Michael Williams is a Presidential Management Fellow on rotation from the Office of Weapons Removal and Abatement to U.S. Embassy Kabul’s Political-Military section.
My twelve inch plastic Christmas tree sits prominently on the nightstand in my hooch, the containerized living space I fondly call home here at Embassy Kabul. Carefully wrapped presents sent APO by my family in New York overshadow the pinecone ornaments and miniature lights decorating the tree. Scanning the rest of the bright white plastic walls and furniture making my little container, other mementos of the holiday season catch the eye: red and green miniature Reese’s peanut butter cups, a large but empty stocking hanging from the window frame and a new sweater strewn over my chair – a prematurely opened present. Here will be the setting for my Christmas this year.
At an Embassy like Kabul, the people you see everyday are not simply office colleagues, but your surrogate family for the duration. Life’s normal interactions are restricted by security walls, limited travel in armored vehicles to sit behind more security walls and a vague perception of the dangers waiting outside. Christmas becomes a time to strengthen ties with the Embassy family, whether they celebrate Christmas or not. The feelings of family and sharing are brought out by a confluence of changes in the compound environment. Decorations appear in the cafeteria, idle talk turns to expressions of packages expected and received and little get-togethers with specially prepared foods and spirits fill the little apartments.
As is the case every year around this time, I look forward to the winter holiday season. I indulge in the smiles, the food and the anticipation of something just over the horizon. The presents too, are certainly welcome. This will be my first Christmas away from my family in New York, something that I was not looking forward to when I volunteered to work at the Embassy. Amazingly though, not only am I finding that I’m not as disconnected from my family back home as I expected, but I’ve been welcomed into a second family. APO presents have made there way to me in this now snowy and gray part of Afghanistan, whereas I’ve been able to share presents with my loved ones through the magic of Internet product purchase (something I admit to doing long before it became a necessity). To add to this, the great advent of webcams and video conferencing will allow me to see the smiles of my family when we open each others gifts, albeit thousands of miles apart.
The holiday sharing with my new Kabul family will span the twelve days of Christmas and bring me to the final present-opening scene. Intimate and not so intimate gatherings complete with holiday music, mulled wine and Santa hats have begun and will continue to fill the Embassy staff’s calendar. Everyone walks a little lighter and grins a little more, building on the aura of the season surrounding them. The serious work continues at its frantic and difficult pace, but the promise of a sociable evening with family makes everyone beam in the face of it all.