Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Transitions

Yesterday Tim and I spent an inordinate amount of time scrubbing our apartment. He moved all the furniture and made the wood floors shine, and I took scrubbers and froofy-smelling products to the bathrooms. Why the cleaning frenzy? Because today the Housing Board (of which I'm a member) will be touring the soon-to-be-available apartments to help in their assignment process and tomorrow we'll have our pre-departure housing inspection.

This is the only job I can think of where your coworkers get to walk through your home to evaluate its condition and your housekeeping skills. Can you imagine working in a bank and having the tellers and your manager come by your place with clipboards, noting the size of your closets, the lack of light in your kitchen and the scratches on your floors? Yikes! And as one of said clipboard-toting Housing Board members, I've learned quite a bit about my colleagues from seeing how they keep house! (Read: "Did you see that she/he had five hairbrushes all lined up on the bedside table? What's that all about?")


So today it was our turn to be under the microscope and I was seeing the apartment through fresh eyes. Yeah - the Tabbies have barfed on the bedroom carpet quite a few times and we've done our best to remove the stains, but there's only so much one can do. Plus we're one of the only families I can think of who managed to live in Latin America without ever hiring a housekeeper. We're not slobs by any means, but there will be oven cleaning and intensive dusting in our very near future. Any type of damages above what is seen as "normal wear and tear" will be evaluated and charged, so I'm walking around the apartment with tiny nail scissors snipping off snags on the couches, spot-treating bits on the carpet and polishing tables (okay - that's Tim's favorite chore).

Besides cleaning for the inspection, we are also preparing our home and lives for our transition to Washington, DC. We've dedicated rooms in the apartment to "UAB" and "HHE" to prepare for the movers who will arrive Thursday morning. (UAB = Unaccompanied Air Baggage and HHE = Household Effects.) Our belongings will be divided into what we can physically pack and carry on the plane which have to last for three to four weeks until our UAB (450 lbs of stuff) arrives to carry us through until we reach our next post. We won't receive an HHE shipment until quite a few months after we reach that post. Naturally, nobody knows where that will be or when, so our UAB has to be a clever assortment of clothing for all seasons.

We still have over two weeks here, but there are a LOT of staples to eat through! Tim has been busily baking to work our way through the flour and sugar, and coming up with dinners that maximize the left-over ingredients. Seems I'll be bringing a bean and canned fruit melange, tossed in a white vinegar dressing to the Embassy 4th of July event. Mmmm... (For some reason we have four bottles of white vinegar left over. Oh, wait, I promised I'd CLEAN with all those. Oops.) Our left-over half-bottles of cleaning supplies, remaining garbage bags, coffee filters etc... will go to any neighbors, friends or porteros who show the slightest bit of interest.

In fact, last weekend my Embassy Spanish teacher received our old TV for her young sons. Her taxi-driving husband swung by the apartment to collect it, and when I explained to the portero why this guy was taking a TV out of our apartment, he was both shocked and seriously disappointed that it wasn't going to him instead. He's a very nice man, and we plan to leave all three porteros tips before leaving, but my teacher had become a good friend over the past year and I wanted to do something for her. She teaches at the Embassy in the morning and at a local middle school in the afternoon, all the while working on her Master's to teach English. She always comes to class with a big smile and funny conversation, despite working until 2 am on her own homework the night before. Yesterday was our last class and I got all teary as she expressed her gratitude for the TV and for our time together. One by one, this leaving stuff is going to be tough.

I think the last few weeks will just slip by. After pack-out, we'll be living out of the Embassy-provided "Welcome Kit."  The GSO guys dropped it off in a massive RubberMaid trunk the other day and once we're done packing out, we'll appoint the apartment with the four plastic plates, four plastic bowls, dull knives, light green sheets and beige towels, just like we had as newcomers. The Welcome Kit really has a way of bookending one's tour.

Speaking of newcomers - I've started to notice lots of new faces in the Embassy corridors already. People pausing in hallway intersections, trying to orient themselves, these people are here to replace us, to start making their own marks and to have their own Colombian experiences. But in a way, they feel like an intrusion. Who are they to try to take the place of all my friends and familar faces? Silly, I know, and I'm certain that as I meet them, I'll see that they're just as smart/funny/friendly as the people we're losing day by day.

Meanwhile, Bogota has been moving into the dry season, trying to make us feel worse for leaving her with blue skies and crisp morning air. It'll be bittersweet to leave our big brick city, for sure.

Okay, better get back to the scrubbing.

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Embassy 101: Who Does What?

Who's Who & Who Does What: Embassy 101 an UNOFFICIAL view:
(If you want the official guide, find some cool videos and job descriptions, go here.)

I just noticed that our header (the part about "moving into the unknown world of the Foreign Service") is now a teenie bit inaccurate. I am proud to say that after nearly a year at post, the world of the FS is slightly less unknown. It took a few months of shock, some tears, some thoughts of grabbing the cats and heading for the airport - but I am happy to report that I know my way around the Embassy (more so) now and would like to share this to all of you who will be wheels-up to your first post soon.

The first thing I have to say is that there is just about nothing you will do that will not involve other people, other sections, or even other agencies within the Embassy. In fact, I can't think of any of my regular duties that are started and finished by only me. You'll need to know who does what, and why and your time at FSI will barely scratch the surface on this topic. Mostly because at every embassy, it will vary. Given that, I am going to describe how it is at Embassy Bogota. We are the second-largest US mission in the world, and therefore we have a little bit of every agency. Smaller missions may have one person doing multiple jobs, but we have multiple people doing one job due to the sheer volume of it all.

This is one OMS's view, as someone who has needed walk (run!) down the halls from office to office getting stuff signed, asking for help with ABC, organizing logistics for DEF, coordinating with GHI - you get the picture. I'll make this alphabetical, but I apologize in advance for those I may inadvertently leave out:

Ambassador
The Chief of Mission (COM) and the President's representative in the host country. Treat her/him as such. They may be very friendly, relaxed and even joke with you like a buddy - but please don't be fooled into a sense of casualty and forget to stand when they enter the room or call them "Sir" or "Madame" (wait - I don't have a female Ambassador, hmm... I wonder if it's "Ma'am"? Naw, I'm going with "Madame"). Any visitor to the country on official US business will be under COM authority and his/her responsibility. This includes Peace Corps volunteers and military while not involved in active combat (or something like that, it is a bit complicated).

Community Liaison Office - CLO
Exactly as the name depicts, these folks act as, well, the liaison between your new city and the embassy community. What does that mean and what can they do for me? Have questions about schools? They should know. Want to go on outings and get to know the city after arriving? They arrange these and help introduce you to new places and friends. Want help with family-member employment? They have resources. Need someone to talk to because the adjustment was harder than expected? They'll offer a confidential ear. Have you read the newsletter from post? The CLO wrote it, along with all the ads for the stuff you need to sell/want to buy, and the household help you may be seeking. Want to pop into the embassy to find some new books to borrow, or to use the computer? You got it - the CLO!

Consular Section - CON
Divided into two basic functions, the Consular Section serves host-country (or third-country) nationals seeking visas to the US, both immigrant and non-immigrant, and they serve Americans abroad through the American Citizen Services (ACS) side. As an example: you go on vacation to Colombia and lose your passport while hiking - you see ACS to issue you a new one. While awaiting your new passport, you meet a lovely Colombian man/woman and fall madly in love. You two decide that he/she'll move to the US with you to get married. It's an Immigrant Visa Consular Officer who interviews your fiance. Years later, you return to Colombia to retire with your Colombian spouse and want to receive your social security checks or renew your US passport while living abroad - back to ACS for you. Finally, when you pass away in Colombia and want your remains returned to your home town - guess who? The Consular Section steps in to help.

The Consular Section is also responsible for upholding US immigration law and doing their best to insure that the people who are applying for entrance to the US will not violate these laws by overstaying their visas, and are not going there with the intent to do the nation harm. They help folks adopting foreign-born children and if you get in a jam overseas with local authorities, they will visit you in jail and see that you're being treated humanely and have access to legal counsel.

Deputy Chief of Mission - DCM
The one who oversees the day-to-day administrative stuff and the running of the embassy. This position is the supervisor to each section head. She/he has to review anything the Ambassador will sign first. They also will become charge d'affairs when the Ambassador is unavailable, and someone else will be acting-DCM during that time. Usually the head of a section, such as the Political Officer or the Consul General. Same "Sir" and "Madame" rule applies (or now would it be "Ma'am"? again - my experience has been masculine).

Economic Section - ECON
The Economic Section, headed by the Economic Counselor and assisted by the Deputy Economic Counselor, handles topics such as trade, civil aviation, environment, science, health and technology (lumped together as "ESTH" and usually handled by one officer), micro and macro economics, women's issues as related to economics, energy, sometimes labor issues, infrastructure and I'm probably leaving something out. If there is a Foreign Commercial Service at post - they will often work closely with them to assist US companies doing business in the host country by providing them local-expert information on the subject. We help out American fishermen who want to fish in local waters obtain their permits; we help the Dept of Energy with setting up meetings with local Ministries to improve connectivity between countries; we manage grants/programs that offer funds to promote women's entrepreneurship in rural areas and we put the parties together that hash out the details of free trade agreements. And that's before lunch!

Facilities Manager - FM
Think of this person as the building superintendent who is responsible for the physical mission and property, including the Ambassador's residence. This position is also a Specialist position. They keep the lights, heat and A/C on and oversee construction projects. The Facilities Section is the one you go to when stuff breaks in your housing. Not that that ever happens, right?

Financial Management Officer - FMO
Often headed by a Specialist FMO, but sometimes by a Generalist, these folks run the money side of things. From procuring new furniture to approving travel - they are the  financial bottom line. When you treat a contact to lunch, it's the FMO section that will take your representation voucher. Who do you think manages the payroll submissions? FMO, that's who.

Foreign Service Nationals - FSNs
Also known as LES (locally engaged staff), these are the people who stick around for years and constitute the institutional knowledge of the mission while the rest of us breeze in and out in two or three years. They staff every single section from Political and Protocol to FMO to GSO to RSO to the local guard staff. These are the folks who know where and how to get stuff done and sadly, are the ones who we have to leave behind when we move on. We'll see each other again at FSI or another post, but not our good FSN friends.

General Services Officer - GSO
Aptly named, as they handle, well, Generally Everything! These are the folks that select and manage housing for the mission, and hear all the complaints on the subject. They oversee the shipping of your stuff into and out of the country and work with the local authorities on importation of your vehicle. They oversee motor pool to ensure that everyone gets where they need to be and work with you on VIP visits in procuring hotels, transportation, interpretation and help make sure that everything goes smoothly.

Human Resource Officer - HRO
As in any large organization, the HR section is responsible for the hiring of new staff, in the case of the State Department that means the locally engaged staff. They conduct the interviews and maintain personnel files, all in compliance with local laws. They also assist us with our visas (and those for our families) and work with the local authorities to obtain our national identity cards and driver's licenses. If we curtail, they assist in the process and make sure that Washington is aware of the vacancy so it can be re-filled as quickly as possible. They also are the last link in the chain in getting our annual evaluations from post to Washington.


IRM, ISC, and a host of other I acronyms
The "I" stands for "information" but darn if I don't know what all the rest are (okay, Information Resource Management, there's one). If it has a button on it - it's in their bailiwick. Who sets up your OpenNet account so you can read cables and have Outlook? Who makes sure that the Classified side stays secure? Who makes sure the phones and faxes and printers and radios and scanners work - the "I" team!

Management Officer
One of the five tracks, or "cones" of FS Officers, the Management Officer will oversee many sections of the embassy: FM, FMO, GSO, and HR. Read the descriptions of the acronyms I just listed, and realize that the Management Officer is responsible for each of these sections to ensure the efficient running of the mission's people and property.

Office Management Specialist - OMS
Hey - that's me! We work in most of the sections in the Embassy, particularly in the Front Office (for the Ambassador and the DCM), in the POL and ECON sections and for the RSO. Some missions also have OMSes in the Management Section and even in Consular, but this is less common. We are the administrative assistants to the section heads and the officers within and keep the sections organized by managing calendars, arranging filing systems, preparing Diplomatic Notes, assisting with visitor logistics, maintaining payroll and section budgets, arranging travel and submitting vouchers for the section. We also monitor many "eServices" programs which are generally automated requests for stuff: like entry to the country for official business, or entry to the Embassy for visitors, or airport security passes. We keep everything running smoothly so that the principle officers can do their work.

Political Section - POL
As with the Economic Section, the Political Section is headed by the Political Officer and assisted by the Deputy Political Officer(s). Their portfolio includes the obvious: the political climate in the host country, and the various political parties. They will also, along with other volunteers from the Embassy, assist in election monitoring. Other subjects they handle are human rights, displaced persons, women's issues, labor and unions, Leahy vetting  and more. (I'd expand on the "and more" if I had a clearer picture to offer, but I'm in the Econ Section after all.)

Public Affairs Officer - PAO
Like Consular, this section is also divided into two areas: cultural affairs and press affairs. Public Diplomacy officers work in this office. The cultural affairs side works on educational and cultural exchanges, for example bringing students from here to there and vice-versa and bringing US artists (music, dance, theater, art) to the host country. The press side arranges interviews with local press of US officials and build public awareness of the US.

Regional Medical Officer - RMO
Regional Medical Officer - Psychiatrist - RMO-P
These are the doctors who take care of our bodies and minds while at post. At Embassy Bogota, we're fortunate to host one of each who travel to various countries in the region on their "rounds" but call Bogota home. We also have a pharmacy and a lab, and popping in for a medical visit during the work day couldn't be more convenient. They are supported by other health practitioners, (Family Nurse Practitioners and Physician Assistants), to serve all our medical needs.

Regional Security Officer - RSO
Diplomatic Security is responsible for the safety of all under the Chief of Mission authority. They manage the local guard force that protects the mission and its property as well as with local police. Often they get blamed for ruining our "fun" with their restrictions, they also take the heat when something goes wrong. The RSO is also responsible for protecting the Ambassador and family and grants or denies access of visitors to the mission grounds. They create safety bulletins when necessary and work with the Consular Section to produce warden messages to the ex-pat or tourist community of threats or dangers to American citizens in country. The RSO also conducts the background investigations that are necessary for all of us to get/keep our security clearances.

Grab Bag:
Pardon my lumping these folks together, but I don't know much about them other than the fact that they exist. There are a handful of specialties such as Information Resource Officers who promote English language and culture abroad, Security specialists who do secret-squirrel stuff to keep the mission and its information secure and Diplomatic Couriers who physically deliver, through millions of air miles, the Diplomatic Pouches.
I think it's best to leave these descriptions to the experts here.

So that's about all I can think of now. I wouldn't be surprised if I re-edit this posting a few more times over the coming days as I remember people I've forgotten.

There truly is a place for just about anyone in the Foreign Service!

Friday, June 8, 2012

Not My Bid List

Pardon the extended silence - I'm still on R & R visiting family and feeling very removed from my FS life. I've had time to think while watching the edge of Lake Tahoe lap against the rocks and a few things have come to mind:

First, after all my talk about being happy to be back in the US and back to the familiar - I'm now seeing the US through different eyes. It feels like cheating being here. What I mean is, it's too darn easy. I can form whatever sentence I want without thinking about it first. I can understand overheard conversations from the next table. I understand the driving habits. Tim and I keep finding ourselves starting sentences with, "Well in Colombia..." which I'm sure has a maximum of about four times before people stop listening. Being OUT of the country, we've become avid Colombia promoters, in fact, it's reached a point where I think the Colombian Tourist Board (if there is such a thing) owes me at least a nice lunch for all the travel recommendations I've given.

My R & R will last two work weeks, plus an extra Monday off when we return for a Colombian holiday, but it feels like I've been away for a very long time. I've been able to see a lot of family, which is good because when I leave Bogota and my OMS life for A-100 - I'll be starting from scratch as an entry-level officer. This means no annual leave during training. Two more directed assignments. Resetting the tenure clock. It will be quite a while before the next R & R is authorized.

I'm going to use this as a (shaky) segue to talk about the OMS bid list that my classmates all received the day I left for R & R. I didn't get this list from my Career Development Officer, as I'd already given her the news of my leaving the OMS ranks, but instead my FSI classmates sent me the list so I could spin the "What If" wheel and imagine what I'd be bidding on if I weren't switching over to "the dark side" (as we called it in Specialist Orientation).

So what was on the list, and what would we have chosen? Well, I don't know if I'm allowed to note the actual list, so to be conservative, I'm going to lump them together:
  • 12 African posts, including one unaccompanied and my "dream" post that I jealously watched go to someone a few classes after mine.
  • 7 Asian posts, including one in which we can't officially recognize the country and therefore the original Flag Day recipients got only District of Columbia flags instead.
  • 6 posts necessitating Spanish skills, one for Russian and two for French.
  • 6 desirable European capitals.
  • A few islands that would make cat importation horrible.
  • Some Middle East assignments that would get Tim over his urge to be in the sunshine again in a big hurry.
Many of these positions were from our own bid list last March, and inevitably some of my classmates will end up swapping jobs. However, I already know that I have three friends who have volunteered, and been selected, for positions in what is known as "AIP," or Afghanistan, Iraq and Pakistan. In fact, I have one good friend going to each letter in that acronym. Volunteers for AIP are solicited before the regular bid list comes out, so that people who are not selected for these posts can be notified in time to go through the regular bidding process. Everyone has until early July to turn in their rankings of high, middle and low and they'll learn of their second post rather unceremoniously by mid-July. Meanwhile, back on the FSO side, I'll get my bid-list probably on July 17th, our first official day on the FSI campus, and will enjoy a second Flag Day about a month later. Yes, I'm soooo looking forward to it. As they say, no matter how seasoned the veteran - everyone remembers their Flag Day and I'm excited to get two.

Meanwhile, a new crop of OMS hopefuls has just started to receive their invitations to the Oral Assessment. The cycle continues - out with the old, in with the new. I hope to cheer on some friends for their own OAs, and will live vicariously through their excitement as they move through the process.

Next stop: Last Month in the Embassy.