12 November 2017

Planning Years Ahead

Much of diplomatic life is about planning, and waiting, sometimes for last-minute things, sometimes you know things years in advance.

Even the entrance process is hurry-up-and-wait.  You take a test, and wait for results, then have a second step, wait for results, etc. The only quick satisfaction is the Oral Assessment - you find out same day pass or fail.  

Bidding so far has been some of the most fun we've had.  As an entry level officer (ELO) my first two tours are directed, meaning I go where they tell me.  First tour, they gave my classmates and I a list of 60ish posts, and had us rank all of them as high/medium/low.  We were ranking with less than perfect information as we weren't told when a particular post wanted people to arrive, so, for example, Paris required French, but it was unclear if there would be time to learn it before they wanted someone to start.  We also didn't know how many openings a post was looking to fill, so while it was an easy guess to think that Beijing and São Paulo, for example, would have more than one placement, we didn't know how many.  But we did our best and got our #1 non-Public Diplomacy pick in Jamaica.

Second tour was both more complicated and less complicated.  We had more information about each post which made our analysis easier, including how many positions they were looking to fill, and when they wanted someone to arrive.  

The "more complicated" bit came in with having to figure out timing.  It made me really miss Corporate America, as I knew some programmers who could write code to accomplish all of this in a day...but I digress.

I have to leave Jamaica on time (two years after arriving) and arrive on time (when the post wants me) for a bid to be "perfect."  Easily eliminated were those posts where I wouldn't have time to learn a language.  Besides language, we had to look at what training the different jobs required and what I could justify taking to fill in gaps between classes.  Thankfully The Historian made a Excel calendar for each post we considered so we could visually plan out whether each one was possible, and if it was perfect, imperfect (arriving/departing early or late) or invalid (not at all possible). 

Because of Jamaica's hardship classification, I was in the first group to bid.  We received a list of around 350 posts to sort through, and were required to "bid" on 15.  I was very lucky in that my July 2018 departure from Jamaica made my timing work for the majority of places we were interested in.   

I also wanted an in-cone tour.  I'm Public Diplomacy coned, so wanted a PD job now that I've fulfilled my Consular obligation. Other criteria included how easy it is to get the kitties into the country, quality of life, language, size of the post, and of course, the country itself.  Also important to me are the job (responsibility, position, portfolio) and who I might work for.  Other considerations are cost of living, air quality, and availability of reliable internet.  

Ultimately we submitted 19 ranked bids in the Middle East, Central Asia, and Europe and then...waited.  The people who decide are our Career Development Officers (CDOs) who negotiate between themselves on who goes where, so it helps to have a good relationship with yours.  Assignments were made based on a person's equity (total hardship and/or danger differential from current post), the needs of the service, personal concerns (educational opportunities, health problems, etc.) and probably what way the wind was blowing that particular day.  

We received the notice of assignment in May, and a few weeks ago I was notified that the assignment had passed a review panel.  I'm now registered for my 2018 classes, and have received an initial "welcome cable" from Cyprus.  

With these firm dates we now know where we'll be through 2021, and can plan home leave, redo The Historian's lease in DC to include me, get my orders in place to cover each step until our arrival in Cyprus, and look forward to being back in the same place again.  

22 October 2017

Day 452 of 709

As mentioned in previous posts, The Historian and I decided that for my first tour he'd stay in Washington, D.C. while I traveled alone to Jamaica.  We'd never have bid Jamaica otherwise, as this is the most restrictive country in the world when it comes to the importation of pets, and we would not have been allowed to bring the cats with us.

Anyway.  Today marks day 452 of 709 (projected) that we will be apart.  I'm not the only woman who has made this choice, as Jamaica's proximity to the United States makes serving here without family a bit easier to manage. I try to offer as much support as possible, especially to those newly starting off this way, as two years seems like an awfully long journey.

The Historian and I are maintaining our relationship with moments - "date night" where we watch a favorite TV show together (I get most U.S. TV, some stations from Miami, some broadcasts in English but with Spanish-language commercials out of South America), WhatsApp calls and texts, and an eye to milestones - when is our next time to see each other, when will I be back in DC, what our life will be like when he joins me at my next post.   

We've gone as long as three months apart, but try to see each other around every six weeks.  It sounds extravagant but flights aren't too terribly expensive - the main cost is time. There are no direct flights from Kingston to DC, so we have to connect in Miami.  American Airlines is the least expensive, but 90% of my flights have been late which means I have to build in a long layover to ensure I get there same day.  (As an aside, if you travel internationally more than once a year, Global Entry is totally worth it!)

I usually end up going to DC as it is easier not to leave the kitties for too long.  As an untenured officer I'm entitled to comp time for any extra hours worked, of which I'm taking full advantage.  

We've managed to spend a few weekends together in new-to-us places like Philadelphia...
City of Brotherly Love

I originally read this as "The Singer."  Ahem.

... and Miami.

One must look the part.

Old Miami Beach Historic District.

Wynwood District

Wynwood District

Moment to moment, and milestone to milestone, we're getting there together.  257 milestones to go.  

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


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