The Moscow humidity was thick that evening. I was trying to get the kids to finish their frittata—or at least take a few more bites of dinner so we could head upstairs and start the bedtime routine. M hadn’t eaten a thing. B was dancing around in her underwear. No one was sitting at the table, despite my pleas. As for me, I too was restless. Temperatures were well into the 90s even though it was after seven pm. Sweating, I wondered why everyday life felt like so much work, so complicated.
I gave up on dinner. Precariously balancing two full plates in my hand, I opened the window and headed into the kitchen. My two monkeys jumped around me pulling at my pant legs and trying to lick my ankles. (Don’t ask.) That’s when E walked in. Only after the kids swarmed him with welcome kisses, did I realize my parenting worries were trivial. E had something important to say:
The bid list was due the next day and he’d decided on what to submit: Suva, Ulaan Baatar, Reykjavik, Nicosia, Nassau, Astana
What? No, these are not spices, ancient Cyrillic words, or rare diseases. Some of these words may even sound familiar. These are cities. Capital cities, in fact. Cities where there is a US embassy that will, within a year, need a new DCM. A Deputy Chief of Mission. The DCM is the employee who runs the embassy, the Ambassador’s deputy, the COO, if you will. And, it is time in E’s long and illustrious career in the Foreign Service to try for one of these VIP gigs. Earlier in the day his advisor had told him that if he wanted to be a DCM, he had to bid on lots of jobs, especially those in ‘difficult’ regions. And, he’d have to have luck on his side, because they are hard to land.
Let me back up. This is not the first time I’d ever heard of the bid list. A year before every tour ends, E’s Career Development Officer (that’s CDO for those of you keeping track of the acronyms) sends him one of these babies. It reads like a secret computer code. The list is pure, unadulterated, bureaucratic poetry. On the printouts are a bunch of acronyms and numbers. Each digit represents the region or bureau, the language requirement for the job, the cone, and various other details about the position. The only thing a non-FSO (Foreign Service Officer) can reasonably understand is the city name. And, as you can see from our list, even these seem indecipherable.
After having lived overseas for so long, I fancy myself somewhat of a geography buff. But still, on seeing his list I needed to consult the atlas. Tonight, like a handful of times before, I’ve crossed my fingers, hoping that somehow, within these strange names is an Edenic spot, my future utopia. For I know that in one simple line of code is a word that can change our whole lives.
When E first mentioned the imminent release of this year’s bid list, I had felt the familiar thrill of adventure. We could go anywhere! I could see myself sunning in the south of Italy, writing poetry in Paris, or maybe getting a publishing job in NY while he was at the UN. Don’t tell him, but for small moments I even like to imagine riding elephants in Kenya or learning a clicky-clacky language while the children play in the Australian bush. But then I remembered, we had agreed to go back to DC. After Turkey, we’ll go back to the states, we’d said.
But then: ‘Would be fun to work for the Obama administration in Washington’ gave way to ‘What a great opportunity it would be to work at Embassy Moscow.’ And so we’d agreed to stay overseas. I could be home with the kids, preschool was affordable, and I could write without feeling the pressure to bring in an income.
Now with this year’s list, again I’m still interested in staying overseas. I want to write and I worry I’m too Type A and competitive to be an ‘artist’ without a steady income in America. We’ll have to pay for DC preschool (it costs like $20K a year!) I want to live in the urban bustle of the DC metropolitan area and not some far away suburb where we could more easily survive on only one income. And, god knows I do NOT want to job hunt again. Spend a year looking for something, then leaving after two, or four, or one year. There is too the start-up children’s book production company I have a hand in launching. But with that I worry the income is not steady-enough or won’t be for a year or so. Or maybe, this is just the thing I need, going back to DC will really get it off the ground. But then what will happen with my novel(s)?!
Just as I start to go back and forth, worrying about all the options, I remember that I have no idea what was on that list? Where in god’s name is Suva or those other impossible-to-pronounce locales? Eric enlightens me: Fiji, Mongolia, Iceland, Cyprus, Bahamas, Kazakhstan.
Knowing the names of the countries does not quiet my thoughts. My mind races again: I see us living on a crystal cove beach, I’m wearing a pareo while the children frolic in the surf, or I’m donning a large fur hat simply to get to the grocery store, or sitting in a hot spring while snow falls around me. Maybe I’m island hopping in Greece, scooting up a mountain on my motorbike, or being served sheep’s head at our first ceremonial dinner in Kazakhstan, or dashing off to NY for the weekend on a short flight from Nassau. Or hell, I could see traveling alone with the two kids for thirty hours plus and having to transfer through a Kazak airport while M or B has a total meltdown in an attempt to get to California. In Mongolia would I have to get up a 3am for the kid’s book production conference calls? Or, god, will I need to home-school if we are in Astana? Is there even Internet service in Iceland?
Eric reminds me that I have the power to veto. I do. What I haven’t told you is that I took Rangoon and Calcutta off the list. (The post reports said there was unreliable Internet in Rangoon and nasty diseases that are especially hard on small kids in Calcutta). Crap. But look at the places I’ve left on there!? I must be crazy.
Before I know it, Moscow’s humid evening and my parenting challenges seem simple, surmountable. As my mind swirls, all I feel is vertigo. There are too many options, too many unknowns in outlandish locations. And the kicker, this is not the definitive bid list. A list of all the other (non DCM) jobs should be out soon. There will be lots of positions in DC and jobs that open up in other countries at the last minute. And, in the months ahead, we may learn that someone serving in Bagdad had been promised the Cyprus job (which currently has 60 bidders on it!) or hopefully that Eric will make the short list for Iceland (currently at 20 bidders). Last night, Eric brought me a beer when he told me there were only three bidders on Astana—but then he reminded me that he is below grade for it (meaning it would be a stretch job, above his rank, so he’s unlikely to get it). Still, only three, I could really be living in the semi-desert steppe region of central Kazakhstan?!
That evening, so thick with humidity, ended. My mind was, eventually, forced in sleep to turn off. In the morning, the bid list was properly submitted and now the lengthy assignment process begins. At each stage (the committee is meeting, the department has chosen it’s short list, so-and-so dropped out) I imagine the possibilities within each post. I can’t help but wonder what my role will be in Suva or Astana or Nicosia or DC, how my daily life will unfold, how the kids will get to school, what kinds of friends I can make, how I can keep the family safe, how I’ll keep the kids nurtured, and how much material I’ll get for the next novel. . .Bidding may be the most nerve-wracking part of the whole foreign service life. It certainly makes my active imagination color each option with a different story, offer a new twist in our plot, complicate my parenting choices, and create an ever-changing role for me, a simple Foreign Service spouse. This is one wild ride.