There are lots of things that no one tells you before you join the Foreign Service. One is that it’s more difficult to be the stay-at-home, unemployed (or under-employed) spouse—more commonly referred to as the “Eligible Family Member.” (I’m not entirely certain what I’m eligible for, but I have a feeling that I haven’t gotten it yet…) Either way, this is a topic for an entirely different post.
Something else that no one tells you before you join the Foreign Service is that you’ll soon be living in a fishbowl: everyone in the community works and lives and drinks and shops and plays and hikes and dines together. Anonymity is dead. It’s like high school all over again, except with weirder cliques—whether or not you have children most often decides your friend group; gossip is rampant (but god it feels so good sometimes!), and no secret is safe as long as it’s juicy.
Don’t get me wrong: there are days that I cherish my ready-made community, where I feel like this is exactly the type of life I’ve been searching for. But there are also days where I feel infinity suffocated. Imagine having a professional disagreement with the same person that you have happy hour plans with. Can you put the argument behind you? Do you fake it in order to preserve the “happiness” of happy hour? Or, do you skip the event altogether? These are my fishbowl days.
My worst fishbowl days typically occur on Mondays—my day off. What I originally thought would be a little gift to myself each week, has instead become a source of anxiety, or even guilt—resulting from a lack of discipline when it comes to my art practice. To compensate, I lean on other interests or focus on the handful of odd roles that I (and Sam) now play—small communities demand diversity from their inhabitants in order to survive. But despite the diversity of my (our) roles, they exist in a closed community where the reach is limited. Below is a sampling:
1.) The desperate diplomat. This is neither a frequent role, nor an attractive one, but when your car is stuck in “the Grand Canyon of Kazakhstan” for two days, 250 kilometers away from home, and none of the locals is either willing or sober enough to help out, it’s okay to be a little desperate.
2.) The wife of the employee of the boss who had to get outta town. This means that you will help your husband’s boss’s wife and their two small daughters haul nine gigantic bags, two car seats, and a stroller to the airport. In the middle of the night. Because it’s your job.
3.) The decorating committee. Because there is so much turnover at post, institutional knowledge of any kind becomes your life blood. My little volunteer stint last year on the 4th of July decorating committee propelled me, this year, to the level of Independence Day Celebration Expert.
4.) The yoga instructor. Sam plays dual roles at post. By day he wields the FAR, defending government rules and regulations, but twice a week, he puts on a different hat (erm…pair of gym shorts) to offer free yoga classes to anybody who’s interested.
5.) The art teacher. And after I’ve taught your kids drawing, painting, and print-making, I can cut your hair, then redecorate your office.
6.) The dog lady. Cardboard boxes full of puppies are real! And even though the puppies are every bit as cuddly and wonderful as you would expect, the responsibility of finding homes for them (and taking care of them until I do) is nothing short of daunting.
Fleeing the Fishbowl
The friends that we have here are, I believe, the best thing about our life in Kazakhstan. But sometimes, it all becomes too much—there are only so many parties at the same place with the same people and the same food and the same conversations that one can take. Sometimes, the best thing about living in Almaty is being able to leave it all behind.
If thirteen months in Almaty has taught me anything, it’s to not undervalue the power of the weekend getaway. Pack your bags, your beer, and your dog—it turns out that all things are made better by a camping trip: