Welcome home!?!

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I borrow as my post title the text I got from my friend Jennifer when I shared the news of our first foreign service destination. Before we left Dallas for A-100 we often joked with friends that we’d be in DC for a few months and then off to the Mexican border. Turns out we were right. And not just any Mexican border post, but Ciudad Juárez, which is a whopping hour-long drive from my childhood home of Las Cruces, New Mexico. So Jennifer really summed it up. Welcome home, indeed.

Over and over we had been told to be ready for surprises on Flag Day. Certainly we heard and understood the oft-repeated reminders that “the needs of the service” are paramount in making assignments. We even knew that it’s commonly said that anyone who bids a border post high can expect to end up on the border. Even so, somehow I was surprised to land in Juárez. For all the joking I did I realize now I didn’t really think it was going to happen. Since bid lists are “sensitive but unclassified” I will refrain from naming specific cities here, but let me sketch out for you why I had allowed myself to imagine we’d be heading elsewhere.

Relevant fact: there were over 100 posts on Andrés’ bid list and only 70-some officers in his A-100 class. Clearly some of those posts were destined to go unfilled. When we put our bids together, we bid high anything that fit our main priorities: 1. a post that would allow our family to stay together (that ruled out two posts on our list – posts where minors are not allowed); 2. a post we could go to sooner rather than later (i.e. nothing with a language Andrés would have to learn); 3. preferably a Spanish-dependent consular post since one of the first two posts needs to be language-designated and Andrés had already passed the Spanish test at the required level. And he’s a consular officer.

In discussion with Andrés’ career development officer (CDO) we were cautioned against getting our hopes up for any Spanish-designated posts where the jobs were scheduled to start over the summer or beyond. Since language training wouldn’t be an issue, there would be a question of what to do with Andrés until a summer post was available. That led us to focus on two Spanish-designated posts on the bid list, both of which were designated “NOW” – in other words, as soon as an officer could finish A-100 and be trained in the basics of consular work.

Our best guess was that if we didn’t get one of those two posts we’d be sent to an English-speaking post, and probably to a not-terribly-popular one. We bid “medium” several high hardship, not-particularly-sought-after English-language consular posts, and figured those would be “backups” to the two Spanish “NOW” posts.

But we were making some unwarranted assumptions, it seems.

First, we were assuming that the timing on the bid list was pretty set in stone. (This despite the fact that Andrés and his classmates were told to not think too much about the timing when sifting through the bid list – in other words, to bid high, medium & low based on preferences about the post rather than based on the timing.) The earliest of the several Ciudad Juárez posts was scheduled for July or maybe even August. We figured it would not be a match for us.

Second, even though we knew not all posts on the bid list would be filled, we had no way of knowing that a huge number of the unfilled posts would turn out to be the posts we ranked high. In fact, if I’m counting correctly there were about a dozen Spanish-designated consular posts we bid high that simply weren’t filled. The “now” posts, which we were kind of assuming we’d get, were not filled (from this group, at least). And apparently the timing on Juárez was more flexible than we had imagined (his anticipated start date is in May).

So it is taking some time for me to get my mind around this, not really because I don’t like the idea of being on the border (the danger factor is really not a worry for me – Ciudad Juárez has come a long way in the last several years and I trust the consulate’s security measures), but because after thinking about and feeling ready to go somewhere like Africa or Central America it’s jarring to find we’re actually going to land basically in my very own backyard. When I was a kid my family used to grocery shop in Juárez and then find a restaurant for a cheap steak dinner. I still have a handful of trinkets and touristy knick-knacks I picked up in CDJ with my pocket money some 35 years ago.

Of course there are distinctly positive aspects to this turn of events and that’s where I’m going to focus.

The kids are overjoyed. They’re excited to be posted to Mexico because they’re both interested in improving their Spanish and feel a certain familiarity with and affinity for Mexico after living in Oak Cliff all their lives, but they’re especially excited to be so close to friends and family. It’s a gentle transition for them, compared to what Africa or South America would have been. Honestly I’m not sure life in Ciudad Juárez will feel as different for them from life in Dallas as life here in northern Virginia feels.

Professionally speaking, it’s a good post for Andrés. If I’m not mistaken, the consulate in Juárez issues more U.S. visas than any other consulate or embassy in the world. He’ll get plenty of experience very quickly, and we’ve heard good things about the consulate as a place to work and about the post in general as far as morale and esprit de corps is concerned. That seems likely to be true, as Andrés has already been warmly welcomed into the fold by other officers currently in D.C. receiving language training for a move to CDJ.

Also, although I tend to take the view that a house is a house is a house, I hear good things about housing in Juárez. Housing seems to be a hot and sometimes contentious topic among foreign service families, but everything I’ve read/heard actually says housing there is quite nice and very family-friendly. And it would seem that – particularly by the standards of posts of Mexico – housing is quite convenient to the consulate and Andrés may even be able to walk or bike there. Traffic was considered a huge disadvantage in most of the other Mexico posts we bid (which ended up not being filled anyway).

So it looks like now we have about 2 1/2 months to work through the decisions of where to send the kids to school (private school in Juárez?; private school in El Paso? public school in El Paso and back to the infernal Texas standardized tests???!) and whether to even put them in school right away when we get there, with – at the most – a month of classes left in the school year. We’ll also need to decide whether to drive or have our car shipped, etc. But honestly the not-so-foreign destination means we can put off some of the questions we’d have to answer if we were going further away. We can probably leave stuff like our health insurance, car insurance, and banking arrangements largely the same, with just a little tweaking. Good thing, since time is going to be tight.

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