Welcome to the Wandering Drays!

Not all who wander are lost...

Welcome to my blog dedicated to my family and our crazy foreign service life. Never content with staying in one place, we are excited to share our journey. We've survived two unaccompanied tour (Baghdad 2010-2011 and Baghdad again in 2015-2016), multiple TDYs, and enjoyed a two-year family assignment in Cairo, Egypt. The fab hubby is currently learning Turkish for our next assignment...Istanbul, Turkey! We leave for Turkey sometime in summer 2017. I write about what I know. Which is mainly kids, tween drama, gross pets, dealing with lots of government info, our moving adventures, being a nurse, yoga, running, living on too-little sleep, and an addiction to coffee lattes. I hope you'll enjoy this glimpse into our lives.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

"We Don't Do That Here" -OR - Epiphanies of an Inexperienced Non-D.C.-Area EFM (Part One)

Let's say your really cool spouse (I'll call mine Jason) and you decide you'd like to live the dream and move someplace (non-specific, really anywhere) overseas.  How ya gonna do it?  Department of State, of course.  Nearly three years ago, after a long journey just to get the interview for the dream job, my really cool spouse began his training for his career with the State Department.

Leaving me and our (then) two children behind in Ohio while he started said journey.  For 10 months.   And we had absolutely no, nada, zilch that is! understanding of State and it's vast resources and projects.  I waited patiently for the info that would rarely come.  It would bounce it's way to me via my husband in snippets - an informational CD I promptly lost and never watched (bad Heather), an email forwarded by the hubby from his CDO (Career Development Officer), a packet of papers he uncrumpled from the trunk of his car.  I think I was living in a fog of belief that all things would arrive all wrapped with a big lovely bow by State and just fall together.  Here's the good news - it does [eventually] all fall together.  Here's the bad new - you have to work your tuckus off to make it all [eventually] fall together.

If you're a new EFM (Eligible Family Member) like me, it's a very scary Foreign Service World.  And here's where my itsy bitsy piece of expertise [cough cough] comes in.  We are not from the D.C. area.  And we've never picked up and moved there, although we could have many times during my really cool spouse's training.  You see, nearly everything in State originates from D.C.  And we are so far away and out of the D.C.-Loop.  So, I have what you might call an outsider's perspective of FS life.  And I've amassed most of it from the cozy confines of my couch in Ohio.

If you're still interested, read on.  Because I'm about to summarize all the information and intel I have managed to scrounge up in the past three years with my husband, my trusty MacBook, and a lot of emails.

1.  If you are an EFM, you WILL do so much more with your spouse's new career than you did before he/she joined forces with the Foreign Service.  FS is cozy.  Sure, there are thousands of participants, but I'm telling you, whatever State niche your spouse is involved in - you will see many of the same names/faces/people over and over again.  Jason spent 10 months training in DC and then we were assigned domestically in Los Angeles.  There, two others from his training class were assigned with him.  And of the peeps he met in L.A., two of them ended up in Baghdad with him.  Meanwhile, another from his training class arrived in Baghdad with him.  And since then, I've cyberly met the spouses of two guys he works with - not even realizing initially that Jason knew their spouses. (Get the picture?)  It's a closer-knit group than you may be initially comfortable with.  But then you'll start to realize how important that group is to you.

I made the mistake early on of not thinking I'd need any sort of support group to get through this.  Sure, I joined a Spouse email group, but I did so only because I thought they might post some info I'd need.  I never thought I'd make friends through it, or seek support and solace from those going through the same thing.  Or organize a world-wide running event for we spouses (Yes, I did!).  I'm glad I was wrong.  Don't make the same mistake I did at the beginning of my husband's career.  Reach out and meet and do it early.  It's actually way easier than you think.  FS is cozy and comfortable and accepting.

2.  Taming the paper beast.  Becky at Small Bits is hosting the FS Blog Round-Up this week, and this is her optional theme.  So, here's my two bits for her Small Bits....You will receive an OBSCENE amount of paperwork for State.  All those jokes about the government needing everything in triplicate?  I wish it were that easy.  Whatever you do, keep a copy of what you fill out.  Because I guarantee you will need it again in the future.  It will be lost, claimed never to have been received, claimed to have been filled out incorrectly, end up on the wrong desk, in the wrong department, and even in the wrong country.  Horrific?  No kidding.  Up until recently, I had manilla folders out the ying-yang for every conceivable issue.  Kids' School applications.  Medical Clearances.  Medical Insurance.  Overseas Car Insurance.  All the household stuff you had before you enter the FS World x100.  

Get a scanner.  Make sure you have a decent computer.  Back up your files.  I just got a scanner and it is a life-saver.  It's saved me at least $100 at Kinko's in the last month.  You might think that you can get away with out it.  But you are flat-out wrong.  All those forms you fill out will have to be done again and again and again.  Unless you've already got them on your computer.  I should have bought one the moment Jason's congratulations you're hired letter came in.

Which brings me to my next point on taming the beast - whenever you can, email, DON'T FAX.  Government faxes are like teenage boys standing in front of the refrigerator.  Everything gets eaten and there is no proof any of it ever existed.  

Some other tidbits.
*Government offices are open 8am-4:30pm typically.  Don't call between 11 and noon.  You'll never find a live person it's lunch time.  Call in the AM, because by 3:00pm, everyone is already thinking about what they need to do to get outta there by 4:30.  Call on Tuesday or Wednesday.  Monday and Friday are the worst (Monday every office is hammered with new requests; Friday everyone is thinking about the weekend).

*CC as many people as possible on any requests and follow-up as much as you can to get what you need done.  A fellow spouse once told me that getting correct orders and packout and passports and travel required you to be a complete b*tch and to CC everyone.  She's right.  Although I haven't had to do the b*tch thing yet.  But coming close to tears seems to move people on occasion.

*Get stuff done early.  We waited until the last minute to get med clearances the first time and it was tough.  There's a lot of paperwork involved and if you aren't in the DC-area, you have to use your non-governmental-I-Have-No-Idea-What-You're-Talking-About family physicians and medical groups.  It just means you'll have to fill out more paperwork because you didn't get it done right the first time.  But squeaking in on the last-minute is always painful.  Really, plan ahead.  It will limit the amount of paperwork you do in the end.

Which takes me away from the paper beast and back to my intel on FS.

3.  If you aren't in the DC-area, be prepared to have to do a lot of research on your own.  There is no big "Welcome to State, here are your passports".  Really.  Last week we [finally] managed to process the paperwork needed to get dip passports and regular travel passports for the whole family.  NINE PASSPORTS total.  Just getting the information about how to get passports involved me emailing a fellow spouse and saying "I'm lost.  Help!".  Who then emailed me the info and got me in contact with an HR rep who got me the Special Issuance Office for passports.  Because dip passports get processed differently.  But the process CAN originate in the same facility as regular travel passports.  In a local post office for instance.  Like in Niles, Ohio.

The poor postal worker didn't know what hit her.  It's complicated enough processing five travel passports for a family.  But then we hit her with the "we need diplomatic passports, too."  Her prompt response was "We don't do that here."  We calmly tried to tell her, "Yes, you do." Her answer?  "Well, as far as I know, we don't do that here, because I've never heard of it."  Thankfully, I had my stuff all sorted out!  I had pre-filled out the forms and printed them out; I had the letter that's now required to process the passports fee-free for us (Otherwise, we could have kissed an additional $450+ goodbye), and I had printed out the email instructions on how to obtain dip passports when applying at an alternate location (as in not at the D.C. Special Issuance Office).  A little over an hour later, we were headed out the Post Office door, feeling mostly confident that we had done it correctly.  I'll let you know when the passports arrive.

And Finally.

4.  Pack-Out sucks.  There is no way around it.  We've done it domestically twice in one year.  The first one was done just three days after finally receiving orders.  So not awesome.  Can't wait to see what it's like to move it all overseas [sarcasm]. You will spend money you don't anticipate spending.  It will be a lot.  You will forget to pack something.  You will pack stuff you don't need.  Things will get mixed up.  A lot.  And you'll arrive wondering why you needed so much stuff; yet, at the same time, you'll wonder why it seems you didn't pack enough stuff.

Ok, that's it.  It's not much, but it's what I got.  I marked this as Part I, because I fully intend to expand to additional editions, after we've moved to Cairo and again after we go on our first Home Leave next year!  Here's to a great pack-out.  Because I kinda feel like we deserve it.

$435 worth of stuff.  Mostly baby stuff on this trip.
Stocking up for Cairo!

Impressive packing skillz.

Thankfully, I had no other adult with me.
Because this is the front passenger seat.

I even packed around the baby.
It's hard to see, but the floor in front
of his car seat is packed.


  1. Great post! Love all the tips, the sarcasm, and the government fax analogy. I may use that one in the future! Looking forward to more of your posts, especially from Cairo! Got to visit there and LOVED it!

  2. Thanks! I was honestly pretty pleased with the analogy, too. It's fun to chuckle when I write.

    We are absolutely ready to be done with this unaccompanied assignment and finally getting overseas. The fact that we got Cairo just makes it all the better!

  3. So excited for you guys to be together and moving on. Your post was fantastic. Thanks so much for sending it on to me.

    You have been included in the Weekly State Department Blog Round Up here:

    If you'd prefer not to be included please let me know.

  4. a) you are funny and b) I related to SO much of this! Our civilian (but military insurance contracted) pediatrician has flat out refused to fill out our overseas health screening paperwork or get him on malaria pill. We are making a consumables run to Sam's club today...maybe I should take some pics to post!

  5. Thank you so much for this post! I met my husband while he was in training, so I didn't have the luxury of information or knowing people who were in my same situation. In fact, it wasn't until we arrived to DC to prepare for our second post that I found resources to help me figure out what this job is all about (including the spouse group), so thank you for this. It's kind of refreshing to hear that I'm not the only one who has ever felt completely lost about navigating this gig.

  6. Love that last picture! Glad I found your blog!

  7. Sadly, I just thought of about $1,000 worth of more "stuff" we'll need before we move. I need to seriously reconsider what is 'essential' to mission! As an update - I got a call today from the Special Issuance Department on our Passports - and - WAIT FOR IT! - everything is processing correctly. Yip Yip! Happy Dance! Score one for me today.