Thursday, April 28, 2011

Chapter Three: Language Training

I've titled this post "Chapter Three" feeling that Chapter One was our Specialist Orientation, Chapter Two was our OMS Training and now I've moved away from the security of my buddies and on to the next phase: twelve weeks of language training in which three unsuspecting native Spanish speakers will try - patiently please - to shape my Spanglish into the real deal. Real enough to answer calls and questions accurately and professionally in an embassy setting, that is.

(Sidebar: I learned on my first day that "Ambassador" in Spanish is "embajador," which to me just sounds like I'm saying it in English with a lisp; I'll get over it.)

So here we are: seven classmates in a room with our native Cuban instructor. Seven is a larger class than the language department seems to prefer, so they promise that we'll be shaken out into smaller groups soon enough; they want to get a feel for how we learn, what we know (and don't know) etc... Across from me sits a man who has a wife and newborn (six days old) at home. He doesn't sleep yet and is terribly afflicted by his allergies. Next to me is a friendly guy who's not shy at all about trying new vocabulary and, when in doubt, seems to be making up words that sound Spanish. He makes the teacher laugh often, but in a good way, and this reaction doesn't seem to slow him down. 

It dawned on me today that our group is clearly embodying the seven dwarves: the new dad is both Sleepy and Sneezy; Bashful is the reserved woman at the other end of the table who confided to me that the class was difficult for her; Doc sits at the head of the table with his good accent and knowledge of slang from working in Corrections, and I'm doing my best to be Happy instead of Dopey or Grumpy!

Ostensibly we'll be with the same teacher for one month before they cycle us through to another to help us learn via a different style and different accent. Our teacher speaks to us in Spanish probably 75% of the time, of which I understand also about 75%, better than I'd anticipated, actually. It's fun, and I keep reminding myself that the State Department is paying me a nice salary to learn a language; I owe it to them (and myself) to make the most of this opportunity. We have mas o menos four hours of language class per day, plus self-study time in the labs where we can access any one of a multitude of programs: flashcards, videos, tele-novelas, grammar quizes etc... So long as the person behind you isn't practicing conjugating Italian verbs WAY TOO LOUDLY while you're studying - it's great (hey dude, keep it down, will ya'?).

Speaking of which, I need to get cracking on my homework. Besides, I'm dying to find out if Sofia ever finds the long-lost wife of Senor Gomez whom she has tracked from Spain to Argentina. (She's getting so close... I can't stop watching now!)

Saturday, April 23, 2011

Toby Shows Off

Subtitle: I think my cat has been reading my new wall map

Me - me
Toby - Housecat with too much time on his paws

So, I heard you tell one of your friends that you still don't believe my full understanding of what's going on, and you think I'm just sitting on the bed all day. But you're wrong. I do listen, and when you're away at that place you go everyday, I've been busy. Ease off with that scooper for a sec and just LOOK at what I've done for you:

Wow! That's pretty accurate Tobe. I apologize for underestimating not only your English comprehension, but your map-reading skills and - quite frankly - your aim. Let's just compare and see what our readers have to say:

 Just tell them to please notice that I've rather specifically "pointed out" Bogota, too.

Well you sure did, but you did so by peeing on our future home, Tobe. I don't think that's very good manners to our hosts.

They will recognize and appreciate fine art when they see it.
I'm tired of trying to please you; I'm going back to bed.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Blossoms and Roots

Springtime has hit me, metaphorically and literally.
Last Sunday I spent nearly the whole day, under amazingly bright blue skies and temps in the mid-70s, wandering through Arlington National Cemetary for my first time. With a day like that, I can't boast that I had the place to myself, but I can show you some pictures of how beautifully in full-bloom the spring trees and flowers were:

And dripping in my favorite color: pink!

I spent a good few hours exploring up and down the hills of the massive grounds, overlooking DC to the East and the Potomoc in between. For all of you who've been there already, you know the setting. Each of my sojourns into DC reignites that patriotic feeling of being part of the Big Team now, something that has carried me through the months (years) of work and waiting to get here. Therefore springtime just feels like the right season to be in now: budding, growing, opening to something better.

Meanwhile, the past six weeks - during which my classmates and I have been the target of a deluge of new information - are starting to gel and settle into our new lives. Perhaps tiny trepidatious roots are starting to grow? We've been learning about how to do our new jobs; we've researched the cultures of our new host countries; we've read the names of our new co-workers and some of us have had e-mails or even met them in person. We've completed presentations about the issues we'll encounter when we get to our assignments and a lucky few have even seen photos of our new homes (I haven't yet - but if you want to see a room full of women squeal and run to one computer monitor en masse - just announce, "I've got my housing pictures!"). All the while we're still finishing the closing up our current/old lives here.

I'm noticing that the disparate snippets of information I've been gathering are starting to fit together into full sentences of knowledge. So far it's been like one big game of Concentration, where I've been turning over two cards at a time, hoping for a match. I'm starting to remember where things are, what they mean, how they fit together. Finally. Even the Tabbies are settling into a nice routine. Each day when I come home from FSI on the shuttle with my classmates, I walk through the door, set down my bags and call out to them so they know I'm not the (dreaded-she-with-a-vacuum) housekeeper, and I hear two thumps of kitties jumping onto the carpet. Dodger always comes to greet me first, still ruffled and warm from his spot on the bed, and Toby a moment later - bellowing hello.

A routine equals roots, right? A settling-in and relaxation in one's environment.

Perhaps it's all a circle, and these roots will soon form their own blossoms.

That's all for now.

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Swearing-In and more

I have been meaning to write about our official Swearing-In Day for some time now, as it was two weeks ago already on the last day of our Specialist Orientation. In Main State's top floor diplomatic reception rooms, with an amazing view of the Capitol, the Washington Monument and all things essentially DC, we repeated the official oath that we had given on our very first day. That day most of us were exhausted, excited and stuffed into suits as we recited a quickie version which (we were told) enabled us to become official employees and - basically - get paid.

However, on this day, the "real deal," we were instead exhausted, excited, stuffed into suits and seated in these really awesome surroundings in front of our collected families and a list of notable State Department big wigs. (To see the text of our oath, I'm going to direct you to my classmate Heidi. Scroll down a bit to see where she posts our oath.) Tim flew out from Seattle for a long weekend for the ceremony and to start getting a taste of his new life. My in-laws, Don and Mary Hartford, came up from Richmond to complete my cheering section and it was fun to have such a venue as the backdrop.

We were in the Benjamin Franklin room specifically, surrounded by an awesome "can-we-touch-this?" array of American history, to include ole' Ben's writing desk and some really cool paintings of various Founding Fathers. Even the drapes were impressive! Our Orientation leader, Paula, gave the opening remarks to the assembled families, after she made us pinky-swear that we wouldn't make faces at her to crack her up. She pulled it off perfectly, doing a very a professional job as the Public Diplomacy Officer she is, and then it was Deputy Secretary Nides' turn. He was super. Besides being the shiniest brass we'd met so far (just under Hillary), he was also very "real" and joked about his teenage daughter and then told us that this was one of his favorite parts of his job: bringing fresh  meat (my words) into the Foreign Service and into the mission of diplomacy. He also said that out of all facets of business, politics and industry in which he'd worked, he thought that the Foreign Service people were the smartest. Yeah, that was pretty cool to hear.

We all stood to recite the brief oath and then tossed our caps into the air, no wait, that's not it, and then politely clapped and then in a choreographed bunch, moved over to take our group photo. Last time we'll all be standing shoulder-to-shoulder before being cast to the wind, sniff sniff. The ceremony was short, sweet, yet effectively patriotism-injecting.

By the next morning our Diplomatic Security commrades had packed up to move to their training center to the south. The rest of us will stay on at FSI and receive training in our specialties, some in our languages - some not - and by late April, the very first of us will start to trickle to the airport.

Tim and I spent the next two days visiting DC's sites and, as he noted, being signed into and out of secure buildings requiring various badges and codes. True true. But I think he liked it anyway.  (Sidebar: folks out here call it "Washington," but we know where the real Washington is - so I'm going to be stubborn and continue to refer to it as DC.)

Saturday, April 09, 2011

I shoulda' known

You know how they say that the all the answers to our "big" questions are generally right in front our faces and yet we don't see them?

While I was agonizing over which post I'd be assigned to and resorting to hiring feline soothsayers to give me their predictions (see previous posts), all along the answer was right here in my vegetable drawer on my chives packet and it wasn't until today that I saw it:

Moral(s) of the story:
  1. For those of you dying of impatience and waiting to hear your assignments (yes 160th A-100 - I'm talking to you!) or those of you day-dreaming at home about your FS futures: take a look around you and be open to the answers that are so close you may not even notice them. They're calling out to you as you walk by: "Look, I'm that Russian nesting doll that you got from the exchange student in the 10th grade where you keep your loose change; you're going to Moscow!" Or, "Hey, look at me; I'm the Chinese restaurant menu that just appeared under your apartment door one day. You're going to Shenyang!" Let the answers come to you; they're out there.
  1. Sometimes you have to listen to the Chives Talking.

Wednesday, April 06, 2011

Soy una una

Okay, let me explain:
The morning after Flag Day I was told to report to the Spanish language department for a quick evaluation of my Spanish skills as my assignment requires a 2/2 proficiency. That means that on a scale of 0 (can't say "hola") to 5 (native well-educated speaker), I need to be speaking (first number) and reading (second number) at a 2/2 level. I had been estimating that I'd be about a 1+ or 2 on this scale. That was on Tuesday.

On Wednesday morning, after a quick conversation with a few  native speakers wherein the conversation stayed along the lines of "I come from Washington. I have have husband. Before, I work in police department in office. I have three cats. No, hahaha, they are not kittens; they are big cats," I was officially downgraded to a 1. We didn't even try the reading portion. Actually, the woman was kind and said that a 1 indicated that I was socially conversational, made grammar errors and could understand most (my emphasis added) of what was said. Okay - that is an accurate assessment.

So, I report back to my orientation class and during our break, I chat with some classmates who are excellent or native Spanish speakers and tell them my news: "Soy una una." Direct translation (in MY head) "I am a one." They looked at each other and tried not to laugh at me. No, no, we wouldn't say it that way. No - really, that doesn't make any sense at all; you should say it like this... and frankly in my embarassment, I've forgotten what else they said.

I am now signed up for 12 weeks of Spanish training aimed at bringing this una to a dos.

Flash forward a week and I'm in my apartment after work when there's a knock on the door. It's Delmi, the El Salvadorean housekeeper. She asked if she could come in (in English) and noticing her accent and her name, I invited her in and asked if she spoke Spanish, which of course she does. What a good chance to practice! I gave her my usual preface of "sorry, but I only speak a little Spanish" so as not to encourage her too far.  

The rest of the conversation - to my understanding - went like this:

Blah blah blah excuse me, too much work today blah blah towels? Blah blah blah you want me to clean the blah blah? Two or three bags? Blah blah blah pass the vacuum? Blah blah. Have a nice evening.

My mind went like this:

For God's sake woman - slow down, SOY UNA UNA!!

I'm not sure that 12 weeks is going to be bastante!

Sunday, April 03, 2011

Conversation with The Great Toby

Me - me
Toby - The Great Toby, prognostiCATor currently specializing in FS predictions using his favorite medium, Tidy Cat.

So Toby, I have to admit, I was a bit disappointed that your prediction that we'd be posted to Africa was wrong.

What are you talking about? You asked me for bid list predictions, and that's exactly what I delivered. Were there not three different African posts on your bid list? Hmmm?

Well, yeah, technically there were, but I was also kinda' believing that your message was so clear that it would also predict our post assignment. So that got us thinking that for sure we'd be headed to an exotic, warm, dry place.

You mean that place that you told me has all those mosuitoes, ants, hippos and crocodiles?

Yeah, but we'd have a house with a yard and maybe two bathrooms... and I guess I just got my hopes up.

And now? Now we're going to a vibrant, active city with great pet food selection, a moderate climate for those of us with long fur and it won't take 18 hours to fly there! I'm not seeing a problem here. Plus, didn't you say something about an apartment with a view? Besides, I want to be known as a "Bogato"!

You're right; it's going to be great. But next time - could you just be a bit more specific in your predictions? You know, add a footnote or something?

Sure, if it'll make you happy. Next time I'll pee on the carpet.

Friday, April 01, 2011

Flag Day - Part Dos

Okay, so a few days later, I've been able to catch my breath a bit and can share some more details about our recent Flag Day.

First - what's the big deal, right? The big deal is that since mid-2009 I've been focused on this very day as the shining horizon. I've understood and have been excited about the prospect of how - for lack of a better term - fate would have such an incredible role in my life, Tim's life, my family's life, and the Tabbies' life. True, it is "just" our first posting; just two years and there will be many more thereafter. But the first post sets the tone for our life (and even if I'm the employee - it's OUR life in this deal) in the Foreign Service. Will we love it? Will we be scared off? Will I cut it?

(Okay, enough of that, here's the fun bit and I hope that may help stoke the fires of those of you whose embers for the FS life are just warming up.)

It's a crisp and sunny Tuesday afternoon and our families are assembled and waiting for us in a large-ish conference hall at FSI. Some have flown across the country for this day (mine), and many have rug-rats in tow waiting to hear about what the next few years of their life might bring. Our collective bid lists included Fiji and Kathmandu; Rome and Vienna; Bujumbura and Miami; Tajikistan and Yemen. My classmates and I take our seats at the front of the room facing a large screen welcoming us to Flag Day and displaying colored flags from around the world. I sit next to another OMS classmate who is suddenly noticing and worried about a spot on her sweater. We decide that her ID badge can hang to just the right place to cover it. Then they tell us that we're getting started and to take our ID badges off, they look bad in the pictures. Okay, so maybe we can kinda' tuck the bottom of her sweater under to hide the spot...
and before the thought is finished, they've announced the first posting already. It is Vienna and it's going to.... not me. My friend and I snap to attention; this is really happening. Who cares about the stain. Our classmate jumps to her feet and accepts the red and white flag with a huge smile of relief.

I'm okay; Vienna would have been great - but very expensive, my classmate will love it there. The announcer continues to work down the list awarding postings to classmate after classmate as we cheer, remembering that Mumbai was so-and-so's first choice, or that Port au Prince will be close to so-and-so's wife posted in Santo Domingo. My top choices were Mexico City, Bujumbura, Bucharest and Bogota. Mexico City goes to a classmate who is a native Spanish speaker - drat! But it makes sense, she has the language skills needed for that position - I should have known. Then the heartbreak: Bujumbura goes to another classmate. I'm not sure why I was so intent on that destination, maybe it was The Great Toby's prediction taken to heart? (More on that later.) Tim speaks French; I speak a little. It would have been - I dunno' - exotic and so very, very Foreign. Anyway, it's gone and the flags are continuing to be picked off one by one.

I'm honestly excited and happy for my classmates as they get their top picks: Lima, Shenyang, Jakarta. But what about me? There are now only two postings left: Bucharest and Bogota and I'm the only one from my specialty left. In fact, there are only three of us in the room whose names haven't yet been called. I look at the little flag holder in front of the announcer and see it: Broad yellow stripe, blue, red... I'm going to Colombia. I know it before they said it.

And then it is official: Bogota, Colombia.  I hear my name, stand up to take my little flag, do the "grip and grin" with our class mentor and try to keep my focus to walk as directed to my Career Development Officer (CDO) standing to the side with a shiny blue folder with my name on it.

My classmates are all congratulating each other, waving our flags, posing for pictures and greeting our families. It is pretty awesome, I must say. Minutes later, my CDO comes up to me and says that the next morning at 0800 I need to be in the Spanish Department for an evaluation of my language skills - don't worry, it'll be short - and then they'd get me enrolled in whichever level classes I needed. My posting requires a 2/2 (on a 0-5 scale of speaking/reading) skill level, so I'll need some brushing up before packing up and heading south.  I find a second to call Tim and tell him the news and he seems excited to hear it.

For the next day or so, I felt somewhat in shock still, letting it sink in that the little "You Are Here" light on my map was going to move to South America. I've never been there - it'll be completely new. A city at 8600 feet with "fall-like weather" just about year 'round. In the coming weeks and months I'll be learning more and more about my job, our new country, our new city, our new language.

That's it for now. Tomorrow I need to have a talk with The Great Toby. We'll see what he has to say for himself and for his predictions.  Until then...