When I joined the Foreign Service years ago, we were briefed on many aspect of life in the Service. We were warned that our lives would be impacted by all manners of things which is unknown to ordinary people who have a 9 to 5 desk job. Then because our lives would be spent abroad mostly living in exotic corners of the world, more challenges would pile on. Living on Posting and working in an Embassy setting is not like going on a vacation for a few weeks, your life changes and you must be flexible and go with the flow. We were told you cannot go home because someone in your family has died or because you are sick or will miss an important family event, you are on a posting so make other arrangements, the employer is not sympathetic. So if you accept to go on posting, you don’t have much of a choice since your employment depends on you being fit to live overseas, hardships will happen and it happens to all of us, it is easier for the veterans because we have done it all before. I am not sure that today’s young officers are all that well prepared psychologically, too many expectations that life abroad will be like life at home in Canada.
So at first there is the build up to going on posting abroad, you usually know a few months in advance where you will be going and you have to prepare, again it is not just packing a suitcase and getting a plane ticket, you are packing your life and your family’s for a completely different life in a foreign environment for several years, so you better like it because once you arrive at post, no one will want to hear you crying and saying you hate it. You will get no sympathy and you cannot go home, you simply have to make the best of it no matter how weird it is and yes, sometimes it is like the Twilight Zone. In my case of all the postings I did the unpleasant one was Beijing because of the hostile Cold War persistent atmosphere surrounding us thanks to the Chinese Communist Government.
As strange as this may sound, the most difficult posts for Canadians based on people who fail to complete their full posting assignments are Rome, Paris, London and Washington DC. It is one thing to visit for a week or two and laugh and dine out and visit all the sights and also the name of those capitals leads you to believe it is going to be so easy. But that is not what actually happens and if you do not prepare psychologically you are in for a shock. Usually most people are far better prepared mentally for the difficult posts like Bogota, Lagos, Khartoum or Beijing, everyone assumes it is going to be difficult.
Living full time for two or more years with the natives on a different continent in some exotic locale, in a residential neighbourhood with no tourists in sight, speaking a foreign language full time, no, no one speaks English and learning to live in a different culture and getting use to food, culture and ways of doing things differently, is quite a challenge.
Never giving an opinion on anything in case you create offence and behaving yourself because you are a guest of the receiving country and not some tourist on a vacation this applies 24/7 so get use to it.
The Arrival at post
The first three months after your arrival or so at post you are happy, happy, everything is new and it is a lot of fun, this is the up up period, you are in full discovery mode. You have a new apartment or house provided by your employer who is also your landlord and security blanket and you have to settle in. If you have kids they are in a new school which will be very different from any school environment back home and often with loads of homework and activities. Your spouse will most likely have no job, can’t work, not allowed, expected to be by your side when officially required and mostly stay at home with little to do since you may in all likely hood have a maid, a cleaning lady, a gardener, a cook, etc, it comes with the job, you have little say in it, get use to it and be careful what you do or say around household help.
Hopefully you will not have been put in a staff quarters in a far suburb requiring an hour or more of driving in heavy traffic or on a gated compound where boredom settles in very quickly and you fall prey to the toxic foreign expatriate community.
Phase two, after settling in period
The next three to four months will be a phase of settling into a routine and getting used to this routine both at work and at home and in general living at post. The discovery part is over now and you start to find out that things are not as rosy as you first imagined, little problems will start to surface, i.e. shopping hours are inconvenient, traffic is worse than back home, you cannot drive everywhere because of lack of parking or security situation does not permit it. You can never take public transport for security reasons. The little problems will quickly become mountains if you are not careful to take a pragmatic approach and be reasonable in what you expect.
The work schedule starts at 8 am and lunch is at 3pm and dinner is not before 9pm, not exactly a North American schedule. Your house is prone to infestations of rats, poisonous snakes, bugs of all sizes and kinds and very strange offensive smells, electric and water shortages when it is not cut off for several hours a day. When shopping you have to get used to product brand unknown to you, sometimes made cheaply and more expensive, the fruit jam is from Bulgaria, the wines from Romania, some products are from Russia, Pakistan or India and other goods can only be obtained through a special diplomatic shopping service in Denmark which takes 3 months to be delivered. There may be unexplained shortages of some food products locally. Or the local Government requires you to shop only in designated grocery stores for foreigners where everything is sold in cans and there is little fresh fruits or vegetables.
Your kids must come home after school and have no where to go, in most countries children stay at home with other relatives and do homework, this is unusual for your children and they start complaining about having to wear a school uniform and teachers who are more strict in an old fashion and conservative environment. This is especially difficult for teenagers. Your spouse is thoroughly bored and wants to go home or you may have month long visits by your mother-in-law, this happens on post when your spouse needs company since you are away at work for long days and sometimes weekends.
You have little in common with your work colleagues though you practically live and work with them and now know maybe a little too much about them, from marital to alcohol problems or worse but you still have to socialize with them nonetheless.
The downward spiral
The next phase is the one were you are starting to feel isolated, lonely, the natives are not so nice after all and are getting on your nerves. In Rome per example, some colleagues hated everything from the Italian food to the antiquities to the Italians and having to speak Italian all the time. In London or Paris, though they speak English and French, you will be mocked for your funny accent, you may live in the far suburbs and will be too tired after work to enjoy the nicer things of European life. The culture is also very different not at all like you might have imagined. In Washington DC you will live in the wealthy suburbs in Virginia and you suddenly realize at a diner party that all your neighbours are millionaires and you are not. They may make disparaging remarks quite innocently and know next to nothing about your country and go on about either the President or American politics and you are sworn never to give an opinion about either, so you smile and bear it. In countries were the majority are Muslims you have to get used to the 5 time daily calls to prayers starting at dawn and the heavy presence of the police and army. Often the only distractions are playing golf or bridge and attend endless rounds of cocktail parties where you always meet the same people. You are limited in where you can go and what you can do, either for security reasons or because of rules imposed by the local government, in Beijing we were forbidden from driving more than 50 miles outside Beijing. If you wanted to travel further it had to be cleared with the Foreign Ministry. Going to Tibet was absolutely out of the question unless you were accompanied by 2 minders who would make sure you only saw what the Communist party wanted you to see. You were constantly watched, followed and spied on. Same applied to foreign business people who knew to tow the official Party line if they wanted any kind of contracts.
In Africa you have to become acquainted with the different ethnic conflicts between various groups in a particular country which sometimes can turn violent or the fact that you are the only white person around.
All these factors can have a cumulative effect on you and you feel overwhelmed and want to go home but you can’t, you still have at least one year or two to go before your posting ends. It can be far worse if you are in an isolated country on a continent prone to political violence and civil unrest. The last 5 months before we closed our Embassy in Damascus, was far from pleasant as everyone saw the civil war coming with daily bombing in the city and violent demonstrations. It was time to review evacuation plans either by road across the mountains to Lebanon meaning going through check-points manned by various militias to whom you have to pay bribes or leave before the road to the airport was cut off having to abandon personal belongings because there was no time to pack and ship. So you develop coping mechanisms to meet the challenges.
The end is at hand
The last phase of any posting is knowing you are going home in 6 months and now your spirit picks up because you are in departure mode and well things are really not that bad, you may feel nostalgic about the place you are about to leave. You may be going back to Headquarters or going on to another posting in a different part of the world, but it is a new adventure and the cycle starts all over again. If you think that coming home to Canada is simple, it’s not, it is often very difficult, you have to get use to life back home and you may find people have moved on, you have moved on also but you do not see it that way and it all seems strange. When we returned from Rome it took us almost 18 months to get use to living in Canada again.
Life in the Foreign Service, living and working abroad in various continents and Capitals is not for everyone, despite the many challenges, some difficult, I think it was all a wonderful experience, a life so unlike anything you can imagine, the people, the languages I learned, the food and cuisine, the traditions and culture, ways of thinking all different from our North American worldview, the situations you will be part of that others will read about in the news, you gain a far greater understanding of the world and events. In many ways a dream job which gave me a very different and more balanced perspective a more positive one on our world. I consider myself lucky in that sense.