What It’s Like for Diplomat Families to Raise Children Abroad

Writer Anna Pellicioli and her husband raise three children in a Foreign Service home. What helps her power through sticky situations on the road? A good sense of humor and faith in humanity.

What It’s Like for Diplomat Families to Raise Children Abroad

The United States Foreign Service employs over 13,000 U.S. diplomats to carry out foreign policy abroad.

Photo by Ianni Dimitrov/Stockimo/Alamy

We’re driving a minivan with a Space Shuttle bumper sticker: three children, one husband, and my visiting sister. The kids squirm in the backseat. Everyone’s hungry. It’s Saturday in Istanbul, our fourth Foreign Service home in seven years. I turn onto a narrow street, heading to our usual parking lot near the Grand Bazaar.

A few ablas (sisters) in their bright hijabs walk in front of us, bags full of lemons and pomegranates. I turn into a current of carts that are pushed by men peddling copper wire and knife sharpeners. I stop. Is this a one-way street? Is this even a street? I thought I remembered. This doesn’t look right. The car behind me honks a long, irritated honk. More men cross the street, balancing carpets on their shoulders, cigarettes between their lips. A basket tied to a rope drops from a window, waiting for clotted cream. Fourteen million people get on with their day.

A distant ferry blows its foghorn like a deep, condescending I-told-you-so. I turn up a hill into a dead end. My husband sighs. “Mami, I want simit,” the little one howls, referring to the seeded ring of bread, a Turkish snack.

Within seconds, someone knocks on my bumper and waves his hands. I roll down the window. The outside smells like jasmine, gasoline, and fresh bread. Six men surround our car. My sister laughs nervously. Each man gestures for me to come his direction. “Ghel, abla, ghel.” Come, sister, come.

Go, my husband says. Go Mami, the boys yell from the back. “Simiiiiiiit!” the littlest one insists. I tune out the inside noise and let the outside guide me until, by some magic, my gigantic silver machine is out of the maze of streets, and the men are shaking my husband’s hand, blessing our children and the road ahead. When we finally get to the bazaar, the kids feast on rose candies and gobble simit on a rooftop, facing two continents and counting ships on the most enchanting body of water in the world.

“I want to be an astronaut,” my six-year-old son says, “and go to space and sing the prayer from there, so everybody in the world can hear it.” My son, the muezzin astronaut, has already lived in four different countries.

If you ask my children where they’re from, they’ll say Washington, D.C., but if you ask them where home is, they may not know. They know we took sleds to school on snowy Moscow mornings. They know I nursed their sister on the ferry from Europe to Asia. They know we lit a candle in a Jura mountain chapel, where the ghosts of my grandfathers whispered: How lucky you are—to be so lost and yet so alive.

Sometimes it’s hard. Every foreign service mama dreams of a farm with a porch swing back home. All of us, at some point, cry because everyone in the house gets the barking cough, or the only windshield wiper fluid we could find smells like toxic watermelon, or we just put our kids on a school bus to a place we’ve never been. Sometimes, we just want to go home. That’s when someone finds you and pulls you out.

The world rescues your kid’s scooter from the Bosporus. It hands your crying daughter a ripe fruit you don’t know the name of. It lets your boys jump from one rug pile to another. And you say thank you, in their language and in yours. Güle, güle, they say. Go laughing. And you do. Because you were never really stuck, and you were always really home.

>>Next: Meet the Family Who Quit Everything to Travel By Boat—Twice

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