Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Well, the President Knows…

Posted in Foreign Service Life at 4:48 pm by graceandpoise

The following was heartening to read today in President Obama’s letter to federal employees:

[…] Today, I wanted to take a moment to tell you what you mean to me — and to our country.

That begins by saying thank you for the work you do every day — work that is vitally important to our national security and to American families’ economic security.  You defend our country overseas and ensure that our troops receive the benefits they deserve when they come home.  You guard our borders and protect our civil rights.  You help small businesses expand and gain new footholds in overseas markets.  You guide hundreds of thousands of people each day through the glory of America’s national parks and monuments, from Yosemite to the Statue of Liberty.  And much more.

You do all this in a political climate that, too often in recent years, has treated you like a punching bag.  You have endured three years of a Federal pay freeze, harmful sequester cuts, and now, a shutdown of our Government.  And yet, you persevere, continuing to serve the American people with passion, professionalism, and skill.

None of this is fair to you.  And should it continue, it will make it more difficult to keep attracting the kind of driven, patriotic, idealistic Americans to public service that our citizens deserve and that our system of self-government demands. […]

Well said, Mr. President.  Now, if only we could get the American public, or at least other politicians, to see things this way.

Oh well, a girl can dream.

Saturday, September 15, 2012

Yeah, but what to you DO?

Posted in Foreign Service Life at 11:14 am by graceandpoise

I get that question a lot.  Like a last weekend, when I met a bunch of my husband’s high-school friends.  “Oh, so you work in embassies?  But what do you DO?”  Particularly in the case of the Foreign Service – and particularly after one has a couple of different assignments under one’s belt – that question is extraordinarily difficult to answer.

Thus, I was happy to see an article in Foreign Policy that attempts to explain it.  The only way to do so is by pulling out a series of examples, as the duties of a Foreign Service Officer can range so widely.  Maybe the book Mr. Kralev is writing will answer the question yet more fully, but in the meantime, see the link above to the article (page 3 will be particularly helpful for those of you wanting to know just what it is we do), and a brief quote below.

“How can teaching effective governance, participating in nuclear negotiations, organizing a cultural event, reforming a child-adoption system, selling weapons, recovering from a natural disaster, visiting prisoners, and fixing public relations problems be part of the same profession?

Welcome to the U.S. Foreign Service.”

To those politicians and other detractors who like to spread falsehoods about the Foreign Service:  please note that attending fancy parties wearing sequined cocktail dresses is not on the above list, and hasn’t been for a long time.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

A Sad Day for the Foreign Service

Posted in Foreign Service Life, Human Rights at 6:52 pm by graceandpoise

My thoughts and my heart go out to the friends, family, and other loved ones of the four Americans who lost their lives in Benghazi last night.

A colleague recently described the U.S. government’s position on free speech in a way that really resonated with me:  we are “extremists when it comes to free speech.”  We might distance ourselves from what you have to say, we might even call your words reprehensible and a few other things, but we will continually defend your right to say it.  Someone in America put up some video, which I understand says some wild and offensive things (I confess I haven’t seen it myself), and someone in Egypt thought it was a good idea to put clips of that video on television and tell people to go to the U.S. embassy and protest.  The jury is out as to whether the tragic events in Benghazi are related to that whole mess or not, but at the end of the day, freedom of speech protects what those people said.  We’ll certainly distance ourselves from both the video and the person who called people to protest at the embassy about it, but we’ll defend their rights to say it.

As for my own opinions, suffice it to say I’ve got some choice words for those who would perpetrate this kind of attack, and for those in this country who would try to turn a tragedy like this into a political football.  In the interest of civility, I’ll keep those words to myself for now, as I fear I would veer into expletives territory.  Instead, I’ll share with you a bit of Secretary Clinton‘s eloquence from earlier today:

“All over the world, every day, America’s diplomats and development experts risk their lives in the service of our country and our values, because they believe that the United States must be a force for peace and progress in the world, that these aspirations are worth striving and sacrificing for. Alongside our men and women in uniform, they represent the best traditions of a bold and generous nation.”

“Some have sought to justify this vicious behavior, along with the protest that took place at our Embassy in Cairo yesterday, as a response to inflammatory material posted on the internet. America’s commitment to religious tolerance goes back to the very beginning of our nation. But let me be clear – there is no justification for this, none. Violence like this is no way to honor religion or faith. And as long as there are those who would take innocent life in the name of God, the world will never know a true and lasting peace.”

May it be a long, long, long time before we ever wake up to news like this again.  Ideally, we never will, but being a part of the modern Foreign Service means we all serve – or will serve – in difficult places and in harm’s way.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

A Veteran Diplomat on Words

Posted in Foreign Service Life at 7:38 pm by graceandpoise

Wikileaks recently “revealed” to the world that us State Department types are pretty good writers.  You may have heard about it.

Building on a theme, or perhaps digging down to its roots, I present you with the following article I greatly enjoyed reading recently (yes, many of us are complete language geeks):

Of Mice and Mail, By Dean Acheson, Foreign Service Journal, May 1965

Long ago, when the world was young, the official censor of English usage and prose style in the Department of State was a charming lady with an imposing and elegant coiffure. In those days we were in the old State War, and Navy Building, just west of the White House. Affection for its tiers of pillared balconies and mansard roof and its present mantle of soft dove gray is the touchstone which separates aging Victorian aesthetes from neoclassicists and moderns. We loved, also, its swinging, slatted, saloon-type half doors. They not only provided ventilation before air conditioning and permitted most covenants to be overheard and hence openly arrived at, but their vicious swings into the hall created a sporting hazard for passersby.

The Department was much smaller then. The country had not yet reluctantly donned the imperial purple of world leadership, or acquired a voice heard hourly around the world, or discovered and exchanged culture; nor was it required to cope with the mounting ill will of the objects of its solicitude and generosity. The days when the Department would add to its little nucleus of diplomatists the equivalent of Montgomery Ward, Chautauqua, CBS, and Lincoln Center were still mercifully ahead.

So much smaller was it that at the end of the day the elegantly coiffured chieftainess of the Division of Coordination and Review could and did bring to my office all the important departmental mail, to be read and signed over the title Acting Secretary. We began with a ritual which would have puzzled the uninitiated. She pulled a chair close to the front of my desk and then sat, not on it, but in it – that is, she perched herself crosslegged in the chair. And thereby hangs a tale.

The Undersecretary’s mouse lived in his office fireplace, where for years a wood fire had been laid but never touched, much less lighted. Probably generations of internationally minded mice had grown up within the log structure and gone on to positions in the United Nations. When the long day’s work was ending and the busy office was hushed and the fever of departmental life was over, the mouse would come out. Some atavistic fear or urge, older than time, leads women to slander mice by believing that they harbor a lascivious desire to run up the female leg. Elephants seem to share this fear. At any rate, both are traditionally nervous in the presence of mice.

From her safe haven the chieftainess could observe the mouse without tremors as we tackled the mail. For years she had battled bravely with the bureaucracy and maintained the State Department’s standard of literacy high above that, for instance, of the Department of Agriculture of the Bureau of Internal Revenue. But time had dampened the fire and dulled her cutting edge. She welcomed the help of fresh enthusiasm and a new blade.

We won a few opening and easy victories over phrases with no solid support—villainous expressions like “as regards to,” “acknowledging yours of,” “regretting our delay in,” and so on. Then came our first major attack on a departmental favorite. The target was the use of the verb “to feel” to describe the Department’s cogitating and deciding process. “The Department feels that to adopt the course you urge would not,” et cetera, et cetera. The Department could, I insisted, decide, agree, disagree, approve, disapprove, conclude, and on rare occasions, and vicariously, think, but never feel. It had no feelings. It was incapable of feeling. So the ukase was issued that departmental feeling was out.

The immediacy of our success brought home to us the immensity of our combined power over the written words. When the chieftainess eliminated feeling from every letter no matter by whom written and I signed letters brought to me only by her, the Department simply ceased to feel. Absolute power, Lord Acton wrote, corrupts absolutely. But in our case, it was not so. Moderation was our guide. The tumbrel was filled discriminately. Into it went “implement” and “contact” used as verbs – “the Department must implement the Act of Congress” or “you should contact the Consul General at Antwerp.” These horrors sneezed into the sack. So did “finalize,” “analogize,” and “flexible” when used to modify “approach.” “To trigger” would have done so likewise if anyone had dared use it.

Thus far the natives showed no signs of restlessness under the new order. Indeed, they hardly noticed the increased literacy and clarity of their returning carbon copies. But our pruning knives soon cut deeper into clichés which had taken the place of thought. The first of these was “contraproductive.” What would a congressman think, I asked, when he read, “The course you proposed would, in the Department’s view, prove to be contraproductive”? It would sound to him suspiciously like a veiled reference to birth control.

Once started on this line of thought, we soon added to the proscribed list two other phrases, also likely to suggest undue familiarity with the shady side of sex. These were “abortive attempts” and “emasculating amendments.” “Crippling” amendments were bad enough. Why not, in both cases, switch to “stultifying” for a change?

Even those oddities were put down to no more than reluctance to admit modern ruggedness of speech into official correspondence. But when the guns were turned on “sincere” the murmurs grew. “For proof of Russian sincerity,” someone would write, “we look to deeds not words.” Nothing could have been more misleading or misinformed concerning both the meaning of the word and the nature of the Russians. Under pressure all would agree that Webster relegated to fifth place the letter writer’s belief that “sincere” meant “virtuous.” As its first meaning, Noah put down just what the Russians were: “pure; unmixed; unadulterated; as sincere as milk,” or, one might add, as sincere – that is, unmixed and unadulterated – trouble. He even quoted the eighteenth-century wit, physician, and friend of Pope and Swift, John Arbuthnot, as writing (incomprehensibly), “There is no sincere acid in any animal juice.” That clinched the matter, and “sincere” as an adjectival encomium went on the Index Prohibitorum.

We were tempted to go further and rule out “Sincerely yours,” either as a self-serving declaration that the Department was “unmixed,” which was false on its face, or that, taking a lower meaning, it was “without deceit,” which the body of the letter usually disproved. We preferred “Respectfully yours” for our superiors in the White House and the Capitol, a reserved “Very truly yours” for the citizenry and for foreign VIP’s the stately “With renewed expressions of my highest esteem” (a delightful phrase, since the expressions were never expressed). But “Sincerely yours,” having by usage been deprived of all meaning, was finally adjudged suitable for the departmental use.

Thus we strove mightily at the noble task of returning the Department’s prose to a Jeffersonian level; but we strove against the current. We became obstacles to efficiency. The mail backed up. Congressmen complained of the delay in answering their letters and refused to be assuaged by the superior prose of the answers when they did not come.

When the first symptoms of elephantiasis appeared with our absorption of Colonel Donovan’s Research and Intelligence people and Elmer Davis’ foreign-broadcasting facilities, our doom was sealed. Our evening sessions with the mail became as hopelessly inadequate as Gandhi’s spinning wheel. The revolution of expansion swept our ukases away, and through the ruins the exiled phrases defiantly marched back, contacting, implementing, feeling, contraproducing, aborting, and emasculating in shameless abandon.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

A Good Trip, Terrible Timing

Posted in Family, Foreign Service Life, Travels at 7:05 pm by graceandpoise

I recently went on a trip out to get an on-the-ground view of the portfolio I now cover.  It was a very good trip, and I’m glad I went.  I just wish the timing had been a little better.  The day before I was supposed to leave, my husband’s long-nagging hamstring injury flared up in a major way, so much so that he was having trouble moving around.  Nevertheless, he insisted I leave on my trip, so we made sure he had ice and food in the house, and off I went.

First, I went via Paris . . .

. . . to Madagascar.

I had a great time there, got to meet some colleagues face-to-face with whom I’d long been talking only via email and phone, and had lots of good meetings that gave me a better perspective on the situation there.  While there, I kept in touch with my husband – spottily – via email.  His injury wasn’t getting any better, the doc had told him to rest it and scheduled him for some tests, and meanwhile he was taking some time off work, feeling lonely, and ordering delivery because it hurt too much to try and actually go anywhere.  I then moved on to Comoros . . .

. . . which I found to be a beautiful – if poor and underdeveloped – place, with people who have hearts of gold.  Similarly to my time in Madagascar, I had a series of interesting and useful meetings, and learned a huge amount about Comoros that I didn’t know before.  However, on my second morning there, the colleague I was with told me at breakfast, “Your husband called the embassy to say he’s going into surgery for his back; he said to call your mom if you want details.”  WHAT?!?  Needless to say, I was immediately a basket-case.

The subsequent call my colleague kindly let me make to my mom revealed that my husband had gone in for an MRI, and they had sent him immediately to a surgeon, who had taken one look at things and found an open operating room right away.  Seems he had a ruptured/bulging disc in his back (thus the “hamstring” pain that had been bugging him since last winter), and the docs were shocked he could move around at all.  I got to talk to my husband later that day, and I told him I was going back to Madagascar to book a flight home.  A back-and-forth ensued, which ended with me capitulating to his insistence that I go forward with the rest of my trip.  So, distraught, worried, and lonely, I went on to Mauritius . . .

. . . which was, true to its reputation, beautiful.  And full of couples, in love.  While I was there alone.  With a husband in a hospital bed on the other side of the world.  Whom I’d have given anything to be there for.  It was beautiful, though, and with a visit there that spanned a weekend, I even managed to get out on a boat once.  Sadly, as far as work was concerned, the Mauritius leg of my trip was considerably less productive than the other legs had been, which only served to make me want all the more to be home with my husband (and to make me feel like all the bigger of a cold-hearted boor for heeding his pleas to continue on with my trip).

All’s well that ends well, though.  When I got home, my husband was happy, and wandering around like a normal person who hadn’t just had back surgery.  Who knew there were surgeries in the world that actually made people feel BETTER instead of worse?  Heaven bless good doctors.  Bottom line:  glad I went, just wish I’d timed it differently.  Nothing can substitute for actually seeing the places/people you are always talking about.  But nothing really substitutes for being there when loved ones need you, either.  Now I just have to figure out how we’re going to afford a mushy, couple-y vacation to the Indian Ocean . . .

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Re-learning America

Posted in Foreign Service Life, Generalities, In DC at 4:54 pm by graceandpoise

Home Leave is over, and we’re back in DC.  We’ve completed our first 2 weeks at our new jobs and are starting to settle in.  Over the past month or so we’ve both added 2 new states to our lists of “been there,” and we’ve spent some quality time with both sides of the family and with friends from all kinds of categories, but now it’s time to start trying to get re-accustomed to “real life.”

It turns out that living in difficult conditions in foreign countries for so long makes you end up going “Oh yeah! In America you can [insert otherwise common-sensical thing here]!” an awful lot.  For instance, one of the things we’re re-learning is the convenience of being able to stop by a store on the way home from work.  Gosh, what a novelty!  And you don’t even have to have exact change in cash – they all take credit cards!  Another thing: the far-more-equal status of men and women here.  In India, it was inadvisable for me to wander around alone much, and wearing a tank-top was just an invitation for lasciviousness of the highest order from anyone you might happen to pass on the street.  Now that I’m back in America, it’s taking me a while to become comfortable again with wearing tank tops or skirts that hit above the knee, or with going on a late-night solo trip to pick up something from the 7-eleven (a store that’s actually open late at night – wow!).  Ordinary things, I know, but my life’s been so different for so long that they’re now truly remarkable.

So what’s next?  Well, we’ve got to start looking for someplace to live from August onwards (we love our temporary place, but it’s too small, too expensive, and too already-furnished).  We’ve also got to replenish some things that didn’t make it out of India (many pairs of shoes, about half our work-worthy clothes, our entire spices and baking ingredients collection, the list goes on…) so we’ve been doing lots of shopping.  Once we get a place (probably renting rather than buying, at least for a while), I’m sure there will be plenty of stuff to do to make it feel like a home.  I sure am looking forward to that, though, and to becoming a “real American” again.

Also: photos from Home Leave will be coming, I promise.  Stay tuned!

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Home Leave

Posted in Foreign Service Life, Home at 12:07 pm by graceandpoise

Some Foreign Service Officers consider Home Leave more of a curse than a blessing.  We are not those officers.  We are comparatively free agents, being basically homeless, without children or pets to haul around, and with parents and other loved ones who are not only willing but eager to host us for a while.  We’re got errands and doctor’s appointments to do that we couldn’t – or were scared to – do in India.  But mostly we are trying to rest, relax, recharge, reconnect.  It’s a blessing to have the opportunity to do so.

Saturday, May 1, 2010

Last. Visa. EVER.

Posted in Foreign Service Life, India at 6:24 pm by graceandpoise

When you’ve done visa-mill line work for as long as I have (somewhere between 2 and 4 times the average amount of time), and struggled with it as much as I have, you think a lot when you start to get close to the end about what you want your Last Visa Ever to be.  Do you want it to be an issuance or a refusal?  A student, or an old person?  A mom traveling to Disney with her 2 kids, or a new bride traveling to New Jersey to set up house?

For quite a while, the cynical, worn-out, tired-of-freaking-visa-interviews side of me thought I wanted it to be one last refusal.  One last “No, I’m not going to let you into my country so you can stay there illegally and work under the table and set up or add to your own little ghetto area where nobody speaks English and nobody wants to.”  It would satisfy the “sick of it” side of me.

But, as the time drew nearer, I realized that I didn’t want to end my time doing visa work with an example of what drove me nuts about it.  I wanted to end my visa years on a positive note, to remind myself why it’s good work that needs to be done, why it’s okay that I’ve spent the first nearly-five years of my Foreign Service career focusing on this stuff.  I wanted to end it all with a heartwarming case, a case that said to me, “See? There are good reasons why we need to facilitate travel, good people who use their visas correctly and do legitimate things.”

So what was my Last Visa Ever?  Depends on how you measure it.  If you measure it by the last visa I adjudicated to completion in the computer system, it was a refusal – a family of four from a very rural area who had never traveled anywhere before, who had a relative in the U.S. with dubious immigration status, who said they were going for “tourism” for six weeks even though on their income they could clearly never hope to afford even the flights.  However, if you measure it by the last interview I did (which I couldn’t finish in the computer because some checks weren’t back), it was an issuance – a very legitimate case of an elderly couple who have traveled to the U.S. several times before, and go every year and a half or so to visit their son who studied at a good university in America and stayed there to work (legally).

So I guess both sides were satisfied, but I’m glad my last visa applicants, my last interview, were the good kind.  That said, I’m also glad it’s over.

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Packed. Almost Out.

Posted in Foreign Service Life, India at 7:19 pm by graceandpoise

The moving company came on Thursday morning, and it was like a whirlwind hit the apartment. Pretty soon, there was packing paper everywhere, cardboard everywhere, and a HUGE stack of boxes in our living room. It took them all of one day to pack all our worldly possessions. Our last experience of the service sector in India, and these guys were actually PUNCTUAL, and SKILLFUL, and POLITE – that is to say, they blew every other experience we’ve had with the service sector in India way, WAY out of the water.  Who’d have thunk?

We spent one night with an apartment full of boxes, and by shortly after mid-day the following day, everything was out the door and in crates on trucks.  Now we just keep our fingers crossed that these complete strangers who we just gave all our possessions to handle our things responsibly, the crane doesn’t dump the container into the drink, the stuff doesn’t arrive all moldy, the furniture doesn’t splinter, the boat doesn’t sink, and the glass doesn’t break.  No biggie, right?

Now we’re in our final less-than-a-week of our tour in India.  I’m kind of reluctant to really let myself believe it until I’ve done that long-awaited Last Visa Ever.  Oh, what a sense of freedom that will be!!!

In the meantime, we’re living out of suitcases, still in our same apartment, but without any of the things that really make it a home.  Looking forward to spending some quality time at home (the longest stretch of time I’ve been able to spend there since 2001 – what a crime is that?) and taking on a whole new set of challenges once we get to DC for our next assignment.  Fingers crossed that a certain volcano puts a cork in it, or at least behaves somewhat!

Friday, April 9, 2010

Planning a New Life – and Remembering Past Ones

Posted in Foreign Service Life, Generalities, In DC at 11:22 pm by graceandpoise

Our time here in India is winding down, and we’re scheduling “one last” dinner out with friends and “one last” trip to our favorite shops and restaurants.  We’re worrying about packout, editing and re-editing our EERs (Employee Evaluation Reports), and generally trying to tie up loose ends.  In the midst of all this, I also find myself thinking about DC, spending a lot of time pondering what life is going to be like when we move there for the next 2 years.

I will admit, I went into this whole “bidding on DC jobs” thing with more than a little trepidation.  Last time I lived in DC, I knew I was only going to be there for a short amount of time, and I was a student so I lived like one, sticking to a very tight budget.  I found it nearly impossible to meet interesting people or make friends in the city, there was a lot I didn’t understand about the whole west-coast/east-coast culture gap, and I generally had a pretty crummy time.  I remember thinking sardonically that the only way to get anyone in DC to give you the time of day was to be either politically powerful or the right-hand-man of someone politically powerful.  I don’t want it to be that way this time around.

Though being part of the Foreign Service essentially makes you homeless, a drifter from place to place unable to put down roots anywhere, I’ve learned that in order to preserve your sanity, you basically have to lie to yourself and treat each posting as though it were for good.  That way, you can at least give yourself a chance at having something approximating a normal-ish life.  (Discussion on how marvelous and exotic a “normal” or “ordinary” life sounds these days will be kept for another time.)

So I’m thinking about DC.  For instance: what part of the DC area should we think about living in, and do we want to rent or buy (or can we afford to do either one)?  Will I gain crazy amounts of weight when suddenly I no longer have to worry about 80 percent of available foods being painfully spicy?  Should I join a gym or just take lots of classes at that fabulous yoga studio we went to in the weeks before we came to India (or will I have time/energy to do either one)?  I’ve also been thinking about work stuff, like how I’m going to be able to replenish my work wardrobe after I get rid of all the things ruined by living in India, and whether I’ll manage to remember any of the stuff I learned about working in my chosen “cone” (job track) of the Foreign Service way back when I worked for the Department before formally joining as an officer.

And, of all things, I’ve been thinking about rowing.  I’m not sure where, but I saw a photo recently of rowers out on the Potomac in an eight, on the glass-smooth water of early morning, all the rowers moving with purpose and in unison, with the city’s landmarks gently touched by the sun in the background – a photo obviously shot in those quiet, private hours before the rest of humanity is fully awake.  I haven’t rowed seriously in about 10 years, but it’s amazing how much that photo made me yearn to get back out there with a boat, an oar, and a group of like-minded individuals.  It’s a sport that requires a high degree of coordination – almost choreography – great amounts of power, a huge helping of perseverance, lots of sweat, sometimes blood, sometimes tears, and even sometimes little icicles hanging off your fingernails – and, yes, getting out of bed early.  Those who know me well are undoubtedly scratching their heads at that last bit.  But I don’t know – there’s just something about the simple, quiet things (not to mention the sense of community and of accomplishment) that is so unbelievably seductive these days.

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