Monday, October 31, 2011

Holiday Crazy

Note to Hallmark:
You guys are truly missing out on a HUGE market here in Colombia!

If one were to graph the situation here, the X axis would be the (surprising) lack of greeting cards, and the Y axis would be the love of holidays (and particularly of stretching them out for entire months), with the two lines intersecting at an apex of incredible commercial potential.

Let me explain:
In the US we have Valentine's Day, February 14, right? Sure, the hype starts a few weeks before with the red and pink candies and chocolates prominently displayed in store windows and grocery store shelves.

In Colombia: The entire month of September is for Amor y Amistad which is celebrated as a clever combination of Valentine's Day (the "amor" part) and Secret Santa (the "amistad" or friendship part) wherein co-workers draw names and shower their lucky recipient with gifts all month. The weekends are for date nights, hopefully with one's significant other or spouse, but I've heard that this is also a time for the "amante" (mistress) to be proudly dispalyed in restaurants around town. My current Spanish teacher clealy told us that this can be a time of great happiness or the opposite when the latter occurs.

Example two:

Halloween in Colombia is a BIG DEAL. Again, not just October 31st, but the whole month. This past Friday my work was utter mayhem as over 800 kids, accompanied by their parents of course, descended upon the embassy for trick-or-treating. Naturally, this swarm did not come as a surprise, apprently it happens every year, and so a tradition of serious decorating and celebrating has grown over the years. I watched as co-workers dedicated days and countless thousands of their own dollars to creating life-sized haunted forests with "trees" that grabbed unsuspecting, and therefore shrieking children; ancient Egypt (fortunately the pyraminds were NOT life-sized); the Pirates of the Caribbean; the Smurfs; the Adams Family; soccer stadiums full of fans; NYC (replete with cardboard recreations of landmark buildings); Carnival Colombia, and graveyards full of personalized tombstones with funny epitaphs. I emerged from my tiny office to find a river of costumed little ones and their parents swarming our corridors. The sections were all judged, and the winners will be announced sometime this week. A prize will be awarded for the most "green" display, which I hope will go to my Economic section as we did.. well, nothing. Hey, and in doing nothing - we consumed no resources, right? Okay, we contributed cash and candy to our zealous neighbors, but other than that, we were disgracefully schlumpy. 

"Do you see what I see?"

So - back to the holidays and how Hallmark is missing out:

Halloween has been going all month and now that it's nearly November, the stores (as of last weekend) have started to look to the horizon. And what do they see?

Certainly not Thanksgiving, the traditional demarkation between fall and the of the start of the Christmas shopping season. Because that's an American holiday, right?
No - here they have an inunterrupted view towards the Big One: Christmas.

Yes, that's right. It's not yet November but apparently 'tis the Season. Last weekend we discovered a great mall nearby (capital "g" Great, lemme' tell you- the Santa Barbara Mall) that was already decked out in garlands, red velvet bows and clusters of giant gilded balls. But the coup de grace was tonight when Tim and I walked home from the grocery store, and noticed that our neighbors were already proudly displaying a fully lit and decorated Christmas tree in their front window.

Really?

To summarize: These people know how to party. Whether it's three days of live Mariachi bands on one's birthday or a month of Valentine's Day and Halloween or two months of Christmas - this is a festive country. Perhaps because they don't have real seasons to mark the march of time they use holidays instead?

"Oh yes, I remember that, it was during Halloween..."

I don't know, but I must admit that if the weather is not going to change for our next two years (it will only be drier or wetter, but not warmer or colder), perhaps I can learn to look forward to a month of chocolate eggs in April; of roses and dinners out in September and witches and pumpkins October. Oh, and apparently Christmas is celebrated with fireworks - hey, why not?!

Let me be the first to say to everyone: Ho ho ho!

Saturday, October 29, 2011

Quick Question for Saturday

How can you tell if someone's Household Effects (HHE) have arrived or not?

See Exhibit A below and decide for yourself:

Yes, those are more meat trays. They are proving to be quite multi-purposeful.

In case there is any lingering doubt, no, after 14 weeks our HHE has still not arrived.

Soon, though, soon - maybe only two weeks more.

Saturday, October 22, 2011

PS

I was thinking this morning about my last post and also what my friend a fellow FS Specialist Mike commented, and it has prompted me to write about OMS training a little bit. I'm doing this primarily to defend the nice folks who trained us all, myself a little bit, and also to (hopefully) shine some light on what future OMSes and those in training now can expect. Granted, this is one person's opinion and not a carved-in-stone prediction of what everyone will experience. However, I believe it is common enough to be of value to others.

I must start with a FS  cliché that I truly hoped I'd never have to write: It depends.
OMS training is three full weeks of introduction to the super-varied work of an Office Management Specialist in the Foreign Service. The goal is to prepare employees for their roles in huge embassies and in tiny remote consulates; to help them be successful in Front Offices, in Regional Security Office positions or in Political and Economic sections. There is no one job description, no one way of doing things, no one standard procedure that is uniform for every situation. Therefore, the training is more of a broad overview of topics that we will one day (immediately or years from now) encounter, combined with hands-on-keyboard practice with some of the common programs that we will generally encounter in our new assignments. Things like time and attendance, travel arranging, tracking employee evaluations, ordering supplies and services, reading or retrieving cables - these types of programs seem to be common to nearly every section and an OMS should expect to face these tasks regardless of her/his assignment.

So if I'm defending the OMS training - then why did I feel so lost and unprepared? Why so much panic and so many (alleged) tears? Who or what is to blame?

First, I'm certain that I'm harder on myself than anyone else ever will be - so I should confess that the panic and tears were (mostly) internal.

Second, in order to get this job, we have to be the type of person who likes to do things well, who has been successful in their previous career(s) and is probably used to being the go-to person. When I left my former position, I was at the top of my game. I felt fluent and confident in every aspect of my work and relished my job because I understood it; I knew what was expected of me, how to do it, when and why. Then my confidence hit a new peak when I learned I was accepted by the Department of State to become an OMS - woo hoo, who's better than me?  I'd say that many of us felt the same way. We would not have been hired if we were low-achieving slumps.

So now take this same person and pull them from their familiar, warm bath and stick him/her in a new country, new culture, new language, new food, home, family, friends and coworkers left behind in the US, and plop them into a job where they have (generally) no overlap with their predecessor to show them what they're doing and what is expected, in a unique professional culture with very little outside equivalent, and it's no wonder you get someone who feels cold, naked and shivering. I think it's normal to have some deer-in-the-headlights months as we scramble to find our equilibrium and routine, our little victories and accomplishments that we've been so accustomed to from our previous lives.

This is where the "genius" of the FS hiring process comes in: they know all this.
They know that very few people are going to come to their doorsteps, resume in hand, with actual embassy experience. Sure, there are those who were interns, or who have experience from being a FS family member - but they are the minority. Many of us (myself included) had never been IN a US embassy before; some had never been out of the country before embarking on this career - it's not a job requirement. This is why they choose people with the raw characteristics (the 12/13 Dimensions), gleaned from every possible source and life experience, that they know will allow them to eventually float to the surface in the ocean of FS assignments. They didn't hire us because we'd used e2 Travel Arranger before - they hired us because perhaps we'd figured out other new programs in other jobs. They didn't hire us because we'd written a Dip Note before, but because we showed them we were resourceful in figuring out new tasks through whatever means available.

There is no way that OMS training (or any of the other trainings for generalists and specialists) can prepare new employees for every situation they're going to face; it's simply impossible. Every post, every section, every predicament faced will be different and therefore while they try to teach us about the variety of situations that probably/maybe will come up  - the bottom line is that they have to hire people who they trust possess the internal tools to figure stuff out.

This process of figuring stuff out can be painful for those of us who are used to already knowing what to do and how to do it. It can take months or a year, and as soon as we're snappy and fluent and feeling like the top of our game - we pack up and start all over again. This discomfort can make you feel alive or it can be overwhelming - and probably both. I know I will gain from the pain (sorry for that last phrase) in the long run.

In the meanwhile, apparently y'all are going to hear my creaks and groans. Please don't take this as an indication that the FS system or I are intrinsically flawed. I think it's just the way it is.

Thanks for listening.

Friday, October 21, 2011

Tiny Victories

Subtitle: Confessions of a Freshman OMS

Today was an anniversary of sorts: it has been exactly 12 weeks since I first took my seat in the Economic Section at Embassy Bogota. It has also been about two months since I came home and cried in frustration, feeling like a total idiot for not knowing what the heck I was doing. So I'd like to take this time, if you don't mind, to celebrate some really tiny victories that came to me today. I will do this by way of before and after descriptions:

1. Task: Boss says, "Find me that cable I drafted in either 2009 or 2010 that had the words 'US Company' in the title."

Before: Stare at him blankly. Consult deepest darkest memory from OMS training (last April) about running advanced searches on our cable system. Start to hyperventilate when search result turns up 43,671 hits. Try not to cry.

After: Repeat same steps above with blank stare replaced by confident nod, and with only minor frustration at seeing the number of hits. Blame stupid search program instead of stupid self. Recall that previous OMS cross-referenced all cables since 2009 in handy Excel sheet; actually locate said Excel sheet and in one minute, find the requested cable. Print and send electronically to boss, feel like hero deserving of medal.

2. Task: Invitational traveler who we are bringing to Colombia for a conference will not divulge the personal information necessary for me to make hotel and airline reservations and arrange for electronic funds transfer for her travel advance.

Before: Panic. Pester co-workers with questions and start to hyperventilate (again) as they describe one possible Herculean work-around after another for my predicament.

After: No social security number for her new travel account? We'll make one up!
No bank account information? We'll bring her to the embassy cashier for a cash advance when she arrives!
No visa card number? We'll use her co-worker's to hold her hotel reservation!
Bring it on sister - is that the worst you can throw at me? Ha!

3. Task: Co-worker is out sick and that important letter from Secretary Clinton and corresponding Diplomatic Note (aka DipNote) have to go the Minister of Foreign Affairs.

Before: Look terrified at boss as he casually lobs the task into my court. Frantically search office for other possible victim to assist and realize I'm the only one in today. Panic (again).

After: Feel - but don't show - terror (bosses can smell fear; this deception is an art you must master quickly). Consult electronic files of previous DipNotes for samples; realize that none match the requirements and start to sweat. Remember the nice lady from Protocol who I met months ago who does these things all the time and beg for help with the very, very formal and traditional formatting and wording. Semi-stifle a few "argh!"s as the formatting goes haywire, and by five minutes to five - have her return my latest version with only "a few small changes." Remember that these need to be sent via courier with a returned proof of delivery. Relish the knowledge that I know how to request a courier via eServices and how to say, "proof of delivery" in Spanish.

4. Very Big Deal Conference coming in three weeks needs interpreters for complicated technological topics for multiple days and in two cities: Bogota and Medellin.

Before: Consider new line of work and pull suitcase off shelf.

After: Breathe in. Start to break huge task into small chronological steps on notepad. Remember how to use ARIBA procurement system that made me cry just two months ago (there's a lot of that going around!). Write very detailed notes in ARIBA to overworked procurement staff regarding our needs (first, smile in the knowledge that we HAVE procurement staff and that I know their names and where they sit), attach funding information, list dates and technical requirements. Enjoy sense of relief knowing that when I have to contact these interpreters to finalize the details... they will be bilingual!

All these things happened today, and I'm still here alive and willing to share them all with you. In fact, most of them happened after lunch. I must admit that I still feel trepidation starting up the computer in the morning, wondering what fire will need to be put out, or what nasty knot in need of untangling will pounce on me via a casual e-mail. There are a LOT of things I do not know how to do still. A LOT. But there are now a few things I do know how to do, and that's what I'm happy about today.

Wish me luck tomorrow.

Monday, October 10, 2011

Rainy Day: Random Thoughts and Statistics

It's Colombus Day, which means no work for me and there's a nice thunder-n-lightning storm outside and I've done all my housework... so I thought I'd take this time to look at this blog's statistics of readers from around the world. As of today, here they are:

United States
      9,501
Colombia
              123
New Zealand
          58
Mozambique          
49
Germany                
46
Canada
                   42
Russia                    
41
United Kingdom     
39
Japan
                     35
Qatar                     
31
I'd like to say "Hey!" and "Thanks for reading!" to the 49 Mozambican page-viewers (I visited and love the country - hope you're enjoying it, too), and the 58 Kiwis (ditto what I said about Mozambique). I must say I'm a bit disappointed in the number of pageviews of our fine neighbors to the north. Yes, Canada - that's you. Perhaps if I wrote more about hockey and less about cats, the numbers would improve? (I'm just teasing you.) I imagine the 123 Colombian pageviews are my husband (honey, you're skewing the stats!) but I'm curious about the Qatar and Japan readers...

I would like to know what information is most interesting and helpful to you all. I know that sometimes blogger makes it hard to leave comments, but if you can, let me know what would be interesting.

I figure two main types of readers work their way through my thoughts each week: those of you who are friends or family and are curious if we're still living and breathing (yes, thank you); and those of you who are aspiring OMSes and are looking for glimpses into this possible new career. And, according to the stats kept by blogger, there are dozens of people who hit upon this blog after searching for "Colombian Flag" on Google. Yes, there technically IS a picture of the Colombian flag (go back to late March), but this site probably wasn't what you were expecting, eh?

In speaking to the latter group (not the flag-Googlers): there is a brand-new batch of OMSes at FSI as we speak (24 of them, I'm told) who will be going through the excitement of Flag Day tomorrow. For all of them, I can't say that I wish you only your high bids, because if word-of-mouth is any indicator, many of my colleagues have been pleasantly surprised when fate brought them an assignment they never would have chosen for themselves. Today is the last day of your life as you know it. After tomorrow afternoon, your thoughts and focus will be on the coming horizon: what to bring, what can't I bring, what schools for my kids, what clothes for what climate, what languages to learn, what food, how many flights to get there and how much will it cost to ship my pet(s)? You will become fluent in all these questions and answers over the coming three weeks. Some find this exciting, some terrifying, some tedious - but it is an integral part of the life which you've just entered.

We are forever looking to the horizon and wondering what's coming. It doesn't end for this post, either. My co-workers, some with 20+ years in the FS, are still looking ahead and planning, plotting their career course, figuring out that even at age 53 they may need to spend nearly a year at FSI to learn a new language - but it would be worth it. I think if you weren't a day-dreamer or the type that asked, "But what's around THAT corner?" you mightn't be wondering about this life after all.

One of my favorite recently-overheard conversations on the van the other day summed up the FS mentality perfectly:

Person One: We're thinking of bidding on XYZ country, how did you like it there?

Person Two: Oh I loved it! It was a wonderful time.  Well, I did get dengue fever and dysentary and giardia - but other than that, it was great. You should totally bid on it!

We're not the typical breed of cat, and it is such a relief to finally arrive at FSI or at your first post, and be among people who understand your wandering motivations, people who talk about spending ten months to learn Estonian being a good thing, people who are fluent in the many forms of electricity and the appliances that can/can't work with them, and people who can discuss the various ways to keep armies of African ants out of the dog kibble bin.

However, if you're the person who said this to me while I was still back at home:

"What? Why would you want to leave here? Aren't we good enough for you?" ---
I don't recommend this life for you.

But I'm glad that you're out there, keeping the homefires burning while we scatter to each horizon. Believe me, we'll be envious of your easy access to peanut butter, rolls of wrapping paper and $3 boxes of breakfast cereal, for sure.

In the meanwhile, I hope these random thoughts give some of you an insight into our lives and maybe some inspiration or a feeling of relief that you're not alone out there as you try to explain to friends and family why moving to the Congo would be pretty cool.

Cuidate, y nos vemos!
  
       
        
               
                 
                   
                    
                    

Sunday, October 9, 2011

The Tabbies Speak Out

The Tabbies have requested a moment to speak about their views of their new home, and seeing as this blog is named after them - we thought it only fair. I promised to transcribe their thoughts, and perhaps add an explanatory comment or two.

Things we like about being wherever we are, which frankly, we're not too sure about:
(I've showed them the map; it's right there on the wall, but they kept saying, "What's South? What's America? What's 'not Washington'?")

  • The weather is pretty good for those of us with luxurious coats. Not too hot (like that last place we were where we had to have that machine in the wall buzzing all day to keep us cool!) and not too cold and we haven't had to get wet going outside. Okay, we haven't been able to go outside at all, but at least we're staying dry and clean. These are very important qualities in a new home.
  • We have an entire bathroom just for us! Dad even mentioned something about just filling up the entire shower stall with sand and calling it a litter box, which would be really cool and sooo spacious! The sand we have must be the fanciest in the world; well, that's what Mom keeps saying, and she adds, "It better be at $2 per pound!" She even mentioned something about, "For these prices, we should recycle it!" We're certain she's kidding - that would just be gross.
  • The food we have is also the best in the world because it comes straight from the Amazon jungle. It's so exotic! (I don't have the heart to tell them the food is the same they've always had, and it's actually from Amazon.com....)
  • Dodger: We have this huge shower that I jump into and drink from every morning! And, it washes all the dirt off my paws - really! You can see for yourself how clean my paws are now because I leave my wet, dirty prints in the shower and on the bathroom floor, and sometimes I even jump on the bed to get the last of it all dried off on the comforter. There's so much less cleaning work for me now!
  • Toby: And I love having three shower stalls to pee in now! Did you know that cat urine cleans tile grout, too? And Mom just turns on the water and washes it all down, which saves on that fancy litter. I'm ecologically-minded, for sure.
  • Dodger: You did WHAT in my shower?
  • Daphne: I don't have to share my couch space anymore as we finally have armchairs for each of us AND a couch. This living is befitting a lady of my age and status.
Okay, we have to mention a few things that we're not quite used to yet:
  • Dodger: There's a lot more thunder and lightning down here, which is just not cool.
  • Daphne: And there are these huge birds, bigger than eagles, that fly in circles over the hills near our window. When I see those birds, I know the only safe place is under the bed. I'm no fool!
  • All: These wood floors make our toys go so fast across the room! And when we run around the corners, well, it's really hard to get traction (...and really funny...).
  • Toby: The couches are tall enough that we can retrieve our own toys! I can even get UNDER the couch now and sneak up on my sister (...also really funny...).
  • Mom keeps promising that our tower and scratcher will arrive soon. Something about being in a warehouse for months already - it seems to make her sort of mad to talk about it. 
We'd love to hear from our other FS cat friends: Boots, Mugsy, Bill - anyone?
Thank you for listening; this is the end of our tale.

Monday, October 3, 2011

Nice Surprises

I felt a little bad being negative about my host-country nationals in the last post (okay - I did have pretty good grounds, though), so in a change of mood, Tim and I came up with the following:


Nice surprises

There are a few things, pleasant surprises that I’ve noticed that Colombia does better than the US. This is not a comprehensive list; it is simply what I’ve noticed recently and I hope to add to this list as the months unfold.

·         Fruit juice. They have awesome fruit juice here. It’s fresh; it comes in all sorts of flavors that we don’t have and they make these deliciously creative mixes – like pear, green apple, mint and something tropical that I can’t remember the name of. But trust me – it’s amazing. And that’s just one example; the number of mixtures they come up with is exponential to the number of fruits and herbs that exist.

·         Aromatica. While we’re talking about delicious concoctions, I’d like to suggest “aromatica,” a brew of dried or fresh fruits and herbs that does NOT only taste like rose hips (like so much herbal tea does). Every batch is different depending on the creator; it’s refreshing and warm and sweet… Mmm hmmm. Why don’t we have this at home? And you can eat the fruit with a spoon afterwards!

·         Desserts. There are bakeries and ice cream and gelato shops everywhere. And flan, and things with “arequipa,” this caramel-like substance that makes everything better. Now, I know that Europe is renowned for their bakeries , so you French, Italian and Austrians out there don’t go getting all upset at this. This isn’t a world competition here – just nice things I notice in Colombia and their bakeries are one of them!

·         Taxi companies that recognize your address automatically when you call from your home phone and dispatch a taxi to your exact location and then tell you how many minutes it will take to arrive. All without talking to a soul. That’s pretty cool.

·         Parking lot security. Besides bomb-sniffing dogs that check every vehicle entering the shopping center parking lots, today we also saw what could best be described as parking lot lifeguards. There were guards in towers overlooking the outdoor parking lot, armed with whistles and binoculars. One was excitedly blowing his whistle and pointing at some offender, but I couldn’t tell what the crime was. Could it have been door-dinging another car? Leaving the cart to block an empty space? Forgetting your purse on the car roof? Either way, he was certainly On The Job and it was nice to see.  

I’ve given you five nice surprises of things that Colombia does really well. Protocol* dictates that I may now list one thing that Colombia is really lousy at, and I apologize in advance to any host-country nationals reading this, but you gotta’ admit that this is true: It makes NO sense to have the folks who re-stock the grocery shelves work during the busiest shopping times!  We have enough trouble working our way around each other and past the over-solicitous sample marketers in front of their skillets and pitchers of juice and little tooth-picked sausage pieces - we truly do not also need to contend with pallets and crates and boxes of groceries blocking the way and dozens of staff clogging the aisles that we now have to reach around, over, and under as they ignore us to chat with their coworkers. Really, these tasks are best left to the overnight hours.

Okay, that's it for now.

*Mine

Saturday, October 1, 2011

Things that go #@$%^& in the night

On Thursday night, just moments before slipping into bed, the racket started. I turned on the small fan that I keep beside my bed to dull outside noises, but the noise was still there. I tried to distract myself with my book, but it crept in over the storyline until all I could think of was, “What the #@#$%^ is that NOISE? And why is it so loud, so close by and so late on a weeknight?”  I tried to ignore it and put my hand and my pillow over my ears, but it was not going to be bested so easily. Finally, after midnight with the noise continuing unabated, I opened the bedroom door, walked down to the hallway door, and upon opening it, was faced with the undeniable source: the neighbors directly underneath our apartment were hosting a LIVE MARIACHI BAND. Short of living under a tap dance studio or a rehearsal hall for experimental jazz, in the poker game of apartment annoyances - I do believe this was a royal flush. 

To make matters worse, our apartment building has an airshaft up the middle, with windows to three rooms (our kitchen and bathroom included) opening into it. The airshaft is completely brick, giving it the noise-dampening qualities of a megaphone. Every note from each horn (and there were more than one, trust me!) ricocheted its way from the original source, up the airshaft to be delivered directly to the unsoliciting ears of each resident above and below our reveling neighbors.  

12:30 am found me in my robe, ringing the offenders’ doorbell. I don’t know how they actually heard it, but a man answered and when I mouthed “WAY TOO LOUD!” to him, his facial expressions said, “Really? Loud? I’m sorry, what can I do? Really – you can hear this? Gosh, my apologies!” So close to the music, we couldn’t actually hear each other speak – so this was all pantomime. But he understood why I was there.  

Satisfied, I went back upstairs and waited for the change in volume, which – of course – didn’t come. Our only saving grace was that Mariachi bands are hired by the hour, and so some time after 1:30, they packed up their horns and left the party in their matching costumes, leaving me with nearly four hours to sleep. 

Friday night, as Tim and I were settling onto the couch to pick a movie to watch - it started again. The volume was such that it was all I could do to not turn around and look for the band that was certainly IN our living room. Even the cats were freaked out by the racket.  This time the band only played until about midnight, after which the party continued with Mariachi on the stereo, naturally.  

My coworkers told me that Colombians love Mariachi and it’s a tradition to celebrate a birthday or an engagement by hiring a band. C’mon, don’t hold it against them – it’s a tradition, part of the culture! Should the festivities continue for a third night, Tim and I will be happy to introduce our new friends to some American culture: early Sunday morning breakfast with the Allman Brothers at full strength.