One of the great benefits of consular line work is the regular hours. We start early, but the day is typically over by 4:30 or 5:00 in the afternoon. No late nights. No week-ends. That is, when the G8 Foreign Ministers’ meeting isn’t taking place in your backyard.
The last week was a definite change of pace. I had my regular duties in the morning, interviewing 30 or so non-immigrant visa applicants. In the afternoon, I was a minor cog in a large team preparing for the U.S. delegation’s 2-day visit to Ottawa and Gatineau for the G8.
The boss has a lot of titles. To most of the world, she’s the Secretary of State, America’s Chief Diplomat, former Presidential Candidate, or former First Lady. To those of us inside the State Department bubble, she is simply S.
Getting to work with the advance team preparing for an S visit can be a lot of fun. It can also get a little scary. As a site officer, I had the responsibility for ironing out all the details for one particular site. It’s the kind of job that you get noticed only if you screw up.
When I received the assignment, one of the senior folks remarked that I must be setting the record for the shortest time between completing A-100 and serving as a site officer for an S visit. Great. Honestly, I’m in no hurry. What I thought was a pretty simple, straight-forward itinerary (motorcade arrives, reception, working dinner, motorcade departs) had a million minor moving parts, all of which remained fluid up to and after the event began.
Leading up to game day, I had a bunch of meetings with the people on site, with others on the team, and with other delegations. I thought I had everything buttoned down. Well, things change. No press inside the building turned into press opportunities upstairs and downstairs including a short bilateral meeting with the Japanese delegation. I learned a lot, very quickly, concerning protocol for such meetings — who sits where, what flags get positioned where, etc.
Although not always smooth behind the scenes, everything was ready when all the Foreign Ministers arrived. The movements from each event went smoothly, and everything went off pretty much as planned. Although S passed me in the tight hallway a couple of times, I think I did my job well enough that she doesn’t know my name.
Once our blackberries chirped that S was airborne, the marines opened the doors to the “wheels up” party and another visit was in the books. Back to the regular hours for awhile until POTUS arrives in June.
There is a lot going on (hence the new blackberry on belt), but I’ll hold off writing until the smoke clears. In the meantime, I actually managed to read a whole novel. I have no explanation for why my adult-onset ADD allows me to read non-fiction but won’t let me get all the way through a novel. I plowed through Updike’s Rabbit series last year and have since started several other recent and not-so-recent works. They are all sitting in strategic places around my apartment with prominent bookmarks calling out for resumption. I still have great aspirations to finish Infinite Jest, but at almost 1100 pages it doubles as a work-out just lugging it around. Some day.
In the meantime, I found Bapsi Sidhwa’s The Pakistani Bride a quick read. I know so little about Pakistani history and the various cultures at play there, that I don’t feel the least bit qualified to opine on the substance of the book. That said, it gives one (not so flattering) view of the tribal Pakistanis in the 1950s from the vantage of Lahore Punjabis and an American woman. I’m back to non-fiction for awhile, but I’m hoping my soon-to-arrive iPad will make it easier to carry a few books around so I can make more progress on Infinite Jest.
I used to claim that I spent so much time reading at work (which I did), that reading for pleasure at the end of the day was difficult. I do a lot less reading at work now so I guess it was all just an excuse to justify my TV addiction. Oh well.
I do spend a chunk of time every day reviewing cables, some of which are relevant to what I’m doing now. Others are relevant to what I’ll be doing in a year. Still others are just interesting. As I was doing my regular reading the other day, up popped this one (don’t worry, it’s unclassified and public knowledge):
SUBJECT: SENATE CONFIRMATION AND PRESIDENTIAL
ATTESTATION OF FOREIGN SERVICE GENERALIST LIST 2009 #11
1. Following are the names of 99 individuals included on
Foreign Service Generalist List 2009 #11. This list was
nominated by the President on December 11, 2009,
confirmed by the Senate on March 10, 2010 and attested
by the President on March 15, 2010. Posts are requested
to share this information with their officers.
4. For appointment as Consular Officers and Secretaries
in the Diplomatic Service of the United States of
Daniel Ross Harris, of California
I guess in between passing landmark health care reform, completing a nuclear arms treaty with Russia, and overhauling the federal student loan program, the powers that be found time to confirm my class of foreign service officers. Kind of a kick to see it in print.
I’ve always liked transition. When I was a programmer, it was starting a new project or learning a new language. When I was a lawyer, it was starting a new case or, four different times, taking a new job with a different law firm. When I was a photographer, it was the change in seasons with, for example, basketball transitioning to baseball. The foreign service is transition to the Nth degree.
Everything we touch is in a constant state of change. Our supervisors, our support staff, our duties, our substantive focus, our living arrangements, and, of course, the city and country in which we live. I arrived in Ottawa just over a month ago. The week before I left Washington, in between packing and trudging through snow to run last-minute errands, I submitted a narrative requesting assignment to a very short list of hardship posts. It was an odd request because Ottawa, by and large, is deemed to be very desirable post. I was certainly not looking to curtail my two-year assignment to Canada because I didn’t want to live in a safe, clean, extremely comfortable Western city.
I did not, however, want to leave the tough posts for others to do and, for personal reasons, the timing works much better for me and my family if I do an unaccompanied tour sooner rather than later. That said, the off-season bidding presented very few options for which I qualified. I don’t speak Arabic, Urdu, Pashtu, or Dari and I don’t have the experience of several tours under my belt. There were only a handful of jobs that I could even suggest, but they were still a long-shot given the general directive that first tour officers should not be assigned to such places. I wrote a one-page narrative on why I thought it was a good idea, organized a very short bid list, and forgot about it.
I was thus a little bit shocked (and thrilled) to get the email. My time in Ottawa will be cut short by a year. I’ll spend some time back in Washington for additional training, and then I’ll be off to Lahore, Pakistan. Although I had applied for a couple of consular jobs as part of that bidding process, my one-year tour in Lahore will not involve visas.
So, as I settle in to this new routine in Ottawa, I am reading about Lahore. The capital of Punjab, Pakistan’s largest province, Lahore is 17 miles from the Indian border. There are a myriad of critical political issues at play in the region and, although it is not Ottawa, Lahore has a reputation as being one of Pakistan’s most beautiful and safe urban areas, as well as being the country’s cultural center.
Ah, but the transitions keep coming. I woke up a few days ago to CBC Radio doing the morning news. “45 dead after coordinated bombings in Lahore, Pakistan.” I wasn’t sure if this was a dream or real until I was fully awake and heard the whole story. No doubt things will continue to change over the next year. In the meantime, I’ll continue reading (currently one fiction, The Pakistani Bride, by Bapsi Sidhwa and one non-fiction, Dissent into Chaos by Ahmed Rashid) and trying to focus first and foremost on my current transition here in Canada.
As I expected, it’s been hard to maintain a steady stream of blog entries given the sensitivity of the job I’m doing. In consular training, the constant refrain is that consular officers (or ConOffs in State-speak) have the best stories. They are not wrong. I have the pleasure of interviewing about 30 people a day who are seeking to come to the United States for just about every reason you can imagine. Students coming to study. Specialized workers coming for a dream job. International corporate executives being transferred to a US office. Seamen needing to dock at US ports. Caregivers looking to travel with families on vacation. Circus acrobats getting the call to join the big show. And Disneyland. Lots of people who want to visit Disneyland.
Unfortunately, I can’t describe the specifics in such an open forum. Everyone, whether issued a visa or not, is entitled to their privacy. I can say, however, that I find the work interesting and, dare I say it, fun.
While my specialization (or designated cone) is political affairs, we all do one assignment in consular affairs. In Ottawa, that means adjudicating non-immigrant visa applications. It is no secret that many officers dread doing their requisite consular tour. Some posts can get very monotonous due to the number of applicants and the ubiquity of a common scenario. Some posts in Mexico, the Philippines, and India will see hundreds of applicants — all with the same story — seeking a visa. Plowing through 120 applicants per officer per day in these posts can no doubt be difficult.
Ottawa has been anything but routine, thankfully. Because Canadian citizens, except for very few exceptions, do not require a visa to enter the United States, we see only citizens of other countries. Thus, in a typical day, I will interview people from India, Nigeria, Cuba, Australia, Saudi Arabia, Iran, Russia, etc. In a typical month, we’ll get over 100 countries’ citizens come through the Embassy. While there are some scenarios we hear more than once, typically each applicant has a unique situation. This means we spend more time per applicant than a lot of posts. It can be challenging and fascinating. For me, it is sort of like doing 30 depositions a day, albeit very compressed.
Many are routine interviews with very obvious outcomes, either positive or negative for the applicant. Other interviews, however, can result in shock, laughter, confusion, crying, and anger. That was all just last week. I’ve certainly had periods of time in which I’ve worked many more hours than I do here. By the end of the week, however, I find myself just wrung out. It’s tiring, but often gratifying, work. While I’m looking forward to the political assignments coming up in the future, I’m in no hurry to finish my consular assignment.