The Foreign Service Journal, April 2009

F oreign Service personnel may not want to believe this, but life while serving at a U.S. embassy overseas is rather easy, at least in comparison to what other expatriates experience. Hav- ing grown up abroad outside of the co- coon of the embassy community —my father worked for a U.S. corporation — I viewed diplomatic life as rife with ben- efits. As an adult, I recently spent two years with my Foreign Service partner in Turkey smothered in diplomatic perks. Now that I am living in Italy while she is in Afghanistan for a year, I have been rudely reawakened to the rigors of expat life outside of the em- bassy “bubble.” The bubble begins with housing. While embassy per- sonnel arrive at their new post and move into an assigned, often furnished home, other expats generally have to find their own housing, which involves dealing with foreign real estate agents, in another language, while facing unknown hurdles and incomprehensible laws. Here in Italy, for example, I spent three weeks dealing with 12 different real estate agencies and visiting a dozen apartments. Even when my family was moving around under the auspices of a multinational corporation, we re- ceived virtually no assistance in finding a place to live. My mother would fly to the next foreign country for a frenzied couple of weeks’ housing search on her own, with no em- bassy or corporate support staff assisting her. I still remember one apartment that was an empty shell, without kitchen cabinets, appliances, light fixtures or fin- ished bathrooms —quite the opposite of the fully equipped apartment my mother had seen when she scouted it weeks earlier. Without a welcome kit or a cadre of embassy employees to help set things right, we had to navigate government and business bureaucracies, language barriers and every other cultural oddity to get our home set up before we could even think of moving in. Then, if we had electrical, plumbing, telecom, television or any other household problems, there were no embassy technicians on call. And there certainly was no one to help us hang pictures, a service I was stunned to discover was offered to embassy personnel in Turkey. If we got sick, we had to find our own doctors. There was no health unit to call. If we got in a traffic accident, there was no Foreign Service National to come deal with it, and we had to navigate the vagaries of a foreign legal system on our own. If we wanted a familiar food product, there was no embassy store or commissary to meet our needs. We had to make do with what was on the local economy. If we wanted to order something from the U.S., we did not have the Army Post Office to deliver it to us quickly and inexpensively. If we felt isolated or needed some questions answered, there was no Community Liaison Office to help out. Cer- tainly, after a few months, once we connected with the ex- tended expat community, we were able to gather information about what to do, where to go, where to shop, etc. Before that, however, we were flying blind. To be sure, corporate employees often receive larger pay packets, and housing and education allowances. But while these benefits may help ease the financial burden of over- seas life, they do little to ensure a smooth transition to a new place, help create the embrace of community life, or begin to approximate the support network available at U.S. missions. This is not meant to suggest that life in the U.S. mission community is all caviar, champagne and black-tie events. Navigating a foreign culture, having to forgo many familiar products and services, leaving behind friends and family, communicating in a foreign language, moving every two to three years, starting over and creating a new life in another country — none of that is simple. Living overseas is never effortless or trouble-free. However, the embassy “bubble” does cushion the experience. I am not embarrassed to say that I have tasted life in the bubble, and I want more. Even though I am enjoying my time in the land of la dolce vita, I am looking forward to my partner’s next assignment, when I can once again feel the embrace of the ever-so-cushy life inside the U.S. em- bassy community. Douglas E. Morris is the author of Open Road’s Best of Italy and other books. He currently resides in Viterbo, Italy, waiting for his FSO part- ner’s year in Afghanistan to end. You can contact the author through his Web site: . FS VOICE: FAMILY MEMBER MATTERS BY DOUGLAS E. MORRIS Living in the Bubble If we got in a traffic accident, there was no Foreign Service National to come deal with it, and we had to navigate the vagaries of a foreign legal system on our own. A P R I L 2 0 0 9 / F O R E I G N S E R V I C E J O U R N A L 45 A F S A N E W S