Classe de langue française

I’ve been back in DC for almost two months and now 1/4 of the way through French training.  It is a slog. It has surprised me how tired I am after 8 hours of language classes, labs, conversation tables, pronunciation tables, and homework.  This is the first language I’ve tried to tackle seriously since college Russian a couple decades ago and it’s tough.

That said, I am making progress.  Verb by verb.  If only I could keep all those damn articles and prepositions straight. Now that I’m a less-sensitive place, I’ll try to keep up on the diplojournaling.  Peut-être un peu en français.

Lahore Lightning

One of the many frustrating things about living in a heightened security situation with limited travel is that my camera is gathering dust in the closet.  I’ve been in Lahore for over a month and have not had the opportunity to make any photos.  Tonight, I was prepping the gear for my first such opportunity coming up later this week.  It just so happened that we were having a big lightning storm.  I wandered out on the balcony and started shooting.  Getting a decent image of lightning takes some serious patience, and a little good luck.

I used an approach similar to the fireworks in Ottawa, except lightning is much less predictable and I didn’t bring a tripod to Pakistan.  Got a couple of keepers anyway….

If you want to see more, click here:  Lahore Lightning Storm.

Back in the USA

After an uneventful stopover in Scranton, PA, for the night, I’m now settled in to my temporary digs back in Arlington, Virginia.  Hitting the beltway was a rude awakening. I realized that it’s been over a year since I’ve driven in bumper-to-bumper traffic. This will no doubt be the first of many under-appreciated facets of life in Ottawa I will miss.

It was a pleasure, however, to have my iPhone become magically fully functional after crossing the border. I got along just fine without 3G, email, and outbound text messaging 24/7 in Canada (I used it for phone service and incoming texts while out and about, and for everything else only when accessible to wifi), but I sure like having it work as intended now.  I’ll be in Arlington/DC for some follow-on training, and then off to Lahore on April 21st.

I still can’t believe how fast that first year plus passed. I had an embarrassment of riches in terms of going away parties and dinners, culminating in an Embassy-wide event hosted by my former consular section with a really big turnout (although, to be fair, most afternoon events at the Embassy with copious amounts of wine and food tend to get a good turnout). I felt honored to serve with both the US and local staff in Ottawa. As I told them all, my introduction to life in the foreign service could not have been better.

Monday morning, I’ll be back to school at the Foreign Service Institute.  Time to start reading my homework.

Second Tour Bidding

Although I’m still over a month away from arriving in Pakistan, the time has come for bidding the follow-on post. Because this next assignment will technically be my second tour (the year in Pakistan is taking the place of what was supposed to be the second year in Ottawa), I am going through what’s called directed bidding.  For the last time in my career, we have the opportunity to peruse through a long list of open assignments, compile a list in order of preference, and leave it up to the gods, aka the Career Development Officers, to sort out.

Of the 150 or so assignments, including jobs in every category located in six continents, I put together a sub-list of 30 that fit our timing. This was actually a little more complicated than it sounds. I started with the expected departure date from Pakistan.  I scratched any job targeted to start before Spring 2012.  I then scratched every job that did not require foreign language fluency. Some of those were brutal to line out, but I have to satisfy the language proficiency for tenure.

I then added the month or so of mandatory home leave — time Congress mandates that I spend decompressing from my prior two years abroad.  I then needed to figure out what training is required for each job I wanted to bid.  Public affairs job in Bishkek, Kyrgystan? Factor in 8 months for Russian language fluency and a month and a half for public diplomacy tradecraft. Scratch a bunch more jobs that start too early or too late for the requisite training.

Amazingly, when the smoke cleared, we had a list of 30 that more or less fit. E and I then spent several days passing it back in forth to get the preference order right, finalizing the order together in the tea room at the Mandarin-Oriental looking out over the Vegas strip. We knew we’d have a good shot at one of our top 10 picks because State provides so-called equity points points for serving in hardship posts, additional equity for serving in high-danger posts, and yet more equity for serving in hard-to-fill jobs. Volunteering to spend a year in Lahore comes close to maxing out all three.

In the end, we had a pretty clear first choice pick, but the timing didn’t work out precisely. We are allowed to include on the list a maximum of eight jobs that don’t fit exactly, but are within a 90-day window. We are told up front, however, that while we can include these so-called “imperfect bids,” it is highly unlikely that we’ll get one.  Unfortunately, we had a pretty big gap — ok, a chasm, really — between our imperfect top choice and everything else. We filed our final list over a week ago and since that time have focused on being happy with what we expected to get: either a political job in Algiers, Algeria, or a political job in Kiev, Ukraine. Both would be interesting jobs and require us to learn a language that was at the top of our priority list.

We thought for sure the decision would come by end of day last Friday. The week-end arrived with no word.  Monday came and went with nothing.

After lunch today, my email preview popped with just the subject line: “Your Onward Assignment” and the first line of the contents that just read “Congratulations”.  I got the same “Congratulations” intro when I received my assignment to Pakistan, so I knew that had no bearing on where we were going.  After a suitably dramatic pause, I opened the email to find we had been assigned our first pick: Paris.

After I’m back from Lahore in the Spring 2012, we’ll have our month of home leave, and then jump into a very intensive five to six months of full-time, French language training. Four years of college French will get one to about a 2/2 on the spoken/written Foreign Service scale. The job requires that I arrive in the Fall of 2012 with a 3/3, so I’ve got my work cut out for me. Thankfully, E will likely be able to go through the class with me and she’s a language whiz. As for the job, I won’t be working in the Embassy. Instead, I’ll be joining the U.S. delegation to the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD).  The OECD has an incredibly broad mandate so I have no idea what my portfolio will include, but they get involved in a lot of very interesting issues. We couldn’t be happier.

The adventure continues.

Trip to Vegas

Thanks to a long week-end and a couple of vacation days thrown in, E and I took advantage of some frequent flyer miles and and cheaper than usual hotel rates in Las Vegas a few weeks ago for a spur-of-the-moment respite from the snow in Ottawa. I can highly recommend the new Mandarin Oriental in the City Center complex. Beautiful rooms and very quiet. With no casino in the lobby, it was great to go out to Vegas, but feel like we weren’t living in Vegas.  We caught a couple of shows — the Cirque du Soleil’s O at Bellagio and four white guys from Australia singing Motown hits — that were great fun. Ate some good food. Played some blackjack and craps together. Saw some movies. Walked around a lot. Always a good place for people watching.

I didn’t plan on playing poker as the whole idea was to spend time together for five days. On the second morning, however, E asked if there was a poker tournament during the day that I’d like to play. It’s Vegas — there’s always a poker tournament. It’s been awhile since I’ve played a live tournament but, with more of her encouragement, I entered the 1:00 at the new Aria hotel and casino next door to the Mandarin. It had that new poker room smell and everything.

I had a great time, and met a great mix of tourists and locals. They run one of the best tournament structures I’ve played, short of the World Series, with 30 minute levels and a large beginning stack. Both factors go a long way in watering down the luck factor. I never had aces, king, or queens the whole day, but I was able to pick my spots because my stack never got low. The downside to the structure is that the whole thing takes much longer than the typical Vegas 3-hour tourney.  There were 65 people to start, each receiving $8,000 in chips for a $120 buy-in. Our early dinner plans fell through as I was still playing at 6:00pm.  I finally finished around 8:15pm, celebrating another tournament victory that ended up paying for the whole trip.

Here’s a link to the somewhat blurry pic of my tourney-ending stack from the poker room’s Facebook page (the orange and white chips are each valued at $10k):

 Aria Tournament Winners

Although we got a later start then expected, we had a great dinner.

Winter Fireworks (or Death eaters coming to Embassy Ottawa)

One of the things I love most about my apartment here in Ottawa is the view at night.  Most evenings, it’s an expansive view of the market. Every once in awhile, however, I hear minor explosions off in the distance. Given that it’s Ottawa and not someplace more dangerous, that sound means fireworks.  In the summertime, just about every festival included a fireworks display so I’ve had a lot of practice doing spur of the moment photography.

As Fall gave way to Winter, the sky has been quiet. Until last night. It took me a minute or two to associate the sound with something that required me to get up from the couch.  Not only were there fireworks lighting the sky, but the launching spot from my vantage looked to be right between the US Embassy and the art museum. A perfect spot to catch those buildings lit up with the fireworks.

I’m in pre-packout sort mode so my photography gear is in several piles — stack for storage, stack to ship to Pakistan, and small bag o’ stuff to take on the plane.  Putting together what I needed to shoot, particularly not knowing how long the fireworks would last, would have been quite comical if anyone had been here to watch the mad scramble and rapid assemble. Tripod in the closet.  Camera in the bedroom. Damn, wrong camera — need the one in the other closet that has the tripod plate. Battery from the charger.  CF cards still on the desk from the last shoot.  Set it all up on a chilly balcony completely covered in snow from the storm a couple days ago. No time for a jacket. Can’t find the remote cord.

Anyway, got it all set up, adjusted the settings and started firing away.  It was a nice display, but I wasn’t sure if I captured anything particularly unique until I spent some time editing.  This shot jumped out from group (click on the small image below to blow it up).  I wish I could say it was all planned and that I have amazing timing, but sometimes the best shots are just pure luck.  I’m presuming the fireworks guys intended it to look like a ski masked face grimacing over the Byward Market, with maybe a little face next to it.  Whether intentional or not, it looks particularly ominous to me sitting right on top of the US Embassy as if Lord Voldemort were on his way.

For fireworks fans, here are eight more shots from the evening’s display.

Braving the Cold

Today was the first Saturday of the year for the Rideau Canal to be opened end-to-end for skaters.  The Canal runs over 5 miles long, making it the world’s biggest skating rink.

While I didn’t put on blades, I did throw on the heavy coat and shuffled a couple miles down and back (note to self: ice is slippery, even in snow boots).  Despite temperatures between -5 and -10, with ridiculous wind chills, there were plenty of skaters.  Every age group, from babies in sleds, to the elderly slowly gliding.

I particularly loved watching the little speed demons weaving in and out.  While there was the occasional slip and fall, the cold kept the huge crowds away so there were no collisions.

By the time I got home, my hands were numb, but I was ready to go find a pair of skates.