20 January 2010

Unpacking history

Today is moving-in day for me. I arrived in Prague in October but my HHE (household effects) were just delivered. I had a much smaller shipment that arrived from Islamabad in October, so I’ve been perfectly content living with what I have, and I have dreaded this day for several months now. I need to give you the background on the problem.

Allow me to introduce you to one of the oddities of Foreign Service life. We move—a lot! Our standard tours are one to three years, depending on the difficulty of the location. While our housing is provided, and almost always furnished, personal items, household goods, kitchenware, books, etc. move with us. Some posts are in areas where standard goods are difficult, if not downright impossible, to buy. If we are moving to one of those “hardship” posts, we are also granted a consumables allowance, which is an additional weight to use for products we will need while we are at that post and are not likely to find locally.

In 2001, I transferred to Conakry, Guinea in West Africa. Conakry is one of those “hardship” posts where a consumables allowance is essential. Guinea is a country incredibly rich in resources with a long-standing corrupt government that has kept the people in abject poverty. Fortunately, people don’t usually starve there because food grows abundantly, but the people are starved for everything else. As a result, goods and services are largely unavailable.

I was supposed to be in Conakry until 2004 and I brought with me ample goods to see me through. I’ve learned that I do quite well on local food, so most of my consumables are things such as paper products and cleaning supplies. One can really tell a lot about a person’s preferences from seeing what is chosen for consumables. Let your imagination be your guide: disposable diapers, wine and beer, ethnic foods, various canned goods, etc. For me, it is American paper products. They can’t be beat! If you have ever used non-American toilet paper, you know what I mean.

Unexpectedly, I was offered a move to Kabul, Afghanistan for the spring of 2003, more than a year before I was supposed to leave Guinea. I jumped at the opportunity and began the preparation of moving. But there was a catch. Housing in Kabul consisted of a 17-foot by 8-foot metal shipping container, and I was only allowed to ship 500 pounds of goods and bring two suitcases. So everything I had in Guinea that was non-perishable was put into storage for me by the Department of State.

My plan was to do the one-year tour in Kabul and then go to another regular post, but again I was offered my dream job—worldwide rover. My things stayed in storage for the second and third year while I worked temporarily in nine different locations, filling in staffing gaps. In fact, the things I had shipped to Kabul were now in storage, too, as I was down to two suitcases—period!

As providence would have it, for my next posting I chose Islamabad, again one of those limited-household-effects posts, and all I was able to move was the stored goods from Kabul. I stayed in that one-year post for three years! This brings me to today. This morning the belongings that have been stored since 2003 were delivered to my apartment.

I have been opening boxes all day, discarding things I wondered why I packed at all, trying to find a place in my limited storage space for other things I know I don’t need. I’m even getting nostalgic over a few items. When I opened a box filled with dinnerware my son gave me years ago, I choked up. And when I came across a couple of items that had belonged to my daughter, I sat down for a good cry. Perhaps nearly seven years of not having my real life with me was too long. I need reminders of my history to reassure me and help me remember who I really am and where I came from, not just things that chronicle where I’ve been.

Some of the boxes have been real surprises with contents I actually don’t remember at all. Several times today I have said, to no one present, “Where did this come from?” Fortunately, I like most of what I’ve found.

And then I came upon the consumables. I won’t bore you with the details, but I will tell you this. For the rest of my life, I will never again have to buy paper towels.

For Reflections on Nursing Leadership, published by the Honor Society of Nursing, Sigma Theta Tau International.


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