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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.

I’m on vacation this week – boy, did I need it!  It’s always so nice to get away from whatever is going on in your “regular” life – whether it’s for a day, a weekend, a week, or even longer (if you’re lucky).  I’ve taken a lot of vacations over the years, and I think I’ve picked up on a few things along the way that are true no matter where in the world you go.

Johnny Mercer Pier, Wrightsville Beach, NC

  1. The food tastes better on vacation.  I’ve been fortunate in my vacations:  I’ve visited a lot of amazing places and eaten a lot of fantastic meals.  I remember a terrific paella at a restaurant in Cinque Terre, Italy, and if you are ever in Paris, France, run – do not walk – to La Tour d’Argent.  You won’t regret it.  I remember delicious tagines in Marrakesh and yummy shwarmas from street vendors in Casablanca.  My point is that vacation food is always yummy – even when it’s not.  I think we are all so thrilled with being on vacation that our taste buds are amplified.  Great meals become phenomenal, good meals become great, and “meh” meals become good.  Yesterday, I mosied on down to the local hot dog establishment and had a North Carolina Trolly Dog.  This was a beef and pork hot dog smothered in chili, onions, and cole slaw.  It was delicious.  But I bet it wouldn’t have been as good at home in Washington, DC.
  2. You Eat Things You Normally Wouldn’t.  This goes along with #1.  There’s no time like vacation to try new cuisines.  I’m not a fan of seeing the legs and eyes of the shrimp I’m served – which is how it was served in Cinque Terre – but I ate ever bit of that paella.  And not just new cuisines.  Sometimes you eat things that you really dislike when you’re at home.  For example, as a general rule, I dislike red velvet cupcakes, but because they are here I’ll eat one (or two).
  3. Exercise becomes enjoyable.  What is it about being on vacation that makes exercise seem fun?  Is it just me?  Don’t get me wrong – I want to chill out and relax on vacation too.  But for some reason, I’m more committed to exercising when I’m away from home.  Am I afraid of packing on extra pounds?  I am eating some fantastic meals, after all.  Or does it just feel like you’re one of the “beautiful people” when you’re running on the beach?  I don’t know, but I guess my waistline appreciates it.
  4. It’s Bizarro World.  What do I mean by this?  I mean that on vacation, you’re more inclined to do things that you ordinarily would not do.  Obvious, right?  You’re on vacation; that means you’re not working, you’re not office droning or whatever.  But here’s what I really mean:  when I’m on vacation, I will walk or bike distances that I would only drive in my “real” life.  Yesterday, I strolled into “town” for lunch.  It wasn’t a super-long walk, but it was hot outside and I know for a fact that if I had been at home I would not have hesitated to hop in the car to get where I needed to go.  I also hopped on my bike to go to the farmer’s market.  Do you understand what this means?  I biked there – it was a good distance away, bought fresh fruits and vegetables that I had to carry home, and biked home.  And I loved it.
  5. No One Looks in the Mirror.  I have been to beaches in a lot of places around the world and I have learned that people are extremely confident and comfortable with their bodies.  I’m of two minds about this.  On the one hand, I think it’s fabulous.  People of all shapes and sizes are out and proud, enjoying the sun, sand and water.  Fantastic.  On the other hand, I kind of think that some of these folks need a reality check, right?  I mean, it’s true:  not everyone can be a supermodel.  I’m certainly not.  But sometimes I think a certain level of modesty is in order.  Like nobody wants to see a wrinkly old lady in a bikini, right?  But then again, if she feels okay in it, who are we to complain?  And it’s not just the beach is it?  We’ve all seen the tourist (probably American) wearing Bermuda shorts, white socks, and sandals.  Dude, please.  If you don’t know, ask.

Vacation is vacation is vacation, no matter where you go.  I suppose the important thing is to make sure you relax and enjoy – whether you’re on safari, lazing by the beach, or navigating a bustling city.  This one’s been so much fun I may need another to recover.  I’m open to recommendations…

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Unpacking the best U.S. Foreign Service blogs