20 June 2017

6583 miles, 10,595 kilometers away

So there we were, in the little coastal town of Kilkee, Ireland having dinner at a local pub.  I checked my email for the 11,000th time, and finally!  An email about our next assignment.  

We're heading to Nicosia, Cyprus!   Cyprus is the third largest island in the Mediterranean Sea, and is just south of Turkey and east of Syria.  



It is a popular regional tourist destination, and has very little crime.  A member state of the European Union, Cyprus is currently divided as Turkish Cypriots control the northern third of the island.  The UN maintains a buffer zone between the two sides, and is currently trying to negotiate reunification.  This video offers some of the history.  

Cyprus also participates in the spectacle that is Eurovision and now I will have to root for Cypriot performers forever.  Their entry from 2017 was really good

The Historian and I are very excited.  I am intrigued by the work I will be doing, and all of our research indicates that this will be a great post for us.  Cyprus hits all of my career priorities - embassy size, level of responsibility, a language, and PD.  Personally it is also everything we'd wanted for this tour - it will be the Historian's first time living overseas, and Cyprus is a good fit for him given its many layers of history.  Happily it is a cat-friendly country as we just need to meet EU standards for transit.  There is even a monastery devoted to cats under the patronage of St. Helena, the Holy Monastery of St. Nicholas of the Cats.  

I will be learning Turkish, and we'll arrive in July of 2019, insha'Allah.    





16 June 2017

Hurry up and wait

I did a Skype call with a college student who is considering pursuing a job in the Foreign Service.  One of the things we talked about is how long it takes to get in - at least eight months worth of various tests, then several months of background checks, then your name goes on a list based on what score you earned, then, maybe, if your score is high enough, they'll call you for one of the few orientation classes they have every year.  It is the cycle of things in this life.

The Historian and I have been marking our own hurry up and wait milestones - him coming here, me going there, our vacation to Ireland, and ultimately my leaving Jamaica and ending this separation.  

But now we've one more - we know where we'll be in 2019!  My second tour is the last tour that is "directed" - meaning I give my Career Development Officer (CDO) a bid list of preferred posts, and then a team assigns one to me.  

This time was much more complicated than the last, as we had to consider both our personal priorities (quality of life, ease of bringing the kitties, etc.) and my career priorities (a Public Diplomacy job, embassy size, bureau).  I also had to consider mandatory things like meeting my language requirement for tenure and timing.  A "perfect" bid would have me leaving Jamaica two years after arriving (July 2018) and arriving at my next post when they wanted me, with enough time in between to learn a language, take home leave, and take any other training required for my job.

If this all sounds complicated, it was.  Incredibly!  (Corporate America would have built an app for this in half a day.)  But we did a practice run on an old list, and The Historian came up with a clever way to map out all of the dates for each post we considered so we could see if the timing worked.   Of the 350 or so on the initial list, we eliminated many right away as they were either not PD or the timing was impossible.  I also qualified for the first round of bidders because of Jamaica's hardship differential, which meant we could also set aside places that didn't meet our personal priorities.  

It was an amazing feeling to look at the remaining posts and think about the possibility of living in each of them.  Eventually we winnowed our options down to 19, submitted the list, and left for Ireland to wait with bated breath for news...





11 June 2017

Pride

Work has been coming along, there is not too much upon which I can remark.  

We rotate responsibilities in the Consular section.  I spent my first seven months in the nonimmigrant visa section (NIV) adjudicating visas for those who wish to travel temporarily to the United States - students, farm workers, tourists.  It was interesting getting to talk with ordinary Jamaicans from all walks of life, and an opportunity to sometimes satisfy my curiosity about things here.  For example, we wondered idly during the morning commute if it is legal to turn left on a red light.  And then I interviewed a driving instructor and asked him (it is illegal, but rarely enforced.)

In March I started working the the Fraud Prevention Unit.  It was an abrupt change of pace - I am the only entry level officer in the unit, its quiet case work, focus on a few cases versus hundreds a week.  Bonus:  I was sent back to DC for a week's worth of training.  Time with The Historian, and the Department didn't have to pay for my hotel lodging, win-win!

One unexpected highlight is that I helped hang the pride flag over the embassy last week.  I happened to walk by when another officer was heading out to hang the flag - alone - and offered to help.  My job was to keep Old Glory from touching the ground while he attached the pride flag.  A small thing in the long run, but I'm glad that I could participate in this important and symbolic gesture.  




21 January 2017

Reconciliation, Goodwill and Honor

The Historian left DC this weekend in favor of visiting historical sites.  Today he was in Appomattox, where, after losing a battle against Lt. General Grant, General Lee signed documents of surrender that effectively ended the American Civil War.  I'm posting some of his remarks and photos here with permission.  

Appropriate today of all days, Appomattox County Courthouse National Historical Park continues to stand as a testament to the ideals of national reconciliation, goodwill, and honor and respect for others.  It marked the end of a devastating conflict, and was the first step in the reconstruction of a divided nation and the passage of the 14th and 15th amendments, which established the basis of racial equality in the United States.  A goal we still strive for.



The Peers House. Some of the last shots of the conflict were fired from the house's front yard.

The McLean House where General Robert E. Lee negotiated the surrender of the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia to General Ulysses S. Grant on April 9, 1865.

Slave quarters behind the McLean House. The Mclean's had as many as 15 or more slaves. He was a wealthy sugar importer.

A replica of the desk where General Grant wrote out the terms of the surrender.

14 January 2017

Six Months In

I am nearing six months in Jamaica, and it is odd to think that time has passed so quickly looking back, but looking ahead to when the Historian and I will be in the same place again seems to be merely crawling.  As much as I am enjoying this current position, I am anxious to be done as it means our little family will all be together again.

Still working on her video conference skills.

It helps to have milestones to which to look forward - I am rotating into a new position soon, and will be acting unit chief for a while, so am heading back to DC for a week's worth of training in February.  By happy coincidence I'll be there for both the Academy Awards and the Historian's birthday.  April and May will be significant as we are planning to head to Ireland for some much needed time in rainy weather and ability to go for a walk without the Embassy RSO (Regional Security Officer) telling us how it isn't safe to do so.  

I'll also be bidding on my second tour around that time.  So again, time going slowly and quickly all at once. Second tour bidding is slightly more complicated than first tour.  We will rank order a list of thirty positions, taking into consideration of a myriad of requirements as well as our personal preferences - kitties, climate, good internet...probability of elephant sightings.  The list of options will be much longer, and so for a few days it really will seem that the world is our oyster and any-Where is possible!

Lots of countries left to uncover.

Reality though is that I am as yet nontenured, and will not be eligible for tenure until I meet two conditions - a minimum of 12 months as a Consular officer (this tour will cover that) and to be off language probation.  The latter means that my second tour must be foreign language-designated, and that I have to test to the required proficiency in order to qualify for tenure.  

So, needing a language already eliminates some of the options on the bid list - all English-designated posts and anything in DC are off the table.  

I am also limited by timing.  Timing is the PhD-level calculus by which I have to determine when to take home leave, what training courses are needed for each position, when they are, and what that means for when I can leave Jamaica and arrive at our next post.  This is the part that I'm most worried about - because I have to account for every day in the gap between posts, based on what I think is needed and what my best guess is about when the courses will be offered at the Foreign Service Institute. Figuring out the timing is all on us, and it makes me miss corporate America.  The private sector would have paid an in-house developer to build a tool to sort through the options for the hundreds of individuals who need this every year.  But government bureaucracy is not meant to be logical or efficient so I'm keeping a stiff upper lip and relying Excel and the Historian for mapping it all out.  

I would also like to work in my professional cone - Public Diplomacy.  This is the specialization that deals with the press and cultural affairs, and, along with the Ambassador, is the public voice of the embassy.  Unfortunately, the State Department has not been able to ensure that there are sufficient positions available for all nontenured officers to work in the cone for which we were hired.  It is especially hard for PD officers - in the last cycle it was the only cone that didn't have enough positions for people who needed them.  So I'm hoping for a PD tour, but including Consular posts that we'd be happy at in case nothing is available in PD. 

Finally, each of my bids will be rated based on whether or not it is valid.  "Valid" bids mean I leave when Jamaica expects me to (July 2018) and arrive when my gaining post wants me to (variable), and that I've figured out the timing, language training, etc.  "Imperfect" bids include me leaving or arriving early/late, etc.  And "invalid" ones are not considered at all, so as much as the Historian might want to live in Vienna, if the timing calculus doesn't work out then we'll have to hope it is an option at a later date.  

All of this will narrow the list even more, maybe taking out options with elephants, but including some we may not otherwise have considered.  

Putting our list together may overlap with our trip to Ireland, the upside being that this might be our research room.  So, so grateful for this life. 

Garavan's Bar, Galway


05 October 2016

Turtles!

A few photos from our day releasing turtles. The release was done in partnership with the Oracabessa Bay Sea Turtle Project.  

Around 25,000 critically endangered hawksbill turtles will be released this year, and 1 in 20 are expected to survive to maturity (usually the odds are 1/1000).  This is due to monitoring the sand to protect against poachers, and to releasing them during the day.  The latter factor ensures the babies are at less risk from natural predators and that they have more strength for the crawl to the water and swim to catch the sea currents.  

It was an amazing experience, and since the breeding season is relatively long, I hope to be able to take The Historian along next time!


Newly hatched turtle.
After a quick rinse in the ocean, prior to release.

Just released babies, making their way to the ocean.

We lined up to help "herd" them along, but once released we did not touch the turtles. Letting them navigate to the ocean on their own helps ensure they can find their way back to this beach when it comes time to breed.


A-100 and Kingston

It has been a few months since I joined the Foreign Service, time for an update!  

A-100 is six weeks long, and I had 97 classmates.  We had classes in management, State organization, interdepartmental relationships, all the good (sometimes sleepy) stuff you'd expect from a federal agency. 

My first two tours of service (of 2 years each) are directed, meaning They tell me where to go.  The Historian and I are able to give some preferences in assignment, though.  My class was given a list of 60+ posts worldwide, some with multiple positions, that we ranked in order of preference.  We also submitted three criteria we wanted taken into consideration (kitties being one!)  

The highlight of A-100, therefore, was what is famously known as Flag Day, where we were given our assignments.  It was a day fraught with tension and excitement - a flag was projected on a screen, a name was called, and we were given a flag of our assigned country by Ambassador Ken Merten. Happily my name was called towards the beginning so I could enjoy celebrating with the rest of my classmates as they were given their posts.  



I was assigned one of our top bids - Kingston, Jamaica.  We asked for Jamaica primarily because The Historian was offered a new job in DC right after my own offer came in.  After much discussion, we agreed that for my first tour, he would take the new job while I did my first tour.  Kingston was therefore very appealing for its proximity to DC and because it is an English-speaking post.  This means I will have to have language training after this tour, and that will give Chris nearly three years in his job before he joins me for my next post. 

After A-100 concluded, I had a few weeks of specialized training and arrived in Jamaica in late July.  My job here is as a Consular Officer, and I currently interview 100+ applicants/day who are applying for non-immigrant visas to come to the United States.  This is usually tourist visas, but could also be business, student, or exchange visitors.  I've done around 3500 interviews so far. 



Jamaica is an interesting post - it is a critical crime threat post, and household goods are very expensive (a new ironing board priced out at $65)  This will put me in the first tranche for bidding on my second tour.  Jamaica also has a unique relationship with the US - its proximity means that flights are cheap, and everyone has a family member (or several) who live in the US.  This means that we have an extraordinarily high number of visa applicants - it is not implausible for a poultry farmer who lives on a few hundred dollars a month would make a trip to the US to see family or to go shopping, something that would be out of reach for an equivalent income in nearly every other country. 

My housing is nice, and the views are amazing.  There is one beach we can get to from Kingston, by hiring a fishing boat to ferry us to an uninhabited island.  Otherwise the more famous beach cities are 2.5 hours (Ocho Rios) and 4.5 hours (Montego Bay) drive.  I'm looking forward to exploring some of the less touristy beaches.  The embassy also organizes various excursions, including to release endangered sea turtles and an excursion to the Appleton rum distillery.  Household help is also very affordable, and I have an amazing helper who comes two days a week who cleans, cooks great Jamaican food, and does light shopping.

If you are a Facebook friend, you will also know that we had a brush with Hurricane Matthew over the weekend.  One of the best things about the State Dept is that it really is a community (there are fewer diplomats than there are military band members in this country).  It was amazing to watch how everyone pulled together to either support those who evacuated and to ensure the safety of those of us who stayed.