Choosing the Foreign Service, especially after a first career in the private sector usually means earning much less money – especially for the non-diplomat spouse. However you need to account for all elements of your earnings and they are not all cash in your pocket but cash you don’t need to take out of your pocket. For example children’s education in private international schools, some medical acts and interventions, or housing. Let’s focus on housing today.
When we are sent overseas housing is provided to us, usually in the best and safest area of the capital – or large cities in case of consultates. Depending on the country there is a choice between an apartment or a house, usually fairly large. Of course it all depends. In Africa or the Middle East your house will be, in general, much larger than in Europe. If you are a single person, you will usually be in an over sized apartment or house, if you have a family of four or six, depending on the country, you might be a bit cramped.
The motto of the Foreign Service – almost a mantra – is “it depends”. Despite the fact that the Foreign Service is governed by many rules summarized in the Foreign Affairs Manual and the Foreign Affairs Handbook, known respectively as the FAM and the FAH, in many areas when you ask a question, the answer is the ominous and predictable “it depends”. This is one of the very first thing to learn, the second being “it shall pass” to overcome any difficult or uncomfortable situation.
We had a large house in Senegal (four bedrooms, an office, a family room, a huge living room and a dining room) with a nice garden in an area near the school and the Embassy club with a swimming pool. The commute was under half an hour. Some colleagues were in large apartments on the third floor without elevator of a modern building with a much longer commute and no garden – not as nice.
We had a much smaller apartment in Mexico City (only three bedrooms which meant none for guests since we have two children, no office) but it was a trade-off for our children to have a 10-minute walk to school and us a half-an-hour commute versus having a house with a one-hour commute for parents and children alike.
The situation in Pakistan is diverse: live on the Embassy compound or outside and if outside live alone in a house or share a house between two or three families. It depends on your job, your rank, a bit of luck and especially your date of arrival.
We discovered our new house in Islamabad in the wee hours of the night – or very early morning since it was about 3:00 am. Even if not completely awake, we could tell it was a very large house with a garden, and it was all for us! A large lobby with marble floors and checkerboard patterns in the center leading to living room, dining room, kitchen, master bedroom and bathroom, and stairs up and down. The railing of the staircase was made of black wrought iron and golden oak leaves. Downstairs there was a large L-shaped room, unfurnished but tiled, perfect for parties. Upstairs there were three bedrooms and their respective bathrooms, all different: grey, beige, blue.
Let’s go back to the ground floor. The kitchen had a triangular shape and all cupboards were salmon pink – all 26 of them! Sounds obvious? Not so much since in Senegal we had three different styles (white plastic, clear wood, dark wood) in the kitchen. 26 cupboards and not a single drawer. I thought it was a Pakistani specialty but all our colleagues had drawers in their kitchen so it was only our landlord who didn’t think about it. And there was no shelves in the lower cupboards so pots would be de facto on the floor. The higher cupboards were mounted so high that I could not see inside (and I’m 5’6), I had to touch and recognize if it was a knife or a fork…remember no drawers so where do you place your silverware?
From the kitchen we could go to the back garden after opening four bolts, one lock and a locked mosquito door. The tiny window of the kitchen was decorated with bars and the view from it was barbed wire… Next to it was the master bedroom but our colleague explained that we could not use it! This is Pakistan and it was not safe to sleep on the ground floor, we had to adopt the bedroom upstairs which had been transformed into Fort Knox with an armored door, zillion bolts, bars and locks and we had to keep at all times two massive water containers in case we had to find refuge in our bedroom for a lapse of time. The interior was lovely, cream-eggshell walls with white moldings on the high ceiling.
As a side note for those of you not in the Foreign Service, we usually have all our walls painted ONLY white. If you wish to paint them just cream, not even purple, you do so at your own expense (until then why not) but then you have to re-paint them white before your departure – even if the colleague after you would love to inherit cream instead of white!
The fourth level of the house was very small inside; it is where they had installed the washing machine and the dryer. This room gave access to the flat roof-terrace from which we had fantastic views on the Margalla hills.