Tuesday, December 20, 2011

My Onward (and Upward) Assignment

Mrs. Valdysses and I will be headed to beautiful Beijing, China in 2012!

Between now and then is training, training, training....

Any Chinese-learning tips are appreciated.  I feel I've gotten over the hurdle of learning a foreign language, now to get over the hurdle of learning this foreign language.  Should be nothing, right?

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Our Constituency

Much is made of the State Department's budget situation, especially in the current climate. Efforts at reducing waste, using funds efficiently and maximizing utility of what we have are everywhere, and for good reason -- no one can afford to be wasteful, especially when one is spending tax dollars. The State Department, like many other Federal agencies, is asking for more, expecting less, and planning on how to make the most of what we have. But it was not always like this...

 Congress authorizes our budget, and congress is not always seen as being very supportive of what we do. I think, from my limited experience, that congressional favor is a red herring. Congresspeople know full well the benefits of diplomacy, but diplomacy is often a hard sell. Our "constituency", as it were, does not exist. or at least that's what people keep telling me. I just don't buy it.

 The military has a network, and a constituency. Most everyone knows a few soldiers, and defense dollars bring jobs to every corner of the nation. Anyone with children knows their teachers, and anyone who's politically active has a chance to meet their representatives. These people stay in touch with their constituency on a daily basis. On the other hand, diplomats work overseas, and when they're back home they tend to live within 15 or so miles of D.C. Unless you live in D.C., or know someone from before they joined the foreign service, you're unlikely to feel much kinship. It doesn't help matters that we are stereotyped as effete, stripey-pantsed, high maintenance liberals.

 Here's the thing, though: your representative, excellent as she is, might care more about your jerk neighbor's interests than yours, if your jerk neighbor ccontributed more to her campaign. Your child's teachers at school are excellent, without a doubt, but they occasionally make their own decisions about what should and should not be taught to your children. Your military does very difficult work in very hostile places, but has little to no influence on the places you might actually want to go on vacation.

Your diplomats, faceless and high maintenance as we invariably are, work for you.

 If you wake up without a passport in an Italian jail, we will come help you. If your business needs parts made overseas, we can make that possible. If your cousin wants to move to the U.S., we can make that happen. We do these things because the laws you and your fellow citizens approved compel us to. We don't interpret those laws individually, and we aren't swayed by political moods or by personal politics. We do not make policy, we promote the will, the wishes, and the interests of your country throughout the world.

 So, the next time you have occasion to picture a diplomat, don't think of a privileged, rich man drinking cocktails at a gala in Europe, think of a former fighter pilot riding in a jeep to visit a scared American citizen in a sub Saharan jail. Think of a group of talented people working through the night to design a system whereby you can text money to red cross efforts in Haiti. Think of lawyers, nurses, soldiers, scholars and activists giving up their lives and careers in the U.S. to serve your interests in every corner of the globe. I can't agree with the idea that we don't have a constituency. The moment any part of your life has to do with someone or something outside of U.S. borders, you become our constituent. We will happily keep serving your interests, and the interests of our country, even if you never know us.

 So thank you, taxpayers, for making this great enterprise possible. I hope you know that you're getting your money's worth.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

The Great Seal of the United States

A-100 is underway, and with it a deluge of charming, useful, and baffling information.  There are acronym lists to ingest, letter-writing templates to digest, protocols to observe, and emails to draft.  Amidst all that, there are really delightful history lessons to be had.  Since this is public knowledge, and indeed knowledge created for and by the public, I thought I might share with you all a bit I found particularly interesting.

The Department of State was once known as the Department of Foreign Affairs.  America being America, it was decided early on that Foreign Affairs alone were not enough to sustain a department.  At one time in the nation's history, the Department of State was responsible for not only representing American interests abroad, but also for administering the census, printing money (oh my goodness if only) and keeping the Great Seal of the United States.

Today, many of those duties have been tasked to other departments, as it has come to pass that managing Foreign Affairs is a full time job.  DoS has retained one of its former civil duties, however, and it's delightful: we keep the Great Seal.

The Great Seal of the United States is highly symbolic, and while it does follow traditional rules of heraldic design (known as rules of tincture) it contains a number of unique elements.  The Eagle is a heraldic symbol of virtue, but the Bald Eagle is used only on this seal, and until such time as we saw fit to use it, was not considered a heraldic symbol.  The stars (or mulletts) on the crest above the Eagle's head are 5 pointed today, though they were originally 6-pointed.  Their order also describes a 6 pointed star.  The olive branch and arrows signify exactly what you might imagine.

The seal is, however, not simply a design.  It is a physical thing, and every year it is physically used to affix the one Great Seal of the United States to between 2000 and 3000 of these documents.  The Seal Press is the implement that makes these impressions with the Seal.  It resides in a locked glass cabinet, and remains locked even while being used.

Being that it is a physical object ( The Seal press and the Seal itself), it had to have been made by someone.  Before the country had a department of engraving, that job fell to whosoever won the contract.  Tiffany & Co, Baily Banks & Biddle were but two of the firms tasked with the manufacture of the Seal itself, a task which resulted in a slightly different version every time it was recast.  Seals of the past have differed in proportion, olive branch design, star points (as mentioned above), talon length, and nearly everything else.  Every change was hotly contested in Congress, but it is the result of those changes that we have the symbol we recognize today.

It is the symbol of all official communications from the president, it is the symbol of centuries of International Treaties, it is the symbol of the will of this Nation, expressed throughout the world, and in 5 weeks it will be the symbol emblazoned upon my confirmation.

A diplomat is something to be.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Pack(ed) Out


As of 4:30 PM yesterday, all of my possessions aside from those that fit in my car were loaded in a truck in the freezing cold, and I had a passel of carbon copied paper to show for it.  I am remarkably untroubled by this fact, which just goes to show you that I'm ready to be a bureaucrat.

In the meantime, I have a car full of stuff, a touchy little dog, and a very excited wife to cart around the country for a week before post starts.

If I could go back in time a week and do it all over again, I would.  While that's usually a sign that I've done something improperly, in this case it simply means that I learned a lot about how one packs in order to not have to pack.  (Incidentally, I am thankful every day that I don't have to go back in time and take the OA again, and doubly thankful I don't have to go back to Turkish immersion school.  Those were brutal.)

Things to change (and advice for future pack-out participants):

1) Start living out of a suitcase a day or two before, if possible.  I found dishes in the dishwasher and shoes under the bed after my bedroom and kitchen were already packed -- a problem I could have avoided by not using my dishes the day before and only wearing shoes I had packed in a suitcase. 

2) Group items by either room OR function -- not both.  This got confusing, as Mrs. Valdysses prefers one method over the other, and I feel differently.  In the end it wasn't a huge issue, but it might have saved some headache.

3) Don't forget how many clothes you have.  Because it is a lot.  I have clothes in the car, in the UAB, and in the HHE, and I have maybe 40% the clothes my beautiful wife does.  Clothes are unique to you in a way that appliances are not, so you're invariably going to bring them.

4) Prioritize by possibility, not productivity.  If I don't bring my computer, I can't operate.  If I don't bring a Kitchenaid, I have to knead dough by hand.  The absence of one makes a task impossible, the absence of the other simply makes it inefficient.  I'll take possible every time.

5) Bring your Kitchenaid.  Forget all that stuff I just wrote, with a kitchenaid you can make pretzels, and everyone loves pretzels.  Someday soon these wonderful people I will join in the 164th A-100 will decide whether they want to serve in some tropical paradise with me or with some other guy from A-100.  How do you not choose the guy who makes pretzels from scratch?!

Monday, October 24, 2011

Pack Out

So oh my gosh, the time is nigh.

Packout is this Wednesday, and as much as I've read I still feel underprepared.  Maybe that owes to my spending my time reading blogs instead of actually packing.

I've taken the initiative and listed tons of stuff on ebay and Amazon, which was great because it allowed me to sit and read while my wife worked hard packing.  I even built a nifty little picture-taking soft box, which ostensibly allowed me to get top dollar for the odds and ends I don't want to haul across an ocean, but also allowed me to (gasp!) read about how to build one on the internet then run to Hobby Lobby to pick stuff up while (gasp!) my wife continued packing.

That's not to say that I do nothing, however.  I've booked pre-departure hotels, sorted out a route to D.C, filled out a truly prodigious amount of paperwork, and made a mess of the kitchen.

Correct, that is a kitchen counter covered with computer parts, photography gear, Rosetta Stone discs and burnable CDs.  Yes, also, all of it is mine.  Yes, everything else looks pretty good.  That is because my wife cleaned it.

Honestly, I have no idea how you single FSOs do it.  Wives are the best.

Even with all the work done to get to this point, there's plenty more to be done before the Packers/Movers come on Wednesday (in two days omg).  Everything is here in one place, and much of it is sorted into HHE or UAB piles (and a small pile that will travel in the car with us to D.C., but I'm convinced that like items should be grouped with like items, in the interest of keeping an accurate inventory.  As it stands, things are pretty well strewn.  Should I sort them by room?  By type?  (i.e. electronics, cutlery, things for my tiny dog...)?  I'm a little in the dark here.  A full inventory seems unfathomable, and yet that is exactly what most folks evidently have.  Baffling.  

Meanwhile, this is my sorting system: 

Yep.  "Put things on chairs (that also need to be moved)".  it is, in a word, inspired.  Since all my chairs are covered in furry hats and spatulas, however, I am typing this post perched atop an ottoman (procrastinating cleaning the kitchen).  This very Ottoman, in fact.

So, if any of you vets have advice, I'm up for it.  I'd love to keep this all together like a pro, but for the moment it's about all I can do to file my receipts, write some blog posts, and say goodbye to everyone for the time being.  Well, everyone except for this tiny dog, who your tax dollars have allowed me to bring around the world.

Also on the list?  Pick up suits from the tailor, get some proper grown up sunglasses, sell a car (omg) and cut my hair.

Cutting my hair will be the worst of all, I suspect, as I've grown rather fond of hair that might be unbecoming of a diplomat.  But, in the interest of commemorating my delightful youth on the eve of adulthood (and to encourage me to be a little less anonymous) I give you:  The various Hairstyles of Valdysses.

And, finally, Present Day:

So here's looking at you, readers.  Thanks for sticking it out with me, and keep those packout tips coming!

Saturday, October 8, 2011

The Three "P"s of A-100 Readiness. Pack Out, Patience, and Parties.

So this weekend I have blocked out some time to inventory my belongings by room, decide whether I'll want them in Oakwood, and ready them for their eventual final destination. This process is made more difficult by the fact that I've no idea where I will be going, and only a sliver of an idea as to get there. I have however been told that cataloguing my things and sorting them by room is a gainful way to spend my time until I know more, so I oblige.

Speaking of knowing more, we've come to the second P -- Patience. I have elsewhere opined that joining the FS, being itself a 2 year affair, is not unlike your first assignment. Instead of diplomacy, however, I practiced answering certain questions in new and unique ways, filling out forms to the best of my ability, and waiting patiently for information that may or may not arrive. That's useful practice, that.

I'm convinced that, between there are two poles of personal investment where waiting is concerned. At one end, blithely waiting for vital information like salary information, pack out details, wardrobe, and travel arrangements can make you seem patient and sagacious, but it can also leave you unprepared to act when the moment you've been waiting for arrives too late. Conversely, aggressively wheedling information out of registrars, travel officials, et al can prepare you at the risk of wearing out your welcome before it has even arrived. The politics start now, then, and the battleground is this box of CD cases and "Masters of the Universe" action figures.

As to the third P, it is both bitter and sweet. We are fast approaching the point at which everything is the "last" of its ilk. Today was the last "first snow" I'll see in Colorado for awhile, and I enjoyed it. We are fast approaching the last day I can have a mohawk, the last time I can grab two slices from Joey's NY pizza over lunch, and the last time I walk into work at Apple. Other lasts? Well, the last time I read the A-100 board with any sense of trepidation has long passed, and that's something I did every day for a while there. I'm no doubt coming up on the last day I could wear jeans to work as well, which feels kind of like growing up and kind of like terrible. Ah bother, I am prone to nostalgia to a fault, so I'll not dwell on lasts but rather on firsts.

See, the first and last picture of the last first snow I've posted is right here!

Sunday, September 25, 2011

How Did I get Here, Again? (or: Every Last Little Bit You Wanted To Know But Never Found Twenty Minutes To Sit Down And Read All At Once.)

***Fair Warning, this post is long, detailed, and likely tedious for those not interested or involved in this story. It’s around 2000 words, or 6-7 pages of text. It is intended to explain my entire Foreign Service Journey, from application for the written test to the first day of A-100. I write it because this is what I know well, and because I read every one of these I could find while applying***


In 2007, my wife and I lived in Ankara, Turkey and taught English at a University there. We enjoyed living abroad, and liked the excitement and challenges it brought us, but we didn’t love the job. While there, we met a U.S. Diplomat and his partner who had recently moved to Ankara from a post in Malta. Over dinner we discussed life in the Foreign Service and what sort of experience, temperament and goals an ideal Foreign Service Officer would exhibit. I decided right there that this was the job for me, and the more I’ve learned about the U.S. Diplomatic Corps the more my suspicions have been confirmed.

The Foreign Service is a branch of the U.S. State Department tasked with exercising American interests abroad. An Ambassador is a Diplomat who serves with the Foreign Service, but there are many important jobs outside of the Ambassador. A new Foreign Service Officer (FSO) is asked, before they even begin the long application process, to choose which of 5 areas they wish to specialize in: Management, Politics, Public Diplomacy, Economics, or Consular. I chose Public Diplomacy (PD) because it focuses largely on the positive influence of American culture abroad, and I am a true believer in the importance of “Soft Power” in foreign relations. I wrote my Masters Thesis on the subject, and I would love to spend my career exploring its implications in theory and in practice. Plus, PD officers get paid to go to jazz festivals in Kathmandu and gallery openings in Dubai. Sign me up.

The first step of the process is the register for the written test, or FSWE. I registered for the test on September 6th, 2009. I was 25 years old, I lived in a rickety apartment in a rickety town, and I honestly had no idea what lay in store for me. 2 years later I’m still wrestling with the implications of that decision, though I can happily say I’m at the end of this long road.

The Written Test

In October of 2009 I took the written test along with 5 other folks in complete silence at a testing center adjacent to an airplane hangar in Denver, CO. Every year, over 30,000 people around the world take the FSWE, and fewer than 2% of them secure a position with the Foreign Service. It’s more selective than any University I know, though less selective than American Idol. Take that for what you will.

The written test consists of four parts whose specifics are governed by an NDA: English Expression, Biographical Information, Job Knowledge, and a timed essay. The Job Knowledge section of the test has become somewhat famous, but I feel most folks on this board would have little trouble with it. Some American history, some political theory, some economics, and a smattering of truly random knowledge to ensure folks don’t just study from a guide and sneak by. I felt good about the test, and rightfully so. Three weeks after completing it, I received an email informing me that I had passed.

Passing the FSWE moved you to the next step, wherein you submit to the Quality Evaluation Panel (QEP) written answers of 750 words or less to five biographical questions they provide. This is a famously cloudy process, and the guidelines for what constitute an acceptable answer are viciously unclear. Thankfully, questions and answers aren’t governed by an NDA, and I had a chance to read many passing answers I found online to help guide me. Those resources clearly helped, as two months after I submitted my answers I got word that they had been accepted, and I was shuffled along to the next step. Of the 10 people I studied with in the Denver area, I was the only passer. It surprised no one more than me, as I had little more than enthusiasm and excitement to recommend me.

The Oral Assessment

The third and final examination in the process is called the Oral Assessment, or OA. While the written test is held at centers all over the world, and the QEP is submitted online, the Oral Assessment (OA) is held only in the State Department annex in Washington D.C., and candidates are expected to arrange for their own travel and accommodations. My wife an I booked tickets, got an incredibly nice room at the Mandarin Oriental (to calm my nerves), ironed my best suit and got ready for the last and hardest step. I got maybe three hours of sleep the night before, but I was so wired on caffeine, adrenaline and presciption amphetamines the day of that I could barely feel my own fingers, let alone feel tired. I had spent hours a day for months preparing for the OA -- reading management books, writing practice memos, studying with an international group of test-takers on Skype -- and I had 8 hours to prove I was worth it.

The test has three sections: Case Management, Group Exercise, and Structured Interview. Since I present and speak well, I did well on the group exercise and the structured interview. Unfortunately, I did not pass the case management section, largely due to my lack of managerial experience. Fortunately, my score was still high enough that I, along with 4 other people from the 20 or so who took the test that day, passed the test. I was pleased that two of my fellow passers were individuals I had studied with on Skype, confirming that my decision to kill myself preparing was a good one.

The test is scored out of 7 points, with a 5.3 being the minimum passing score. No one to my knowledge has ever scored a 7.0, and even a 6.0 is exceedingly rare. I eked by with a 5.3, shook some hands, and thrummed like a plucked string all evening.

After passing the test, a candidate undergoes additional review to ensure that their background, character and constitution are in line with the requirements of the foreign service. A medical review ensures that you’re healthy enough to serve anywhere in the world, including places with limited access to refrigeration and power, a security review ensures that you’re suitable for the required Top Secret clearance, and a “Final Suitability” review makes sure that nothing was missed during the 6 month process of testing. One candidate famously sailed through all sections, only to be stymied and eventually declined by the suitability review panel for large gambling debts. He cleared up the problem, tried again the next year, and did not pass. I, however, did pass. On June 24th, 2010, I joined 145 other names on “The Register”. I was #146.

The Register

Here’s the interesting part of this whole story: From September 2009 to June 2010, all of the above transpired. I went from no one of interest, to someone who was cleared and proved eligible for a job with the U.S. Foreign Service. The problem was, I would never actually get the job with my score.

The FS, being a division of the U.S. Department of State, is bound by a Federal Budget. We have not passed a Federal Budget in 2 years, so hiring is severely constrained. Of those 30,000+ who took the test, State only has resources to train maybe 600 a year. Those 600 will be drawn equally from all 5 cones (Diplomacy, Political, etc.) so every cone sees about 120 applicants a year who get a job. That’s 10 applicants per month. State tests candidates 5 days a week, and even though the test is famously difficult, more than 10 like minded people a month pass. Ergo, the register sorts the wheat from the chaff.

For months, I watched my 5.3 wallow at the bottom of the list. New testers with a 5.3 were placed below me, but new testers with a 5.4 or above leapfrogged me, since the list is ordered by both score and date added. The list grew and grew, from 140 to 160 to 200 to 250. Every class they called the top 20 or so off the list, and between classes the list would grow by 30 or 40 names. I started at #145, and six months later I’d actually moved down about 20 spots.

No one since 2003 has gotten a job offer with my score that I could find, which was a depressing thought. Even more depressing is the thought that, in order to keep the registers from stretching into the thousands, State has capped the amount of time you can wait for an offer at 18 months. That means that, no matter your score, after 18 months of waiting for an offer and not receiving one you are removed from the list and asked to start over from the very beginning. That’s two years of work, gone in the ticking of a box. Thankfully, there are ways to avoid that fate.

The Language Points

Extra points are awarded to military veterans, depending on the length of their service, and to speakers of certain languages. Veterans preference was out of the picture for me, and my Spanish was at a roughly “Taco Bell” level of fluency, but hey! Look at all the points the give you for Turkish!

To the State Department, languages come in three flavors: World, Critical Need, and Super Critical Need. World languages like French, Spanish, Japanese and Swahili earn a candidate .17 extra points, and are either commonly spoken by Americans, commonly learned alongside English by natives, or useful for communicating with only a small group of people. Critical Need languages like Russian, Turkish, Urdu, Hindi and Persian/Dari are worth .4, and are generally more difficult, more obscure, and critical for communication with a larger group. Currently only Mandarin and Modern Standard Arabic qualify as “Super Critical”, though they award a hefty bonus of .5.

In March of 2011, after 6 months of self-guided study, Skype tutoring lessons, and every available Rosetta Stone course, I tested in Turkish. I failed. No reason was given as to why, I was simply informed that I had not made the cutoff. This was a surprise to me, as I had worked very hard, and lived in Turkey for a whole year. I wasn’t advanced, but I truly felt I spoke well enough to satisfy State’s requirements. Well tough shit, they disagreed, and they won.

With my expiration date 9 months away, and my next available language testing date 6 months away, I enrolled in a Turkish immersion course in Madison, WI and plowed ahead. Well, that’s kind of a lie. First I got a little choked up, I bargained with God, I drank a little too much and I rather made a fool of myself storming around like a spoiled child forced to sit through someone else's birthday party. That lasted for three or four days, then I pulled myself together and did the stuff I just said.

More Skype lessons, more study, and two unpleasant months in the Wisconsin swamps speaking to only 6 other souls all day later, I registered to take the test again. This time, I passed. My meager 5.3 became a mighty 5.7, and I snagged spot #12 of #184 on he Public Diplomacy register. So long as the government pulled itself together between now and Christmas I'd be a made man. Nothing much happens in Washington in November, right? What's that, everyone hates each other and won't show up to work until after November? Hell.

The Call

Lack of a firm Federal Budget has rather put hiring into a tailspin, and State has finite training resources as is. I needed to get an offer before Christmas Eve, or I would be the sucker who landed on the wrong "chutes and ladders" square -- the one near the end that takes you all the way back to the beginning. Since offers are made two months out, that meant I needed a November class (which everyone agreed was cancelled), a January class (which was 4 months away, enough time for other candidates to get ahead of me), or a February class (which I don't think exists). Imagine my surprise, then, when I got an offer to join the November 7th Foreign Service Junior Officer Class. I felt as happy as puppies look.

I sent emails to study partners, called relatives, lost all interest in my new apartment, and wrote this increasingly self absorbed missive. Then I linked the hell out of it to drive some traffic to my now-relevant blog, and hopefully give folks a handy way of keeping up with what will no doubt be fun developments. And here you are.

The Prestige

The journey here has taught me a lot about myself. It’s been the most challenging experience of my life, and it’s forced me to work harder than I imagined possible and wait longer than I imagined reasonable. I got a Masters Degree, learned a foreign language, made friends all over the world, and proved I had at least two years worth of patience in me. I don't honestly know what challenges and hardships the job will hold for my wife and I, but the journey has been illustrative.

The coming weeks and months will thrust me into a world I only understand academically. Formal business attire in 100 degree heat, parties populated by people who know more than me about everything, countries where nodding your head means no, posts where cereal is only available in warm months and then it's twenty bucks a box ... the list goes on. I hope only that I can approach it with fresh eyes, an open mind, sound judgment, and a sense of aplomb.

The world holds many wonderful things, and this is how I intend to see them and share them with you. If you keep reading, I'll keep writing. I just won't write another one of these.

Friday, September 23, 2011

A New Chapter

There are a number of days in my life that I remember so well that I know the date.  I was married on May 20th, and ten days later on the 30th my wife and I celebrated her birthday.  Every year in early April I celebrate the day I was born, and in late April I remember (but do not celebrate, mind you, background investigator) a counterculture holiday my alma mater, the University of Colorado, is particularly fond of.  

I also remember March 29th, 2010, the day I passed the Foreign Service Oral Exams.  I remember it well enough to not even have to look it up, which I can't always say about the dates above.  This year, I would have celebrated December 24th with my family, not only as the eve of Christmas, but as the end of a long and difficult dream.  You see, I would have expired off the register on December 24th.  

I would have, that is, if September 23rd weren't the day I got an invitation to the Nov. 7th A-100 class.

More excitement to follow, friends, but the TL:DR is this:

I got the call. 

Monday, September 19, 2011

Keeping Spirits High (or how to maintain morale in and out of post)

If my individual case is typical, and according to unofficial statistics it is, the time between taking the FSOT and actually getting to A-100 is about two years. Two years is also the typical length of an overseas posting (unless you're a rockstar in a hardship post.) I'm not intimating that applying for the FS is really akin to being in the FS, but I imagine the two year carousel of document filing, anxious preparation, and endless waiting can only be considered "excellent practice".

There are, of course, differences. My buddy Jerrod in Abuja would likely give almost anything to go out and grab a few slices of NYC pizza for lunch, as I did today. Lots of fine folks in the FS suffer through spotty internet access, vegetables that need to be bleached before consumption, rampant pollution, serious security concerns, and bloggy tigers.

Those same folks also have enhanced access to travel, intellectual stimulation, an excellent international community of friends and coworkers, and the pride and honor that comes with serving the interests of one's country. Much as I like pizza and internet (and I like those things a LOT), what I'm really excited about are the real things. Even close to the finish line, as I imagine myself to be now, I find myself struggling to maintain my enthusiasm and excitement for the dream job.

So, with that in mind, a big shout out to Beau Geste, Mon Ami is in order. The man is truly unflappable, and seems to find earnest joy and incomparable humor in everything he does. Blogs like his keep me fresh and excited, and I can't get enough of them.

So I ask you, dear readers: who do you read when you need a little "pick-me-up"? Whose stories excite your sense of wonder?

Thanks as always-

Thursday, September 8, 2011

And now a flurry of questions

So now I have all sorts of questions. After contacting everyone, letting folks know the good news, and drinking to excess at my local "Old Chicagos", the question lingers... When do I go?

FSOWannabe kindly suggested that I may well be eligible for the next class, but there's really not much info as to when that class might be. Ms. Walton is predictably tight-lipped, but so far as I can tell there might not be a November class. Hopefully there's a January or February, because I expire off the register this Christmas Eve. To expire with a 5.7 after two years of work would really seem unjust, but it's not impossible.

So what do you think, blogosphere? Is there a shot of no classes until March? Should I go ahead and unpack some of these boxes?

- Valdysses

Location:My bedroom, restlessly thinking.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

You know what this is?

That's Lokum.  It's the first thing Turks made with refined sugar.  More commonly, it's called 

Turkish Delight

That's right, friends, after a long, patient wait with me all the work finally paid off.  I've passed my Turkish test, accepted my points, and currently sit at roughly 14 of 181 on the PD register with a 5.7

So here's an updated timeline for all you loyal readers and good friends.  Jerrod and Joe, make sure Abuja doesn't fill up too soon.  I hear there's a vacancy opening up...

Friday, September 2, 2011

Here we go again!

So friends, here we are again.  Two months in Turkish immersion, countless hours of private instruction, and a little (prescribed) amphetamines later, I've taken my last shot at the FSI Turkish test this morning.  It's a little nerve-wracking, to say the least, but if I pass I have three months on the register to get a call with a 5.7.  Hopefully they're still holding classes out in Foggy Bottom (or crystal city, or L'Enfant Plaza, or wherever A-100 is actually held).

I feel more optimistic this time around, even though we didn't get to all the (possible) parts of the test and it was still only 15 minutes or so.  I didn't run into a question I couldn't answer, I led the discussion, and I already tested at an Intermediate Mid level three weeks ago.  More importantly, I want this job more than anything in the world, and I think I would be fantastic at it.  I've spent two years (this month) working on this application, and I'll spend two more if that's what it takes.  I'd just vaingloriously prefer to get in before I'm 30.  There's always the Genius Bar if it doesn't pan out, though, right?

Here goes nothing, friends.  See you on the other side!

Sunday, July 31, 2011

A Niche Market

So, first off, apologies.  This blog has quickly stopped being relevant to the FS as a whole, and has instead become largely relevant to the very niche population of FS candidates learning Turkish in the hopes of turning your "passing" OA score into a real passing score.  In short, you're doing the same thing I'm doing.  More specifically, you're probably looking into Immersion Programs in Turkey vs. Immersion Programs in the U.S.  

Odds are, you're going to land on Turkey, and here's why:  There's only 1 immersion program in the U.S. I'm in it right now, and I don't know you.  (Unless I do, and if so Hi!)

Seriously, though, there are 4 people currently studying Turkish immersion in the United States. 4.  The University of Chicago has more grad students working on revising their Hittite to English dictionary than the U.S. has people immersing themselves in Turkish.

There are probably a number of reasons for this.  Turkey's a nice place to spend a summer, and Immersion programs in Turkey are plentiful.  Flights aren't exactly cheap, but the opportunity cost of spending a few months away from your own language is significant enough that most candidates for Immersion programs aren't terrifically daunted by prices.  I was, but I'm also starting to get a little desperate.

If you are considering an immersion course, know this:  everything these days subscribes to the "communicative" language approach, which roughly translates to "learning to swim by dying if you drown".  

The communicative approach begins with the observation that language learners tend to acquire language much quicker when they are forced to conduct all interpersonal communications in that language.  This is the same reason that the military trains soldiers by shooting at them the moment they sign their paperwork, and the US Olympic Training Center only feeds athletes who improve day to day.  Oh, that doesn't happen at all? That is because it is insane.

It is pretty easy to convey the word for, say, "tree" in a foreign language.  Say the word, then draw a picture of a tree or point to one, then say the word again.  See, it's like magic.  Now consider how you, as a communicative language teacher, might teach the word "idea".  Would you teach it by pointing at a chair and then pointing at your own head?  Would you cock your head slightly, as if you were thinking about a chair?  You probably would, because both of my teachers did exactly that for a combined total of 20 minutes.  They then abandoned the notion, having resigned themselves that none of us were even capable of knowing what an idea was.  

That's what you might call a "best case situation", as it turns out, because as a teacher you quickly tire of spending 20 minutes trying to explain things this way.  Instead of really putting your heart and soul into the "thinking about a chair" reenactment, you instead just describe whatever you're teaching in even more florid language.  I imagine an FAQ in a communicative language teaching manual:

Q) My students don't understand the word "whole".  How can I convey it to them quickly?  
A) A "whole" is essentially the summation of a series of small parts which, when added together, form the entirety of a given thing or concept.  Your students will basically be able to infer the words "essentially, summation, series, part, add, together, entirety, given", and "concept" from context.

Q) My students aren't fluent enough to understand me.  How do I tailor my speaking to their level?
A) They probably can't hear you, or they're bored.  Try shouting at them very quickly.


I'm learning, and probably quickly, but it's at the expense of my sanity at the moment.  Here's hoping it all turns out to be worth it.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Catching Up

Well I can't have you all thinking I dropped off the face of the Earth, or anything, so I'm back to share with you all some fun.

When we last spoke, I was unsuccessful in my efforts to gain .4 bonus points for Turkish.  I'll be honest, there were a few dark days after that.  Between narrowly passing the OA, budget crises in Washington, shrinking OA class sizes, compatriots getting "the call" and the realization that I expire off the register on Christmas Eve of all days, I came to feel a little defeated.  And while I think it's fair to feel defeated after a defeat, I reminded myself that I took the test when I did because I had time enough to take it again, so that's exactly what I will do.

I've enrolled in a summer Turkish immersion class, which will hopefully be sufficient instruction to push me over the edge.  I've also reached out to some previous Turkish-passers and gathered good resources from them.  All-in-all, the plan is to keep up to date, keep working on language, and have a good 4 months of 5.7 with seniority on the PD registers and just pray for the best.

That prayer may well be necessary throughout, too -- I just found this helpful guide to Turkish (click to open full size in a new tab):

Wednesday, March 2, 2011


The goddess Frigg, curser of unfavorable language test results

Well, in a fit of impatience I called tamale Walton today and found out that, unfortunately, I did not pass my Turkish language exam.  I get to try again in 6 months, which is precisely what I will do.

When I started this whole thing, I was convinced that, with enough time and enough attention to detail, I could teach myself Turkish in the relative comfort and thrift of my own home.  Looks like I will have to amend my timeline and/or my notions of whether or not I require immersion classes.  Probably both.

So it goes.  Setbacks or no, I'm in this thing to win it.

Sunday, February 27, 2011

The Curious Presence Post

this is no doubt an Italian presence post

The first FSO I ever met was a very likeable, charming fellow named Jeff, and his equally likeable and charming boyfriend Phillippe.  Jeff was from Wisconsin, and Phillippe was French Belgian.  Jeff spoke German, though he had never served in Germany, and Phillippe, of course, spoke French, though they'd yet to be posted to a French-speaking country either.

Their first shot at a French-speaking post was, interestingly, a proposed American Presence Post (APP) in Morocco.  While this post eventually fell through, sending them instead to Ankara, Turkey, they still both spoke reverentially about the very notion of a presence post, and that planted the rather curious notion in my head of what a presence post is.

Formally, an APP is a very small kind out outreach-consulate in a country that has full American representation in larger cities.  America has an APP in Alexandria, Egypt, Busan, S. Korea, Medan, Indonesia, and Winnipeg, Canada.  We also keep 5 Western European APPs, all of which are in France.

The mission of every APP whose web site I visited this morning seems to entail encouraging U.S. investment in the region, sponsoring cross-cultural awareness programs, and providing limited consular services (not including visas).  They're not unlike, say, the Chili's Too in the Denver International Airport.  A purpose built menu with a limited selection but a very advantageous location.

This idea is brilliant and charming to me, but I wonder why we have so few, and why the few that we have are distributed so curiously.  Busan is sensible, being a large city with a port, and a fair enough distance away from Seoul to warrant its own post.  Medan is the largest indonesian city outside the island of Java.  Alexandria is very large, and no doubt a trade hub for Egypt due to its proximity to the strait and the Nile...  Those all seem pretty reasonable.

Winnipeg seems curious, being the 7th largest Canadian city, itself pretty close to the U.S. border, but evidently there is trade enough to justify it.  I just wonder if it was so difficult to move American industry into Canada in the first place.

The 5 APPs in France (as opposed to the 4 total APPs in every single country in the world that isn't France) seems very interesting.  They were all opened between December of 1998 and October of 2000, and I can only imagine that they all serve excellent coffee, but I've yet to find a good reason why there should be so many in France and so few everywhere else. 

So I reach out to you, friends who know infinitely more than me about the machinations of our beloved State Department -- what's the deal with the tiny consulates?

Friday, February 25, 2011

And having dispensed with that....

So there we go.  In and out, just like I'd read.  I took my Turkish language test over the phone this morning, and I feel pretty good about it.  The whole thing took maybe 10 minutes, start to finish  (Mrs. Valdysses just chimed in with a "That's what she said" and a high five). 
I had two examiners, one who only spoke English, and one who only spoke Turkish, though it was obvious from their names and accents that they both spoke English AND Turkish perfectly well.

I got the standard instruction spiel (with no mention of an NDA) and had a brief conversation about myself, my experiences, and current events.  I never had to translate Turkish into English, and I only used one English word throughout (I forgot the Turkish name for Greece for a moment...).

I've read numerous accounts of people feeling certain they failed, and passing.  Hopefully my confidence is not an indicator of my eventual failure.  Only time will tell, I suppose. When it does, I'll tell you.

Until then, English only.  I'll just close my eyes and think of Erdoğan.


Sunday, February 20, 2011

Language Test Date

So I got a date -- This Friday, Feb. 25th.

I've taken your suggestions to heart, and I'm trying to direct my last week of studying appropriately.  Frankly, whether I pass or not, I'm glad it's finally here.  I've been studying for a long time, largely self-directed, and I'm kind of tired of it.  Ideally, I will have done enough, but if not I at can at least get a good idea of what I need to work on, and I get (ha, "get") 6 months to work on it.

Wish me luck, internet.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Will Work For .4

My candidacy falls on the trailing end of a much-vaunted State Department "hiring surge" that was, as recently as 12 months ago, responsible for record numbers of candidates taking the Foreign Service Oral Exam, the final participatory arbiter of who will and who will not be a Foreign Service Officer.  I was fortunate to fall in that window, as recent adjustments to the OA testing schedule and the QEP decisions handed down yesterday indicate that State is now returning to their more conservative hiring numbers. 
Roughly 18 months ago I progressed through the FSOT, QEP, OA, and clearance proceedings on my first try, which is uncommon.  Currently, I'm sitting on the PD register with an uninspiring 5.3 -- a score that, on it's own, will not be sufficient to make me a PD officer.  After 18 months months on the register, a candidate expires and is obliged to being the process anew by declaring their cone of interest and taking the written exam.  My "best if used by" date is currently set at December 24, 2011 -- Christmas Eve. 

I'm writing this as a little reminder to myself -- as a kind of motivation.  You see, this job is my dream.  I spent the better part of a year preparing for the process before I even took the written test, and most every life decision I've made in the last three years has been motivated by a desire to best prepare myself for the FS.  I earned a Masters Degree in a relevant field, read pertinent blogs, books and magazines compulsively, bought only multi-voltage appliances, etc.  I relish the opportunity to serve my country in a capacity where I can be useful and instrumental.  I want to interview Visa applicants, attend Jazz Festivals, help reunite international families, organize 4th of July proceedings for expats, bake pretzels for admiring hordes of pretzel-starved FSOs, LES' and EFMs, join Serbian punk bands, and generally be in a position to ensure that American interests are served as a result of my talents and effort.  The idea that I could do all this in the company of all of you, bloggers and friends I have met along the way, is humbling and inspiring.

All that is standing between me and my dreams, then, are .4 little points.  It seems silly to see it written there, so small.  In conversation with well-meaning outsiders wondering what's taking the State Department so long to call me, I have often referred to the language bonus as "4 points", rather than ".4 points".  "Point Four" just feels insignificant on my tongue, and yet it is that very tongue that so steadfastly refuses to earn them.

All that is to say that, yesterday, I began the process of scheduling my Turkish Language phone test with FSI.  Truth be told, I'm terrified.  I've studied for months, and I actually lived in Ankara for a year, but most of my study has been alone and academic, and I made what can only be described as a half-hearted effort to learn the language while actually in Turkey.  I spend a few hours a week speaking to a private tutor over Skype or a Rosetta Stone language specialist, and my wife and I frequently speak to each other in what is no doubt ghastly Turkish riddled with inconsistencies, but I feel unparalleled trepidation when preparing to speak, even when it's to well-paid tutors whose entire job is to improve just this.  Ironically, as I write this my wife is in the background watching "The King's Speech".  It surely is unpleasant, feeling enslaved to words you simply cannot seem to say.

I've scheduled the test now, partly out of a keen desire to move this process forward, and partly out of an understanding that, should I not pass, I would be able to test again in 6 months and still have eligibility left before Christmas Eve.  In any case, I always work better with a deadline.

So if any of you have suggestions, don't be coy.  I feel reasonably comfortable satisfying the L2 requirements on the State Department's informational sheet re: directions, simple conversations, etc. but i've little to no fluency in current affairs, and that seems to be what these things are all about.  At least, should I not succeed the first time, I'll have a better idea of how to prepare.

Thursday, January 6, 2011

How to read this (and every other) blog

Image borrowed from Sarah Palin's Alaska, possibly the least practical state for a bicycle paper route.

SO, fair warning, if you already know what an RSS feed is, or you prefer your FS bloggers to stay on message and talk about the FS, you can stop here. 

Still with me?  Great.


With the tremendous upsurge in blog popularity in the last 7-10 years, more and more people are consistently reading blogs as a primary source of information, not just about the blogger themself, but about the blogger's profession or location.  As interests expand, people tend to pick up more and more blogs and bloggers, until the number of people whose lives, careers and interests they follow can't reasonably be recalled off the top of their heads.  (as a self-guided language test, I tried to translate that last sentence into Turkish.  It was impossible.)

A number of people I know enjoy reading their friends' blogs, or other popular blogs, but get frustrated when people fail to post for a long period, or forget to check and give up when they see they are 25 posts behind.  This simply will not do.

Since it's in my interest that you keep reading this blog, rather than replace it with one of the many, many better blogs out there, I want to fill you all in on a little secret.  You can subscribe to these things.  When I (or any other blogger) post, you get it automatically.  When I don't post, you miss nothing.  This is free, easy, and doesn't require you to sign up for anything (or much of anything), so there's no reason not to start right away.


The first thing you will need to understand is RSS, or Really Simple Syndication.  This is a service that turns formatted blog posts, articles, or anything on the web that periodically updates into simple text and pictures, and sends it to you.  An individual subscription is called a feed, and you subscribe to these feeds using an RSS reader, or an RSS aggregator.  There are hundreds of these, but anyone with a google or GMail account (and this should truly be all of you) has access to a great one -- Google Reader.

Sign yourself up with your google account name and password, and you're halfway there. 

At the top left corner of the page, under the Google logo, there will be a button labeled "Add a subscription".  It looks like this:

Click on that button, and you're given a search field.  This being Google, you can enter whatever search terms come to mind.  You might, for instance, want to subscribe to one of my favorite blogs, "Muttering Behind the Hardline".  You'd type that in, and it would look like this:

Upon hitting "Add", you are presented with a series of options.  Look through them, just as would any google search result, and see which seems correct.  In our case, the first result is correct (and every other result as well).  When you find the one you want, just hit "+ Subscribe".

And there you have it, subscribed!


This method assumes that you can remember all the blogs you like off the top of your head, which I cannot.  You can enter other terms in the search field, like "classic cars" or "tennis", "balkan cuisine", or of course "Foreign Service" and get good results as well, but perhaps the best way is to subscribe from the webpage itself.

For that, you need to know two things:

   1. Which feed (website, newspaper, blog, etc.) you wish to subscribe to, and
   2. What the RSS logo looks like.

While I can't be of much help with the former, the latter I can do.

BAM!  That's is your ticket to in-depth ruminations about what kind of tea your kids' dog prefers, which phone is undoubtedly the best, and how to properly cook pasta al dente.  Usually it's located in your browser's address bar (where http://www.valdysses.com is displayed right now) on the far right, but many pages also have that icon strewn around everywhere.


Even easier than that is adding a "subscribe" button to your bookmarks directly.  Simply drag the word Subscribe... directly from this blog post into your shortcuts and, when you visit a site you want to follow, click the link.  It will take you right to your Google reader page and load up the subscription for you to confirm.  Easy as it gets, and far better than typing my blog address all the time, only to be disappointed by my erratic posting.

If I messed anything up or left anything out, please let me know in comments.  Otherwise, enjoy your new, streamlined life.

Sunday, January 2, 2011

Turkısh Curiosities

Short post here, mostly for the benefit of A Slow Move East (and anyone else studying Turkish and reading this.  Holla back)

Turkish Formalwear Vocabulary

  1. takı = jewelry
  2. elbise = dress
  3. Takım Elbise = men's suit.

Or, of course, my jewelry dress.

A thoroughly masculine language if ever there was one.

You will be sorely missed

While making my blog rounds yesterday, I noticed that the long defunct blog of "The Hegemonist" has now lapsed entirely, and his site now contains only a stock placeholder page. 

Though The Hegemonist hadn't posted for a year or so, he had a very high google ranking and a series of informative pages about the FSOT and the career itself.  When I first set out to take the test, The Hegemonist's guide was an indispensable resource.  It was the first thorough, modern guide I found with frank and useful advice, and I must have read it twenty times.  Despite being inactive for a year, it's still holds the #4 page rank for "foreign service blog".

This is a particular loss for me, as I had taken it upon myself to periodically patrol the comments section and answer questions posed there.  Since many people found The Hegemonist long before they ever found the FS yahoo group or other resources, they seemed to have a lot of questions with simple answers I knew.  Knowing the answers to these questions really helped me feel as if I was well prepared, so I kept answering them (all the while linking to this site, mind you).

And now it's all gone, which seems to me a little sad.  So goodbye and fare well, Hegemonist.  Here's hoping we meet some day, and I get the chance to properly thank you.