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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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You know that old saying “sometimes you can’t see the forest for the trees”?  The rough translation is that sometimes we become so focused on whatever is right in front of us that we miss everything else that’s going on.  Our blinders get in the way.  It’s so true.  I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve been so focused on reaching my destination that I’ve totally missed all the neat things to see along the way. 

I think the same kind of “filtering” applies to the United States.  We live here, and that means we live with the challenges – the traffic, the pollution, the 24-hour news cycle.  And maybe we forget all the great stuff we’ve got here.  As a Foreign Service Officer, I think I might be able to see and appreciate this more than most because I spend so much time overseas.  Although anyone who has spent a significant amount of time outside of the U.S. could do the same.  As much as I love traveling and living overseas – and I have had lots of fun – I think it’s made me love and appreciate the U.S. even more. 

I’m still feeling the Independence Day love, so consider this post my Top 10 List of Things I Luuurrrve About the United States!  (This list will not include stuff like democracy, rule of law, equal opportunity, etc. because – obviously).  And tell me what you love.

  1. American TV.  I love that there are channels devoted to golf, to home improvement, to WWII!  I may not watch all of these channels, but I love the fact that I could if I wanted to.  I love that if I’m feeling bored and lazy on a Sunday afternoon, I can scroll through the channel guide and find something to entertain me.  I love that we recognize that sometimes, other nationalities do it better, and that’s why we have BBC America and Univision and all of the other channels out there.  And I especially love that I can usually find an episode of “Law & Order” on some channel, somewhere.
  2. Big box stores.  I know they can be a pain sometimes, but you learn to appreciate them after you’ve spent three years going from little shop to little shop to buy your dinner:  fruits and vegetables here, dairy there, meat someplace else.  There are times when I really love the fact that I can buy apples, free weights, and motor oil all in one place.
  3. American consumerism.  I love that my grocery store is open until 10 or 11 PM, that Wendy’s is open late on weekends, and that it’s totally normal for stores to be open on Sunday.  You have no idea how many times I walked to the market in my Roman neighborhood on Sundays only to discover that it was closed.  (Because I’m a slow learner).  Don’t get me wrong – I also recognize that it might be better if we weren’t such a 24/7 culture, but I do appreciate it when I decide that I must have a bag of Funyuns on Sunday at 3PM.
  4. Online bill pay.  Love this.  This is so great for someone like me who is overseas a lot.  And it sucks to have to stand in line at the post office to pay your bills (I’m looking at you, Italy).
  5. Ethnic restaurants.  I bet that in almost every city in the U.S., you can find an ethnic restaurant.  In the DC area there are hundreds – if not thousands.  If I feel like eating Mexican today, my biggest problem is figuring out which Mexican restaurant (and I don’t mean Taco Bell).  America’s the land of immigrants, and it shows in our restaurants.  I love that.
  6. Washington, DC:  our nation’s capital.  I love this town and I feel really lucky to work here and live nearby.  It’s a great town, and I love the fact that there’s so much to do here that’s FREE.  You don’t have a lot of cash?  No worries – visit the Smithsonian Museums, go the National Zoo, have a seat in one of the parks and people-watch.  DC’s not perfect, but it’s still a great place to be. 
  7. I love American accents and idioms.  And I love that sometimes we can’t understand each other.  I love that we say “y’all” in the South and “youse guys” in NY and “you” someplace else.  I know accents aren’t unique to the United States, but I still love to hear ours:  from the southern drawl to the flats of the Midwest to the classic New York-speak.  I just love it. 
  8. American music.  I don’t think I appreciated it until I saw and heard the appreciation of non-Americans.  Think about it:  America is responsible for some really terrific sounds.  Jazz.  Bluegrass.  Country/Western.  Hip hop.  Rock.  And we keep innovating. 
  9. American order.  This might sound like a strange thing to appreciate, but I really do love the fact that (for the most part) Americans respect lines and lanes.  If you walk into a crowded Starbuck’s, rest assured there will be a line.  Lots of traffic on the road?  Every car will be in its lane.  You don’t always find this in other countries.
  10. Humor.  I think every culture has its own humor.  Sometimes it doesn’t translate well.  I’m a horrible joke-teller in English; imagine how much worse I am in another language and culture!  I love that, in the U.S., if I tell the story correctly, people will get my snark.  They may not think it’s especially witty, but they “get” it. 

So, notwithstanding the occasional rant about the Metro and my generally nomadic lifestyle, I really love this country. 

Now watch:  some jerk will cut in front of me at Starbuck’s and the love affair will be over.

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Unaccompanied Baggage

Unpacking the best U.S. Foreign Service blogs