When I turned 21-years-old, my aspiration wasn't to go to a bar and order a drink, but to vote for the first time. So when I moved to Lima, Peru in 1972, I began the tediously difficult process to learn how to get an absentee ballot for the Nixon-McGovern election that November.
Registered at my last home address in Texas, I meticulously followed the instructions to apply for an absentee ballot. In those days before the internet it wasn't easy, but I was determined. When the ballot finally came by air mail, the instructions dictated I was to mark my ballot in front of an Embassy employee and have the ballot notarized.
So that's how I came to be led into the office of an Embassy employee, finding before me an acquaintance of my husband and his family, the son of the American Ambassador. As the sun poured in behind his chair at his well-appointed desk, I marked my ballot and he notarized my ballot. Mailing my absentee ballot back to the USA airmail, I had voted.
The next time I saw our acquaintance was at our very small wedding a few months later. No surprise that, the only people we invited were people we both knew and I didn't know very many people in Lima, Peru in 1972.
Those were the days when I thought the purpose of the United States of America Embassy abroad was to help Americans. I was wrong, in fact very wrong. As more than one friend who worked for the US Embassy has apologetically explained over the years, the main reason for the U.S. Embassy was to do business with the host government and business community.
Calvin Coolidge's quote was truer than I'd known when I first heard it in my American high school American History class, "The chief business of the American people is business.”
By the mid-1990s in Mexico City the US Embassy had added extortion to the list of services offered to American citizens in need of U.S. documents notarized.
Accepting a transfer from their home in the USA to Mexico City, the couple sold their house in Texas. When the sale went through, they received a pile of documents that required 22 notarized signatures by the American Embassy. No problem said the Embassy in response to the husband's inquiry, the cost would be US$55 per signature.
After choking on his lunch, the husband spoke to his boss in the USA head office. Since this was a business expense, would the company prefer to spend more than US$1000 for a bunch of raised seals on the signed documents, or pay for the husband and wife to fly for a weekend to San Antonio, rent a car and stay a couple of nights in a hotel, where they could get the notarized signature done free at their US bank?
The company agreed to their cost saving trip.
Once upon 1979 in Paraguay we spent weeks that slowly turned into months in the few available hotel rooms as we waited for our household goods to arrive and we could move into our rented house. As for our worldly goods, they were on a very, very slow boat from Vancouver, BC, Canada to Buenos Aires, Argentina, where they'd be transshipped to go up river to Asunción, Paraguay.
One rare night we hired a babysitter for our two-year-old daughter and went to a dinner at the US Embassy Ambassador's residence. Explaining why we were still at a hotel after three months, the Ambassador told a story about goods transshipment up the river from Argentina to Paraguay.
Given the reduced size of the river ship, the goods were packed in smaller, custom made plywood boxes that showed the kilo weight on the outside. When the shipment came, the weight matched the shipping invoice, but upon opening the plywood boxes they were found emptied of household goods, replaced with rocks weighing the same amount.
Soon after that evening, a young couple we'd met at the Ambassador's residence reached out to us. What was the minimal we would need to move in?
A double bed for us and a single bed for our daughter. Table and a few chairs would be helpful, eating on floors where cockroaches had parties after dark didn't seem appealing. And a refrigerator, stove and washing machine--for our toddler's cloth diapers.
Like magic, it happened. It turned out that the husband ran a section at the Embassy that had household goods for newly arrived Embassy employees, so with my list plus pots and pans, a few dishes, glasses and flatware we set up housekeeping courtesy of the US Embassy.
A clear case of don't ask, don't tell. And I haven't, in writing at least, for 40 years.
So whenever I hear the words of A Streetcar Named Desire, "I've always depended on the kindness of strangers," I know what they mean. We did then and still do now.