A Traveler in the Foreign Service: My Secret Foreign Service Wedding

wedding photoToday is my ten-year wedding anniversary, sort of. Does it make sense to celebrate a wedding that was a secret, five-minute affair that was capped off at a nearby Taco Bell over chalupas and 99-cent churros?

I asked my wife to marry me just days before joining the Foreign Service in 2002 and we had to set a wedding date without knowing what country we would be moving to or when we would depart.

When you join the Foreign Service you start out in a two-month long training class called A-100, which takes places in Arlington, Virginia. At the conclusion of the course, you’re given a flag representing your assignment and, depending on the job and the country, you can spend the next one to nine months in job and/or language training.

This uncertainty makes it difficult to deal with landlords but even harder to plan a wedding. Nonetheless, we planned an August 10 wedding in Chicago, and tried to bid on jobs that entailed as much training as possible. In late March, I was assigned to Skopje, Macedonia, with six months of Albanian language training. This meant that I’d be in the U.S. for the wedding, so we initially felt relieved.

But we soon learned that nothing happens in the Foreign Service without a mountain of red tape and logistical hurdles. Our departure for post was scheduled for early October and old Foreign Service hands, including “Dink,” our kindly A-100 course coordinator, told us that a mid-August wedding might not leave enough time for the bureaucracy to get Jen (my wife) on our travel orders.In layman’s terms, this means that the government wouldn’t pay for her travel to Macedonia or ship her household effects. Spouses of Foreign Service Officers (FSO’s) need medical and security checks, and all these things take time, so Dink advised us to go to a courthouse and do a legal marriage ceremony before the real deal to get the ball rolling.

Jen was initially resistant to the idea but eventually her practical side and our desire not to pay to move to Macedonia won out. The sole condition she laid out was that we wouldn’t tell any of our friends and family members. We could get married in a legal sense but would pretend as though the event never happened.

On Tuesday, March 19, 2002, we visited the office of a kindly octogenarian named Joe Newlin, who married couples right down the hall from the Arlington Country Court House in Virginia. Joe was a delightful old man who wore plaid golf pants and had his office decorated with streamers and articles about his practice. He claimed to have married more than ten thousand couples, “some of which were still together,” he joked.

Joe married us right in his office, for a small fee, right underneath some plastic signs, streamers and a paper, wedding bell. Joe also took a couple photos of us and on the way out gave us a complimentary pen, which was emblazoned with his slogan: “I Mary (sic) U.” We’ve moved six times in the last decade and I have no idea where those photos are, but somehow, the pen has magically stayed with us (see photo).

free pen for getting marriedWe celebrated our sham wedding with a fine banquet at the adjacent Taco Bell and headed back to the Foreign Service Institute, where we bumped into Dink.

“Dink, we took your advice and got married,” I told him, knowing that Jen wouldn’t care if he knew of our scheme.

Dink’s eyes bulged out of his head and he crouched down to hug both my wife and I.

“Congratulations,” he bellowed, before turning around and telling several of my classmates the “good news.” Before we knew what was happening, a host of colleagues came over to congratulate us. Jen was not pleased.

“This was not our wedding,” she reminded me before adding, “not a word about this when we get back to Chicago.”

And there wasn’t a word about it – not to our families, any of our wedding guests or even the minister, who did not know that we had already been married legally for six months at the time he pronounced us man and wife. In fact, most of our friends and family members will be reading about our “appetizer” wedding for the first time here.

We’ll never know if our first “wedding” was necessary or not but it was a fitting introduction to what some call the Foreign Circus. Over the years, we’d come to learn that lots of Foreign Service couples end up rushing to the altar because of impending departures for posts or other reasons. The nomadic nature of the job can force relationships to either progress or end, sometimes before they would otherwise. We plan to celebrate our anniversary twice this year, almost certainly at someplace nicer than Taco Bell.

Photo 1 is from our “real” wedding in Chicago.
Read more from “A Traveler in the Foreign Service” here.

Pack spare passport photos – International travel tip

When traveling abroad, it is a good idea to have an extra set of passport photos packed among your belongings.

In the event that your passport is lost or stolen, you can save valuable time by immediately taking these photos to the embassy or consulate when you apply for a replacement. Without the photos, you may find yourself frantically searching for a photo lab in a potentially unfamiliar city or town.

[Photo: Flickr | selmerv]

What to do if you’re a tourist in a natural disaster

Sky eats landscapeNatural disasters can strike anywhere at any time. Mother nature doesn’t care who you are, how much money you spent on your vacation, or whether you bought travel insurance. Mother nature is kind of a jerk like that. So, what exactly do you do if you’re lying on a Chilean beach one day and then suddenly you’re in an earthquake?

While I would never advocate living in fear or always preparing for the worst (no way to live, in my humble opinion), a little precaution is more than a good idea; it’s responsible. It’s like packing an umbrella when you know it’s likely to rain. Consider the risks of your destination (Does it get avalanches? Tornadoes? Is it the island from Lost?), and make sure you have a plan in mind in case you get unlucky. Read on for a list of potential disasters and tips on how to stay safe.

But first, everyone should program 202-501-4444 into their phone or keep it in their travel documents. Why? It’s the phone number for emergency assistance to Americans in foreign countries, a’la the US Department of State (they’ll get you help from your nearest US embassy). Additionally, you should register with the US Department of State when you’re going abroad so that they can inform the nearest embassy that you’re coming and keep better track of you if there’s a crisis. Travel registration is a free service for which your taxes pay, and you can do it online here.

If that sounds a little big-brother-ish to you, consider how much passport stuff you go through anytime you travel abroad. It’s okay for your country to know where you are. In fact, it’s a very good thing, as they have an obligation to try and protect you on your travels. Also, there’s a Privacy Act:”The provisions of the Privacy Act are designed to protect the privacy and rights of Americans, but occasionally they complicate our efforts to assist citizens abroad. As a rule, consular officers may not reveal information regarding an individual Americans location, welfare, intentions, or problems to anyone, including family members and Congressional representatives, without the expressed consent of that individual. Although sympathetic to the distress this can cause concerned families, consular officers must comply with the provisions of the Privacy Act.”

Basically, the Department of State can’t tell anyone where you are, even if they know, unless you expressly tell them to. When you register, you can give them an emergency contact who’s not traveling with you. Don’t you want them to be able to tell your mom (or wife, husband, girlfriend, whoever you list) where you are and that you’re okay if all the phone lines and computers are down? You can also allow them to disclose info to the media, your medical representative or your lawyers. Register up. Expats, too. I did.

FEMA lists the following crises as potential disasters:

Click on any one you’re concerned about for FEMA’s advice — they provide great instructions for what to do immediately, like crouch in a corner or get outside.

Additional advice for expats in particular is here.

New US embassy in London to be bigger, sexier, stronger

With today’s modern threats all around us, US embassies have become a bit of an eyesore of late, many circumferentially heaped with piles of concrete, checkpoints, armor, guards and other, nefarious security. One would never imagine that those sorts of security facets could tastefully be integrated into a structure, but lo and behold, the folks at Philadelphia-based KieranTimberlake have pulled it off.

London’s new US Embassy, an update to the current, less-secure digs, looks less like an iron and concrete government building (J. Edgar Hoover building what?) and more like an architectural masterpiece from the 21st century.

As KieranTimberlake describes it:

The expressive challenge is to give form to the core beliefs of our democracy – transparency, openness, and equality – and do so in a way that is both secure and welcoming. At the same time, the building must confront the environmental challenges all nations face with leading edge sustainable design.

And so the building will rise, a glass cube on the south shore of the Thames with an integrated urban park, photovoltaic (solar cell) roof panels and energy efficient design throughout.

That said, the new building will also still have plenty of security features, from a giant moat to (shrubbery infused!) barriers to blast resistant glazing.

Check out the full details over at KieranTimberlake. The new building should open up in 2013

[Via PRI’s The World]

British embassies tell citizens: “Don’t ask us how to make jam”

Embassies are there to help. If you’ve lost your passport, they’ll replace it for you. If you’ve been mugged, they’ll visit you at the hospital. If there’s a revolution going on, they’ll airlift you out.

But they won’t tell you where to buy the best shoes, give your kid a lift to the airport, show you how to pack your bag, and they will never, ever, tell you the right proportion of sugar and fruit that is needed to make good jam.

These are just a few of a long list of stupid requests British embassies have received from their citizens traveling abroad, and the ambassadorial staff is getting a wee bit ticked off. The Foreign and Commonwealth Office is now issuing clear instructions on what embassies will and won’t do. They’re busy helping out the guy who had his suitcase stolen or the drunken lout who got his penis set on fire by an angry woman he was harassing. They don’t have the time, inclination, or ability to predict the weather, manipulate the exchange rate, or pay taxi fare.

Yes, those are all actual requests.