I loathe home leave. Well, not always. After six months back in India, I’m sure that I’ll wax nostalgic on the idea of it, if not the actual practice.
In its infinite wisdom, congress decided that in order to prevent its diplomats from sympathizing too much with the situation of whatever country they are posted in and “going native” or “going rogue”, that every so often, they would be have to come home and reorient themselves to life in the U.S. This fantastic concept, codified in Sections 901 and 903 of the Foreign Service Act of 1980, as amended, requires the diplomat to spend a minimum of twenty business days in the continental U.S. after each assignment abroad before heading back out, or after two years of a four-year tour.
I see some fellow diplomats posting fabulous photos of themselves on home leave, and they seem to relish it and do all kinds of awesome things. They also tend to be single, childless, and either come from intact families, or families where the divorce was Amicable. When some twenty-something, clearly single junior officer posted on Facebook that he thinks home leave can be fun and great and told me to just book a house on airbnb, I wanted to kick his unattached, millennial ass to Kingdom Come. Twice. Maybe even four times. I know he was trying to be upbeat and helpful, but FFS, dude, Get. A. Clue.
You might notice that thus far, this post has more than the normal amount of swearing in it, and I’ll get to that eventually. You’re on notice, Mom – I’ll probably drop an F-bomb or two before I’m done here.
Home leave and its mechanics are nothing if not predictable, so there are inevitably Certain Things That Happen Relating To or During Home Leave. Let me narrow that down to the top FIVE here:
- There will be some fucked-up regulation that makes you file extra paperwork or waste valuable time.
Turns out that when you extend and take a four-year tour overseas, the law requires you take your Home Leave midtour – which they define as within a month of arriving at post. Most families with children, like us, arrive in the July-August timeframe; especially if they have school-age children and they are dealing with camps, pack outs, and finishing up school (which is virtually NEVER compatible with the school they will start in the country they are moving to). We arrived on August 1, about ten days before school started, so DiploDad could leave the position he was vacating unfilled for as short of a time as possible (so the new guy could take HIS home leave) and so the DBs had a bit of time to shrug off the last vestiges of jet lag before starting school.
Fast-forward two years, and DiploDad has to take home leave. Given office staffing requirements (summer is, after all, a busy time for consular officers), a heavy rotation of folks in and out of the office, and the DBs’ school schedule, it made sense to take Home Leave in June and July. But nooooooooooo – that’s too early, the Department said.
DiploDad: I have to wait until August to take Home Leave? Seriously? No, you’re kidding. This makes absolutely no sense. My kids start back to school August 8th. I’ve got folks who have leave dates and transfer dates in, and I’m trying to work this for the least amount of disruption. There’s got to be something we can do about this.
Random DC Bureaucrat Who Never Goes Overseas: Well, you can leave your family behind. They don’t have to go. But you do. Or, you could just go early anyway, and lose an R&R.
DiploDad: Excuse me? You mean go by myself and leave my wife to deal with the kids alone at the beginning of the school year, or give up one of the tickets home that I get as part of my compensation? How is that reasonable?
RDCBWNGO: Alternatively, you could fill out a form for an exception to policy.
DiploDad: That sounds like a much better solution.
I should note that this conversation is condensed from about three or four separate conversations, because it took THAT long and THAT MANY conversations to get it out of RDCBWNGO that one could file for an exception. Asshat.
Attention AFSA (American Foreign Service Association for the uninitiated): The next time you get all crazy and decide that you need to lobby congress about something, let me flag this for you and even set it out in writing. Home leave should be given flexibility when taken mid-tour. Most officers with families will try to eventually get on summer cycle to make school and transition easier for DiploKids, which means that they will want to try and take home leave in the summer usually between mid-June and mid-August. Argue for a 60-90 day window of flexibility for Home Leave from the original date of arrival. Trust me, very, very, few people will skip it, the Department will have to process fewer exceptions, and it will be easier for HR folks. I suppose this may mean that a RDCBWNGO or two may be out of a job and have to find their sadistic “say-no-to-everything-not-be-helpful-ever” kicks elsewhere, but I’m sure there’s an office somewhere in DC hiring.
- There Will Be People Who Are A Pain in the Ass About Visiting Them, Whether You Can or Can’t Visit.
Once you get your dates and reservations, you send out the email to everyone in the family and try to alert friends. Some folks jump at it, and some it makes sense to visit because you have similar goals for the summer and they make it easy. Others, you go round and round with and nothing works out and they accept it, or you keep looking for chances to get together. Either way, in about a month, you’re fully booked. Let’s say this all happens about January.
You know where this is going now, right?
In April, you start getting emails and messages from a variety of family and friends asking if we could get together, and oh – when were we going to be in the country, and could we possibly drive to California/Nebraska/Texas/Alabama/Florida/Timbuktu to visit them?
Now, some folks get it and put no pressure on you. And if you possibly can, and are along the way or they are in your neck of the woods or willing to take the time to drive a bit, you get to see them and they are SO happy and you are BEYOND SO happy to see each other. I was lucky enough to see a former sorority sister this trip that I’d not seen in 20 years. One of the highlights this year was catching up with her. Others just know that if you CAN, you will definitely reach out to them, and so they don’t even ask, or just send you a message saying, “hey – we’ll be around this summer on these days, so if something works out, let me know – we’d love to get together” and that’s it. I love these kinds of people.
Then, there are the ones who not only pressure you to visit, but also insist it must be on their terms. They are often, but not always, the ones who never respond to the initial email/text/message where you gave dates you’d be in country. But two weeks into your trip, or a couple of days before you depart, you’re bound to get something like this in your inbox:
“Hi! If you guys can come over, it would be awesome. I’d love for you to drive to XXX (name town three hours from anywhere you’d be going normally, if ever) and spend some time, but only during the hours of 11 a.m. and 2 p.m. on the first and third Tuesday this month, and only if the temperature reads less than 75 degrees Fahrenheit between 9 and 10 a.m. Oh, and we’ll only be serving shredded wheat with bayberry juice because we’re all on a really restricted diet, and there will be NO WINE because we read somewhere that the prices are inflated this year because of drought in the Sahara and wages have gone up and we don’t support this.”
I wish I were kidding.
Let me be clear: I love my relatives. I love my friends. But we are travelling two days, going through security checkpoints twice, eating shitty plane food, getting DVT symptoms, and dealing with a bitch of a case of jet lag. By the time I landed at Dulles Airport in June, I’d been awake for 47.5 hours. You read that correctly. So, for the love of Peter, Paul, & Mary, please make it easy on us. We don’t really want to take a long plane ride again or drive 15 hours; it’s exhausting, and then we don’t really enjoy it at all. Ease off the guilt trip. If you think you might even be a tiny bit guilty of this, here’s what you do: when we send out the email telling you when we’ll be in town, jump into the queue immediately, and propose something halfway, or something near us, or, if we’re talking about doing X while we’re back, jump right on in and ask if we’re up for company. If we don’t want to go to Swaziland with you and want to go to Cape Verde instead, consider it – this is the only chance we have all year to escape the craziness of whatever post we’re at that means we GET a home leave. If it doesn’t work out, and our interests don’t align, you can always visit us, or we’ll try again next year.
If you think I’m being totally selfish about this, here’s a nugget for you – I’ve been trying to get to California and have a family trip driving Route 66 for four years now. We compromise. I lose out. And we try to put the grandparents first while they’re still around – for good reason.
- Even After It’s “Settled”, Something Else Will Pop Up and Try to Fuck Up Your Home Leave.
RDCBWNGO: Your home leave dates aren’t sufficient; you have to make a change.
DiploDad: Say again? I’m going for four weeks. Twenty weekdays.
RDCBWNGO: Yes, but the 4th of July is a holiday. You’ll have to stay longer and take an extra Monday.
DiploDad said “shit” because that takes us over the 30 days of LWOP I’m allowed to take before permission has to be given by DC instead of post. And since we didn’t feel like finding out if that meant 30 calendar days or 30 business days, I just decided to go with the former and leave a week earlier than the DBs and DD. Which meant he had to take the DBs back by himself. (Hahahaha!)
- Some Relative or Friend Will Find a Passive-Aggressive Bullshit Way to “Punish” You for Living Abroad.
Towards the end of our Home Leave, we headed off to visit DiploMIL and her husband. They just bought a massive house, and we’ve been hearing about it for about 18 months. We confirmed with them no fewer than five times that yes, we were staying, and yes we were coming on X day. We arrived a day after DiploBIL and his family arrived, and hugged everyone. DiploMIL and DiploSFIL gave us the tour, starting with the upstairs. Their bedroom was beautiful, giant and posh. The DBs and DiploNephew were in a bunk bed with a trundle, perfect for 3 little/medium boys. DiploBIL and his wife were in a lovely room with a canopy bed, fluffy white bedding, and an en suite. DiploNiece had a room to herself with a double bed.
DiploSFIL: We put you downstairs. Come on; let’s go see where you’ll sleep.
DiploDad: Cool, sounds great.
So, we’re thinking that we hit the jackpot; we’ll be downstairs in a guest suite away from everyone. Instead, we get downstairs, turn into the rec room and see this:
As DiploMIL and DiploSFIL head back upstairs, I’m standing shock still STARING at my “bed” for the next four nights. And then I shake it off and I’m PISSED.
I turn to DiploDad and he immediately falls onto his knees –
Me: What the FUCK??? Are you fucking kidding me?
DiploDad: Shhhh! Shhh! I beg you, please do not make a big deal about this.
Me: Are you kidding me? I’m –
DiploDad: You can have the pop-out bed, I’ll sleep on the floor –
Me: Are you kidding? We’ve been married 26 years. We have two kids. We’re pushing 50. A 1980s era broken-down single pop-out couch and a couple of couch cushions wrapped in a sheet on the fucking floor are FINE??? While a 12-year-old gets her own room? Do you realize we’re in the rec room like middle school kids? I got over that shit YEARS ago, DiploDad.
DiploDad: We’ll fix this, I promise, we’ll fix this –
Me: On what fucking planet is this acceptable? Tell me. Really, tell me. We don’t even have a door to close. I’m not even in the same bed. Hell, the two cushions YOU will be sleeping on are uneven – one’s over an inch higher than the other – how is the OK for YOU?
I texted DiploSIL, who informed me that they’d tried to bring this up with the ILs but they said it would be ‘OK’ so they didn’t push it. She did offer to swap rooms with us. Seriously, am I wrong to think it would be OK for the 12yo niece to take the rec room? I didn’t think so. But even her MOTHER didn’t see that should be the solution.
An hour, a Target run, a lot more swearing, and $200 later, we had an aerobed and a pair of sheets.
DiploDad: OK, bed, sheets – we need anything else?
DiploDad: (Reaches for tetrapak (hey, don’t knock it till you’ve tried it) on shelf.) Two?
I should probably mention that DiploMIL and DiploSFIL do not drink. So after all that crap, there wasn’t going to be any booze in the house. That’s not how I roll. I have children, people. You’ve met my children. I drink.
After the bed fiasco, we settled in, and things calmed down. We had a great few days exploring colonial Williamsburg, visiting, and hanging out.
The afternoon before we were going to leave, DiploNiece was showing me, DiploSIL and DiploMIL a dress she’d worn to a dance program at Colonial Williamsburg. I moved into her room entirely, and that’s when I saw it.
A three-foot high, spooky-ass, china doll on a bureau in the corner.
We left the room. I came back a few minutes later, picked up a pair of scissors I’d noticed on the nightstand, and placed them in the doll’s hands and went back downstairs.
Me: Hey – DB1, come here.
DB1: Yes, Mommy?
Me: Did you ever tell DiploNiece about Annabelle and the other haunted dolls you read about online?
Me: Why don’t you?
- You Will Get Extra Special Treatment From TSA.
The flight was OK, but I got extraspecial treatment both at Dulles and at Heathrow. Sometimes, I think they just pull me to make sure their stats don’t reveal profiling. Still, when I’m being wiped down for powder AGAIN and getting a special pat down that seems to get more thorough every single year, I can’t help but blurt out: “Dude, I AM the target.” Still, TSA is there to keep us all safe, so I try not to fuss. Even if the rules about taking your shoes off are not the same everywhere. Even if the bag you need to put liquids in is different and you’re repacking three bags of toothpaste and Axe products, and even if I have to take all electronics out when it says “laptops” at one airport and not at the other. Which inevitably gets me pulled over for MORE frisking. Dammit.
Even if the song, “TSA Gangstas” keeps running through my head. It went viral a few years ago. If you missed it, here it is – oh, wait – don’t put this on with children present.
Oh, and I lied. You get a bonus sixth reason:
- You’ll Still Do the Same Damn Shit Next Year.
I’d hit 53.25 hours awake by the time I got back in. Everything melted away once DiploDog attacked me with the exuberance only a small mixed-breed dog can deliver. After much DiploDog snuggling, unpacking a bunch of cheese and lunchmeat from my suitcase (and removing the TSA “I searched your bag because that shit looked like plastique advisory flyer”) and packing it in the freezer to take out in October or so, I hit the sack for a few hours rest before starting off full throttle.
A week later, DiploDad and the DBs showed back up, and they just managed to shake off the jet lag today – I hope.
We were getting our morning coffee a few days later when DB2 walked up to us.
DB2: Do we know what we’re doing when we go back home next summer?
Me: Nope. But it won’t EVER involve me sleeping on the floor again.
DiploDad: Damn straight.