Who Had It Better: Diplomats of the Present or the Past?

I drove to the garden store in Algiers the other day, and it was the first time in months I’ve driven more than a few kilometers. (Seriously, I last filled the tank in our car about 60 days ago and it’s still at least half full!) On the drive back, I was trying to figure which podcast to play off my iPhone and decided instead to flip through the radio stations. I settled on a station that played “Habibi, Habibi, Habibi” upbeat love songs, some dance songs in French, and one song that started in English, moved to Spanish, and ended in Arabic. They were all pretty good and I was rocking out with the windows down, a melange of sea air and exhaust and coronavirus blowing in (jk, most everyone here is wearing masks). I sort of couldn’t believe that it had taken me 10 months in Algiers to ever even think of turning the radio station on. It hadn’t occurred to me before because I have endless news at my fingertips with my NPR app; a billion podcast options; and abundant (mostly American) music thanks to Spotify. As I was listening to the in-between-songs chit chat in darija (the Algerian dialect of Arabic that contains lots of French) and understanding some of it, I figured I should make it a habit of listening to the radio more. I could imagine a diplomat moving to a new country 50 or even 80 years and flipping through radio stations to hear how local people talked or to listen to music.

There’s a woman on a Foreign Service Facebook group I’m a part of who recently started sharing letters written by her mother-in-law in the 1950s when she and her young family moved to Germany for a diplomatic posting. Their journey to Europe was by ship, and once they arrived in Germany, they had to rent a car and find their new house using a paper map. And of course, there was no email so the woman wrote letters constantly to keep her family at home updated. This was around the same time that Julia Child was moving to Paris with her new husband Paul (who, btw, was a Cultural Attaché, which is my husband’s job). They too had to find their new digs on their own, and find everything to eat on their own as they did not have a massive shipment of American shelf-stable food arrive to their Parisian doorstep. Also: So many letters written!

I think about diplomats from decades past and compare it to the great conveniences we have and sometimes wonder, ultimately, who was better off?

Communications wise, as much as I love reading an old letter, I believe that nearly all aspects of modern communication are better suited for an overseas lifestyle. I mean, how did diplomats in the old days communicate with Washington DC? Secure telegrams? Clicking out a little messages line by line? Oy. Later, by long distance phone calls? Emails are the way to go, all the way, not to mention they create a vast federal record that people in the future can use to see how diplomats did their jobs in the olden days. And for personal life, having emails, Whatsapp, and video calls makes me feel like I’m never so far away from my family and friends at home. Yes, letters generally contain better writing than the every day email or text message, but the point of these things is to stay connected not to win a writing prize. Instant communication wins. And so does having a digital record. I rather like knowing that if someone wanted to, they could possibly cull my emails (or read this blog) to learn what my life was like all the way back in the 21st century.

Another major convenience – I’d say the biggest convenience – of being a Foreign Service Officer in the modern era is we can bring all of our stuff with us from America and once we’re at post, we can order even more stuff from America. For instance, Adam and I were authorized to bring more than 7,000 pounds of household belongings (for Adam and I, that’s everything we own and it was all shipped from our previous post, Rabat). And we brought our car. We also are allowed an annual 1,000 pound shipment of consumable goods like salsa, spices, soups, the good toilet paper, and shampoo (this perk, called “a consumables shipment,” is authorized for diplomats living in countries where it’s been determined that local products are hard-to-come-by or not comparable to American ones). In addition to all that, we also have a reliable mail service that allows us to order things to a U.S. address from which the government ships them overseas to us. In the last week, I’ve picked up kitty litter, a pair of jeans, two wall mount lamps, a four-pack of Chipotles in adobo sauce, and organic bug spray from the mail room at the embassy.

It’s a lot. And honestly I’m a little ashamed that we get all these perks (or am I just ashamed to be publicly sharing with you that we get these perks?) These perks make life abroad 100% easier for me and also they dilute the authenticity of living abroad. Because as long as I get my summer tops from Madewell and a pair of silky wide leg summer pants from Anthropologie, I won’t go clothes shopping in Algiers. As long as I get my SPF face lotion and prescriptions in the mail, I probably won’t go to an Algerian pharmacy. I do have to go to the vegetable stands, bakeries, hardware grocery stores very often. Each trip teaches me something new about Algiers.

I love creature comforts and having a well-decorated home, so I’d be a liar if I declared I thought we’d be better off if we weren’t allowed to ship over our household belongings. I honestly don’t know if I could maintain a cheerful disposition, or if I’d want to host dinner parties, if I was forced to live the bulk of my life amongst beige carpet remnants, thick pleated beige drapes, lumpy beige sofas and overstuffed arm chairs common in most government housing.

Plus, even though we bring all our stuff, I still scout for beautiful local things to add to our home and often this takes the form of an exciting language-barrier addled adventure. The great couch search of 2016 that ended up scoring us The Most Beautiful Sofa in the World in Tel Aviv; the cedar hutch, rattan garden set, and custom zellige tile table from Oulja Artisan Village in Morocco. The Algerian kitchen tiles I picked out in our current home (and the custom daybed I’m commissioning from a chic local furniture maker).

Sometimes I think of this old American man who used to shop at the commissary in the U.S. Embassy in Madrid. He’d push a cart around the small store, filling it with frozen meals and small jugs of maple syrup and American beer. I believe he was retired military and was living in Spain. He commented to me once that he never grocery shopped in a local Spanish store. I couldn’t believe it! Why retire to Spain if everything you want to eat comes from America? But obviously he’s an anomaly. I think most American living abroad – even ones like us who get many perks that make life feel more American – interact more with local life.

The title of this blog post is admittedly a tad duplicitous because for me, really it’s no question: Diplomats today have it better because we have it easier. But still, I can’t help but think that something — Authenticity? Discovery? Connection to our new country? — is lost.

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