picked up more friends along the way, took a few road trips, and snapped a lot of photos.  Most importantly, I learned less is more when placing my consumables shipment order.

Funny story.  When access to consumer goods is limited in a country, the U.S. government allows you to have a “consumables shipment.”  Basically, you order what you need – food, paper products, cat litter, whatever – from the closest U.S. military commissary or grocery store and the USG ships it to your overseas location.

I waited until after I got to Albania to place my order.  I wanted to see what was available on the local market.  Now, I haven’t placed a consumables order since my first tour so things may have changed by now, but back then, you got a list – an Excel spreadsheet, as I recall – from the commissary, reviewed items available, and placed your order.  I remember that spreadsheet.  It was pages and pages and pages long when I printed it out.  And whoever created it didn’t “wrap” the text in the individual cells, so a lot of the information was cut off.  For example, I ordered several bags of what I thought were plain tortilla chips and ended up with the ones that have a hint of lime.  (I really hate those).

The really funny thing was toilet paper.  You see, toilet paper in Albania was pretty thin.  One-ply.  Everyone included toilet paper in their consumables shipment. So I ordered several cases of toilet paper – what I thought would be enough to get me through my two-year tour.  But because some of the info on that spreadsheet was cut off, I didn’t know how many rolls of toilet paper were in a case.  I ordered blindly.  A few weeks later, my shipment arrived.  Let’s just say that I haven’t bought toilet paper for 10 years.  Not in Albania, not in Belize, not in Italy, and not in Washington, DC.  This is a photo of the last roll in the last pack from the last case of the last carton of toilet paper from that shipment.

The Last Roll

The Last Roll

So, you know – hooray for consumables and the quality paper products made by the fine people at Cottonelle.

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