Summertime. Remember when you were a kid and you looked forward to the hot, leisurely days with your friends through a long school-less summer? Maybe you even piled into the family car for a drive to the beach for a week? Spent a week or more at a summer camp? Or maybe you do not even have to think back that far — you might be on your summer holiday right now. Perhaps a road trip? Or spending some time at the lake or at a mountain cabin? Have your toes dug deep in some sand? Whenever summer comes around I still associate the season with those long languid days. I long for Summer Americana.
Foreign Service summers though are different. In the Foreign Service, summer generally means either you are transferring or you are covering for those who are (or those who have to take mid-tour home leave), and thus watching colleagues, some who have become good friends, leave. Summer is the end of an era. One in which you are too busy to mourn until September rolls around.
As this summer gets underway, it feels even stranger. In Shanghai I did not take any leave between May and September for either of the two summers. But then again, neither did anyone else — all my co-workers in the visa trenches slogged through the high visa season together. Here though, in this much smaller Embassy, we are on the cusp of a very busy, and somewhat lonely, summer.
OK, hold up. I know, do not cry me a river. I DO get vacations. Absolutely. I was just in Cape Town last month, Paris in April, and last Spring you would have found me enjoying a not-at-all-shabby seven week Home Leave. I am not at all vacation deprived. But indulge me if you will, because while the Foreign Service certainly has its perks, it has its downsides and sacrifices too. I try to keep it real.
One downside is the transfer season position pile-up. This is not my first rodeo–summers in the service are always busy, but this is the first time as the sole direct-hire Foreign Service officer in a section at a small Embassy. I am the political-military officer. I also cover the economic-commercial office in the absence of that individual, and back-up the Consular officer. This summer there will be gaps–multiple weeks with no Economic, Consular, or Public Affairs officers. I am also a social sponsor for an arriving family, an office sponsor for another new officer, and will serve my duty week (when Embassy personnel man the after hours American citizen emergency line) this summer. And politics in the country are heating up ahead of next year’s elections.
Another downside is the wee bit of mommy guilt that sometimes tickles in the back of my brain. Here I am giving my kid an international life full of once in a lifetime experiences, but my parental conscience pricks me all the same. She is the single child, of a single mother, whose job requires us to move every few years. Maybe “guilt” is not quite the word, but I wonder at times about this lifestyle and the effect it will have on my daughter. Last year we lived in three different countries on three continents, so while it is a relief to not be moving this year, the goodbyes happen regardless.
C just finished up her first year at the international school. She has 8 1/2 weeks off before the next school year begins. It is not just that it is the summer holiday and she will not see school friends for awhile, it is more than that. Several of her friends are leaving, or have already left, Malawi for good. And now that she is older these friendships mean more to her than in the past.
To help her say goodbye, we hosted sleepovers for the first time at our house for four of C’s best mates who would move away this summer. I tried my best to make them Sleepovers To Remember. We had movies and popcorn, turned our rooms into dance clubs with revolving colorful star displays on the ceiling and C’s favorite pop songs “blasting” from my mini speakers, and did fun crafty things like make suncatchers or Shrinky Dinks. We stayed up late. We went to the Italian restaurant around the corner in pajamas. We had chocolate chip pancakes. The guest child got to collect the eggs from our chickens in the morning. I repeatedly heard THIS IS THE BEST SLEEPOVER EVER. Top Parent Award Achieved.
The final sleepover was perhaps the hardest. C’s best friend is our next door neighbor WW. Like C he is six, enjoys music, playing for hours, and butt jokes. He and my daughter are thick as thieves. I think back to when I was five and six and my next door neighbor Kent was my best friend. He too moved away after Kindergarten. Dang, this is going to be hard.
It is what it is. A phrase that rolls off my tongue with increasing regularity. To try to stem the summer boredom and sadness I have come up several ideas to keep C engaged. She will attend “summer” camp the first week of July (actually one of the coldest months in Malawi with temperatures in the low 50s Fahrenheit overnight/early morning) with the possibility of additional weeks (the nearby preschool offers up to four weeks for children aged 2-8 at a cost of $5.50 per day). I am increasing her guitar lessons from once a week to twice. Recently I started reading chapter books to C, so I bought several books to read this summer such as James and the Giant Peach, The Indian in the Cupboard, and My Father’s Dragon. One of my New Year’s Resolutions this year is to do more arts, crafts, and activities with C, so I ordered several things to facilitate this (because I just do not have the energy to be a Pinterest mom). I have art supplies, Kiwi Crates, and an Easy Bake Oven I gifted C as an early half birthday present. I ordered “American History in a Box” for Kindergarten and First Graders, a great resource for American kids living overseas and attending schools that do not teach U.S. history.
Basically, I have got a ton of things for C to do. I just wish I could take some time to spend with her doing them, but that is not in the cards for me this summer. It is certainly not going to be Summer Americana. It’s more Summer Foreign Service Style.