Saturday, July 28, 2012

A-100 Week Two In The Bag

Last night Tim and I joined a bunch of classmates packed into someone else's apartment to watch the Olympics opening ceremonies. Tacked to the wall of the living room was a bedspread-sized world map, with each of the posts from our bid list carefully labeled with tiny slivers of sticky notes. When I commented on what a great map it was, our hostess noted with pride, "And it has South Sudan on it, too!" to which the entire room responded, "Ooohhhhh!" 

And we were in no way being sarcastic.

It's so nice being among people who feel the same way about things like politically accurate maps.

However, as I get to know my classmates, and I hear them talk about their backgrounds, what they were doing before the start of A-100, and the types of things they've already accomplished - it makes me wonder if I just had a really good day last May when I passed that Oral Assessment. During the past two weeks, we have had opportunities to hear from and meet with senior members of the Foreign Service, and they frequently ask about where we'd like to be posted. After we answer, the next comment is often something along the lines of, "You'll be able to do very important work there; really exciting stuff going on."


I mean, it sounds good, doing really important work, right? But it also means that we, you know, understand what to do, how to do it and then actually do it well enough so that it does end up being "really important."  I should note here that I don't consider myself a big risk-taker. I like to step onto ice that I know is thick enough to support me. And I'm fairly certain that I'm the only one in my class with an Associate's degree in Equine Studies. Matter of fact, I'm pretty sure that I'm the only one with an associate's degree, period. Right now (and by that I mean for the next few years), I'd prefer to be doing something moderately-important-but-if-you-totally-mess-up-it-won't-cause-an-international-incident. Where can I sign up for that?

I see how my over-achiever classmates eat this stuff up, but sometimes I just want to blend in until I can get into the swing of things. I remember my first three months in Bogota when I felt like a goldfish on the carpet, grasping for breath and feeling like I was really sucking. My supervisor told me not to worry and that my predecessor got things figured out, "after about a month." That month passed and I was still lost and beginning to question whether I had been kidding myself all along. But then yesterday, as I wrote a quick email to the young man (a summer hire student) who is covering my position in Bogota temporarily, I found myself telling him that if he wanted to know how to do anything, just drop me an e-mail and I'd be happy to fill him in.

I guess I finally did figure it out. I'm sure that this current phase of self-doubt will also pass.

Meanwhile, we've been getting some really interesting training on the skills we'll need to have when we hit the ground in our new countries. Besides being in these classes full-time, outside of FSI, we're still also wrangling with our bid list priorities and all the research that entails and doing our best to balance the pushing and pulling we feel from our personal lives. Things like spouses and their work opportunities, kids and appropriate schools, pets and import restrictions, language requirements and timing for training, security, health and climate of the host country - and let's not forget that we also have to consider, "Do I want to DO this job for two years in this country?" For those of us with any or many of the aforementioned complexities in our lives (the majority of us), often the latter consideration slips to the least priority behind the others.

I find it rather ironic that this life takes people who are extremely self-directed, self-motivated, take-charge, mover-and-shaker types who have successfully steered their lives towards bright and shiny horizons... and then puts them in a situation where the most important aspects of their lives and careers are reduced to chance and placed completely into the hands of others. We do as much planning and predicting as we can, but in the end - we're going where they send us and we're making the best of it.

I'm surprised there's not a reality show about this yet. 

But today is Saturday and it's sunny and summery. Tim and I are relishing the warmth after a year of 64 and partly cloudy and the Tabbies are sprawled out on their balcony. For the time being - life is pretty good.

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Day 3: The Bid List Arrives

The days are already flying by, and on Day 3 the Bid List arrived!

Now I hate to spoil the fun, but I can't disclose it here. I'm sorry. But I believe I can say that each continent (bar one) is well-represented, that each of the career tracks are offered and that we'll be shipping off to post anytime from shortly after A-100 to sometime next summer.

That's a lot of options, isn't it?

We were handed the lists in the standard "passing out of handouts" style, i.e. here's a stack for your row, take one and pass it down. My seatmate was in a momentary panic (I would have been, too!) when the row ended up short and he didn't get one, meanwhile watching his colleagues devour their first glances. Naturally, it was promptly remedied.

At first read I was a bit freaked out, this then turned into simply disappointed, then lukewarm, and now after four hours of digestion - I'm feeling much better. Our mission is to break the list into three categories: high, medium and low preference, but there is a limit as to how many lows we can select. Using the standard, "pick the low-hanging fruit first" method, we started to list all countries that limited kitty importation. Straight to the bottom of the lows they went. Then I dumped the countries that wouldn't allow Tim to work on the local economy if an Embassy job weren't available. The middles will be filled with assignments that don't match my desired work preferences (Consular is my first choice) and those where the required time of arrival doesn't mesh with the amount of time I'd need for the language training. The highs will be saved for those shiny apples that meet all three of our criteria: kitties, Tim's work, my career preferences and timing.  If on top of that they're places that interest us travel and living-wise - they'll go to the top of the top.

So that's that for now! We have a bit over a week to hash it out, throw darts, undertake extensive research, re-organize things into an Excel sheet or simply guess. Everyone's method will differ, as will their preferences, thankfully.

If I'm silent for the next week - you'll know why.

It's exciting; it's nerve-wracking; it's maddening; it's our new life!

And - all will be revealed in mid-August.

Sunday, July 15, 2012

Towing Tabbies - Part Two

Look who's on the road again

We woke up at 03:00 am yesterday to start the long slog back to Virginia. I don't consider that hour to be " the morning" as truly - it's the night before, but it a necessary evil to be in time for our morning flight. Bogota sent us off with a steady drizzle and a suspicion that the "dry season" might have come and gone while we were waiting for the sun to come out. They call it the "dry season," not the "sunny season" for a reason, it appears.

Our friend who we hired to be our "cat coyote" to carry an extra Tabby was previously inexperienced in the subtleties and potential hazards of feline wrangling in large, crowded public spaces. However, even with having to take them out of their travel bags three times to go through security scanners, she handled herself and Daphne perfectly. And despite the lovely folks at TSA and their helpful advice, ("Ma'am would you just take your cat, your sweatshirt, your purse, your laptop and your laptop bag and move from the conveyor belt to the dressing area to put your shoes back on!"), it really went relatively smoothly.

Okay, there was that nervous time when MY bag was randomly selected by the Colombian airport folks to be inspected by the police. There were only two of us out of the entire flight to receive this honor, and of course they chose the bag where I'd perfectly packed all my work clothes to prevent six hours of ironing today. The conversation went something like this:

Colombian Police, as he unzips my bag: "What have you been doing in Colombia?"

Me: "I've lived and worked here one year."

Colombian Police, as his hands begin to pull out my clothing: "Mmm hmm. And where did you work?"

Me: "At the embassy; I'm a diplomat, sir."

Colombian Police, as he suddenly shoves his handful of my underwear back into my bag: "I'm so sorry, ma'am, I didn't know. Have a safe travel."

Woo-hoo! I showed him my passport and headed for the plane.

Many hours later, with two of the carrier bags reeking of cat pee (hmmm... wonder why?), we touched down in DC. Over all, the Tabbies are becoming true frequent fliers and simply curled up in their bags under the seats in front of us. They appreciated the dozens of "Ay que divino!" in Bogota, and the "Look mom, it's a kitty!" in Miami. We got off the plane, collected our baggage and were in a taxi en route to our temporary digs at Oakwood within half an hour of landing, which has got to be a land speed record.

So now it's back to the same Oakwood from last year. We chose this property for a few reasons: I have great memories from the five months I spent here last year and know the neighborhood well; there's a pool with Tim's name on it; there's a BBQ with Tim's name on it; and many of my classmates and folks from the new Specialist class that will start tomorrow are also here. Oh yeah, and they told me it was the only spot available. Details.

We're happy to be here, and just as I'd pictured - they gave us an apartment in the same building, facing the same direction and just exactly two floors higher than I had last year. As we speak, the Tabbies are soaking up the filtered sun on their balcony. Dodger especially. (I wonder if their fur will curl in the humidity as my hair has instantly done?)

After seeing everyone had water and a litter box (cats and humans included), we headed for dinner with our cat coyote and her husband (good friends who we'll be horrible sad to see return to Bogota). Sitting on the restaurant's outside patio, I inhaled my absolute, nectar-of-the-Gods favorite beverage: dry hard cider. With the cicadas in the background and surrounded by beautiful colonial houses with picket fences - it was great to be "home." But I also realized that for the first time, we are homeless. Last year when I arrived, Tim was still in our Washington home. Then we had our Bogota apartment - now we have Oakwood, cardboard and suitcases. Tim finds it exciting and adds that he loves the non-car ownership part, too.

I'm excited for other reasons than sheer minimalism. Shortly, I'll head down to the communal free continental breakfast and begin to meet my A-100 classmates who'll no doubt be trickling in with their families, hopes and expectations in tow, too. Tomorrow it all starts.



Sunday, July 08, 2012

Well I never...!

10 Things We Did Not Do While Living in Colombia:

1. Hire household help.

2. Get mugged, robbed, scammed, or otherwise made victims of crime.
     (Although we knew many people who were.)

3. See drugs or people doing drugs.
     (Do street people huffing fumes from paper bags count?)

4. Have a car accident.
    (Once again - we certainly saw enough of them!)

5. Get lost or nervous about where we were driving or use a GPS.
    (Two qualifications here: we only visited about 40% of Bogota and there were areas we specifically avoided, and while exploring new towns in the countryside, "lost" is only if you know where you need to go and end up elsewhere. We always liked the "surprises" of finding new towns.)

6. Meet or see Shakira, Juanes or Sofia Vergara.
   (But I did get a big wave and genuine smile from President Santos while in Cartagena!)

7. Have anyone say anything negative to us for our being Americans.

8. Stop being surprised that the flowers here bloom year-round!

9. Visit half of the amazing places we would have liked to.
    (Still on the list: Medellin, Cali, the Zona Cafetera, the islands of San Andres and Providencia and the peaks of Cocuy National Park.)

10. Go salsa dancing.
    (Yeah, this is probably a good thing. We're not known for our skills in this area.)

To quote the national tourist motto:

Colombia, el unico riesgo es que te quieras quedar.
Colombia, the only risk is wanting to stay.


Wednesday, July 04, 2012

4th of July from Colombia

We've packed out; the apartment is echoingly empty and we're living out of suitcases. The Tabbies' tower has been donated to animal shelter ADA where we still volunteer and all that's left is a week of work and two big Embassy 4th of July events - our first.

The first Independence Day celebration will be tomorrow (the 5th of July?) and I'll be in business dress working the event as the Ambassador hosts the Embassy's Colombian friends and contacts. I haven't done this before, but apparently we'll be briefed on the protocol of "pushing and pulling" en route to the event. No, it's not like a Japanese subway worker's duties, from what I understand, pushing and pulling means moving guests towards (and then later away) from the Ambassador to encourage a good mixture and discouraging one person from hogging all his time and conversation. Should be interesting; I'm practicing sentences in Spanish along the lines of, "..but have you seen the buffet?!"

Then this weekend will be the "community" 4th of July event which will be a more traditional family-style pic-nic gathering. The Community Liaison Office (CLO) who organizes these events first made it a pot-luck, with dishes divided by last names (we were side dishes). But later an announcement came out saying, "forget the potluck - just come!" I thought maybe that meant that they weren't getting enough RSVPs (I must admit, it was getting complicated thinking about what we could make and bring, and in what container, as we're living sans tupperware out of the Welcome Kit now) - but perhaps it's the opposite, and they sold so many tickets that they're now sporting the bill for the franks and beans? Who knows, but not having to make something palatable for hundreds and transport it in a zip loc bag is a relief.

But today is the actual 4th of July!
So I celebrated it in a true American fashion: I went to the dentist and got a haircut.
It was a far cry from parades, BBQs and fireworks, but it was a day off work where the Colombians were still open for business, so I had to take advantage of the time. Colombia's Independence Day is July 20th and the Embassy will be closed in their honor. In fact, Embassy Bogota enjoys 22 local and American holidays per year, which is (I've been told) the second-greatest number for any US Mission abroad. Someone said we are topped only by a Mission somewhere in Eastern Europe. In fact, we also had Monday off for a local holiday for Saint Peter and Saint Paul. There were no processions to the church or colorful displays of saints or candles in windows, just quiet streets as people headed for the countryside for the "puente" (long weekend).

I hope the festive feeling comes tomorrow, because today has been just another mostly-overcast 64 degree day with buses flying by the apartment, businessmen and women in suits having lunch in the park nearby and the construction site on the next block fully operational. Heck, I'm even wearing beige. Perhaps we'll find some fireworks simulcast tonight on TV?

Nine days left in Bogota.
It's bittersweet to leave, but I'm ready for the next adventure. I hope our 4th of July events act as a nice send-off, offering a feeling of closure for this Colombian chapter.

Coming next: Tim goes to the Amazon and saying goodbye to the Big Brick City.