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Life in the Foreign Service

A Foreign Service Career

It’s a Great Place to Visit But What’s it Like to Live There?

In our 10 years in the Foreign Service, we have experienced some of the best that life abroad has to offier. Bolivia and El Salvador were good places to live, and Guatemala was truly exceptional. On weekends we drove to remote villages that we never would have seen on any guided tour and bargained in the local markets for textiles, paintings, and crafts. We often ate a tipica lunch at some hole-in-the-wall place, then drove home to have a carry-out pizza for dinner, with a view of erupting volcanoes from our windows.

Sure, there was a crime problem, but we took reasonable precautions. There was an occasional earthquake and blackouts that lasted for months, but, like most Guatemalans, we took to eating at open-air grills and playing cards by candlelight.

To really connect with the local people in a developing country, have a baby. Motherhood is a universally understood experience, and I received fascinating advice. During a full solar eclipse in my last trimester, everyone advised me that I must dress in red, wear a crucifix, and hide under the bed during the eclipse. Otherwise, my baby would certainly be born blind. On local TV a panel of experts, including two astronomers and one obstretrician, vainly attempted to debunk this myth.

After my blonde blue-eyed daughter was born, we were constantly surrounded by people wanting to hold her, touch her hair, or even “borrow” her for a minute to show to a friend! I am sure that Rachel thought her name was qué linda (how pretty) until we left the country.

The Tour from Hell

On the other hand, there are posts that can only be described as “learning experiences.” We spent two long years in Zambia, a country bypassed by most travelers for good reason. We expected to find vibrant African art and culture, instead we saw soul-deadening poverty, disease, and cheap mass-produced souvenirs.

The local cuisine was “mealy-meal” (a.k.a. grits, a non-native staple introduced by the former socialist government) and a range of centipedes, grasshoppers, and termites consumed by the protein-starved population. I am all for sampling the native dishes, but I draw the line at bugs.

There was no infrastructure or medical care to speak of, and AIDS was rapidly killing off anyone with youth, energy, or talent. My husband attended the funerals of three of his employees during our stay--all AIDS victims.

Most career diplomats have a story like this. Getting to know the people of a country can be a hard lesson when you are powerless to change the unjust circumstances of their lives.

Has all of this been worth it? Oh yes! I am currently living in the Washington D.C. suburbs surrounded by every material convenience known to man, and I can’t wait to get back overseas, this time to the Czech Republic. Sometimes, you end up landing that European tour after all!

Foreign Service Careers

Joining the diplomatic corps offers an unbeatable opportunity to learn about foreign cultures. But there are drawbacks. It is occasionally annoying that the U.S. government controls so much of your life. Simple requests can take weeks or even months to process, and the bureaucracy of the State Department and other foreign affairs agencies has a logic all its own.

Another drawback is that professional level jobs for spouses of foreign service officers are rare; most available jobs are clerical and poorly paid. However, in the digital age, the possibilities for freelancing and telecommunicating are limited only by local telephone service.

For the official line on careers with the United States Department of State, check out their recruitment page at www.state.gov/www/careers/rfsspeccontents.html. To learn about the Foreign Service exam, the first step to entry into the diplomatic corps, click on “Foreign Service.” This section of the site also contains some generic information about the impact of a Foreign Service career on the officer’s family.

To get the unofficial lowdown on life in the Foreign Service, check out two web sites created by Foreign Service “trailing” spouses:

Foreign Service Lifelines is sponsored by the American Association of Foreign Service Women, www.aafsw.org, and features “Tips from the Trenches” and “Perspectives” on current issues written by experienced Foreign Service spouses. “The Cyberspouse,” a column on Internet-based employment opportunities (written by yours truly) is a regular feature of the site. Foreign Service Lifelines also details the services provided by the AAFSW, including the Foreign-Born Spouses Network and the Evacuee Support Network, the very existence of which tell you something about life in the Foreign Service.

The Spouses Underground Network (Web editor's note: now an award-winning site called Tales from a Small Planet; www.talesmag.com) is an “edgier” site, which advertises itself as “definitely not endorsed by the U.S. government.” It features a small-but-growing collection of “Real Post Reports” on various countries, chat forums on topics relevant to Foreign Service families, and excerpts from its parent publication, the Spouses Underground Newsletter. Subscriptions and back issues can be ordered online as well.

KELLY BEMBRY MIDURA writes from Springfield, VA.

 
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