Sunday, August 26, 2012

Gardening

A wise gardener once told me that for a successful garden, one should spend more money on the soil than on the plants. This is the tack I'm taking towards my upcoming training and first assignment as a Consular Officer.

Tomorrow, alongside a good number of my A-100 classmates, I will start "ConGen," the State Department's intensive training for all Consular officers. While you may have heard me say, "this is what I've been looking forward to for two years, three years..." in regards to oral assessments, Specialist Orientation, getting to our first post, starting A-100, Flag Day etc... THIS really is what I've been waiting to sink my teeth into!

Without being too much like Reese Witherspoon's Tracy Flick character in "Election," I want to be front and center in class each day, absorbing the details of the stuff I will be using every day, the heart of my new career. Then, once in Ciudad Juarez, I'm planning on taking advantage of what I've heard is great management and training for this massive Consular machine. All facets of Consular work will be available: immigrant visas, non-immigrant (tourist) visas and American Citizen Services. Not every post can say that. Oh, and the shiny new Consulate in Juarez has over 100 visa windows to man! (What kind of geek am I to be excited about that?)

While still in Bogota, one of the Consular Section supervisors gave me her best advice for someone starting out in this career path. She told me not to shy away from the Mexican border posts or the "visa mills" (we're not supposed to call them that anymore, but I don't have a better term yet) in India, Brazil or China, as they will provide a great foundation and breadth of experience for me.

This tour is not going to simply be a box to be checked off on a list of career requirements: danger post - check, Consular tour - check, get off language probation - check. While we undoubtedly would have more visitors had we been assigned to Athens or Rome, and fewer well-meaning friends touching us on the elbow and asking, "Are you okay with this?" about our assignment, I keep remembering that although everyone loves showy annual flowers - they will eventually lose their blooms. Starting in Juarez gets us right into the thick of things. This is the soil from which I hope a twenty-year State Department career will grow and then, in time, blossom.  I can't wait to get my hands dirty in it!

Saturday, August 18, 2012

Flag Day! Part Two

Everyone remembers some big one-time event in their life: a high school prom, a quinceanera, or a graduation. Flag Day is that event for the FS, because all further assignments will announced via e-mail and with far less whooping, hollering and clapping. However, in the company of 90 classmates (three of us switching from Specialist to Generalist), I got to go through this twice. And it's just as fun the second time!

So, the new flag now proudly displayed in our little home is....

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Mexican Flag
MEXICO!

We're border-bound for Ciudad Juarez!

Now I know it doesn't sound as exotic as some places whose names have a spy-thriller ring to them like Baku, Astana or Tashkent, but it's going to be a super training ground and an opportunity to finally get that elusive 3/3 in Spanish (as in they won't let me leave until I do!).

The Tabbies were pretty excited because we told them that they wouldn't have to go on an airplane to get there. We thought we'd mention the four-day car trip a little later on, after the excitement has worn off some. They'll be Mexicats, and are being fitted for serapes and huaraches as we speak (Toby wants a sombrero, too. His pink nose is quite susceptible to sun burn.)

My name was called about 75% of the way through the ceremony, so I got to watch my colleagues leap to their feet in many cases, even throwing their arms around our class mentor Ambassador in excitement. She took the exuberance in great spirits and kept a huge genuine smile as she waved each little flag in play in front of the crowd as the assignment was announced.

They always warn us that Flag Day will bring about surprises, and yesterday was no exception. We knew that not every option would be assigned as there were a handful more places than people, but there were some last-minute additions as well. One city  came up twice and I have two classmates instead of just one headed there, and there were two countries that weren't on our list that surprised everyone. One of my hopeful-highs didn't get assigned at all, but that's okay - beautiful, historic Europe is overrated, right? And while it would have been really cool to learn a one-country language like Mongolian so that Tim and I could use it to comment privately about the rude person behind us in line in the supermarket - it'll be good to deepen instead of lose our Spanish.

I was honestly surprised to get Ciudad Juarez, but only because the timing of the training and the projected arrival time were not an exact match for my language level. But in retrospect, when I review the list of priorities given to my career development officer: easy for elderly cats, work in my career track and possibility for Tim to work - it fits the whole bill. Plus, it's an easy hop over to El Paso if the need arises for, oh I don't know, movies without Spanish subtitles? To be honest, I can't think of what El Paso would offer that Ciudad Juarez wouldn't, but then again - I've never been to either place.

So here's another cool part: minutes after the last flag was doled out and my classmates started milling around hugging each other and looking for their families in the back of the room, two people approached me. They are from previous A-100s and are also headed to Ciudad Juarez and wanted to come meet another new coworker. They said that there's a core group that gets together regularly here while in training, each of us with different departure dates. It really meant a lot for them to offer the welcome mat, and how great is that to have an instant group of friends already!?

Well that's that. We'll all file back into our A-100 classroom on Monday, no doubt chattering about our new horizons, finally freshly in focus. I'm thrilled to be starting the training in the meat-and-potatoes of the work I'll be doing. It's been three years imagining this time and the Consular Affairs flag lapel pin is no longer just a hopeful symbol, but now a true association.

Woo-hoo!!

Thursday, August 16, 2012

Life As We Know It

Greetings from the middle of Week Five of A-100, where the content of our coursework has changed from being orientation-based (i.e. listening to subject matter experts) to actively jumping into learning the core skills of our new profession. 

So what are "core skills" for entry-level diplomats? 

Writing, public speaking and responding to difficult questions, among others. Our A-100 coordinators were clever enough to know that the week leading up to, as I call it, the Day That Changes Your Life (Flag Day!), is NOT the time to expect nearly 100 of us to sit politely and quietly, stuffed first into our suits and then into our under-sized classroom to listen to hours of information on travel allowances, health care options or voucher preparation. To help stem our anxious waiting, they've instead distracted us with other stomach-churning tasks, like "Composure Under Fire," or what has been dubbed, "shark week" by some. In this class we practice handling the difficult questions we may reasonably be expected to face once we're at our new posts. Our class has been divided into smaller groups, so if I draw a complete blue screen (my new favorite phrase) - it's only in front of a fraction of my highly-educated classmates, not all of them. Remember all that material I mentioned cramming to pass my FS Officers' Test two years ago? Yeah - that's the stuff I'm having to regurgitate under pressure. With confidence and without letting myself get flustered or dragged down verbal dead-end streets by mock angry student protesters or members of the press looking for soundbites. After this week - the anxiety of Flag Day will be a welcome relief!

On a lighter note, once again I find myself looking for signs about where our next assignment will be. Last year it was Toby's litter-box signals that led me to believe we were headed to Africa. Since his credibility as a soothsayer was brought into question, I've been looking for other signs. Such as seeing two car license plates in one day with the letters IND - does that mean we're headed for the Sub-Continent? What about my sudden craving for Shrimp Lo Mein? Are we China-bound? (I certainly hope not, because besides their one-child policy, they also have a two-pet policy for hopeful kitty importers.) I've even slowly run my finger down our bid-list, hoping in Ouija board style to receive some message from the printed words. 

Nuttin'.

With 100 options on our bid-list, it dawned on me that we have a 1% chance of getting our favorite spot. Yes, following that same line of reasoning one should conclude that the less-desirable spots have the same odds, but still - it's hitting me that I need to steel myself for the very real possibility of being sent somewhere we hadn't even considered as a viable option. 

Which brings me to another core skill that we've been soaking in lately: our pledge to be "worldwide available" and the value of hidden gems, pleasant surprises and other euphemisms for finding happiness in unexpected places - like your lowest-low post.

This will be my last post until after Flag Day. You may have to give me a day afterward to compose my thoughts and offer the news, but in the meanwhile, we couldn't be more eager to learn our fates. 

I just love the fact that I get to have the thrill of two of these red-letter days in my FS career. 

Vamos a ver...

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

A Picture's Worth...

Let me just say that A-100 is mentally exhausting. There comes a time when we all just need a smile, or at least something much less cranial. Therefore I've compiled an assortment of pictures to share with you that I hope will make someone out there chuckle or at least reduce a frown or two. I know they will for me...

Note: these pictures have nothing to do with the State Department, being an OMS, being a Consular Officer or A-100. For more serious stuff - you will just have to wait until something deeper inspires me to write. Or everyone's favorite Flag Day... that's coming up on August 17th!

Work-a-day footwear: Americana

Work-a-day footwear: Colombiana




The street sweepers keep Colombian roads and highways free of the hazards of dried leaves. They do this in traffic, during rush hour and don't seem bothered by the uncovered manholes they pass during the day. Priorities, right?

Impromptu rain hat or modern spin on (below) traditional headwear?


Brotherly kitty love


Brothers Schmothers - I love my scratcher!





A Cartagena bricklayer models his urban sombrero.



Anytime I felt bogged down in the busy-work of my day, all it took was a walk by the huge carved wall outside the Embassy to remind me what I was doing there and who I was working for. After a complaint session one night, Tim reminded me, "Do you need to go look at the wall again?"


Send off from Bogota - full moon rising over La Calera