Sunday, May 12, 2019

Fourth Tour in the Bag

Back in October 2012, in the middle of the requisite six-week consular training course known as ConGen, a woman came to speak to the class from the Consular Integrity Division (CID).  She explained what happens to malfeasant consular employees (e.g. sell visas = go to jail) and her presentation was chock full of real-life examples complete with photos, names and salacious details of their crimes.  At the end of the 90 minutes, I knew I wanted her job.  Before joining the Department, I worked in an urban police professional standards - that's the nice way of saying "internal affairs" - unit.  Before that, I taught riding for over a dozen years, and now I was a consular officer.  Teaching + consular stuff + internal investigations = the perfect equation and I vowed I'd have her job some day. 

As I wrote in November 2016, it wasn't our first choice to come to DC for an assignment; we're here for the overseas adventure after all.  But when I saw the CID training coordinator position open on my bid list - I couldn't resist.  In July 2017 my five-year-old vow was realized and "her job" became my job.  

Last Wednesday I walked out of my last ConGen classroom.  Fortunately, my final hurrah was a great group: very engaged, interacting with me and each other, full of questions, gasps of surprise, and a lot of laughs even with such a serious topic.  When I started this job nearly two years ago I got to overlap with my predecessor for a week and she told me the story of her first week in the classroom.  While teaching a manager-level class, a presenter's basic nightmare came true.  A more senior member of the class challenged her, "What do YOU know about this?" and she was left to scramble for an appropriate response.  She warned me to have something tucked up my sleeve should I also be faced with such a Doubting Thomas. Since then, before each presentation I scan the room full of faces and ask myself, "Is this the day?"  I'm happy to report that I'll complete my assignment at the end of this week and that day never came.  

So what DID I learn from a domestic Consular Affairs tour?

Let's start with the "domestic" part:  We learned it's really expensive to live in the DC Metro area!  (Yeah, yeah - I heard the chorus of "Welcome to the real world, sister!" from you all. There's little pity for someone who didn't pay rent for six years.  I get it.) Our shopping sticker shock wore off after the first few months and now a trip to the grocery store that comes in under $100 is considered a screaming success. We adapted just fine to small apartment life by not living in a small apartment, and choosing to live in northern Virginia instead where rents are lower than DC.  In fact, our neighborhood is likely the most diverse zip code we've ever lived in, surrounded by what I refer to as "my first immigrant apartment" and brimming with folks establishing their new lives, families and businesses.  Within blocks of our apartment, we devoured Salvadoran pupusas and Ethiopian enjera. We enjoyed the music and merengue'd our cart down the aisle at the nearby Latino Supermercado, and we spent Christmas Eve at an Eritrean-Lutheran church service - now that's diversity!  We explored lots of Virginia, picking out favorite parks and arboretums to visit and re-visit all the while complaining about the humidity and traffic.  We barely took advantage of DC - something I regret - but we did have lots of family visits "while we're closer."

My husband was able to work in his field teaching English to international students.  He started at a small language institute for the first year before graduating to teach at a marquis-name university for our second year.  He gained great experience for the resume and brought home often funny, and frequently enlightening, stories about his students and their particular cultures.  

And we adopted our two non-tabbies who just turned one year old and one of whom is now on my lap.  They're still blissfully ignorant of the adventure this summer will bring.  Shhhhh....

Seamus says, "What do you mean? We're not living here FOREVER?"
Professionally, two years of reading about malfeasance incidences by domestic and overseas employees has served me as a master class in consular management do's and don'ts.  It's true what they say about the value of coming to DC is getting to know the Department.  Let me clarify that a bit - I feel I know my bureau within the Department, Consular Affairs, far better than I ever did.  In fact, I've become so immersed in all-things-consular-all-the-time that sometimes I forget there's a whole other building just down the road (that would be the actual DEPARTMENT OF STATE).  I'm satisfied that I'll leave with a better understanding of the sausage-making and what office does generally what thing, and maybe even why they do it.  I trust that when I'm a manager myself - I'll know who to ask about how to do that thing.  And perhaps I'll even know who that person is.  

The most valuable thing I will take from this tour, however, is that I was able to meet, work with and hear from colleagues from around the world.  I presented in over a dozen different consular classes with all range of students: from the bright, shiny pennies in Con-Gen, to the experienced mid-level managers, and particularly to our dedicated local employees. Two years ago I could not have predicted what incredible opportunities to learn each class would be.  And it's me who was doing the learning, as I may have taught them a yard, but listening to them taught me a mile.  This is the part I'll truly miss. 

We made it. Eight years and four tours down.  How many more to go?

Next stop: a short vacation and then back to FSI, but this time I won't be in front of the class.

Saturday, March 02, 2019

Eight Years In Movement

This month marks our eighth year in the Foreign Service.  
Sure, anniversaries tend to make us all a bit sentimental, but perhaps it's more than just an anniversary that has me thinking about the passing of time, and especially HOW we've passed that time. This time it's also the ending of one assignment and the preparations for the next. Another departure, another arrival. 

This is how I picture my life since 2011:

Yeah, it's essentially a continuous structure: one life, one career, one family.  But each segment is more than just a different color; each segment is also a different country, language, set of coworkers, job, climate, time zone, cuisine, favorite evening news, and distance from "home."  I put home in quotes because that's feeling like an increasingly misty spot on the map. This is an actual conversation from our living room:

Is 425 the area code where we lived? 
No, it's the highway.  
Are you sure? I really think it's the area code.  
Yeah, okay. But then what's the highway called? 415? 
No, that's the area code in San Francisco.  
405? Is that the highway? That doesn't sound right. Just a second... let me look it up. 

Town and road names sound familiar, but we can't place from where we know them.  Favorite restaurants, leafy parks, a nice drive - they're all blurring together until I find myself with the memory of a lovely weekend I'd swear is accurate that has us waking up in a Bogota apartment, going for a Washington hike, and finishing the day with a nice meal at a Bucharest restaurant. And don't even start me on trying to figure out if that beach we visited - you remember, the one with that long pier - was in Maine, New Brunswick or Maryland. Sure we own a house in our "home state," but we've never slept in it. In true bureaucratic fashion, the Department refers to this as our "home of record."  Of record.  Sounds cozy, eh? This designation has nothing to do with roots, one's family, holidays spent, or neighborhood cookouts. It's all business. Keep yer' memories to yourself, lil' lady. This if just for tax purposes and we gotta' know where to ship your stuff when you retire. The term "our house" has been replaced by "our investment property."  

So what do folks do when they find their anchors slipping? 

Last night my husband and I went out for an evening of dinner and music at an Italian restaurant nearby.  Sounds pretty straightforward, certainly nothing worth writing a blog post about.  But this place is more to us than just a Friday night out. I'm not going to tell you that it's because the food is among the best we've ever tasted, or the wine list unparalleled. Simply put, our forays to Pistone's have become a familiar routine, somewhere we can go where we know what we'll find.  What we find is a real Dean Martin-ambiance: a crew of career waiters - older gentlemen with accents (Italian, Albanian), wood paneling, colored-glass lamps lighting the raised semi-circular booths upholstered in overstuffed Naugahyde, a menu of Italian standards where they know how to put together a proper antipasto, and best of all - the attached lounge bar where every Friday night a two-man band belts out classic country/rock favorites until midnight. This has been their regular gig for the past 13 years, taking requests and playing guitar (acoustic, electric and steel) for their faithful crowd of middle-aged-plus date-nighters. The bartender, holding court from the horseshoe-shaped bar, has been there for 25 years and likely many of the patrons, too. After dinner, we saunter into the lounge, order a Jameson or glass of wine, and soak up the cozy familiarity.  Sometimes the band recognizes us, and sometimes they thank us for coming out as if it's our first time. It's okay - we recognize them and especially their playlist, not only from our many previous visits, but also from our whole lives. They take us from Little Feat's "Willin' " to Simon and Garfunkel's "The Boxer," and end up with a beautiful version with full guitar solo of Garth Brooks' "The Dance."  The singer's wife joins in from a stool at the bar with her tambourine and suggestions for the sound mix.  Couples take turns on the tiny dance floor and folks shout out requests.

Routines like dinner at Pistone's with Eddie Pockey and Brint playing in the lounge are more than just pleasant evenings to us. They've become threads that hold our scatter-shot experiences together.  In a life of many-colored LEGO bricks, these little pieces of reliable familiarity, where we can walk in and it's just like we never left (even though it's been two years) make us feel as if we have a home.  We know what it looks, tastes and sounds like - and it's always there for us. 

Foreign Service families hear thanks for our service and appreciation for serving in foreign countries. I used to think they were just thanking us for the difficulties of living outside the U.S. (i.e. more than 10 miles from a Target), or for putting ourselves in danger - which is undoubtedly true in some places. But beyond that, it's clear that what we really are in danger of losing, or missing out on, is this:

Which is why simple things like an Italian restaurant and a great lounge band have become so important to us. They remind us that some things don't change every two years. Some things have roots that keep growing while everything else is in movement.

Sunday, January 13, 2019

A Fee-Funded Life

Greetings from 2019! It's 11:00 am and I'm still at the kitchen table in my jammies, full belly of french toast and a pot of tea. Outside on the balcony are a mob of sparrows at the feeder and beyond that, puffed-up doves perched on the equally puffy snow-covered branches.

You're likely thinking that this is going to be one of hundreds of thousands of government shutdown furlough stories, but actually - this is just Sunday at our house.

See, as a Bureau of Consular Affairs (CA) employee, I'm very fortunate to be living a fee-funded life.  Which means that consular employees worldwide are still at work and still receiving our regular payroll. The bureau is supported by passport and visa fees which continue to roll in so long as consular sections overseas keep adjudicating visas and domestic passport agencies keep taking in applications.  

I'm very fortunate to be able to report this as other State Department employees in non-fee funded jobs, whose positions have been identified as "not-excepted" (not necessary for emergencies involving the safety of human life or the protection of property, national security or foreign affairs essential to national security) are now furloughed.  This includes many friends in other sections of our embassies and consulates (for example political, economic, public diplomacy), domestically at the Department itself and in language training at the Foreign Service Institute.  

I'm not going to weigh in on the whole subject of the lapse of appropriations. First, it's not really my style to enter the political debate, but mostly because heaven knows there are already enough opinions out there on the subject. But it IS my style to give one person's experience, one slim slice of this complicated pie.

So while I am working (almost) business as usual, this is not to say I've been unaffected.  For example:

  • A major component of my job is to teach consular-related classes at FSI - which is closed. 
  • I have not yet been officially assigned to my onward post ("paneled") as my Career Development Officer has been furloughed.  This means I have no orders to let post know of our official assignment to make their staffing plans or to plan for our housing assignment. And without orders, we can't begin to arrange travel, which with pets - needs to be done as early as possible. 
  • I can't register for my required training because my Assignments Officer is also furloughed. 
  • I'm organizing workshops for later this Spring, but it's unclear if travel will be approved to invite our overseas participants.
  • On a kind of funny note, I've been plagued with spam robocalls lately and when I tried to register my number on I got this message instead: "Due to the government shutdown, we are unable to offer this website service at this time."
Honestly, on the scale of posing real life difficulties, this list ranks in the "inconvenience/pain in the butt" range compared to folks who are looking for part-time jobs or applying for unemployment or mortgage assistance programs to keep the roof over their heads.  Again, I count my lucky stars to be working for the awesome Consular Affairs bureau. 

However, it seems some folks have been making the best of this crummy situation. I've been amazed by what my furloughed friends have been doing with their free time, particularly the creativity that has been unleashed when someone is given (so far) three unexpected weeks off work. For example:
  • Constructing a playhouse out of cardboard shipping boxes for you toddler.
  • Digitizing that CD collection - finally.
  • Making a cart to organize the kids' Legos.
  • Cleaning out your closet and giving away extra clothing to friends and charity. 
  • Designing a display system for your kids' artwork
  • Cross stitching the D&D alphabet

Meanwhile, the DC Metro area has just had the first major snow dump of the winter, with at least 8-10 inches outside our doors.  Which brings up a conundrum: Can they shut the government for snow when the government is already shut down? If so, is there anyone around to send out the message?