Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Wheels up!

Well, just about!
This is my last post from terra-firma: from the land of the known, comfortable and understood. I've been watching families pack-out of Oakwood for months now. One day the kids are playing on their patios in my building and the next day the movers come through like a swarm of locusts and then the day comes when I realize that I haven't seen that family for a while. They're in Russia; they're in Vietnam; they're in Guatemala - I don't know, but they're just not here anymore; now it's my turn. My obligatory box of left-over kitchen goods is packed and ready to be set in front of some friend's door or in the lobby for anyone. It contains a few items I've inherited in the same manner! (There is a bottle of apple cider vinegar I believe has lived in three apartments so far.)

My cat "coyote" has arrived from Florida to assist the Tabbies in the move. Instead of shipping one cargo and taking one in-cabin, I've "hired" a friend (and aspiring OMS!) to fly with me and carry one of the kitties while I carry the other. It's a good solution all around as she will get a visit to her home city (she's Colombian), show me around, and I will have both kitties in the plane with us. And it's legit - she doesn't have to hide him in her bra or anything!  So, wish us well on this journey.

Okay, it's time for getting ready and making this all REAL.

See you on the other side!

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Soy dos/dos

Twelve weeks of language training have resulted in my growing from a 1 in Spanish to an officially-tested 2/2. What does that mean? According to the guide I got in my "exit interview" with the learning consultant folks up on the top floor (gee... wish I knew about this guide earlier), it means that I:
  • Can handle conversations about familiar topics in an organized way.
  • Can describe my present or most recent job or activity in some detail.
  • Can give detailed information about  my family, house and community.
  • Can interview an employee.
  • Feel confident that when I talk to native speakers on topics such as those above, they understand me most of the time.
  • Can report the facts of what I have recently seen on TV news or in the newspaper.
However, it does not mean that I:
  • Feel I have a professional command of the langugage.
  • Rarely find myself unable to finish a sentence because of linguistic limitations.
  • Can defend personal opinions about social and cultural topics.
  • Can speculate at length about abstract topics.
All of the last set describes a 3 speaking score, the trajectory my class is taking with their target exam dates in September. I must admit, I was really hoping that I'd learned enough to score a 2+; however, after reading the above-descriptions and mentally re-winding my actual language exam - I know I was scored appropriately. Yeah, I felt I'd let myself and my teachers down for a few days, but I've gotten over it. I had a good conversation with one of my teachers who helped put things in perspective, and perhaps this will be helpful to anyone else in language training (and I paraphrase here): Knowing new vocabulary and owning it are different things. As we gain new words, we are first able to recognize them spoken or in print and repeat them, much like meeting a new person and restating their name. We might remember that person's name and recognize their face and voice, maybe even know a few basic facts about them - but we can't state their likes and dislikes or recount any of their life stories. For us to "own" new vocabulary, we have to be able to use it comfortably and repeatedly; we need to know various ways the word is used, its synonyms and antonyms. Only when we can trot it out with this level of comfort and understanding have we really learned that word and can be relied upon to repeat it correctly.

Given this definition, it is clear that I was pinning my 2+ hopes on vocab that I'd just met on the bus that morning. I have earned the score they sent me to earn and will take it on to Bogota with the hopes of returning in two years as a 3/3. (Unfortunately, that would mean taking that godfersakin' exam again, something I don't relish, but ah well...)

The exam was Thursday. The pity party commenced immediately and lasted nearly through the weekend. Tim's last visit before my shipping-out proved to be an easy distraction and by Monday, I felt I had already closed down one of my many lives (the Spanish life). The focus now is on logistics and all the details of preparing to move next week. Today is the first of my "consultation days" where I get to run around town and take care of errands, arrange pack-outs, get tickets, get the Tabbies to the vet for their travel certificates etc... These days will culminate in a giant scavenger hunt of signatures that constitutes my offical check-out procedure for both Main State and FSI. I hope to meet with one of the Desk Officers for Colombia again before heading south, just to see what type of issues will await me when I check in. Also, I need to print out the 23-page "How-to" guide that my predecessor thoughtfully made for me with directions for what I'll be doing. Unfortunately, we won't have an overlap as she left post a few weeks ago. Did you catch that it's 23 pages? Yeah, the cheat-sheet in itself is five pages. Oh boy.

It's down to the final week, and a truly bittersweet week it will be. I have seen off two more friends to Morocco and Kuwait and the reports from Morocco are already glowing. And finally some long-quiet OMS friends from my class have piped up with their tales. Everyone is doing great; everyone survived; almost everyone has already been covering the front office and has lived to tell. Some are secretly admitting to liking writing Dip Notes. I can take one of two messages from their accounts: First, everyone else is flourishing - I will too. -OR- It's time that one of us flail like a goldfish on the carpet and that someone will be me. I'll have to think about that some more.

Okay, the next update will (hopefully) contain tales of moving the Tabbies to South America with the graceful assistance of my friend and "cat coyote" and perhaps even a full description of our apartment in all its four-bathroomed glory.

Hasta luego!

Wednesday, July 13, 2011


It is officially getting closer to the end of my training here at FSI. Not too bold a statement to open with, as I've been talking about it for a while now, but today it came into sharper focus. This morning, just 15 feet from my classroom and what I had expected to be a usual day of Spanish lessons, I was met mid-hallway by one of the Spanish Section administrators and another teacher. They were there to intercept me and tell me that I'm no longer in my class and instead I'll be working one-on-one with this new teacher for my remaining two days. As one of my former teachers explained, "Yeah, it's because you're terminal now."

I'm terminal? That doesn't sound good.

Actually, the department is very good about giving extra time and attention to the students who are about to take their exams. I've had a handful of additional one-on-one times with various instructors which has let me practice hearing new accents. I'm getting smoother at presenting my own bio and at interviewing them about their home countries. It's all part of the grooming process.

I spent an hour this morning with Sofia, a very nice Puerto Rican woman and she did a great job of just letting me babble about subjects that interest me: not policy or politics or economic situations or immigration. Phew. I needed to get my words flowing and gain some confidence. She made minimal corrections, I think because I tend to auto-correct anyway, but I hope it wasn't because she was overlooking things. After our "gettin' to know ya'" hour, she gave me an article to read for the afternoon and I headed off to my last Andean Republics regional studies class. We watched a movie called "Crude" about a lawsuit against Texaco in Ecuador regarding contamination due to petroleum processing and exploration. I've enjoyed that class - for the most part - and have learned way more about the politics and current events in Colombia and the neighboring countries than I ever knew before, that's for sure. It will all be important to understand Colombia's place in the country, their history and our mission in Bogota.

Anyway, I saw one of my (former) classmates in the hallway and learned that I'd already been replaced by another student. Yup, my chair was probably still warm when what's-his-name took it this morning and mis companeros de clase moved on without me. And to think I spent over two hours on my homework last night. Hurrumph.

It's because I'm terminal.

My time here is coming to an end, like it or not, and everyone and everything will soldier on without my being here. The teachers are all accustomed to the routine: meeting new students, helping them through their difficulties, hearing their personal stories, watching them (hopefully) grow and them sending them down the road to the examiner's suite and then on to post to spread/inflict their skills to the citizens of nearly every country around the globe. Like being a parent in four quick weeks, perhaps? 

I ask you all to project really clear, funny, intelligent and perfectly-conjugated thoughts for me on Thursday, July 14 at 1000. I need to earn a 2/2, but I want more than that. My classmates are aiming for a 3/3 score, but they'll be here until September to achieve that. I will be fine with a 2, happy with a 2+ and dancing a jig in the street with a 3. However, unless planets align and I suddenly channel some native speaker with fewer brain freezes - there's no way I'm getting the 3, but boy it would be pretty darn cool.

No really, it's not going to happen 'cause I haven't learned all the necessary vocabulary, verb forms or even the requisite level of ease and fluidity necessary to express subtleties, abstract thoughts, discern tone and develop complex opinions. Heck, I'm happy if I can even do that in English! So instead, I'm going to do my best (such a cliche and further proof of the latter sentence) and try not to sweat my way through the nice business dress I've picked out to wear.

I'll let you know what happens.

Sunday, July 3, 2011

Cambiando el tema, otra vez y otra vez

Changing the subject...again and again
That's what I find myself doing in the past few days. As my remaining days in language training have now dwindled to seven, while I'm still definitely focused on continuing to learn (ojala!), I'm also having to divert my attention to the job soon to be at hand: being an OMS. Not just an OMS, but a brand-new OMS in a really, really big embassy in a really big city. Yeah, I think I mentioned this before; can you tell it's on my mind? It's been nearly three months since the end of my OMS training and the time that I learned about all things "e-This" and "e-That." All those important programs that people rely on the OMS to know inside and out. That training feels como un recuerdo brumoso - sorry, like a foggy memory. Like a styrofoam take-out box, my brain and even my life has been divided into distinct sections with no sauce seeping from one quadrant to the others.
  • The personal life: wife, daughter, the-cats'-mother, friend, sister
  • The OMS life: cables, safes, combinations, classified vs unclassified, dip notes, seating charts, travel arrangements, country clearances, work requirements
  • La Vida Espanol: classes, homework, evaluations, hallway chit-chat, EXAM
  • The Colombian life - more questions than answers: Housing? What to bring? Car? Cat litter? Cat food? Clothing? Banking? How to get the cats to Bogota?
  • The FSO life: exam preparation, oral assessment, registry (Still haven't hit the Consular registry - five weeks after passing the oral assessment. Oh well, I'm in no hurry.)
  • The DoS life: diplomatic passports, visas, travel orders, amended travel orders, pack-out dates, vouchers, per diem, check-out procedures  
En pocas palabras: There is a lot going on, and I feel like I'm spinning plates and have to keep running from one life to the next to make sure none of them come crashing down on top of me. Those palabras weren't very pocas, sorry.

I've been so busy being busy that I haven't let myself get excited about my first post yet. But I need to do that.

So to help get my mind off the mental circus, the Washington, DC Folklife Festival was kind enough to select Colombia as one of the three showcased "themes" for their festival this year on the Mall. The other two were Soul Music/Detroit/Blues and the Peace Corps. There were three large areas dedicated to these themes and filled with booths/tents demonstrating various aspects of each. For Colombia, they broke it up regionally, and there were people from each part of the country displaying their customs, work, music, food, handcrafts, produce etc... Everyone was speaking Spanish; the music was great and I was thrilled to notice that I could understand the majority of what each person was saying. I think I learned a good bit about my host country and now I have images of the faces, sounds of the voices and accents, in my head.

Here are a few pictures, although they're not great because I feel awkward taking pictures of people like a tourist sometimes:

These are "llaneros" (plainsmen) and they were playing music that men play when out on the range with their cattle.

Women from Chocos on the northern Pacific coast, singing funeral songs and describing how the funerals are colorful occasions to celebrate the life, instead of the death, of the person.

This saddle took only two days to make (I think - I had a little trouble understanding the saddle-maker guy.)
Seeing his work did make me think of going riding again when we get down there, though.
Today let me lift my chin and look to the horizon again; to stop being busy being busy for a bit and be excited about what brought me to this place to begin with. Besides running from life to life as listed above, I've also been sentimental about the people who are no longer here or who I've moved away from. (And it seems that there are a few flat spots on the globe, too, as some of y'all have apparently fallen off the edges! I guess you're all busy  being busy, too). This life will be one of continual hellos and goodbyes, of getting excited; getting busy, getting nervous; getting comfortable; getting excited again.
Lather, rinse, repeat.
But all those cycles let us feel alive - heck, they just let us FEEL, as I believe a daily routine perpetuated endlessly tends to dull our senses.
I expect that in twenty years I will have a collection of delicate colored glass bottles on a shelf, labeled with names, places, experiences (good and bad), that I can occasionally take down, uncork, savor, and replace.
Perhaps I should let remember to let myself enjoy them in the moment they're created, too?