The Home Front

Do the dishes before you leave

Short term missions are a bit out of time and space.  They hold their own challenges but while we are on them we get to leave behind many of the routines and responsibilities of home and home office.

Those who remain behind, however, are taking care of things without us and without the excitement of our adventures.

Think through what you normally shoulder – bills, vehicle and furnace maintenance, kid pickups, staff bulletins, IT trouble shooting – and make sure that you’ve done all you can to put things in order before you depart or that someone else has clear guidance on what needs to be done.  Be real nice to that person when you get back.

On the other end of the trip you will find that you have lost track of some tasks.  Make a “take care of as soon as I return” list so that nothing gets dropped.  (At the same time, schedule a couple of recovery days for your return.  It hurts to get off the airplane and return to the office the next morning.  You won’t be very productive in any case.)

Stay in touch – but not too much

Skype, texting, facebook and emails are both a blessing and a curse for short term missions.  They do allow us to stay in touch with home.  They provide hooks for conversations on return, help with trouble shooting and help us feel more grounded when out there on our own.

The risk is that they can become a virtual cocoon – a trap of being at home away from home.  In order to be effective and increasingly comfortable in our new environment we need to be somewhat abandoned there.  We need to eat supper in strange restaurants, accept invitations from new acquaintances, resort to watching tv in incomprehensible languages and stare wonderingly at cricket or buzkashi matches.  If you know what your friends are wearing to a party on Saturday you’re too close, even though you are far away.

The challenge lies in finding a balance.  When my wife or I are on short term missions we don’t skype or phone.  We do anticipate exchanging a “catch-up” email a couple of times a week – more frequently only if something urgent is happening.  That keeps us in touch and leaves lots of stories for the telling when we get back together.  Leaving the timing loose is important.  Internet services frequently fail in other countries, and flexible expectations forestall worry and alarm.

My email is open to my colleagues at CANADEM 24/7 when I am away and they tend to be in touch just when they need to be.  It isn’t that they are glad to have me gone – they just want to welcome me back afresh when I return.  My return is also helped with a box of exotic chocolates or other treat.  (Choose treats carefully, though.  I found that Canadian customs doesn’t approve of ostrich jerky.)

Be careful with your cell phone.  Roaming charges will soar if you leave the wrong apps turned on.  Either plan to buy and install a local SIM card at your destination or leave the cell at home.

If you have your own computer it is ever easier to connect to the internet at hotels, either for free or a charge.  Computer cafes remain ubiquitous and inexpensive if you need them.

The challenge of talking about the trip

What do you say while away? Enthuse too much, especially if you’ve pre-empted your partner’s tale of woes about the kids or the furnace and you’re in trouble.  Focus on your intestinal disorders, the traffic chaos and the unfathomable priorities of your counterparts and you’ll get either a “what did you expect?” or an evacuation flight commissioned by a collection of your concerned friends.

After many years of doing it wrong, I’ve concluded that it is hard for people at home to understand what I encounter, out of context.  So for each I choose some aspect of the experience that they will find interesting – something about the culture, the geography, the unexpected application of technology, the food … whatever they might be able to pass on, in turn, to someone else who asks.  And I don’t talk too soon.  If I write something reflective on the weekend, I sit on it until mid-week to be sure that I still feel happy saying it, and in that way.

And if you are receiving messages about the furnace, car or kid from your partner, do be empathetic.  You are on an unusual mission and so are they, carrying the load for two of you at home.

The challenge is slightly different when you get back.  Every neighbour, bowling partner and business acquaintance will ask “How was Xanadu, anyway?”  You will have about one minute to give your best answer and show maybe one photograph.  The depth of your experience and the memory card of photos will be eclipsed by their quick move to the topics of hockey or neighbourhood happenings.  It isn’t their fault.  They just don’t have the receptor points for your tales.  I find myself pre-packaging small story-bytes, a number of them for different audiences.  Occasionally I’ll find someone who really does know and want more – and often in exchange for my hearing their untold tales.  That can be fun. (Or I find myself switching the topic to hockey, depending.)

Do keep a journal of your experiences, insights and feelings while away.  This is not for your biographer.  It is for you.  Years later you will read it and smile.

Poor Prince Harry

“What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas” is a myth.  Whether Royalty or commoner, we are highly visible when we are away from home.  Our international partners see what we do, and it reflects on our organizations and country.  At an extreme end, things may be illegal there that aren’t here (for instance making public or even private comments about a national leader).  And if it is illegal in Canada (such things as drugs or using sex workers) it is both risky there and may expose us to prosecution on return home.

Even things that seem private, like our facebook and other messaging, aren’t.  One international consultant posted a photo of himself on the beach with a joking “this is what I’m up to when the boss thinks I’m working”.  The image got bounced around, and he found himself on an early flight home.  Messages can be confused, out of context.  Be careful.  Think twice.

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