It’s funny how even a relatively short amount of time can make an extraordinary change feel like routine. From time to time, I find myself stopping mid-stride, looking around, and wondering as David Byrne wrote 30 years ago: “Well, how did I get here?”
I had a lot those moments living my two-year sports photographer fantasy. Walking through the on-deck circle at AT&T park as I passed the dugout. Laying on my stomach shooting the 49ers while they celebrated a touchdown. Tossing a mis-hit ball back to Venus Williams while kneeling next to the net. These were all surreal moments for me after years of office and courtroom work. I had another moment today.
Nothing dramatic. Just another day of training, more lectures on adjudicating non-immigrant visas, a computer applications class, some role play exercises, and a case study review. Once again, however, I found myself reflecting on how quickly a daily routine has developed from something I never thought I’d have the opportunity to pursue.
I start each morning walking from my apartment near the Virginia Square metro to the George P. Shultz National Foreign Affairs Training Center, the campus that houses the Foreign Service Institute (affectionately known as FSI). It’s a great 25-minute morning walk, despite the cold (20-30 degrees seems very cold for a Californian), that takes me down major thoroughfares, side streets, alleys, an office building parking lot, and an underpass walkway before coming back above ground at the FSI front gate.
The security guards check identification for everyone passing through, whether traveling by car or by foot. Like just about all of my fellow officers, I wear my credentials around my neck. The veterans typically have a post-issued lanyard proclaiming exotic embassies or consulates while us newbies have a plain metal chain. The campus itself feels like a small boarding school or college, except it is completely surrounded by a 20-foot fence of vertical metal bars. I enter the grounds through a one-way turnstile after inserting my identification into a slot, inputting a digital code, and receiving a satisfying mechanical clang.
Once through the turnstile, immediately to my right, there’s an impressive light-yellow colonial building with 40-foot columns of the sort modern suburban McMansions fail to conjure. The building used to house Arlington Hall, a 1927 girl’s school, but now carries the less-distinguished moniker of E Building. Walking past E Building, I soon come to a small quad with a bronze statue of a sitting Benjamin Franklin, our nation’s first diplomat. In addition to providing a bit of history, Ben keeps the smokers company in between classes.
The ConGen mock embassy and classrooms reside on the third floor of F building, in the left wing of the building that wraps around the quad. I drop off my lunch in a small fridge and head into a long room filled with computer workstations. It’s an incredibly collegial place. Despite all of our lives being upside down, it’s been a real comfort to share the experience with a steady group of like-minded people. Maybe it’s the fact that we are all about scatter to the four corners of the globe, but I haven’t heard a single argument since I’ve been here.
After checking email, it’s off to the first class. Every day is a different schedule so it never gets to be too routine. Lunch varies depending on the schedule. If we have a lot time, a group will often go grab a bite off campus. The cafeteria, downstairs and through a maze of hallways, has row-after-row of long tables with chairs like an elementary school’s cafeteria. It is here, amongst the flat screen monitors showing CNN, BBC, and the day’s class schedule, where the various classes mix and mingle. You can overhear conversations in over a dozen languages, discussions about the issues of the day (or the latest episode of Jersey Shore), and colleagues running into each other years after they left for their first posts.
I tend to come down to the cafeteria to eat my sandwich and catch up with my former-A-100 colleagues that are now in language study before heading back up to do some work on the computer and prepare for afternoon classes. Today, I stopped for a minute to ponder. I’m not sure how I got here, but I’m glad I did.