Saturday, May 19, 2012

Rising for the Moon: Farewell to a Dear Friend

I have been teary eyed for much of yesterday and today.  No, it's not allergies.  It is springtime in the Foreign Service (FS), a season that brings tears of farewell as close friends pack to go, destined for new posts somewhere further down the FS corridor.  For that's the way it is; that is our fortune.

I met Nat on my first day in Bucharest in October 2010.  There I was, lost in the courtyard, puzzled over which of three buildings at our old Embassy might house the office of my new supervisor.  Nat took me under her wing and guided me through the labyrinth.

Nat has an engaging smile and laugh, a warmth that is irresistible.  She wasn't that much newer to Bucharest than I was, and she was doing a career adjustment of her own, an adjustment that played a role in my coming to Romania.  You see, Nat had worked for many years at State doing IT, but in Bucharest she was beginning her first-ever tour as a human resources (HR) officer.  She had traded in her computer hardware for human beings.  Anyone who knows Nat will find it hard to believe that someone so gregarious and full of life ever could have been a computer tech. 

As I came to understand in time, Nat was the first person in Bucharest who had heard of this political officer pacing the cage in Maine and wanting to do an IT job.  She saw my file and took it to the Management Counselor and then to Curtis, my soon-to-be department head.  It made perfect sense to Nat that a political officer might want to do something different.  After all, wasn't that exactly what she was doing in Romania?  Without Nat, I might have sat in Maine far, far longer than I did in search of a job.

I didn't know Nat well during my first months.  I was too self-absorbed with my post-divorce litigation and then with my first tentative steps towards transition.

This all changed in March 2011.  It was Kyna who brought us together when she proposed that I go with her to the theater, my first-ever evening out in Bucharest as Robyn (Stepping Out in Bucharest).  When I found out that Nat would be going along, I called her.  That was the day when Nat became the second person at Embassy Bucharest who knew I was contemplating gender transition.

Just imagine what it must have been like for Nat when I gave her this news.  Here she was, a first-tour HR officer who had never before encountered issues of gender identity, and now she would be faced with managing the first-ever gender transition of a Foreign Service Officer (FSO) at an overseas post.  Imagining our roles reversed, I could see myself thinking, "Please, anything but this."  Nat, on the other hand, took the news calmly.

I'm not sure Nat entirely believed or understood me at first, but this changed quickly.  Kyna, Nat, and I would go out together on weekends, just three girlfriends in Bucharest.  Or, as Nat would say, we were three gurlfriends out on the town.  It didn't take long before Nat knew me as she saw and experienced me, as Robyn, not as a photo and a name in a personnel file.

We put together the Gender Transition Committee in early summer 2011.  Nat chaired most of the meetings.  We worked closely together to understand guidance from the Office of Personnel Management (OPM) on the Employment of Transgender Individuals in the Federal Workplace.  We studied the experience of USAID, NASA, and other departments and agencies that already had experience with gender transition.  We worked together on plans for announcing my transition to the local Romanian staff.

As my readers know, it all came to pass on November 10, 2011.  On November 12, Nat and I sat together at the Marine Ball.  From that day forward I have been legally, diplomatically, and very happily yours as Robyn in all aspects of my life.

But that was just the start of the story with Nat.  At work there was and still is much to do to complete the name and gender change in all personnel records.  Doing it for today's files was easy, but in accordance with OPM guidance, the records must also be changed retroactively.  In weekly meetings that sometimes include Department HR in Washington, we've been slogging through this and more.

It's much more than work and personnel records, however.  In the months since last November, we have become close friends.  Nat says she is a beauty school dropout.  She means it literally, having gone to beauty school at one point in her life.  Nat spent a Sunday afternoon with me in January, instructing me on the finer points of hair care products and proper use of a blow dryer.  We went clothes and shoe shopping together.  We became Friday night dinner and movie buddies.  It had been so long since I had last gone out to a movie, and now it was a regular end-of-the week tradition.

I knew it would be hard to see Nat go, and that is why I am so teary eyed.  Yesterday was Nat's last day, the last day for hugs and farewells.  She is off now for home leave and then her follow-on post.

We had our own private farewell a week ago.  We drove north about 50 miles beyond the city of Ploiesti, where we spent the afternoon enjoying a meal at a wonderful seafood restaurant.  Then we went shopping for glassware at Romblast, buying for pennies vases and bowls that at the tourist shops cost hundreds of dollars.  We talked over all we had gone through together.  We laughed, we shed a few tears, and we hugged each other.  We also talked of plans to meet again in Bangkok next January.  (Alert readers may already divine some future intent from this.)

I miss my friend and wish her the most wonderful home leave.  You have earned it, Nat, and I know I'm just one of many at Embassy Bucharest who would say that.  I'll leave you with a few words from a 1975 song by British singer Sandy Denny and the group Fairport Convention.  She might be singing about what it is like to be on the road as performer, but so much of what she says applies to us also. 
I travel over the sea and ride the rolling sky,
For that's the way it is, that is my fortune.
There are many ears to please, many people's love to try,
And every day's begun rising for the moon. 
There's a heart in every place, there's a tear for each farewell.
For that's the way it is, that is my fortune.
I'll lure you as the lace that the wayward gypsies sell,
With the sinking of the sun, rising of the moon.
Drum bun, dear Nat.  Tootles, gurlfriend.  May you continue to live each day rising for the moon and thereby touch a star as you have touched my heart.


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