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.

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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

http://alturl.com/tdy6g.

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.

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.