Ciudad Juarez Pacific Time Washington, DC

Saturday, April 19, 2014

An Elephant in the Room?

I'm still wondering if this title is a bit misleading, because it makes it sound as if I'm going to write about something that everyone knows about, but that no one wants to talk about. The misleading part comes in because I think this topic IS talked about to a small degree, but to me it's tangible to a HUGE degree and therefore worthy of mention. Plus, I've had many conversations with co-workers and/or their spouses who note that it was an unpleasant surprise once they joined the Foreign Service.

So what is it?  Competitiveness.

Big deal? Depends on the person, I suppose.  For me it was a very palpable thing, really elephant-sized, that became obvious to me as I first started investigating the idea of joining.  

As a disclaimer, I should start off by saying that by nature I'm a very non-competitive person. By that, I mean that I don't like to win for the sake of winning.  When I win, whether it is in a board game or an athletic endeavor, the flush of excitement of prevailing over others is quickly dampened by the realization that my victory comes at the cost of their loss and that now they probably feel bad. It really ruins the whole victory thing if I care about the person I out-whatever'd because who can feel up when another person is now down? (However, if they were a boastful, show-off to begin with, well then all bets are off.)  Before I sound like a sappy dishrag, I must note that I am very self-competitive, which means that victory, achievement, challenge-and-success IS very sweet to me when I beat my own expectations, when I push myself to succeed or reach a difficult goal.  That kind of stuff I love because I feel proud for having the determination and discipline to have accomplished whatever the thing is. I'm just not the person who wants to feel superior to others, or that I've bested them in a "Ha! In your face sucka'!" sort of way.  

The  competition thing became apparent when I first joined the many Yahoo groups that exist to help people learn about the testing and hiring process for the State Department. These groups are extremely informative about the various examination steps and how to prepare for them, but one also gets a pungent whiff of one-upmanship on these message boards.  (By the way, they are very useful. I don't think I would have gotten through the hiring process without this preparation.  Please see this link for a comprehensive list.) Upon joining these groups, I quickly realized that I had to be on top of my game to play in this league.  All the time.  Mistakes or misinformation posted by one person innocently, even when in an effort to help another person, are quickly brought to light by other users under the guise of setting the record straight, but sounding a lot more like being outed by Donald Sutherland in "Invasion of the Body Snatchers."   It was a very good introduction to the kind of pool I'd be swimming in.  Yes, people are supportive and friends can be made, but this competitive element is just, well there, all the time.  Consider yourself forewarned.

Why should I be so surprised? Why does this even bear mentioning?  After all, it is a very competitive process to get hired with a small percentage making it through. It's a very competitive job once you DO get hired, and there is an up-or-out system where one must continue to be promoted in order to keep your job.  Promotions are competitive; we're compared to others within our group. Why should excellence be a flaw?  It keeps us progressing and looking for better ways to do things; it makes people stay sharp.  All good points for which I have no defense, and all the truth.  

I also shouldn't be surprised about this competitive thing when I look at the mix of people who gravitate towards this career, and it's quite a mix. From the fellowship program members who are fresh out of grad school (usually in their very early 20s) and who have already been successful in a highly competitive selection process and who have earned graduate degrees from serious-marquis named universities; to retired military Colonels, to former lawyers, former doctors, former Indian chiefs, to mayors of cities and life-long scholars with PhDs in neuro and rocket science - I have colleagues who have been nearly all the above.  These are not slackers; these are people who are used to challenging themselves and achieving results. These are usually people who are used to being the smartest kid in the room.  These are academic introverts, natural leaders, captains of industry and problem solvers.  Why should I now expect them to be any different? 

For those of us who feel we got hired because we happen to have a sunny personality, who prepared ad nauseam for each step in the process, and who feel that we just had a few good days - lemme' tell you, it can be pretty stressful to have to keep up this pace.  

So how does this competitiveness look and feel in the day-to-day working life?
(Another disclaimer: I am now assigned to a post that is a rare creature among posts worldwide. It is a consulate the size of many embassies with 47 entry-level officers [ELOs]. That means 46 other first and second tour, nontenured officers who are fresh from the starting block, ready to learn and make their mark, eager to be noticed and prepared to elbow their way to the front of the crowd.  Eager once again to be the smartest kid in the room. This is not the average post and my reaction could very possibly be in response to this particular setting. Your mileage may vary elsewhere.)

Back to the question:  Competitiveness is palpable when assignments are handed out and quickly the whispering starts about why someone was or wasn't chosen and why didn't I get selected instead?  Who is the fastest visa adjudicator and has the highest numbers? Who has the best handle on the language and who still keeps saying it wrong? Who knows the FAM (Foreign Affairs Manual) inside and out and is a resource for the other slackers? Who gets praised publicly with awards? Who did or didn't make tenure?  ARGH.

The very first day at post, when I had meetings with each of the Consulate's senior leadership, I noticed a recurring theme among the advice they offered: As an ELO, my only goal should be to just do my best at my job, be a generally nice person to work with and tenure will naturally follow.  After that, keep up with this motto and promotion will follow.  I now understand why each of them made a point of saying this, because I'm sure they see all us chickens, squawking and pecking at each other when we really don't need to.  

But now back to my calling this competitiveness an elephant in the room:  While I appreciate the advice given by our senior leadership that first day, it seems that unfortunately we DO need to elbow each other a bit.  We do need to have certain achievements on our annual employee evaluation reviews (EERs) to get tenured and promoted, and to get these achievements, we have to be a bit better than the average bear.  We have to make process improvements, which means always looking for a better way to do something, fixing what the other guy just did.  We have to take leadership roles which inevitably entails telling our colleagues what to do and how.  We have to make ourselves known and shine just a bit brighter than the rest.  (Sidenote example: my husband volunteered to work the grill at a Consulate BBQ recently along with a handful of ELO coworkers. He noticed that each ELO who took their turn manning the grill would rearrange the food and preparation process slightly different from the previous person to do things just the way they liked.  I thought that was hilarious, and very true.)  And unfortunately it means that we're subject to taking a tiny bit of pleasure in hearing about another person's shortcomings. 

I'm finding that I'm guilty of all the above and I don't like it. Not the job; I love my job. But I hate that this competition brings out the high-schooler in us all. I hate that it's an atmosphere where it's hard to be wholeheartedly happy for someone else's success.  I hate that I feel like if I have a few bad days, I'll lose pace with the pack.  I hate that I have to very carefully choose with whom I confide my own shortcomings or worries for fear that they will be used against me in the future.  I find that I relive my work day nightly in my dreams, using that time of mental relaxation to find any possible errors that need correction or ways to do things better the next day.  In fact, in our first three months in Bogota, I experienced more stress-related health issues than ever before in my life.  

When viewed individually, I truly enjoy 97% of my colleagues, finding them interesting, funny, and often generous and kind. In fact, it's hard to pinpoint just who is responsible for this competitive ambiance, as in, "Well when so-and-so leaves, it'll all be so much more relaxed around here."  Therefore I conclude that it really isn't some ONE, but rather an unconscious collective effort among us all.

Is this what life these days is like anywhere?  Do teachers and firefighters feel like this too?  Will I achieve higher highs for having swum with these sharks when it's all over? After all, steel is hardened only by tempering, right?  I'm sure that even at my ripe ole' age, I'll benefit from this competition.  Honestly, it could go one of two ways: either I'll eventually say (in my best Cartman voice) "Screw you guys, I'm going home!" or, "Wow, I really could do more when pushed a bit!".  

I suppose it's all up to me.  I've wanted to write this for a while to let y'all know the reality of what it's like and also to help myself discover what the best answer could be. Thanks for listening, and good luck to us all. 

Sunday, March 30, 2014

Spring In!

Warning: If you have found this blog looking for lots of Foreign Service how-tos, you may be better off reading earlier entries. If you like gardening, pets, and general career musings? Read on.

Spring has returned to the borderlands, our second time through. We're no longer surprised to feel the hot, strong winds in their hyper-allergenic glory, carrying bits of the northern Chihuahua desert to the sneezing, sniffling residents of Juarez and El Paso.  Not so much fun for those of us with any type of allergy, but great if you're a cat who likes to bask in the not-yet-too-hot sunshine and feel the breeze in your fur as you prowl the garden.  Sometimes the wind can get downright ridiculous, whistling and howling through window and door cracks to keep us awake at night, taking down tree limbs throughout the neighborhood.  Other times it just rustles the palm fronds around our house and dries our laundry on the line in about ten minutes. 

But spring also means longer days and more sunshine for the garden.  Our dormant plants have burst back to life, naive of the scorching that their delicate leaves will have to endure in just two months.  For now, however, my garden looks lovely.  Yeah, the lawn is still a bit patchy 'round the edges because the sun doesn't quite reach all the corners yet, but with the rains of June - it'll be lush again.  I'm so excited to see the rose bushes are flourishing and loaded with buds. Even the jasmine vine has gone wonkers setting new buds.  Just take a look at it all:

Star Jasmine vine with tons of little buds

Happy geranium that was inherited from friends leaving  post

Cream rose edged in bright, dark pink

Count 'em seven white rose buds!
We also have five large pots of bougainvillea, three of which were inherited from some friends leaving post for Vienna, where they're now ensconced in a metropolitan flat, no space for the literal carloads of gardening goodies they left with us.  That's another thing that's fun about this lifestyle if one is gardening-inclined: the chance to play with bringing things to life in tropical, urban, desert or mountainous climates for two years each.  I've never had jasmine this happy before, and since the 1990s, I've cursed the black spot that plagued my favorite rose bushes in the Pacific Northwest - but not here! (Something to do with the 24% humidity, perhaps?)

Besides flora, we're also happy with the fauna this little yard has attracted.  Hummingbirds last summer, doves year-round, and a darling bachelor cardinal all winter. Toby has taken umbrage with the doves who land in HIS yard, even when HE'S on patrol! He gets in the low, pounce-and-destroy position, ears flattened and tail twitching and, and... well, that's all.  But trust me - he LOOKS really scary. Except to the doves who know better and are truly in no danger. 

"The menace, the silly fool! Who does this dove think she is? This is MY yard!"
Dodger and Daphne, on the other hand, gave up such charades years ago and are satisfied resting under the rose bushes, or rolling in the dusty patches of the lawn.  That's the best way they've found to carry the dirt, grass clippings and dried leaves into the house to spread the lovely outside all over the couches, beds and tile floor.  

Cat Napping: A still life
Meanwhile, in the world outside the stone wall, the work life is still equal parts challenging and interesting.  Since my arrival, I've hoped to move through the three consular sections of the Consulate: non-immigrant visas (NIV), immigrant visas (IV) and American Citizen Services (ACS).  I've hit two of the three, but have yet to be assigned to one of the few ACS spots we have.  I wanted the consular trifecta so that when I get to my next post, which has a consular section that is just the fraction the size of the Juarez operation, I want to be as well-rounded and prepared as possible.  But it appears that this hope will not come to fruition as just recently I was offered one of two positions to train the incoming IV officers for my remaining time here (nearly a year).  I'm of the mind that an unexpected opportunity will lead to an unexpected result, and therefore I'm excited to take on this challenge and I trust that it will lead to a greater depth of understanding of the complexities of IV work, along with the satisfaction of being able to train a new generation of fresh officers. 

We have a tradition of putting a toro pinata on the desk of the newest officer, and lately he's been quite actively bouncing from desk to desk. The new generation is starting to trickle in, and in the past two weeks we've welcomed four new officers already.  But newcomers means that the veterans are moving out, and it's also the sad despedida (going away party) season, too.  We send off our friends and colleagues, most likely to see them again at FSI or years down the road in some other post where we'll have to pause to remember exactly from where we knew them. It's nothing personal, more like a professionally-induced tic. When the new officers arrive, besides the typical getting-to-know-ya' questions, I generally ask them "Whose house did you get?", a little mnemonic for helping me keep straight who lives where. "Ahhh... you're in THAT house? Wow, you're going to have to live up to a long tradition of garden parties living there!" I warn them. 

So that's the seasonal update.  Soon we're off to our first vacation together since 2012 that involves an airplane.  The Tabbies will be left in the care of our housekeeper's daily visits.  But that's a story for another day, and it will be entitled, "Spanish 201: How to teach someone to pill a cat." 

Saturday, March 1, 2014

Cresting One Year in Juarez and Three Years in the Foreign Service

I think the title says it all: we've recently hit our one-year mark here in the northern Chihuahua desert and are now, as my friend called it, on the back nine.  For me it was an important moment because even though I've been in the Foreign Service for three years now (this month!), I haven't been at any post for more than one year.  We curtailed from Bogota just weeks before hitting the exact one year mark to join A-100, so in a way I feel I haven't been able to see an assignment all the way through to completion.  

Time has so many ways of passing, depending on what's going on in one's life.  This is one of the reasons why my husband and I decided to take on a life of continual change, actually.  I find that when someone is in a routine, any routine, time truly flies.  Each Wednesday begins to feel like the last, each weekend blurs into the next one until you realize that one, three, seven years have gone by.  But when placed into new environments, where our senses must be active to adapt and survive, time passes far more slowly.  Each day brings a new sight, smell, taste, fear, joy - something, anything - that makes us feel more alive instead of simply living on muscle memory.  

In some ways it feels as though the next year will take forever to pass. We still have one heck of a summer to get through, which in early March is already teasing us with days as warm as Seattle in late July.  We'll have another rainy, road-flooding season, another Christmas, another tiresome annual employee evaluation to write (just turned mine in yesterday, thank you) etc...  However, given the theory I proposed in the paragraph above, I believe the year will pass quickly as we have definitely settled into a comfortable routine.  I'm really enjoying my work and have reached a level of confidence that each day doesn't feel like I'm a fish on the carpet anymore.  The Tabbies certainly have their days mapped out: breakfast, quick tour of the garden to "read" who shinnied down the tree to invade their turf the night before, grab a few winks on the couch, then up to the bedroom to catch the mid-day sunny spots, then we're home for dinner and some more time in the garden before bed.  It's a nice way to pass a life when you're 15.5 years old (or about 80 in human years). 

But for those of us who are not 80 in human years, I feel that this is my young life and I don't want it to pass so quickly!  My husband and I have started making lists of places we need to see and things we need to do before the buzzer goes off and we have to leave Mexico.  I've recently applied (again) for a rotation into the American Citizen Services section at the Consulate which would mean learning a whole new set of consular skills.  If I'm not selected for that spot, I'll raise my hand for a TDY to another other post in Mission Mexico this summer, like I did last June in Monterrey. Anything to make the most of our time here, both personally and professionally, and milk every drop out of life.  Otherwise it's just too easy to let the years march on and before I know it, I'm 80 and just looking for a sunny spot to rest in.  

To add some color to this contemplative entry, I'm going to close with some photos of our most recent weekend escapes. First to Guadalupe National Park in Texas for a day hike. Later we visited Silver City, NM and finally we had a great camping trip to Aguirre Spring National Recreation Area near Las Cruces, NM.  These little trips are all ways of trying to brighten up our otherwise regular, suburban existence.  (Speaking of which, please notice that I've started to add a list of blogs from and about Juarez, in case any of you are reading this due to being assigned here in the near future.  I understand that there was a recent A-100 flag day wherein NINE new Juarez-bound Consular Officers received their tiny Mexican flags.  Bienvenidos todos!)

Homestead in Guadalupe Mountains National Park, TX

Canyon view from Devil's Hall Trail in Guadalupe Nat'l Park

Is that standing water? View from the highway towards Guadalupe Nat'l Park and the highest peak in Texas

Lovely campsite in Aguirre Spring Nat'l Recreation Area, NM
Bad moon on the rise - looking east from Aguirre Spring

New day dawning with a huge horizon, Aguirre Spring

Organ Mountains, eastside view from Aguirre Spring

Gila Cliff Dwellings Nat'l Monument, near Silver City, NM

Living room view for Gila Cliff dwellers

Some little friends near our kitchen window in Silver City, NM. I saw 16 different bird species here!

Funky downtown Silver City, NM

Artsy downtown Silver City, NM

How the Tabbies pass the day

An older gentleman loves his basket

Monday, February 3, 2014

Cable Writing: A Novice's Guide

Every FS Officer will eventually write their first cable.  For "reporting officers" in Political or Economic Sections, this will be a regular thing and you'll have to cut your teeth very soon after arriving at post and start earning your kibble with useful reporting.  For Consular Officers, you might not be tasked with this at all, but instead you might come up with a topic of interest on your own.  Management Officers, I imagine, write more mundane cables about personnel transfers, allocations of funds, etc... and Public Diplomacy Officers no doubt write about events at post, programs, cultural exchanges etc...   Regardless of topic, writing your first cable can be a daunting task and so I've come up with a simple step-by-step based on one person's, one-time experience. 
(With this advice and $3.25 you can surely get a cup of coffee.)
  1. Come up with topic: this can be something you notice about your host country, their workforce, a peculiarity in the visa applicants, a new trend, a worrisome trend - anything that you think might be of interest to policy-makers in Washington and/or to other officers at other posts, or future officers at your own post. 
  2. Mull over topic for days/weeks/months while trying to figure out the crucial element of "why do we care?"  The fact that strawberries are amazingly delicious in your host country is interesting for a culinary audience, but not necessarily for Washington. But the fact that the strawberry producing region is experiencing a boom season that will effect the value of US strawberry imports/exports - that could have some added value.  Keep asking yourself questions such as: What is the value of others knowing this information: Will it change behavior? Help shape policy? Report on a new trend? Alert others to possible visa fraud schemes? Inform others about economic motivations in your region?  Uncover political or economic changes in your local population? 
  3. Muster the courage/confidence to present your idea to your immediate supervisor. Hold breath for response. Imagine polite chuckling as you explain your idea, or a half-read email going directly to the Deleted Messages bin.
  4. Really? She/he agreed that it sounds worthwhile? Wait for the response from your supervisor's supervisor, and the person ahead of that person, and maybe even another person before starting.
  5. Got the green light? Woo hoo!  Now find a clever way to conduct your research on the topic. Will you conduct surveys? Will you comb databases for statistics? Will it be meetings with certain groups, government agencies, businesses, applicants? Where will you go to get to meet these people? Is your grasp of their language strong enough to handle these meetings and be understood/comprehend what you're hearing? Do they speak English? How will you get the time away from your regular work to conduct this research? What is your time frame? Is this an emergent issue that needs to be reported on this week, or something less pressing that could span months?
  6. Actually get started.  Make the best use of your time by being well-prepared for all meetings with background information so you can ask specific questions.  Be prepared for the answers to take your cable topic off into another direction and go with it.  Conducting a survey? Be ready for people to wonder exactly why this foreigner is asking these pesky questions.  Don't even try to explain by saying, "See, I'm writing this cable..." to the regular man-on-the-street; it is too complicated and just sounds like you're spying on them. Consider calling yourself a student writing a paper. 
  7. Once research is gathered, start double-checking facts.  If they tell you that there one one thousand strawberry farms in the country, where can you verify this?  If they tell you that their strawberries are the best because they have special bees that pollinate the plants - how credible is the source? Can you verify the information elsewhere? 
  8. Face the blank screen/page and start writing. Urgh. 
  9. What's your title or subject line? This needs to be catchy, not too long, not contain characters that the cable system can't handle* give context to the cable's topic, and be attention grabbing without being bait-and-switch misleading about the subject matter. 
  10. You'll need a summary paragraph to start it off. This is, fortunately, just titled "Summary" and has four to six sentences that directly sum up what each of your supporting paragraphs say.  Many readers won't get beyond this part, so tell the whole story in the Summary.  Many VIPs read cables en route to somewhere else which is about as much attention-span you may have to deliver your message. 
  11. Did you use a survey? You'll need a methodology paragraph just after the summary to let folks know how/when/who/what the survey covered. "Post conducted a survey of 53 strawberry farmers in Fruitlandia over a two-month period..." 
  12. Now on to the meat of the cable and selecting the headings for each paragraph. The headings should also tell the entire story if they are the only things that are read after the summary.  Your heading can't be:  "More research" but rather, "Research shows Fruitlandia's high sugar levels equal delicious strawberries." 
  13. Time to amalgamate everything you've said and state the main "why do we care" take-away: the two-sentence summary. Two sentences? Yes. Choose your words as you choose a fresh peach.  Remember that there is no such thing as a synonym and each word has the power to convey a subtle nuance (i.e. the difference between "watch," "look" and "observe"). 
  14. Now send your cable, already perfect no doubt, to your first clearer, or editor. 
  15. When they return it with entire paragraphs reworked and sentences slashed - take it in the best light, make the changes and send it on to clearer number two.
  16. Clearer number two: Love the part about the special bees - well done!
  17. Send to clearer number three. Make the title snappier! No, really - much snappier! Not there yet, really get my attention, c'mon!  Make changes and continue until satisfied.
  18. Clearer number four: Can you check with Other Section to get their input? 
  19. Other Section: We need more depth and detail. I think it needs two more paragraphs on this recent development we just learned about on your topic. Please come get the volumes of local newspapers and one government briefing paper we just received and blend it with a smooth segue that adds, and doesn't detract, from your original topic.  Make changes and continue. 
  20. Clearer number six:  Can you check your facts on that new paragraph you added? Perhaps you should conduct another survey?  Try not to cry. 
  21. Final clearer:  Wow - WAY too long. What's all this unnecessary stuff about bees? (Sound of red pen scribbling on paper.)  Change title, distill two added paragraphs from Step 19 into one crisp sentence. Slash favorite zinger line you came up with when you awoke in the middle of the night three months ago that you felt embodied the entire topic.  Maybe we should have the Embassy, other section or agency clear on this? Make changes and continue to releaser. 
  22. Actually RELEASE the cable (i.e. publish it via the cable system). See your name finally come out in print as "Drafted by..." and do a small dance for joy on the inside. Repeat this dance at home, but this time for real and with favorite song playing in background.
  23. Wait for response from Secretary. Okay, he's busy with Middle East Peace and all. Wait for response from Deputy Secretary.  Yeah, you're right; he must be busy in the Secretary's absence. Wait for response from Washington DC in general. Okay, how about the Ambassador?  Your co-workers? Anyone? Be satisfied and proud when at least one co-worker says, "Hey, good job on your cable!"
  24. Enjoy your moment to shine and consider doing it again, so easily forgetting previous steps 2-21.
That's it!

*The Green Committee at one of Mexico's Consulates wrote a cleverly-titled cable about their recent achievements and planned to title it, "It's not easy being green." Cute, right? But the problem was that the apostrophe wasn't an allowable character for titles in the cable-writing software program.  So it was released as "It is not easy being green," which they thought just sounded dorky.  Yeah, unfortunately it did. 

Sunday, January 5, 2014

Foreign Service Life: Part 2014

Welcome to 2014 and all that comes with turning the page into a new year: new goals, changes, fresh starts, broad horizons and changing the color scheme from red and green to light blue - ah, I love a new year.

Now that it's January, my husband, the Tabbies and I have officially put one foot (paw) into every month of the year here in Mexico. This stirs up notions of reflection, how far we've come, what we've learned here etc... but also the feeling that we only have a short time left in which to accomplish the goals we sketched out for our time here.

There are the personal goals, mainly centered on learning as much as we can about Mexican life and people, regional travel, improving our Spanish (to include infusing it with "borderisms" like parquear - the verb to park your car, chequear - the verb to check something, and troca - the large vehicle that Ford  and Chevy make),  eating local food, watching local nightly news, shopping at S-Mart, navigating Juarez' potholed streets, and generally having an idea of what a day in the life of a Juarense is like.  We will take all these images with us as we move on, and soon we'll add to that collage what a Romanian spring feels like, how bad their traffic really is or isn't, what their favorite pastimes are, and what is considered spicy in their food.

There are also the professional goals: learning as much as possible about being a Consular Officer and how to run an efficient, productive and strong-morale Consular Section.    Coming to Juarez has been teaching me all that, and continues to do so every day. This is something I hope to carry with me to all our future postings.  According to Malcolm Gladwell in his book "Outliers," - to become truly proficient, verging on awesome, in something one must spend 10,000 hours doing it. I worked that out to mean three back-to-back tours here before I could call myself an expert, which I think the State Department frowns on, so I'm left to just absorb as much as possible in the remaining 13 months.

Once again, I truly wish I could share some of the stories I've heard while interviewing, on both the tourist visa and immigrant visa side of the house - but of course I can't. I can speak generally, however, that not a day goes by without experiencing the whole range of emotions: frustration, when immigration law allows convicted spousal abusers to be approved for visas while young people whose parents took them to the US as little kids have to apply for waivers; satisfaction, when I know I've made accurate decisions and have helped good people join the ranks of legal residents in our country; joy, such as when an applicant reaches his fingers through the document-passing slot in the window to squeeze my fingers in gratitude;  and pride, when I see how many people are still so eager to move to our country.

My husband and I have found that there are two general types of people in the Foreign Service: those who are in it for the career and those who are in it for the lifestyle. Naturally, nothing is ever completely black and white and most people fall somewhere between the ends of this spectrum.  We chose the FS for the lifestyle, and I chose Consular for the career. All FS Officers (FSOs) must serve a minimum of one year as a Consular Officer, even when their chosen professional track is to work in Management, Public Diplomacy, Political or Economic sections. While only one year is the requirement, many FSOs from these other tracks end up doing two consecutive tours, or four years, on the visa line. Again, some take this well and even choose to switch tracks to become Consular Officers, and some grit their teeth as they head for the interview window instead of to a meeting with a foreign official to discuss something-or-other in politics or policy.  Personally, I prefer the micro view of the world from my window to the 50,000 foot overview of the big picture. 

I never tire of hearing what my applicants have to tell me about their lives. Yes, it can be exasperating when I know they're lying to hide facts they fear will make them ineligible for the visa they want. But I also get to hear about their jobs, their families, their hopes, their arrests, their health concerns, their addictions, their children, the times they crossed through the desert with smugglers, and the times that they received visas to study in US universities.  Perhaps it's my intrinsic interest in the lives of others that brings me here, and as you're reading this, perhaps you share this interest or why else would you be here? 

Either way, being on the threshold of a new year lets me savor what has come before and look forward to what's ahead. I find that's what life is all about.

Saturday, December 21, 2013

Winter Coats and Sunglasses: It's Christmastime in Juarez!

Now that the excitement of getting our new assignment has quieted down, it's back to focusing on life in the present instead of the future. 

Speaking of presents: it's Christmastime in the borderlands! 
While Juarez can't compete with Bogota's lighted wonderland of city parks with their fake snow machines and nightime bike riding on the cyclovia, Mexico does have some awesome traditions that we've been learning about.

Two weeks ago it started with our first posada, which is like the Colombian novena where people gather with friends and family in the evenings during the weeks leading up to Christmas.  Two weeks ago we went to our first posada, invited by a neat guy who works in the Consulate's warehouse.  He gave us rather vague directions involving going to a particular landmark bar where nearby we'd see a road and a private house. After a half-dozen u-turns on a busy avenue, looking for the nondescript road and private house, we finally called him and were directed down a scary, dark, narrow dirt lane that dead-ended in a dirt parking area in front of a cluster of tiny houses and the posada well underway.  It was a terribly cold night, so there were bonfires going from trash barrels and people warming up in the small three-room house in front of huge pots of pozole.  Pozole is a spicy soup made of broth with hunks of pork and/or chicken stewing away with hominy and then garnished to taste with fresh lime juice, sliced radishes and chopped onion. It was delicious!  After having our fill of pozole, we went outside into the dirt lane to see our host's family perform as dancing matachines.  You can take a quick look at this link, or just picture what looks like a Native American dance, complete with dancers of all ages and both genders in headdresses, beaded and fringed pants and skirts and a nearly trance-like devotion by the dancers to keep up with the rhythm of the heavy drum section.  The Mexican twist is that it's done in devotion to the Virgin de Guadalupe in a representation of paganism vs. Christianity.  El mal (evil) was represented by what looked like a guy dressed in a Halloween hobo costume who is apparently defeated by good in the end - no big surprise there.  Three families of matachines came in one after another, and after watching for nearly an hour, the drumming and dancing still hadn't missed a beat. The cold finally got to us and we left with the festivities still in full swing.

The next night, our neighborhood had its third and final party of the year in the park in front of our house.  Besides pozole, tamales are also Mexican Christmas traditions and there was a huge table full of trays of red, green and sweet tamales.  It seems that many Latin American countries claim to have the first, the best, or the only kind of tamales and we certainly saw the Colombian version wrapped in banana leaves with whole hunks (sometimes with bones) of chicken.  But here we have a version that is more familiar to me, wrapped in corn husks and full of shredded beef. There are red and green ones depending on the chiles used, and the sweet ones were stuffed with raisins and some kind of sweet-tart filling.  After the eating came the music until the early hours of the morning. We were warm in bed by that time and only catching strains of karaoke drifting from across the street.  

Finally we had our own Second Annual "Why did I put THAT in my HHE?" white elephant gift exchange with a big group of friends and coworkers. HHE = household effects, i.e. the stuff that we start dragging around the world, growing in size like a snowball through the years. Our first party was in Bogota, and we had such a fun time we decided to do it again.  People really got into the spirit of getting rid of things they'd been packing around for a while, including among many other things: a 3-foot hookah from Tunisia, many small kitchen appliances that seemed useful at the time, a much-coveted set of Super Hero glasses, a 4-DVD set of the Andy Griffith Show (now on our shelf), a 2004 DreamWeaver user's manual, a bird feeder and pounds of bird seed (which were actually from different people, but married up in the end) and a 10-pound stone molcajete (guacamole grinder) - among other things.  My husband made pots of Mexican hot chocolate and mulled wine and we shared plates of Christmas cookies and a giant San Francisco sourdough loaf of bread shaped like a snowman.   There was lots of cheering each other on in stealing presents and I think we've started a tradition to carry on to our future posts. 

Meanwhile, it's crisp and cold outside and our garden has gone dormant with the last leaves of our pretty umbrella trees finally hitting the ground. We have a gorgeous red male cardinal visiting us and about eight ring-neck doves fluffed up to keep warm in the garden each morning

Next week will be our first Christmas in Mexico.
Feliz Navidad everyone!

Saturday, December 7, 2013

Flag Day - Part Three!

I'm not sure if I can officially call this a "Flag Day" as there were really no flags, no ceremony, no auditorium, and no family watching and holding their breath. But to me receiving an onward assignment will always be Flag Day, and is probably in the top three reasons why I joined the Foreign Service to begin with: the thrill of wondering, waiting, imagining and finally knowing where the adventure will take us next.

On Monday we hadn't heard any news. That's to be expected after a long holiday weekend, we all said. "We all" refers to the eight other winter bidders with me here in Juarez.  When Tuesday morning rolled around, we'd already deflated our expectations of hearing until maybe Wednesday and were back to concentrating only on our interviews.  Until 10:00 a.m., that is. I don't know how Washington does it, but the CDOs (Career Development Officers) have some magical way of simultaneously sending hundred(s) of individual assignment emails.  They don't send the messages one at a time, or in one message with a long list that one has to frantically scroll and scan through.  Instead, in the same instant we all get our personal messages. I had already planned with my husband that as soon as I saw the message from my CDO come into the inbox, I would forward it to him and then walk over to his section where we could open it together.  Luckily I had just finished an interview and was about to pick a new case up when I saw the message arrive. I opened my Outlook to send it to my husband and in the process, my eyes dropped to the one single line at the top of the message announcing our new assignment.  I gasped (just a little), smiled, and then leaned back in my chair to see my coworker at the next window with the same little smile. Very quietly (we're the only two winter bidders in our interviewing section) we gave each other our news and a hug. 

I then went to find my husband to read the message with him.  Unfortunately, I found him rushing to get to a meeting, so I just had to tell him in one word that, guess what honey, we're going to....

I'm super excited about it!  It was our number two and three choice (there were more than one position in Bucharest on our bid list), so I must admit it wasn't a total shocker as I felt I'd stacked the deck heavily in that direction.  But one never knows until the know, and so I also had images of us getting a really low bid and going somewhere we really kinda' would rather not go.  It happens all the time; in the Foreign Service we're all taught just to not believe something until you have your travel orders, or better yet, are actually AT your new post.  In fact, the ink won't dry on the assignments for a few months yet, as a panel has to meet to grant the positions. This is what gives the employee their official notification. But chances are more than good that it will stick. Things that come up to change it could be that the person I'm due to replace suddenly curtails and the new post doesn't want to wait for my arrival. Or the post decides to cut that position, or to change the position to a higher/lower level that doesn't match my level. That stuff happens all the time, so we just learn from the start not to count any chickens.

But still... I'm excited. I will be a Consular Officer again for the full two years and I will have to/get to learn Romanian to a 3/3 level in speaking and reading. That's the same level I have now in Spanish. Of course, I came to FSI with three years of high school Spanish still rattling around in my memory. Even without this prior experience, being in the US just about everyone should have some familiarity with Spanish from reading packaging, going on Mexican vacations, watching Sabado Gigante now and again on TV etc... But Romanian? Yeah, Nadia Comaneci is the extent of my knowledge on the subject of the Romanian language and I'm pretty sure it's a proper name, not a verb conjugation. 

Part of our bidding strategy was to learn a new multi-country language, and preferably a "world language" like French, Russian or Portuguese that could be useful in a long list of interesting countries. But our list, once whittled down for timing, spousal work options, cat travel etc... offered us lots of really cool places with lots of, shall we say, "boutique" languages that would carry us to only one post. Now that the doing is done, I can tell you that we also bid high on positions in Vietnam, Thailand and Japan which would have given us a new language, albeit a super hard one. As much as I was thinking how awesome it would be to live in one of those places, I'm secretly relieved I don't have to learn a tonal language. My Vietnamese-speaking friend told me, "Oh don't worry, speaking Vietnamese is like singing, just practice Karaoke!"  Right. In finding something similar that I have zero talent for, she may as well have said, "Oh, it's just like flying a jet. Or free climbing Half Dome. Or salsa dancing!"

Our number one and four spots were Casablanca, Morocco and Montreal, Canada specifically for the opportunity to learn French, a language in which my husband already has a strong base. Bucharest ended up in spots number two and three because we figured, hopefully, that at least Romanian is one of the five Romance languages and therefore would be more familiar  to us than say Bulgarian, Serbo-Croatian or Hungarian - all options also high on our list. And although I've never been there, I'm told it's a beautiful country where we'll have four true seasons, amazing mountain scenery (my favorite), inexpensive living, super regional travel opportunities and the Black Sea coast just a few hours' drive away.  It's a medium-sized Embassy and with what I'd call a "healthy-sized" Consular Section. It's going to be great. I will leave you with a few nice pictures of Romania, all shamelessly copied from Google images. Thank you nice people in internetlandia for sharing these with us.

Yup, there's an Arcul de Triumf there, too. (There's also one in Juarez, btw)

What's Europe without a fairy tale castle or two?

One of the world's largest buildings

Northern Romanian countryside

And a handy map for those of you too embarrassed to ask where Romania is.

PS The Tabbies were a bit upset to learn that they will be "pisici" (or "pisica" in singular). They think that looks too much like "swimming pool" in French. They hate swimming pools.

PPS We were a bit disappointed to see that our new flag for our collection looks too much like our last flag.  We'll let you all be the judge. Do you know which is Colombia and which is Romania? No fair scrolling up to compare.