Thursday, July 18, 2013

I drove more in the past month than I did in the preceding eight.

Here's some information about being in the Foreign Service that you might not be aware of:

At each post, State Department employees are provided with something called R&R. This is basically just plane tickets out of the country and back in, and you can either go to a specified R&R point (ours is Rome) or you can go back to the U.S. You have to use vacation days or some other sort of leave to take advantage of R&R, but one of the perks of the job is that they will pay for the trip (within reason - you don't get first class, unfortunately).

The number of R&R breaks you get depend on how terrible the circumstances of life are in your location. Some places get two, maybe three, over the course of the posting, and some places get four (for really horrible, locked-down, dangerous countries) or none (for first world countries that are at least as good as, if not better than, living in the U.S.) We get two in Kazakhstan, which is probably enough, since we can choose to travel, should we want to. Earlier this year, we visited a friend in Turkey, and later this year we are planning a trip to Germany.

We took our R&R a few weeks back, and stayed with my parents (since they have extra, mostly unused rooms). I would imagine that, for people who don't have family that they can stay with, R&R can be an expensive proposition. We were in the U.S. for five weeks; even staying at a hotel with weekly rates, that would be quite a lot of money. Fortunately, we were able to stay in my hometown for next to no cost, and it was close enough to Susie's family, our friends, and places of interest that we were able to do quite a lot without too much hassle.

We have been warned that R&R can be tiring, because you want to see a lot of people, and that often involves running all over the state or country, sticking to tight schedules, and generally stressing yourself out. After all, people only get to see you (and you them) once a year, so you really need to make the trip count. Fortunately for us, most of our friends and family were really busy or unavailable during our five week trip, so we had a lot of time to relax.


That was only a little facetious. Maybe I should try harder.

Living abroad presents you with a tough situation, in terms of being able to hang out with family and long-term friends. We can't always schedule our visits during big holidays (e.g. Christmas), so we will probably tend to show up when other people are working, doing their regular day to day stuff.* And if we do schedule a trip during a holiday, people will likely already have plans, or be traveling themselves. What this means is, unless special effort is made, we don't get to see people, even having made a trip halfway across the globe to do so. I had friends who were out of the country, busy with weird schedules, dealing with massive projects, or simply too far away to feasibly visit. And it kind of sucked.

I'm not trying to make anyone feel guilty. My purpose in talking about this is to explain to people who might be interested in the Foreign Service, or otherwise living/working abroad, how tough it can be in terms of your relationships. There were people that I miss that I didn't get to see, and mostly, it was no fault of theirs or ours. Even being available for five weeks didn't help. We were an interruption to the way things normally worked, and there wasn't much to do. Some people could probably have made a better effort, but most were just unable to see us.

That isn't to say that I didn't enjoy myself. We gorged ourselves on food. I may have mentioned in previous posts, but it bears repeating: Astana, Kazakhstan has next to no variety in its cuisine. The native Kazakh dishes are mostly plain meat grilled over fire along with overcooked noodles, and when there are restaurants with a bit more, there isn't much in the way of variety, and it's really, really expensive. Every restaurant has a chicken caesar salad. Every restaurant has some sort of ravioli, a "pepper" steak, and, of course, grilled horse meat. But in the US, the food is much more affordable, and much more international. We had Tex-Mex, Keba Italian, barbecue, sandwiches, authentic Japanese, every kind of fast food known to man, Keba, salads, seafood, fried chicken, and more Keba. We ate at cafes, restaurants, drive-ins... it was glorious. And unsettling to the digestive system.

We were also able to do things that have become uncommon (or impossible) here. We saw a handful of movies in the theater, we drove to Atlanta and Savannah, we played more games than I could count, and... well, as much as I complained that it was hard to hang out with some folks, other people were available, and we spent time with them. I enjoyed being back where I felt comfortable and, since it was vacation, I didn't have any responsibilities.

The next time we do R&R, we won't go for as long. Five weeks is too much, not because I don't want to be outside of Kazakhstan as much as possible, but because that much time off leaves you with very little to do. We don't have a plan exactly for when we will be visiting the next time, but hopefully it goes a bit smoother. I will say that the travel was really good, because we had a layover in Frankfurt for long enough to get into a hotel, shower, and sleep for 8+ hours. Breaking a 15 hour flight in half and getting some rest in the middle is absolutely the way I always want to do it... even though I know we won't always be able to.

*For me, it was a huge trip with all kinds of fun stuff planned. For you, it was Tuesday.