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American Diplomacy
Foreign Service Life

September 2003

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The U. S. Foreign Service is, of course, made up of people; officers have wives and children, and young officers have young wives and young children. The author of this sketch, the spouse of a now-retired senior Foreign Service officer, depicts all-too-accurately the trials and tribulations of a transfer when little children are involved.—Ed.

Yes, An Interesting Life

When I tell people where I have lived in Foreign Service days, they usually respond with, "That must have been very interesting." I always agree and then I often think back to our move from Lima, Peru, to Montevideo, Uruguay, in 1967. At that time, our children were Ellen, five; Lisa, three; and Michael, four months (and still nursing).

Our plane left Lima an hour late so when we had a stop in Santiago, Chile, my husband Irwin ran into the terminal to see what our chances were for making our connection at the next stop, Buenos Aires. He learned that the flight on which we were supposed to make a connection did not exist, in spite of the fact that we had confirmed reservations. Later we found out that that flight had been discontinued about a week before we had left Lima, but the airline had not bothered to notify us. We had specifically chosen that flight because it was the only one we could transfer to in Buenos Aires without traveling to another airport in that city, one hour and fifteen minutes away through downtown Buenos Aires. With three children and fifteen suitcases, we wanted to do everything possible to avoid that downtown trip.

As we were landing in Buenos Aires, I decided that I really had to change Michael before we got off the plane. Irwin was waiting for me in the aisle; I glanced away for a second to get a clean diaper, and suddenly Irwin felt something warm running down his arm. Such a disrespectful son!

On collecting our luggage, we discovered that someone had mistakenly walked off with the suitcase containing all of the baby's clothes, minus his diapers, which were in a separate suitcase. The mistaken party had left us his very similar blue suitcase that we decided wouldn't do Michael much good. So the only clothes we had for Michael were those he had dirtied on the trip.

In Buenos Aires it took us about forty-five minutes in the late afternoon to find another flight from the same airport. I won't say it necessarily was a small, unknown airline, but the same girl who sold us tickets also collected our tickets at the gate.

Forty minutes later we landed at our destination, Montevideo. There was no one at the airport to meet us because, with the cancellation of our flight, no one knew when we would be arriving. We had no Uruguayan money and the banks were on strike, so we could not exchange money or use a pay phone to call the embassy. Irwin managed to convince the staff of an airport office to let him use their phone.

Someone at the embassy told us which hotel we were to go to. We left the airport in our caravan—the baby and I in one taxi, Irwin and the girls in another, with the fourteen surviving suitcases divided between us. We pulled up in front of the hotel which in the meantime had received a call from the embassy confirming our arrival. Before we could get out of the taxi, the doorman told us that the hotel did not have room for a family of five—the embassy happened to have made the reservation for Mr. Rubenstein only. So our caravan proceeded to another hotel. As I ascended the stairs to the entrance, Michael spit up on me. By this time it was suppertime, the baby was screaming, and Lisa was asking me, "Do they have bathrooms in Montevideo?" At the reception desk, the clerk told Irwin that he could give us a room if we were out of it by 9:00 the following morning. I said, "Take it!" We would worry about the future some other time.

In a little while, someone came from the embassy and arranged for us to stay two nights at the hotel. The next morning, the hotel gave us super-fast laundry service of Michael's clothes, and a nice embassy wife brought us a suitcase of her baby's clothes. But by that time the airline had delivered our lost suitcase, so all was well in that department.

On our second day in the hotel, I was in the bathroom thinking how lucky we were to have such good children , children who were happy with their coloring books and dolls, inventing little games, etc., when suddenly I heard several bang, bang, bangs. I rushed out because I was afraid they had been playing near the window. Lisa was standing by the closet, and I said, "Where's Ellen?" I heard a little voice answer happily, "Here I am, Mommy." I opened the closet door, and there was Ellen sitting on the top shelf of the closet. She looked so cute that I had to burst out laughing. She had climbed up there on the open drawers that were built into the closet, and then Lisa had slammed all the drawers closed, thus making the banging noises.

After a couple of days in the hotel, we moved into the furnished apartment of an embassy family that was in the States on home leave. We met a very nice couple in the same building, Ursula and Ben Shaw, who were both born in Germany but who left for England in the 1930’s to escape Hitler. The Shaws helped us in countless ways. First, they loaned us meat; you couldn't buy meat in a Montevideo store or restaurant from Thursday through Sunday night. The meat shortage was caused by two factors: first, Uruguay had suffered its worst winter ever, bringing drought, floods, frost, and much damage to the country's cattle industry; second, the government had decided a year earlier to curtail buying on the home front to encourage producers to export to bring in more foreign exchange.

Before our new friend Ursula left for vacation in the States, she took me to the street fair that came to our neighborhood on Thursday mornings. There you could buy fruits, vegetables, fish, cold cuts, eggs, flowers, plastic wares, and the like. More importantly, Ursula introduced me to the man from whom she had been buying cheeses and butter for years. In addition to the meat shortage, there was a dairy goods shortage. The following week when I went to the butter man, there were two women before me. I saw the first one silently move her lips to ask him, "Manteca?" (Butter?) Then the next one asked, "Tiene?" (Do you have?) After I had bought a few other items from him, I felt I should say to him, "José sent me." But I said, "Y. . . ?” (And . . . ?) And he slipped me half a stick of butter.

Not only were the banks on strike—the newspapers were, as well. This made house hunting very difficult. But with the help of Ursula and Ben, I had access to the Jewish community newspaper, which was not on strike, and through that paper we found our new home.

While we were packing up our things in Lima, we had learned that all of our household effects would be shipped by air to Montevideo. This had made us very happy because we figured that there would be less damage if our things were not being transported by truck, ship, or who knows what. Also, our effects would arrive faster.

It took over two months to find our house, get it painted inside and get our household effects delivered. Imagine our shock on opening the crates and finding mildew on many things: clothing, mattresses, pillows, lamp shades, paintings, dining room chairs! The packers in Lima had not lined our lift vans with plastic. Apparently the vans had sat outdoors at some airport during a rainstorm in July—and here we were opening the boxes in September. It was about six months before we finished with the insurance company, got things replaced, and had paintings restored. Fortunately, there were very talented restorers in Montevideo.

Yes, it was certainly a very interesting life!


The author, now residing in Florida with her retired husband, Irwin, accompanied him on assignments to Guayaquil, Lima, Montevideo, Cali, Managua, Tel Aviv, Mexico City, and Guadalajara.

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