Relocating around the world every couple of years is the “good news” and “bad news” of the Foreign Service career.
BY DEBORAH DERRICK
The last time my husband, Baxter, and I headed overseas, we invited a Foreign Service friend over for a pre-departure beer. We were on our way to Chile. The packers were coming soon.
Our air freight occupied the living room. Our sea freight was in the bedroom. The rest of our stuff was scattered around the house like litter, tagged for storage or Goodwill.
Our friend declined the invitation. “Just thinking about what your house looks like right now makes my heart race,” he said. Because only a handful of things in life are more fraught than moving, and adding a new country and language to the mix is a jolly good test of one’s resilience.
If most Foreign Service transitions are difficult, though, Baxter’s and my move to Durban, South Africa, was a high-water mark. It was 1993. We were flying halfway around the Earth, taking the longest flight in the world with three toddlers: a 2-year-old daughter and 1-year-old twins.
Having flown with our little ones before, Baxter and I decided to seek pharmacological help for the New York–to–Johannesburg leg. We asked a Connecticut pediatrician—whom we didn’t know—for a mild sedative. He looked at us skeptically and, given what later happened, probably gave us a placebo instead.
Passengers on the Johannesburg flight looked aside or down as our family lurched onto the plane. I knew they were hoping we’d be seated far, far away.
The airline had assigned us five seats in a center row. Before the plane took off, however, a stewardess leaned over to tell Baxter and me that they required a one-to-one adult-to-child ratio in each row. She said we’d have to put one child in a different location. I was just imagining the reaction we’d get, asking some stranger to babysit our 2-year-old for 19 hours, when Baxter bit back. He told the stewardess he doubted anyone would be willing to care for a lone child. He said she could ask around, though. The stewardess slunk away, leaving Baxter and me alone in our misery.
We were flying halfway around the Earth, taking the longest flight in the world with three toddlers.
We flew off into the dark and opened our foil-wrapped meals, but as the other passengers settled in for an uncomfortable night’s sleep, our kids became fidgety. Baxter and I read and sang to them. We walked them up and down the aisles. Still, a few hours into the flight, our 1-year-old son, James, threw up on Baxter.
I’d packed extra clothes for the kids but none for Baxter and me. I had a turtleneck under my floral lavender sweater, however, so gave the sweater to Baxter. He resumed pacing the aisles, comforting James, in that lovely, too-tight garment.
Four hours into the flight, Baxter and I decided to use the sedative we’d been given. We poured out a dose and gave it to Stephanie, who swallowed it obediently and uneventfully. Then we gave the medicine to James. He drank it and promptly vomited it back up, onto me—the mother with no spare clothing. I wiped off as much vomit as I could and resigned myself to stinking for the next 15 hours. Baxter and I also decided then that we would not medicate our other twin, Lindsey. This was the right call. Lindsey and James soon fell asleep. Meanwhile, Stephanie—who’d purportedly been sedated—stayed alert for the rest of the flight.
After we landed in Johannesburg, I rushed to collect my bag, then headed to the ladies’ room to change my shirt. My heart sank, however, when I saw it was closed for renovation. I continued reeking as we taxied to a hotel, where our discombobulated toddlers stayed awake all night long, drawing pictures and playing with puzzles.
Our flight to Durban the next day was much shorter, and things were really looking up as we drove to our temporary quarters. We passed miles of white sandy beaches. We approached a stately house with a sparkling blue pool—our short-term new home. The landlady, Mary, came out to greet us. She was white, English-speaking and matronly in appearance. Within minutes, she let us know that her children were grown, and she now lived alone. She asked where we came from in the United States. When we said Connecticut and North Carolina, she asked what the weather was like in each place.
She showed us around the house. It was appointed with fussy furniture, glossy marble floors and sharp-edged stairs—not great for toddlers. Mary was still living in the house, too. She’d moved to the upstairs mother-in-law apartment, she said, noting that I’d have to fetch her if the phone rang, because it was downstairs.
On the plus side, Mary showed us a master bedroom suite with a huge hot tub. I could almost feel the water warming my bones as she finished the tour. Baxter and I put the kids down for a nap and headed for the hot tub. We opened the tap and went into the bedroom to strip off our clothes. When we returned, though, the tub was full of cold, rank-smelling water. The hot water source was and would remain broken.
The kids rode their trikes under huge avocado trees. We explored Durban’s coast and tidal pools.
Baxter went off to work the next day. The kids and I stayed put, eating and playing on Mary’s icy floors. Whenever the phone rang, I sprinted upstairs to knock on her closed door, announcing that she had a call. Mary would come down at her leisure, taking her calls from an elegant chair in the foyer. She always stayed downstairs a bit too long afterward, too, peppering me with questions about the United States while the kids swarmed around and clung to me. Apartheid was coming to an end in South Africa, and she was looking for the exits.
The weeks crept by while workers at the consulate prepared our residence. The kids and I had no car. We were mostly stuck with Mary in her cold fortress, three miles from the nearest coffeeshop or playground. Her Black servant would arrive and work silently in the kitchen, slipping upstairs to bring Mary her food. Mary would come downstairs each night when Baxter got home, cheerfully asking about his work.
Toward the end of our stay at Mary’s, the kids and I were running and sliding in our socks on the marble floor when things got too boisterous, and Stephanie chucked up her lunch. Pink-orange vomit flew out of her mouth, hitting the floor with a splatter. It dotted our socks while remnants dribbled down the front of Stephanie’s shirt. I froze for a minute, considering my options, none of them terribly appealing. I swept Stephanie up in my arms and had the twins follow me into their bathroom. I ran a bath, peeled off my now-goopy shirt, and stripped off the kids’ clothing. I plunked all three in the water and knelt down to lather them, in only shorts and a bra.
Then, as in a bad dream, Mary appeared. She stood in the doorway, asking me when Baxter was coming home. I said I didn’t know. She asked about life in the United States, again. I pursed my lips and kept washing my kids. She asked if Baxter handled visas at work. She asked what I knew about the H-1B visa program. I said I was kind of busy at the moment. I hauled the kids out of the tub and wrapped them in towels. I herded them into my bedroom and shut the door.
Not long after, Baxter, the kids and I moved into a permanent residence and, for the next two years, enjoyed an exceptionally high quality of life. The kids rode their trikes under huge avocado trees. We explored Durban’s coast and tidal pools. Baxter and I tracked lions in Kruger National Park. None of this would have been possible if we’d stayed in the D.C. metropolitan area.
I’d be doing myself and every Foreign Service family a disservice, though, if I suggested that everything was peachy after our bizarre temporary housing experience. I still had to find new schools for the kids, new stores and new doctors. Baxter and I rarely saw our parents or siblings, and snail mail was our only affordable means of communication. It took months to cultivate new friends.
Even now, decades later, my heart does a backflip when I hear of a Foreign Service family packing out. I wish them fair winds, smooth sailing and courage on their passage.