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…

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.

American Citizen Services

A few weeks ago, I took on a new portfolio. That’s State-speak for a new set of responsibilities. For the remaining six months of my tour in Ottawa, I am the ACS officer. In some posts, American Citizen Services is a full-time job, dealing with every conceivable issue relevant to Americans living permanently or temporarily abroad. Here, because we have such an unbelievable local staff, the ACS work load can be managed in addition to my regular consular duties.

The portfolio includes passports, births, deaths, arrests, domestic disputes, abducted children, taxes, social security, voting, and scores of other issues. We deal with urgent matters whenever they come up and schedule appointments for more routine issues.

While I’m on the line adjudicating visa cases in the morning, I usually need to step out every half-hour or so to deal with an ACS case. Most of the routine cases involve passport applications and certificates of birth abroad. There are a series of complex rules to determine citizenship and they all come in to play over the course of a month or two. We get newborns, but also parents who want to get a birth certificate and passport for their 17-year-olds. The process often requires a review of stacks of old papers to establish birthdates, marriage dates, military service dates, employment dates, school attendance dates, etc. Sometimes the puzzle gets very complicated.

When Americans find themselves under arrest, it falls on the ACS officer to ensure they are getting fair treatment. I made my first prison visit a couple weeks ago, meeting with three inmates back-to-back. Although this is Canada, prison is still prison. I’ve been to a few in the U.S. visiting pro bono clients. I had the same visceral reaction to hearing the metal doors clang shut behind me after entering. There’s no such thing as easy time. Even in Canada.

Surviving the G8 and Canada Day

Tom McEvoy describes the game of poker as “Hours of boredom followed by moments of sheer terror.” While that description could well apply to any number of activities, it fit quite well for those of us working on the G8 advance team.  There was actually a fair bit going on behind the scenes in and around Huntsville, Ontario, leading up to the G8 meeting.  I had the honor/privilege/burden of wearing several different hats for the Embassy’s support team:  site officer, thank you officer, gifts officer, and control officer for two Under Secretaries.

It was a kick to spend a couple of weeks in new surroundings.  For two weeks, we lived out of rustic cabins just down the road from Algonquin Park, 7500 square kilometers of amazing hiking and canoeing, about 4 hours west of Ottawa and 3 hours north of Toronto.  We shared the environment with chipmunks, fish, ducks, lots of bugs, moose, and a bear.  During my daily commute from our cabin to the control room, I came perilously close to hitting a deer.  Twice.

Without going into any detail, however, supporting a POTUS visit was a great assignment.  The Embassy Ottawa team is a very experienced crew so I learned a lot from people who had been through the drill dozens of times around the world.  Some days were pretty quiet, interacting with the White House advance teams and getting things set up.  Other days had more than their share of sheer terror moments, juggling resources and making sure everything was covered.

In the end, everything went off as planned.  The President arrived.  The meetings took place.  Many bilateral meetings took place.  The President left.  My Under Secretaries arrived, met their counterparts, received seamless support, and left.

Upon return to Ottawa, we (E and G are joining me for the summer) had the pleasure of seeing our first Canada Day up close.  July 1st was the 143rd anniversary of Canadian Confederation.  Nationalism here seems to be at an all-time high after the Vancouver Olympics.  In addition, Queen Elizaveth and Prince Philip were in town.  There were free concerts and activities set up all over town and hundreds of thousands descended on downtown Ottawa.  Where else can you find a free double-bill of Bare Naked Ladies and the Queen?

After dark, we headed over to the Embassy and staked out a great spot on the roof to catch the fireworks.  Promptly at 10:00pm, they started.  We were so close, we could feel the explosions and feel the ash falling from the sky.  I took advantage of the great spot by trying my hand at some fireworks photography.  Here are a few:

For those who can’t get enough of fireworks pics, you can find the full set here:  Happy Birthday, Canada!

Special Relationship on Hold for Two Hours

On March 5, 1946, during his Sinews of Peace address, Winston Churchill referred to the special relationship between the British Commonwealth and the United States. Through triumph and challenge, the relationship has continued to be close ever since, underscored by diplomatic and military cooperation. Today, replaying a hiccup in 1950, we took a time out.

That was the last time the United States and England played each other in a World Cup finals match. As the dominant favorite (or as they’d say, favourite), our British counterparts graciously invited the U.S. diplomatic corps in Ottawa to raise a few pints and watch the match at the High Commission. Shared language and geopolitical goals, for 90 minutes, gave way to revisiting a 60-year-old bitter rivalry. At least, it was bitter from their point of view.

The United States and England have played in World Cup group play only once before. In what has since been dubbed the Miracle on Grass, a plucky group of American amateurs upset the dominant team in the world, 1-0, after having lost its prior 7 international matches by a combined score of 45-2. So sure were the English newspapers that the wire report contained a typo, they published the score as a 10-1 England victory. Apparently, nobody in the United States knows about it because it happened over 20 years ago and because Disney never made a movie about it. Most everyone in England, however, remembers it like it was yesterday.

Once again, the United States found itself as a dominant underdog to a powerhouse English team. After exchanging pleasantries, thanking our hosts, and finishing my first pint of Speckled Hen, the match began. From the start, England dictated the pace and it seemed as if we were always on defense. After four minutes, the Three Lions’ captain, Steven Girrard, found the back of the net and our hosts went wild. The American section fell silent, imagining a long afternoon of polite smiles and embarrassed congratulations.

Although the Englishmen continued to attack, American goalkeeper Tim Howard made a series of miraculous saves. In the 40th minute, what looked to be an easy save slipped past Robert Green’s grasp and trickled into the English goal. It wasn’t pretty, but it gave the Americans an excuse to stand up and cheer. Our hosts couldn’t believe it.

The rest of the match, although a tense exercise of repelling repeated English attacks, reminded us why soccer will never become as popular in America. Lots of tension, but no scoring. It ended in a tie.

Although we could hold our heads high and claim the moral victory with a draw, it still felt unsatisfying. Just like the players in South Africa, we all shook hands and headed for the exit. At least the special relationship remains intact.

From the Other Side of the Glass

I am the first to admit that I’ve had a privileged existence.  As a teen-ager in the late 70s and early 80s, my first jobs always involved a keyboard in a cubicle or an office.  I learned to type in a junior high school classroom filled with manual typewriters, a skill that ultimately spared me from the fast-food and other typical service-oriented, part-time jobs available to teens of my era.  I’ve never had a name tag, a paper hat, or a uniform.

I became fascinated with the emerging personal computer industry, learned programming as a precocious 13-year-old, and found a series of relatively well-paying temporary jobs.  When programming jobs were unavailable, there were always clerical opportunities for people who could type  100 words per minute and use Lotus 1-2-3 and Word Pro on a PC, or a dedicated Wang word processor.  These days, first graders can text faster than I type but, back in the day, it was unique skill.

Thus, now in my mid-40s, I find myself for the first time at a window serving the public one at a time.  A few weeks ago, as I waited for my number to be called at the Ottawa City Hall to register my car and to obtain my Ontario driver’s license, I found myself watching the clerks behind the window.  Although I’ve certainly been in similar situations many times before, it was the first time since I started working the other side of the glass.

The crew processing motor vehicle issues appeared to be under-staffed, with a large waiting room of anxious clients.  Whether typical or not, I waited for the better part of an hour for my number to appear on the overhead monitors.  It was a great opportunity to watch and learn.

All three clerks spoke French and English interchangeably.  They dealt efficiently with a wide spectrum of clients:  nervous young adults sitting for their driver’s tests with even more nervous onlooking parents, angry people who waited a long time in the wrong office, and confused elderly patrons who did not understand the particular process they were in line to complete.  Through all the chaos, the clerks remained composed, patient, and helpful.  Most importantly, they each kept their sense of humor and smiled.

I’ve tried to embody these traits in my daily work from the other side of the window.  My clients have been in the Embassy — submitting forms, paying fees, and giving fingerprints — for an hour or more before I see them.  They are typically nervous about being judged during the interview.  Sometimes my brand of humor, sprinkled heavily with sarcasm, doesn’t always translate, particularly for the very nervous applicant.  For those clients, I have to work a little harder to reach beyond the memorized speech describing their work history and why they want to visit the United States.

My goal, which I think I achieve in most cases, is to ensure that the client feels they received a fair hearing.  The vast majority of my applicants will laugh, or at least give me a polite smile.  For those that receive a refusal, I try to spend a little time explaining the basis for the decision.  In many cases, I try to describe what they could do to improve their chances the next time.  I can be blunt, but that’s reserved for the relatively rare case in which the applicant has several prior refusals, when they are clearly lying in an obvious manner, or when they appear completely unprepared despite numerous instructions to bring key documents.

After the interview, I have little patience for those who continue to argue after I’ve rendered a decision and returned the passport.  This is as much for my own sanity as for the other applicants that deserve to reach the window.  I’ve quickly developed a good sense for discerning those that believe they can succeed by not taking no for an answer from those that have legitimate questions.  For some cultures, a civil servant’s no is simply the first volley in a protracted negotiation.  Without yelling, I definitely raise the volume a bit, cut them off quickly, and make my decision’s finality abundantly clear.  The applicant then typically makes an extremely slow effort to gather  papers, apparently hoping that the longer they remain in front of me, the more likely I will change my mind.

After a sip of tea from my thermos to wipe the slate clean, I greet the next applicant with a smile.  “Welcome the United States Embassy.”