A Traveler In The Foreign Service: The Best Foreign Service Blogs

smoking huge joint womanThe World Wide Web is saturated with amateurish blogs created by people who’d be lucky to command the devoted readership of their immediate family members, let alone the wider public. There are scores of blogs managed by Foreign Service Officers (FSOs) and while many of them are worth reading, some are downright bizarre. This post will steer you toward some Foreign Service related blogs that are well worth your time.

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I started this series nine months ago to help people get a better understanding of what life in the U.S. Foreign Service is like. Many of the posts have been about my experiences but I’ve also introduced readers to an intrepid, single female diplomat fresh off of tours in Syria and Pakistan, a diplomatic courier, a USAID Foreign Service Officer currently serving in Afghanistan and others. But spend some time at the sites listed below to get a flavor of what it’s like to represent the U.S. Government in The Marshall Islands, Papua New Guinea, Bolivia, Pakistan and dozens of other exotic locales.toothless woman with stretched earlobes peasantOne major caveat here is that FSOs have to be careful what they write because free speech only takes you so far in the precarious, uber-cautious world of government service. Most FSOs have disclaimers on their sites warning that the views expressed are their own, but many still tend to steer clear of tackling political issues or anything controversial.

Peter Van Buren, a now retired diplomat who wrote “We Meant Well: How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People,” was effectively driven out of the Foreign Service partially because he posted a link to a cable on WikiLeaks and made some disparaging remarks, which he later apologized for, about Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on his website.

There’s no doubt that his experience has had a chilling effect across the board, so visit the sites below to get the low-down on the Foreign Service lifestyle and the travel opportunities, not the dirty underbelly of how diplomacy plays out overseas.

Some of the blogs below contain little, if any biographical info, and I wasn’t able to read each one in its entirety, so my apologies in advance if my impressions of these blogs below miss the mark. That said, I would invite the authors of these fine sites to tell us more about themselves, if they dare, in the comments section.

Diplopundit

Domani Spero has no U.S. government connection and thus has the freedom to write about the world of diplomacy without having to worry about his career. Diplopundit is as close as you’ll find to one-stop shopping for a candid look at what’s going on in the Foreign Service community.

Adventures in Good Countries- Getting Along In The Foreign Service

I love this blog. The author, apparently a single female public diplomacy officer who, “doesn’t date outside the visa waiver program,” blogs with style and passion about life in Japan, Pakistan, Jordan and elsewhere, coping with Multiple Sclerosis and whatever else pops into her head. How can you not like a writer who offers advice to protesters on how to construct a good effigy? (“Don’t just throw something together with the rationale that you’re only going to burn it anyway – take some pride in your work.”)

We Meant Well

You might not agree with Peter Van Buren but you will want to read his blog, which is sometimes offensive but never boring.

Third Culture Children

This blog, which details the lives of a family of five living in Recife, Brazil, La Paz, Bolivia and elsewhere, is one of the very best Foreign Service related sites out there. It’s a particularly good resource for parents who are wondering what the overseas experience will be like for their children.

amy gottlieb usaidAmy Gottlieb’s Photography & Blog

Gottlieb is a doctor and a USAID FSO currently serving in South Africa. Her portraits from Jamaica, Nepal, Vietnam, South America, Africa and beyond are as good as any you’ll find anywhere.

Adventures Around the World- A Foreign Service Officer’s Tales of Life Abroad

The author of this refreshingly candid and well-written blog is currently in Kabul and has previously served in Iraq and Nepal. Here’s how she described the “honeymoon” period at a new post: “The honeymoon period is the time frame after moving to a foreign country where the excitement of being somewhere new overshadows certain harsh realities of living in a foreign country. People burning piles of trash in the street give the place ‘character’ and bargaining with a taxi driver is part of the ‘adventure.'”

Worldwide Availability

This is a stunning photo blog from an American diplomat who was born on a farm in China and is currently serving in South Korea. Visiting this site is the next best thing to booking a ticket to Seoul. Also, for those who are curious to know how long it takes to join the Foreign Service, take a look at his instructive personal timeline for some clues.

Wanderings of a Cheerful Stoic

Anyone who features a photo of themselves (I presume) with a Gambian poached rat on their homepage is all right by me. This is a blog from a FSO posted in Conakry, Guinea, a place where “you tend to find yourself without a really specific reason.”

The Slow Move East- Thoughts on Being an Expatriate

Hannah Draper, a FSO currently serving in Libya, might be a “Type-A bureaucrat who professionally pushes papers in the Middle East,” but her writing is compulsively readable.

Where in the World am I? Notes from the Streets of Hyderabad, India

A FSO in Hyderabad who previously served in Burundi blogs about food and life overseas with gusto.

Cross Words- A Blog About Writing and Anything Else That Comes to Mind

Ted Cross, a FSO currently living in Budapest who apparently just signed up for Facebook last week (Friend him!), tells us on his homepage that his “dream is to be a published author.” I like someone who isn’t afraid to tell the world what he wants. He’s into fantasy and science fiction, neither of which interests me, but his blog is unique and his writing is lucid.

Four Globetrotters- The (Most Likely) Incoherent Ramblings of a Sleep-Deprived Single Mother Living Overseas with her Trio of Kiddos

Anyone who can pull off being a single mom in the Foreign Service is someone I want to meet. This blog, written by a former Foreign Service brat, isn’t nearly as incoherent as advertised.

Beau Geste, Mon Ami- The Chronicle of my Journey to and through The Foreign Service

Even a quick breeze through this visually appealing blog will give you an idea of how varied and interesting life in the Foreign Service can be. If nothing else, do not miss the photos of the tribal warriors in Papua New Guinea.

Zvirdins at Large- Jamie and Andrew’s Excellent Adventures

If you want a slice of life from the Marshall Islands, this is the place to go. I love this blog but I couldn’t bring myself to click into the video entitled “Pig Shooting” in a post on “Pig Butchering.” Yikes.

Talesmag

This isn’t a FSO blog per se, but the site’s stories and “real post reports” on hundreds of cities around the globe are an invaluable resource for those seeking insights into the Foreign Service lifestyle.

Let me know in the comments section if you think I’ve missed any great FSO-related blogs and if you’re the author of ones of the sites mentioned above, tell us a bit about yourself.

Read more from “A Traveler in the Foreign Service” here.

(Photos courtesy of Amy Gottlieb)

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.