It’s easy to be cynical. The Foreign Service – your chosen profession – is one of the world’s top salaried posts, and for some of us, exceptionally demanding. But they put the “very” in very public and proud. The personal vices of diplomacy often don’t seem like problems at all. “We’ve been privileged to work in dozens of countries, and the lifestyle, romance and drama,” a New Yorker correspondent wrote in 2004, “leave even the toughest and most cynical reporter euphoric.” That telegraphs an impression of adventure and exhilaration, even when you’re actually pulled in another direction. When things go wrong, it’s not always the reasons you expected – they’re all too often blamed on your skills.
Being a US Foreign Service officer was once a pinnacle career. Today, it feels like a place to stay for the short term and then move on to greener pastures, at a fraction of the salary. For almost 40 years, I’ve been a young agent in training.
From the moment I picked up my first pay cheque on joining the Foreign Service, it’s been not so much a pay cheque as a distraction from the consequences of all the other distractions and onerous work: a chance to put my college education to work and see the world before ending up an accountant in a bank somewhere. First posts taught me the boring, repetitive and increasingly lonely duties that are necessary to get you up to a level in the Foreign Service, but it’s been an exercise in intensive personal development, and a genuine gift to me as a person.
Through hard work and discipline, my confidence has grown. It’s a smart, deliberate and thoughtful mind. I never ask the rank and file on the front line in my field if I’m doing a good job, I just trust that they know the world the way I do, and hope that I’m doing them a service.
Some of my colleagues are friends. Some are like me: immigrants. One of my partners in the field spent 10 years in the military. He seems to have done OK out of the Foreign Service. Often that comes down to having the right skills at the right time.
I feel lucky to do what I do, especially when the opportunities to waste time by enjoying ordinary pleasures become uncertain and intangible
We’re not financially secure. Yet even during the depths of the economic crisis, expatriates still had an expectation that we’d be allowed to live anywhere in the world. You’re on more solid ground when a good friend who got in trouble at home for sending money to see his mother needs a cheap flight. Or when we’re friends of one another. The whole purpose of joining the Foreign Service is to give them a choice – to work in the “right places” – for the next 60 years.
I feel lucky to do what I do, especially when the opportunities to waste time by enjoying ordinary pleasures become uncertain and intangible. I feel privileged to live on a series of small islands and lie by a river in the middle of the world. I feel hopeful that the ability to see the world from any angle can make all that matter – family, work, friends – all very important. I’m lucky that if something seems too stressful, all I have to do is pay the taxi fare home.
• As told to Ingrid Udell