If you work overseas for State, there are two kinds of vacations you'll get: home leave and R&R.
Home leave is what you do between posts. That is, you finish up one overseas assignment, and before you start your next assignment, you are required to return to the States for a break. I believe the thinking is that if you return to the States, you'll stay "American" - that is, you'll remember why it is you're serving this great country of ours. Also, you'll be able to stock up on inexpensive chocolate chips and choose from a wide variety of shampoo, both key reasons our country is such a wonderful place to live. (I'm pretty sure the Boston Tea Party had something to do with my right to choose between black, green and passion tea in my shaken iced tea lemonade.)
R&R is something you do during your overseas tour. Most posts these days are 3 years long, with 2 R&Rs, which you can use to return to the States or go elsewhere. While in Beijing, we used 1 R&R (which is basically a free plane ticket, but nothing else) to go to Thailand, and one to go the States.
I'm only now realizing that R&R is a whole different beast from home leave. And frankly, home leave kind of stinks in comparison.
See, when you return to the States on R&R, people have all sorts of questions for you. What's it like over there? Can you speak the language? Can you drink the water? Who are your friends? Where do you shop? And you can answer those questions, because you've been living there.
When you're on home leave, you don't know a thing about your onward assignment, other than what you've read. So you can't answer anything. And you realize you don't know anything. And you get kind of stressed out. And possibly even grouchy. Or snappish. Because you don't have any answers.
When you're on R&R, you know what you need to do. You come home armed with a list: buy flax seed and vanilla. Go see the dentist. Buy a year's worth of socks and underwear. Whatever it is, you know what you need to accomplish. Because you've been there.
Compare that to home leave. Do I need to order diapers? Shampoo? A swimsuit? Don't know if I can get those things there or not. Should we go to the dentist, or wait and find one there? If we wait, maybe there won't be one. Don't know. So the list sort of languishes, not getting crossed off, but floating there in the recesses of your mind. Making you stressed out. And possibly even grouchy. Or snappish. Because you don't have any answers.
And then there are the kids. Whose crazy idea was it to bring kids on home leave, anyway? "Go home," Ainsley tells me every day. She wants her house, and her crib and her ayi. Who can blame her? I'm having trouble explaining to her that we're actually kind of homeless right now. As for the older kids, when you're on R&R, they're excited to see family, but they also want to go back home and see their friends. But now, on home leave, they know they won't be going back to their old house, and their old friends. So they can't understand why they need to move back overseas anyway, when they already have a house and a school and friends right here in Virginia. Although they're excited about the upcoming journey, they don't really want to start all over in a new place. All of the uncertainty leaves them stressed out. And possibly even grouchy. Or snappish.
Are you seeing a pattern here?
We have a couple more days here in NoVa before making the journey north to visit the next set of relatives. We've had loads of fun so far. We went to a baseball game with relatives on the Fourth of July, but we drove home before the fireworks started (after three consecutive Chinese New Year celebrations, we're kind of over the whole fireworks thing, anyway). The boys had a sleepover with their aunt and uncle. We met up with old friends at a nearby playground, one of our old haunts. We ran through the old neighborhood, knocking on doors (Larry? Pam? Gina? Where are you guys?). We've been to Wegmans twice (oh, Wegmans, how I did miss you!) and we can't stop fighting over those grocery carts with the car in front. We went to the Air and Space Museum out by Dulles. We rode on the metro. We strolled through Eastern Market. We ate on the patio at Mr. Henry's. We ordered takeout from Sunflower. We even - the kids count this as fun - went to Chuckie Cheese.
So that's home leave so far. We're doing exactly what we're supposed to be doing. We're revisiting our version of America, enjoying ourselves immensely much of the time. But we're also crammed together, 6 to a hotel room, which means we're stressed out, grouchy and a tad snappish. This means, of course, that when it's time to climb on that plane for the long uncertain journey forward, we'll all be ready. Ready to go home. Whereever that may be.