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.

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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.

Decorating Doors

With the weather turning cold and snowy, I found a silly project that ended up being a lot of fun to put together.  There’s a longstanding December tradition at Embassy Ottawa for the various agencies and sections to decorate their main entrance doors for the holidays. The various efforts, elaborate and simple, face a committee of judges after which the winners receive awards and, more importantly, bragging rights at the mission’s holiday party.

The Public Affairs department has consistently excelled in the competition and entered this year as the defending champions.  My beloved Consular group, while competitive, has not won the contest for years.  After tossing around a few ideas for theme, we came up with an idea that merged our strategic mission with the season.  What would happen if Kris Kringle applied for a visa?  The result: Santagate.  I put together a mock-up of the local newspaper, The Ottawa Citzen, and wrote a couple thousand words about how Kris Kringle came in for visa and faced some unexpected skepticism from our consular officers given his 60+ aliases, the lack of a proper passport, and some unexpected attitude.

Although, there are a lot of inside jokes that aren’t nearly as funny to those who don’t know our people, it provided the construct for the real star of the presentation — the photographs.  We stages a series of shots involving Santa working his way through the visa section, being fingerprinted, pleading his case to an officer, being refused, and finally, being physically removed by our intrepid security guards.  From a photographic standpoint, it was a fun lighting challenge shooting through the glass with remote lights hidden on the client side (lighting it directly would have resulted in massive reflection and glare).

Part of the story involved a massive protest and ensuing political pressure for Canada to offer Santa asylum and immediate citizenship.  As a Canadian citizen, Santa wouldn’t need a visa to travel over the border.  We thought maybe some pictures of crying kids might work, but over the week-end I found a couple of pics online that, with the help of Photoshop, fit the bill.

With Santa’s online visa application, letters from protesting children, and some ribbon trim, the door told a good story.

We had lots of visitors loitering outside the door and, at this afternoon’s embassy party, Ambassador Jacobson called out Consular for both Most Original and Overall Winner.

On to the next obsessive project…

Hiking in Gatineau, Take 1

Fall seems to have come to Canada.  Temperatures have dropped and the leaves are just starting to change color.  I’ve been wanting to get out to Gatineau Park in Quebec for awhile and this morning I finally got my act together.  Just a short 20 minute drive away, Gatineau Park boasts 140 square miles of preserved land, including over 120 miles of hiking trails.  I picked the right time of year to get hooked: no bugs, cool temps, and very few people.  Not sure these photos do it justice, but it was a beautiful morning.

I’m going to try to get out there for a couple of hours each week-end.  Once the snow starts falling, I’ll have to start investigating my first pair of snow shoes.

I hate quitting

With less than six months left in my Ottawa tour, I confess to be spending a lot of my time thinking about what’s next.  That little piece of obsessive-compulsiveness has limited my reading list to only Pakistan-related titles, both fiction and non.  I get my daily news feeds, follow the internal communications, and have my Google Alerts set to let me know when something of import happens in that part of the world.

I have my Ottawa departure date and follow-on training schedule set.  Although I still have my regular Canadian-focused full-time consular duties, there are not many additional extra projects on the near-term schedule.  In search of a project, I saw that State offers a distance learning program for Urdu.  My one-year post in Lahore does not require any language training as English is also an official language of Pakistan, but learning Urdu sounded like a good idea.

I should have realized what I was getting into when my first reaction mimicked John Candy in Stripes:

Instead of Ox’s 6-8 week training program, the Urdu distance learning program is 14 weeks.  I’d agree to spend 8-10 hours a week working on my own and then do an hour a week on the phone with the tutor.  That sounded perfect for me.  I’d dutifully work the software program as the evenings grow cold, review a few flash cards, chat on the phone, and hit my formal training with a working knowledge of Urdu.

I then received the software and started working on the alphabet.  It’s difficult.  Really difficult.

Urdu is Pakistan’s national language.  The word Urdu means ‘foreign’ in Turkish and traces its origins to the combination of foreign influences in South Asia.  The grammar is very similar to Hindi, but it merges various elements of Arabic, Persian, and Sanskrit.  Urdu is typically written in the Nastaliq calligraphy style of script but the characters are not entirely uniform, depending on who is writing and for what audience.  Needless to say, I’ve been struggling.

Read right to left, Urdu has a mix of characters from the Arabic and Persian alphabets.  As a result, there are multiple letters for most sounds.  There are, for example, three different letters for the sound of an S, five Z’s, 3 H’s, etc.  Each of the sound family letters sound identical but look completely different.  Oh, and just to make it more interesting, each letter has four different looks:  the independent character (when you want to make a list of the letters but not actually make a word), the Initial (when the character is the first letter in a word), the Medial (when the letter is somewhere in the middle of a word), and the Final (when the letter ends a word).  Some letters connect together and some don’t.

I took Russian in college and learning Cyrillic was challenging, but I didn’t find it that difficult.  The characters are easy to distinguish and, once I learned what character makes what sound, I found it easy to sound out words and start reading.  Russian grammar is a whole different story, but that came later.  The first year moved quickly and, although languages are not my academic strength, it felt like I made great progress.  Urdu, not so much.

Last Friday was the final day to drop the course without penalty.  By Tuesday, I was beyond frustrated.  I just could not imagine getting to the point of reading a paragraph in Urdu out loud — forget about understanding it.  I just want to be able to recognize the characters and voice them correctly.  I’m ashamed to report that I gave up.  I wrote an email to the language department with some lame excuse that I just wasn’t going to have time to do it justice.

It didn’t sit well.  I’ve certainly quit things before, but usually on my terms for good reasons.  Not because it was too hard.  With some prodding from the department and lots of encouragement from my tutor on Wednesday, I started really drilling.  I still have no clue how one gets to the point of reading fluidly.  Words still look like an amalgam of beautiful lines and dots, but specific letters and sounds are not jumping out at me.

It’s clear to me that I’m going to have to double the 8-10 hours a week they recommend just to keep up.  Despite my better judgment, I retracted my drop notice on Friday, installed a software-based Urdu keyboard on my mac, and started memorizing numbers (which also have different characters), colors, and greetings.  My next tutorial is on Wednesday and its already weighing on me.

On the bright side, Ox made it through basic training.

TV Shows

I spend a fair bit of my copious free time exploring Ottawa, making photographs, using Skype to talk to the family, and studying Urdu for the next post.  The fact is, however, I’ve got a lot of free time these days.  Even with volunteering for non-consular duties, my work days are pretty much limited to eight hours.  This will certainly change in Lahore, but until March, I’ve got a lot hours during the evening and week-ends with no pressing responsibilities.  I read some, but I also watch TV.

I’ve got just about as many channels to watch in Ottawa as I had back home, including both East Coast and West Coast US network feeds.  I find myself, however, spending most of my TV time catching up on old series that I completely missed when they were first broadcast.  This appears to be a common pastime for foreign service folks living abroad, particularly those living without the plethora of other options.  For me, it’s a way to turn the brain on neutral after the day’s stress (yes, doing visa interviews can be very stressful).  It also provides a welcome distraction from missing the family.

Watching a series has been much more fun than a movie.  I’m particularly drawn to a series if: (a) there’s a running plot, (b) it’s character driven, and (c) I haven’t seen it before.  I’ve also found that it’s actually better if the show ended up being canceled after a couple of seasons.  It’s far better to be left wanting more than to experience the “Jumping the Shark” moment which forever spoils the positive impression (I was 12 years old when the Fonz donned water skis to signal the beginning of the end for “Happy Days,” a TV moment forever responsible for the now ubiquitous phrase).

The key to determining whether the show works is that moment when an episode ends and I find myself doing the math to figure out if I can watch one more and still get enough sleep to be cogent the next morning.  There is also the engrossing factor.  I am a compulsive multi-tasker, particularly living alone for the first time in 25 years.  It is not uncommon to find me with the TV on, the Giants game on (either a small window on the computer, streaming radio, or the GameCast silently updating), editing photographs, surfing the Internet, and playing Words With Friends on the iPad.  A good show precludes most of that activity and requires me to watch (ok, maybe with the iPad on the couch).

Netflix provides a seemingly endless number of these shows.  As a long-time TV addict, there were a number of shows that I followed when they first ran, but if you haven’t seen them, must see candidates in my book include The Wire, The Sopranos, and Friday Night Lights.  That’s over a year’s worth of TV right there.  The following list are those nuggets I’ve found and enjoyed since last October:

Jericho.  Two seasons.  Skeet Ulrich and Gerald McRaney provide strong characters and an unfolding plot that is far from predictable.  Starting with the nuclear detonation of 23 U.S. cities, the show is focused on the fictional town of Jericho, Kansas, one of the few places far enough from the blast radius to still function.  Definitely a show that made me want to watch just one more before ending the day.

Kings.  One season.  I’ll now watch anything with Ian McShane (Deadwood is on the short list for the future).  He’s amazing in this short-lived but well-written one-season wonder.  The production costs must have been too high for the low ratings as each episode looks like a well-done movie.  The premise centers on the internal machinations of a modern-day absolute monarchy, the Kingdom of Gelboa.  Using a long series of clever modern parallels, the unfolding plot is very loosely based on the biblical story of King David.  The central character, David, for example, gains initial notoriety in the opening episode by single-handedly facing down the enemy’s indestructible “Goliath” tank.  When this one ended, I couldn’t believe they didn’t make a second season.

Veronica Mars.  Three Seasons.  Very stylized father/daughter detective show set in the fictional upscale town of Neptune, California.  Each season has a big plot (e.g., who killed Veronica’s best friend or who’s responsible for the bus-load of students flying off a cliff) and many smaller complex cases that resolve each episode.  Once again, the common themes of good writing and solid acting make for an easy-to-watch distraction.  Not sure why we haven’t seen more of Kristin Bell.  Unlike most shows, they make the transition from high school to college without completely losing the show’s focus (as they did in two of my favorite guilty pleasure shows, the original Beverly Hills 90210 and Buffy the Vampire Slayer).  They were smart to pull the plug after Season 3.

Prison Break.  Four Seasons.  Watching the first episode, I was thinking this would not be a keeper.  It really sucks you in, however, to a core story involving two brothers: one on death row and the other a structural engineer.  The engineer spends six months creating an intricate plan to break his innocent brother out, tattoos the encoded plan over his entire upper body, and holds up a bank to get get thrown into the same prison.  It’s not quite Oz, but the mix of sadistic inmates and guards throws wrench after wrench into the well-oiled escape plan.  I’m currently on Season 4 which I’m still watching mostly because of the strength of the characters, but this one might have been better served by shutting down after the third season.

So what’s next after Prison Break?  I haven’t decided yet.  Let me know if you have any suggestions.