Saturday, January 16, 2016

Saturday Morning Bucharest

It's Saturday morning at 08:00 and I'm walking down the street in a light drizzle to the small family grocery a few blocks away for a quart of milk. This isn't my normal weekend routine; I simply forgot to buy it last night.  The neighborhood is very quiet, but by no means asleep.  Being out on the street at this hour is unusual because on the weekends we prefer slow mornings at home and on weekdays we're zipping out the door to get to work. 

Dawn breaks every morning in my neighborhood in Bucharest, near the expansive Herestrau Park, with the "commuting" of hundreds, if not thousands, of crows (or big, black crow-like birds) from the park where they perch overnight and out into the neighborhoods.  Triggered by sunrise or some other secret crow-signal, they stream out of the park like smoke from a forest fire, squawking and calling to each other with crazy sounds that have led me to nickname them the "winged monkeys."  They pause en masse on rooftops along the way, lining the edges of buildings like sentries, before dispersing into the neighborhoods to scavenge and go about their daily birdy business.  They'll make the reverse commute back to the park at sunset.

Down on the street level, I pass Alf making his rounds.  He's a little, blonde mixed-breed dog who is bigger than a Dachshund but smaller than a Corgi, with a limp most likely from being kicked by some passer-byer years ago.  He proudly patrols his garden and the stretch of sidewalk in front of his house.  Unlike too many dogs we've seen guarding houses here, Alf is a well-cared-for family member who comes in each night (we see him in the front window perched on the back of the sofa keeping watch) and has his own scaled-down dog house in the garden and mat on the front porch for him to be comfortable while on the job. 

Across from Alf's house is a building, maybe a large private home or maybe it's been sub-divided into apartments, each floor with a window opening onto a small balcony with carved-wood planters that are full of geraniums in the warmer months. I see the lady of the house watching the world go by, leaning out on crossed arms on the window sill. She always wears her grandmotherly flowered scarf and when not personally in her window, she is replaced by small carpets or duvets draped across the window sill, airing out for the day. 

Around the corner I pass a small building with a shady courtyard alongside it, hidden behind a fence covered in greenery and grapevines.  This is a local political party headquarters where members come to hang out. It's mostly, but not exclusively, men and my friend whose apartment overlooks their courtyard says that in the summer months they sit out under the arbor, smoking, drinking and boisterously chewing the fat with like-minded friends late into the evenings. 

A block further, I pass the beauty salon/spa that specializes in facial treatments. Between customers, the spa technicians sit in front of the building in the patio entrance to smoke and chat. They don't smile as I walk by or make eye contact (not unusual among Romanians, so I no longer take offense). I'm struck by the irony of the young women whose jobs are dedicated to promoting beauty who frown and chain smoke directly in front of their own spa. I can't help but be tempted to suggest the two obvious (and free) steps they could take towards greater attractiveness, but that's probably just the American in me.  

Crossing the street, I duck under heavy-gauge wires that sag from power poles and trees that suspend them. I see a few frayed ends and figure that if they were actually live electrical lines, someone would have noticed. While I'm not scared - I'm also not about to step in the puddles where the wires soak in semi-coiled jumbles either. Just in case. 

The final block brings me past a tiny coffee shop, no more than 12 feet wide where a young, bearded man is behind the counter at the espresso machine. Alongside the cafe is an equally tiny patio with simple, stackable wooden benches and side tables that in about an hour will be full of young, professional-looking people sharing coffee and conversation with friends.  This place makes me smile to pass by as I imagine the guy making the coffee as the successful entrepreneur who had an idea for a coffee shop one day... But a few months back I popped in to buy my husband a coffee and he told me that no, he was just an employee.  So today when I see him setting up for the day, I imagine him getting up an hour earlier in a little apartment somewhere across town and getting on the bus to be at work on time.  He seems so positive and happy that I hope he earns more than the $350 per month that I imagine his income to be. 

Finally, I'm at the little family grocery store for my quart of milk.  Now the sidewalk in front is empty, but this evening it will be full of skateboard kids showing off for their friends and sharing cans of soda, bags of chips and cigarettes, or men wearing dirty coats from the day's work getting a six-pack and heading home. The somewhat grumpy woman (I think she's the owner) who is always at the till is once again at the till, chatting with another woman in Romanian.  The narrow store requires me to walk one-way up one aisle, past fresh bread racks, shelves of staple goods, coolers with canned drinks and a surprisingly good variety of hot sauces, to where the store ends at the refrigerated dairy case.  I pick out a few yogurts and the milk and then walk down the other aisle to the cashier.  She's still in full monologue to the friend, describing some gastro-intestinal distress she has recently experienced and what treatments did and did not work as she rings me up, barely pausing to tell me the total.  She either imagines I don't speak Romanian, or simply doesn't care that I understand as she divulges such details out loud.  I want to ask her for a bag for the three items (bags cost a few cents, so you have to ask), but I always forget if it's "ponga" or "poncha" or something like that and I don't want to get it wrong again. So instead I choose to stack the items up against my jacket to carry them home. Naturally I drop one of the yogurts which kind of breaks open, but will still be okay for breakfast.  

Although it's only lightly raining, it's cold and feels like winter. We're expecting a big snow storm tomorrow and I get a little excited thinking about walking in the fresh snow in the park, under the barren trees and along the frozen lake.  Maybe we'll even pull the bikes out and cruise through the city on the great network of bike paths.  Besides the heavy-duty snow plows that patrol the major avenues, the city also has crews of orange-vested snow shovelers who clear the sidewalks like no other city I've seen before. 

I arrive at our building, and find our building "administrator" out front. My husband and I think his name is something like "Door" which makes me chuckle because he's essentially the doorman. We've been living here five months now, so it's too late to ask him again "What exactly is your name?" because I don't think we fully understood him the first time.  I stop to chat a moment about the coming snow and how long it's expected to last and he smiles and raises his palm towards me.  I awkwardly and kind of accidentally give him a high five, but then realize he was probably just waving goodbye to me. A little embarrassed, I smile and scoot off towards the building entrance. I punch in the code and step into the simple, tidy lobby. Home. 

It's THIS stuff: The glimpses of life and what people are really doing every day in every corner of the world that makes me happy and, outside of my work, reminds me why we're here, or there, or wherever we may be.  When it's all over and we've moved on to the next stop - I'll still be able to look at the globe and imagine exactly what's going on at 08:00 on a Saturday morning in January in a certain neighborhood in Romania.

Friday, January 01, 2016

Tenure and Commissioning

Let me start by defining some terms:

I'm an Entry Level Officer (ELO), meaning a Foreign Service Career Candidate who was appointed to this position for a limited time span, to a maximum of five years.  To quote the Foreign Affairs Manual,  "The Foreign Service Officer Career Candidate Program is a comprehensive program of appropriate training, assignment, evaluation, counseling, and review intended to enable candidates for career status as Foreign Service Officers to demonstrate through on-the-job experience, and in the shortest time practicable, whether they have the potential to serve successfully across the normal career span of a Foreign Service Officer (extending to and including class FS-01)."

Tenure: Granting of career status. 

Commissioning: Act of appointment by the President and a confirmation by Senate of a candidate who has been recommended for tenure as a Foreign Service Officer by the Commissioning and Tenure Board. 

Within the first five years, all ELOs have to become tenured or their limited appointments expire and they are separated from the Service. Fortunately, this is a very small percentage of officers, and generally the separation is mutual as the employee and Department each realize that a long-term match was not made. 

All ELOs are up for tenure review for the first time after 36 months on the job. Those who are not recommended on the first review are reviewed again at 48 months, and then for (I believe) a final time six months later. When I switched from being a Specialist to a Generalist, my 36 month clock restarted and this past autumn, my cohort was up for our first review for tenure. 

I am happy to report that I was recommended for tenure, and now it's just up to a (literal) act of Congress to grant me my commission and I'll officially be a career member of the Foreign Service. 

Sounds sweet, but there's a bitter part too that takes away a lot of the pride and satisfaction in this event.  I can think of dozens of friends and colleagues who did not make tenure and frankly in only a very few cases, can I put my finger on why.  

See, when we went through A-100, we were told that the tenure process is essentially an affirmation that the Board of Examiners who evaluated us to be hired did not make a mistake.  We were told again and again, "Don't worry about tenure - just show up, do you job, don't be a big jerk and you'll make it!"  So when I see coworkers who exceed that description by ten-times being passed over - it makes me wonder how much of the decisions are just the luck of catching the reviewers at a good time, say after a particularly good meal or restful long weekend. Which then diminishes my feeling of accomplishment.  

Frankly, I AM proud of what I accomplished in my first tour and it would have been a particular slap in the face to have been passed over.  It would have made me feel like, "Well if that wasn't good enough - what more do you want from me?"  I think it would have made me more anxious about interpersonal relationships with those who write my annual reviews, as these reviews are used in determining our tenure and promotion.  It would have made me feel bitter that after all I'd offered and how wholeheartedly I'd waved the Foreign Service flag and sang the fight song - they were still scratching their chins and saying, "Hmmm... we're not really sure we did the right thing in hiring you.  We're just going to wait and see if you can really wow us next time." 

Friends who did not make it through on the first try have expressed these same feelings of betrayal, sharp disappointment and even concern that they made the right job choice. Some are sole breadwinners of families whose spouses gave up careers to come along for the FS ride.  Most understand that once they have a second tour successfully underway with no major international incidents - they'll be just fine.  But still, it's gotta' sting and knowing that they are feeling that way diminishes my ability to be happy for myself. 

The way in which we're notified of tenure plays cruelly on the typical competitive, A-type FSO's psyche. First a cable comes out listing all those who are eligible for tenure review. Thus officially starts the waiting period.  As the months tick by with no further word, we begin asking each other: 

"Did you hear anything? I haven't heard a peep.  Should we contact someone? What's taking them so long? Does anyone remember when the news was delivered last year?"  

Someone inevitably does some kind of search to find last year's cable, and then reports back to the group something along the lines of: "Okay, last year the results came out on the third Wednesday in December, so that will either be Dec 23rd or maybe they'll wait until after Christmas because people are on vacation, or because of that bad snow storm last year maybe it will be earlier this year? And did you hear that...." ad nauseam as we wind ourselves into a frenzy of email and BlackBerry checking, of which I must admit I was most certainly a part.  Then someone remembers that they send out personal emails first to those who did NOT make tenure and request an acknowledgement of such news before sending out the official "good news" cable. Therefore as we get closer and closer to the (mythical) results date that the group decided was most likely, we realize that an empty inbox is a happy inbox.  But NOW we wait for word from those who opened their gym locker to find the dreaded red ribbon staring them in the face, informing them they hadn't made the team.  We wonder suspiciously who among our peers will self-report, and who will stay silent.  

And then it starts.  Someone breaks the silence with a humble message saying, "Best of luck to you all; it wasn't me this time."  A few more of these announcements trickle in and as the days go by, we realize (while knocking firmly on wood) that perhaps we did make it through.  We check the Spam inbox a few more times to be sure we didn't miss the "sorry" letter, and then finally the results cable comes out.  We scroll down the long list to find our name and revel for just a moment in the satisfaction and pride. 

I can't speak for the others, but a moment later when I see whose names are missing - I feel guilty and confused and figure it's all just a crap shoot anyway.  

Later a congratulatory message arrives stating that we will soon be contacted with information regarding our "transition into the mid-level Foreign Service."  And THAT'S when it hits me.  I'm going to be a mid-level officer.  I'm not just the new kid anymore. I've never had a mid-level anything kind of job, have I?  It sounds so, so, so adult.  Am I up to the additional challenge when I feel like I'm already swimming as fast as I can in the entry-level pool?  I suppose like the proverbial frog in warming water, everything will heat up around me and before I know it and I'll be boiling.  

In fact 2016 will bring a number of new professional challenges: a first review for promotion, a first open-market bidding cycle (no more directed tours) and about this time next year, knowledge of my first Mid-Level Assignment. Capitalization added for emphasis as it scares me just a bit.  But it's a good scare.