The foreign service chronotope

I walk most mornings, generally in circles around our neighborhood, and as I walk I listen to podcasts. Yesterday I listened to an episode of a podcast called Beautiful Stories from Anonymous People in which the host had a conversation with a U.S. college professor who spends her summers in Paris, living with U.S. expat friends there and writing. They discussed the concept of “chronotopes,” which I never fully understood, though it intrigued me. Whatever a chronotope actually is, the caller and host were using the term to describe a set of circumstances that create a time and space that has its own existence, somehow separate from the rest of the world. The caller had heard the concept discussed at an academic conference and mentioned that it’s often used in reference to videogaming. She was using it in reference to her Paris existence vs. her existence at home. And it got me thinking about how much of my life seems to exist in a weird universe of its own.

Nothing bothers me more in my personal life than failing people I love. And yet I seem to be pretty good at it. I suppose we all are prone to this, limited beings that we are. I would like to think of myself as a considerate person, but I do have certain traits that set me up to fail people: I’m a forgetful person, and organizing myself to make up for the forgetfulness does not come naturally to me; I tend to try to accomplish more than maybe I should in any given day, leaving me more likely (especially as a forgetful person) to not be able to keep track of everything I should keep track of; I sometimes lose myself in details and fail to see bigger-picture stuff, or – in a different version of the same shortsightedness – might focus on the biggest things looming for me and in doing so lose sight of details that really matter to people I care about.

Living the dueling choronotopes (I’ll go ahead and use this word though I’m sure I’m using it wrong) of Juarez life and the life I try to maintain with friends and family back in the U.S. doesn’t help matters in this regard. Today I came to understand that I had really failed a dear friend of mine in the States. I had known she was experiencing some medical problems and that she had a surgical procedure scheduled. I had known that she was scared and in need of friendship and support. And yet I lost track of when her procedure was scheduled and I failed to let her know how very much she was on my mind and in my prayers (although, as it turned out, at the wrong time, as I’d remembered it being a week later than it actually was). Reflecting on this failure (for which my kind friend has very graciously forgiven me) has left me feeling frustrated and puzzled at the dissonance my two lives create. Why? Why is it so hard to reconcile these two realities? Why do they even feel like two realities? Am I just making excuses for myself?

Daily life in Juarez is not hard. There are well-stocked supermarkets and good schools and we have a comfortable home in a secure neighborhood. I have good friends and never lack for interesting things to do. Should I ever want anything I can’t find in the stores here I can hop over the border within minutes. Although using a different language to navigate this world adds a certain level of complication, my Spanish is more than adequate for the tasks I have to perform. But still somehow I get caught up in things. I get into this little bubble of life here and though I’m doing all the same things I would be doing anywhere else – the same things I was doing in Dallas – that other world inhabited by friends and family just on the other side of the border seems somehow distant and distorted. It’s an effort to keep up . . . when are my nieces and nephews starting school? When is my friend’s family moving to their new house? When does my mother-in-law have that eye surgery? Social media both helps and hinders, I think, making it easier to stay up on the superficial but also feeding a false sense of really knowing what’s going on, since actually only a fraction of our lives tend to be shared in these arenas.

But I also wonder how real this dilemma I’m feeling actually is. When Andres and I moved from New Mexico to Dallas our ties to New Mexico loosened. The closeness and immediacy of our friendships with people in NM gave way to a less intimate connection. Our sense of being truly engaged with the daily lives of our NM family faded. It’s natural, and I suppose it was even necessary in order to let us forge bonds and develop a sense of place and belonging in Dallas, our new home.

So why does this feel different? Why, despite being at an easy post in easy travel distance from friends and family, does this feel like a far more different life – a chronotope, as I’m (mis?)using that term – and one in which I’m somehow more removed from life in the States than I was from life in Albuquerque when we moved to Dallas? Am I just trying to maintain an unrealistic level of connection with a life I need to acknowledge I’ve left behind?

I’m not sure about any of that, but I’m turning over a few ideas in my head about how this all seems like a new thing:

  1. This life is far more different from my life in Dallas than my Dallas life was from my Albuquerque life. We live in a bubble, to a large extent, and we have a lifestyle, day to day, that is very different from anything we experienced previously (sometimes in ways that are not only unusual to me, but uncomfortable). We live in a home that is bigger and more ornate than anything we ever would have chosen for ourselves – not to mention the fact that we must live in a guarded, gated neighborhood, which is something we scoffed at in the U.S. Our kids go to private schools for the first time in their lives, and language and cultural differences also play a part in accentuating the other-ness in our school situation. These are not things I would choose and I don’t feel altogether comfortable in these situations. Except that I have to acknowledge that I have chosen them, by virtue of (together with Andres, of course) choosing foreign service as a lifestyle for our family. This stuff is part of the deal.
  2. We have met wonderful people and have friends here who are very dear to us and with whom I hope to maintain lifelong connections, but the face-to-face element of foreign service friendships comes with a set expiration date. It somehow makes these friendships feel simultaneously more intense and more fragile than friendships in the life we left behind.
  3. Our proximity to the U.S. messes with my mind. It feels like it shouldn’t be different (especially having grown up so nearby), and yet it is. And that throws me off. It feels like it should be a great opportunity to extend our close contact with friends and family in the U.S. (as opposed to what it would be like had our next assignment – Ghana – been our first). It is a great opportunity, and in many ways we’ve taken advantage of that, with frequent visits to Santa Fe and Lubbock and Dallas. But somehow there is the sense that this is almost a mirage . . . something temporary and not to be entirely trusted.
  4. There is a constant sense of the fleeting nature of all things associated with FS life that makes it feel both more necessary and also more difficult to maintain deep roots back in the U.S.

All of this notwithstanding, I do not in any way regret the life we’ve chosen. I have to remind myself that – in the scope of my nearly 45 years – this is still a very new venture. In January we’ll be two years in, and just a year and a half at our very first post. I know I’m still processing it all, and will have to process each move as it comes, although I assume and hope I will develop a certain level of skill in dealing more gracefully with the lifestyle as a whole. I love all my people. In all my chronotopes. I am truly, truly thankful for the many incredible people I love and who love me, near and far, and I hope they can bear with me as I figure out how to weave them into my life in such a way that these cherished friendships don’t unravel.

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2 thoughts on “The foreign service chronotope

  1. One of the hardest parts, for me, about my life of moving is losing closeness with past friends.

    I have found it inevitable. But it still breaks my heart, especially when I go back and visit people. And I’m reminded of what I’ve lost by leaving. And I worry that maybe the friends I left behind haven’t replaced me. Because I hope they do. People need people who are there. And it’s so sad, to me, that it doesn’t get to be me.

    I have loved, loved, loved being your friend during this time.

    I’m sorry you’re hurting. And that you missed your friend’s surgery by a week.

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