Saturday, July 24, 2010

A Day in the Life

When I was in Pol/Econ training, one of the sessions involved us discussing the daily schedules of FSOs who had taken the class previously and who were settling into their routines in their first reporting position.  I found it immensely useful; I had few expectations going into this position, and this exercise gave me a better idea about what my days would likely look like.

Now that I've been in my job about two months, I've developed my own routine.  I'm a reporting officer - that means I collect information and report it.  I get this information from a variety of sources: media reports, asking my contacts questions via phone or email, visiting sites to see with my own eyes what's happening, and meeting one-on-one with people who know what I need to know.  The exact mixture depends on what information I need, where my contacts are, and how much time I have in my schedule - the Consulate is located in the northern suburbs of Istanbul, and it's a hike to get to wherever my contacts are located.  When I do go out for meetings, the best way to get information, I try to schedule two or three meetings back-to-back.  Otherwise, if you figure 45 minutes of transit to the meeting, an hour for one meeting, and an hour back (rush "hour" starts at about 3 PM), I've completely shot my afternoon.  Moreover, it doesn't make sense to return to the Consulate for any meetings that start after 3 PM, unless I'm planning on staying at my desk until sundown.

It's not hard to find people to meet with.  I'm blessed to be in a city and a country where activists, religious leaders, and NGO staff want to meet with US diplomats - that's not always the case.  So when I set up meetings for Thursday afternoon this week, I didn't really think about the logic of the ordering, I just contacted someone I've been meaning to meet for a few weeks and someone else who was only going to be in Istanbul for two days.  It was only after I returned home that I realized the bizarre juxtaposition I'd created.  First I met with an activist affiliated with the Istanbul gay rights group on a balcony in their office, a top-floor apartment at the back of an alley, off another alley in the heart of modern Istanbul.  After that, I dashed off to the Four Seasons next to Ayasofya to have coffee with the lay leadership of the American branch of a Turkish church.  At one meeting we talked about gender reassignment surgeries, legal challenges, pride marches, and hate crimes in the 100-degree heat; at the other I sat by a tinkling fountain and sipped expensive tea with movers and shakers, discussing religious freedom, property disputes, and EU accession.

Superficially, the two meetings have little to do with each other.  Their political and religious positions couldn't be much different.  However, at a deeper level, my interest (and the US government's interest) in these groups is the same: we support the rights of these two groups, others like them, and many more not so like them, to operate in freedom and in peace, without harassment, and with the legal protection to operate freely.  We dedicate a significant amount of resources worldwide to human rights, and for most reporting officers this is the first portfolio they ever cover.  I don't cover the "prestigious" issues - the political heavyweights, the business leaders, the prominent authors and journalists and academics.  What I cover now is actually more interesting to me...  the people fighting at the grassroots level for their rights, the organizations that help the poor, the illiterate, the refugees, and the discriminated against, and the community and religious leaders who stand up to incredible pressure and lead their communities in modern Turkey.  And I love every minute of it.

If It's Friday... must mean that it's time for the Roundup!  And if it's Saturday before anything's posted, it must mean I'm running late on my publishing obligations again!

rst, the news from here.  When you last heard from me, I was nursing a fabulous new bruise.  It's STILL HERE.  What can I say, I have skills!  Also, I'd like to thank the three State blog community people who've emailed back and forth with me this week.  This is a true community, never mind just how many time zones we live in - which you can help out by signing up to host a Roundup later in the summer.  Also, Digger has put out a call for updated links - if you know of a new blog or an updated address, let her know!  And now, on to the Roundup!  I tallied about 250 posts over the past 8 days - well done, y'all!

l State people do the same thing when they get together outside of working hours...  they talk about work.  Constantly.  To the persistent annoyance of everyone around them.  So hey, why shouldn't we talk about work on our blogs too?  DS talks about the interagency process, MLC also talks about the joys of ACS as well as Ali, who works outside every Embassy and Consulate, Bridget describes the best Consular Leadership Day (as long as you don't fall in), Quirksalight gives a lesson learned for airport runs (which is totally true - I still have scars on my feet from a POTUS visit in 2009), I'll Take Mine to Go! has found the perfect chair for work, and Keith talks about some small decision that may or may not affect other people.  More seriously, MLC and DS talk about the serious threats facing not only diplomatic staff but those who come to our posts as visitors.

ther favorite topic of Statesians is language training, assignments, and the groundhog day quality of FSI life.  Kitty Non Grata had a click moment in Khmer (and thank all that is holy my language instructors didn't inflict a drill like that on us), Gia was assigned to Abuja, Heather got a new assignment to Damascus, Devon FINALLY got assigned to Brussels, Adam is going to the exotic hardship post of London, BFiles is content with her non-assignment, Denise visited the pincushion clinic at FSI, and Ren offers a list of other job options if State's just not cool enough for you.  It's not an FS blog, but I'd like to offer this poem as an ode to our collective language struggles. 

We also kvetch about moving.  Man, do we hate it.  In fact, I'm fairly certain that if some alien society based its impressions of Earth on our blogs, they'd be convinced we spend our entire lives in boxes, hotels, and planes.  (Which might not be that far from the truth, come to think of it.)  Laila's super-stressed about leaving for her first assignment, Short Term Memory has been driven to poetic insanity after packout, Brooke is enviably free of crap to tote across oceans, Ben has adjustment issues, Dave has single-handedly propped up the economy this month, David has made it to his new digs in Hermosillo, the Richardsons survived packout in Serbia (as did their horde of movers!), Z. Marie shows what post housing looks like in Milan, Digger notes that Beirut is a hardship assignment only if you're not from Jersey, and Elise realizes the hardest part about moving season.

I thin
k we all blog with the secret desire to make everyone at home jealous.  (Or maybe that's just me.) Nonetheless, what's the fun of blogging if you can't brag about the cool things you experience?  Gerald talks about an old-fashioned but functional naval vessal, Emily sees grape-flavored sheep, Al analyzes customer service overseas, Kitty Non Grata highlights Marines who save kittens (I want the Marine in the first picture to come work as a guard at MY consulate!), Helen doesn't so much make us jealous as makes us remember our first faux pas overseas, Kim continues documenting the sights of Istanbul, Jonathan describes the joys of summer in Saudi Arabia, Sarah talks about the perfect FS gift, Larry has basically the best evening EVER, Judie experiences the joy of never-ending strawberry season, Al goes cavetubing, Sass and Sweet teaches us how to speak Canadian in three volumes, and Matt continues his series of Afghan Dudes on Bikes and also shows what one hopes post housing DOESN'T look like.
course, family's the most important thing overseas, which is why Jill's post and the Dinoia family post are so heartbreaking.  Just because it's something many people go through in this career doesn't make it any easier - my thoughts are with you both, and everyone else in your situation.  Linsey just lost her grandmother, who sounds like she lived a full, happy life where she was surrounded by her loved ones.  Sarah gives marriage advice (and note that her blog has moved), Modest Muse has a dancing baby, Stephanie's husband better get home soon, and A Daring Adventure's older son is now an older EAGLE SCOUT son.  However, for one unnamed ambassador, family evidently wasn't that important, may he be forever tormented by screeching trolls who attack his feet with pointy sticks.

And tha
t's it for this week!  Thanks to Melissa for hosting next week, but after that there's NO ONE ON THE CALENDAR!  Not that I'm trying to guilt trip you into hosting...  but you really should consider hosting.  Have a good week, everyone, and write prolifically!  

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Weekly(ish) State Blog Roundup!

So here I am, laying in bed with an ice pack under my ass on a foggy, rainy Saturday in Istanbul.  The reason I'm in bed is the same reason why I didn't write the update last night - humpty hannah took a great fall down some granite stairs in the rain.  I'm fine, other than the chagrined ego and a massive (and apparently still growing) bruise on my hip.  Luckily I have long since lost whatever dignity I once may have had, so no damage there.  So!  Let's get this roundup on the road!

I've got two weeks to cover, going back to around 27 June, and can I just say, y'all are some prolific writers.  By the rough estimates of Google Reader, I accumulated over 500 posts from just over 250 FS blogs on my list.  Well done, guys!  When I first joined in 2007, I only remember maybe 15 people who blogged, but that was because we didn't know who else was doing it.  I'm glad we're coming together here!

First of all, because I can, I want to take this opportunity to thank the Turkish police and our own Turkish employees who protect Consulate General Istanbul.  Yesterday was the 2nd anniversary of the attacks on the Consulate, in which three Turkish policemen were killed defending our facility and the people inside.  I said it before, and I'll say it again - never take your safety overseas for granted.  When you get the opportunity (may I suggest Monday morning?), thank the people who might face danger on the job so you don't have to.  In that vein, TSB posts that there has been an arrest in the case of the Consulate General Ciudad Juarez employee and community members who were murdered in March.  May justice be done.

Moving on to more lighthearted topics, it appears that it was the 4th of July this week.  And as always Independence Day, the Holiday that Wasn't for FS folks, brought another fun night of networking, huge crowds, finger food of questionable quality, and speechifying.  Here's the SitRep from Michele times two, A Daring Adventure, DS, Jodi, Worldwide Available, Sara, Ryan, Stephanie, Digger, Matt, me, modestmuse times two, Jill, Melissa, Daniela, Elise, Kitty Non Grata, Chris, Esac, Al, Katie, and Matt.  Whew!

As for more general holiday enjoyment...  it's summer, which means people are on R&R or home leave or are just enjoying their posts in the lovely weather, which means we have lots and lots of photo spreads and vacation tales.  Dave appears to be convinced that America's Hat has its own holiday too, the Dinoias go to my favorite vacation spot in the country (yay ponies!), Abbey calls a beagle summit (more successful than Copenhagen!) but the beagle flotilla plans don't appear to be successful, Bridget visits the tourist sites of Shenyang, Micah has THE CUTEST PHOTOS EVER of his kids with his grandmother, the Richardsons tour South Serbia, Connie and family revel in their geekiness, Kim visits two of my favorite neighborhoods in Istanbul and takes way better photos than I could [Note to my family - read her blog for photos, it will be much more useful to you than this one!], A Daring Adventure went to Great Falls and presumably had on her special hiking shoes (which Kitty Non Grata saw!), the Monestels carried out the coolest volunteer work I've ever heard of, Al was a great adventurer in West Belize, Sara's Addie has the best summertime outfit ever, and Barry & Jess have the most awesome little girl ever.  The Schutz family offers to us one of the best, cheerful videos you'll ever watch about travel overseas.  Unfortunately, as I live in Turkey and YouTube is blocked, I'll just have to remember how much I like it.

Often bizarre things happen at post - it's just part of FS life that you don't have to go far away to see something exotic.  For example, Bryn has documented the roads in her neighborhood slowly washing away, Fawda Munathama explains why Sam Waterston or Aaron Sorkin won't be making stories about us anytime soon, Jeff has a question for trailing male spouses out there, AKB has one hell of a first day at work, TSB talks about Mexighanistan and offers a soundtrack, At Post has a photo of plumbing in Malaysia (and a plea for Facebook likes here), The Uncommon Life talks about the good and the less good of Seoul, and Emily writes the most amazingly cute/sad story about her son's first birthday (I would have eaten the cake, Emily!).  The strange food subsection: Sara's not brave enough to eat off this cart, and AKB has some awesome photos of delicious, tasty roasted meat.

Of course, our community isn't just people who are already at post - it's people waiting to join and people in training at FSI, too.  Mr. Crab reminds everyone that they can't talk about what's on the FS entrance exams, Devon is currently vacationing in Assignments Hell, FSO Hopeful is more than welcome to join my office as a reporting officer or as a bodyguard, Destinaish Unknown passed the FSOT, Andy discovers the joys of buying a car in DC, Yellow Flower got her first assignment in to New Zealand, Bfiles passed her Spanish exam for the points bump-up but is now in a new and improved bureaucratic limbo hell, Andy is taking the oral exam on 2 September, Valdysses got added to the PD register, Chris talks about the new batch of rosy-cheeked, dewy-eyed Facilities Managers, FSO Wannabe is brushing up her Japanese again so she can try for the points bump in the register, Kitty Non Grata hasn't a clue when she'll leave for post, the Letvins are back online again, Eve is a little stressed about the idea of taking Portuguese, Brian has some pointers for things to include in the FSI language curricula, and Melissa has finally internalized that she's about to join State.  In the complete opposite of Melissa, Masha talks about why she decided to leave State.  Definitely worth the click through.

And on the ever-popular theme of moving...  Kendra's family's passports will travel in style, David might STILL be packing out, the Noble Glomads have tips on finding out details about your house's furniture, and best of all, Jamie came home!!

Things we deal with at work:  NP Worldview talks about the overuse of antibiotics, Bill at Diplomatic Incidents DOESN'T talk about work, Ren has an idea for all of you PAS folk out there and also questions the received wisdom on who can be a PD officer, Phebevenus talks about a day in the life of a desk officer as well as the amusing quirks of HST, DS wonders what happened to the AFSA elections and describes the joys of being a diplomat in London (hint: you're scolded in papers),  FSO Wannabe is so not thrilled with our new budget, Alex learns that no one listens to him (he may have had more to say, but I only read the first paragraph!), AKB explains Murphy's Law of Illness and its corollary, the Visa Interview and Section Staffing Lemma of Sickness, Daniel describes working the G8 conference in another one of his awesome descriptions of working big events, Mark visits a Yazidi temple and northern Ninewa as part of his job, Matt goes to Herat, and Valdysses points out that perhaps life at State is a little different than it used to be.  [Morning update: upon rereading the document, I'm not so sure that much has changed...]

Consular specific stuff (because let's face it, it's way interesting): MLC talks about the sensitivities of international adoption, I talked about how your visa decisions can come back to haunt you (prompted by this fantastic MLC grab-bag post), learning about conducting IV interviews makes Hoyzhou reminisce about being on the other side of the window, Broadnax doesn't specifically allude to consular work, but this post about how we make decisions seemed nonetheless very applicable to the issue, Abbie and Matt get encouragement from a conversation with a former visa applicant, DS wonders why a first-tour officer would go to Gambia and is all over the new social media regs, Gerald sees a lost passport case and wonders what will become of the person, Broadnax discusses immigration and the US labor market, and AKB talks about how visas mean way more to non-Americans than they do to us.

State advice column - your requests for help and suggestions that will make someone's life easier.  Super Mario Diplomacy tells you how to watch Hulu overseas (but no instructions for the Mac version of Chrome, I see...  you're on notice, SMD!), Donna explains the difference between vacation and R&R, Ryan explains where Mexico stops and the US begins, Al is looking for help from those who are good at Facebook, and Emily offers instructions on how to use Google for those who haven't quite caught on yet.

Whew!  We made it through another Roundup.  You can leave any corrections, suggestions, rants, additions, or creepy messages in the comments, and I'll get to them when I wake up in the morning - it's now 2.30 AM in Istanbul, and I need to sleep.

Next week doesn't have an editor yet - I promise that you do not want to saddle poor Melissa with editing two weeks of posts, right before her A-100 starts!  So get yourself over to the calendar and sign up!  Thanks for stopping by!

Friday, July 09, 2010

Two Years Ago Today

I'll have the State Roundup posted later today. I wanted to put this up first. Today is the second anniversary of the attack on the US Consulate General in Istanbul. Three gunmen attacked the Consulate, but the Turkish police force outside the building stopped the attack, preventing any Consulate staff or visa applicants from being harmed. Tragically, three Turkish policemen were killed in the attack.

For me, this will be a day of quiet reflection about those who give their lives so that we can safely carry out American business overseas. I want to repost something that I wrote two years ago, after touring the grounds of the Consulate General in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, and seeing the memorials to our staff who died there in the 2004 al Qaeda attack.  State people, wherever you are today, thank the people who keep you safe, even if you don't speak a language they understand.  We truly could not do what we do without them.

48 Hours in Jeddah

I'm going to split this up into a number of posts, because there's too many disparate stories to fit into one. A party at the Ethiopian consulate, an underground Saudi rave, snorkling in the Red Sea at an incognito beach open only to expats, and the bizarrely unforgettable experience of flying on Saudia Airlines. We can get to the fun later on, but first I want to open with one of the most heartwrenching stories of my life.

When I was doing research during A-100 on the places I might go, the case files for Jeddah and Riyadh all dealt heavily with the 2004 consulate attack in Jeddah. I don't remember it happening; it's a sad truth that we're so inured to bombings and violence around the world that we don't really pay attention to many of them, unless we have a personal stake or interest in them. In 2004, joining the Foreign Service was far from my mind - those of you who have followed my writing for years may remember my (thankfully) failed attempts to get a job at the NSA around that time - so it's probably not surprising that the attack didn't then catch my eye. However, my trip to Jeddah made the reality of the attack painfully clear.

I have links here and here, news reports about the attack. These articles are long on background information and short on details about the attack. Note that in the first link, the analyst focuses on the fact that no Americans died - "They didn't destroy the building or kill any Americans." So many news stories, including the coverage of the attack in Yemen last month, simply note that no Americans died while ignoring the fact that Americans make up a tiny percentage of any embassy community. Some of my closest friends and colleagues at the embassy are Somali, Sudanese, Lebanese, Sri Lankan, Syrian, and Jordanian - and that's just in my section. I give you this as the background for what was so moving about my visit to the consulate.

When I got there on Wednesday afternoon, I had an hour or so to kill while my friend Joe finished up his work for the week, so he introduced me to Ty, one of our security officers there, who gave me a tour of the compound. It's the old embassy from the 1950s, so it's somewhat rundown and located on an enormous lot - we had to tour on fourwheelers, because it would have taken an hour or more to walk it all. We ended our tour at the memorials to the five people killed in the 2004 attack, between the front gate and the main consulate building. The granite blocks are placed haphazardly on the lawn, where the victims fell. Ty told me that the attackers chased one of the embassy cars, carrying an American woman, towards the gates. One of the guards grabbed the American, tossed her into the safe haven right at the entrance, and ran the other way to distract the attackers. He was killed almost instantly. The other four victims, who just happened to be outside at the time, knew where she was hiding, and they were executed over a ninety-minute period because they refused to give up her location and her life. The Saudi government gave their families permanent legal status in the Kingdom for their sacrifices. The US government gave them plaques of commemoration.

My security every day depends on the hundreds of non-Americans working for us in the Kingdom. Many of them would be willing to give their lives for us, and some of them have or will do so. The next time a US installation is attacked somewhere - and I have no doubt that it will happen again - take a moment to think about the people who die in the most brutal ways with little hope of reward so that we Americans can be safe in places where we are hated.

Monday, July 05, 2010

Happy Independence Day from Istanbul!

The award for first guest in the new digs goes to Becky, my friend from high school with whom I stayed in Shanghai last year.  She got into town last night, and today we started our fun with a cruise up and down the Bosphorus in the Hiawatha, the boat owned by the US diplomatic presence in Istanbul since the 1930s.  It's available for employees to rent, and it's one of the best perks of the job here.  We sailed up the straight, almost to the Black Sea, then back down to the Sea of Marmara and toured the Golden Horn before returning to our dock.  All the while we munched on picnic fare and fresh fruit (end of the cherry season, apricots are still great).  All in all, not a bad way to spend the (observed) Independence Day holiday - the American flag was waving cheerily in the breeze as we dodged cruise liners, cargo ships, ferry boats, and fishermen all along the Bosphorus.

My guest room is booked through the end of July, but I'm free after that.  Cruises on the Bosphorus get a little chilly after September, so start marking up your calendars, folks.

Saturday, July 03, 2010

When the Unimaginable Happens

Last week I found a website hosting this document - a memo of debriefing the officer who issues visas to 10 of the 19 September 11th hijackers.  While this was the first time I'd actually read it, I'd heard about this interview ever since I got my assignment to Riyadh in 2007.  Whether you're waiting to go out on your first tour or you're a veteran consular officer, it's worth a read.  There's a lot of lessons to draw from this memo.  Just because something's always been done that way doesn't mean it should be done like that. If you're worried about procedures, speak up - a good boss will listen to your concerns, even if s/he doesn't act on them.  And when something goes terribly, horribly wrong, rest assured that an investigatory committee will have questions for you.

When I started to read this document, I was afraid that I would be taken back to the stress of the consular section in Riyadh, the overarching knowledge that It Happened Once Already that was ever-present in the office.  After reading it, though, I was grimly satisfied.  I'm satisfied with the work I did there.  A consular officer takes a risk of making the "wrong" decision in every visa case; your individual judgement determines where you set that threshold for issuances and denials.  That's what we're paid to do, and that's why machines don't adjudicate visa decisions.  

Friday, July 02, 2010

Today Seems... Incomplete

No State blog round-up today.  Sad face!!  Even though I follow over 200 State blogs in Google Reader, I still enjoy the round-up and the commentary of the editors.  Guess next week the editor will have to double down on his or her efforts.  Oh wait...  that's me.

Another 4th of July Down

All week we were worried it was going to keep raining - having absolutely zero back-up plan for where to put our 1200 dearest friends in the event of a cloudburst - but Thursday dawned sunny and clear and not too hot.  This was my first 4th working it as a contact event, rather than an event where I was logistical support.  (That is to say, I greeted guests and reconnected with my contacts, rather than checked in gifts at the entrance or kept an eye on security at the VIP entrance.)  Some of my contacts, religious leaders in the city, made a point to tell me that they had prayed for the weather to be sunny for us all, a divine intervention we greatly appreciated!

I also met a few new people.  One woman, a professor, is a good friend of one of our close Consulate contacts, and he introduced me to her because "I know you will like her!"  He was right - I did.  She's a professor of architectural history, and when she was telling me about her last lecture trip to the US, she mentioned that she'd been in Los Angeles for part of the visit.  I asked her if she had family there, and she said, "No, I was visiting a friend of mine.  Perhaps you know him, Frank Gehry?"  Yes ma'am, I do believe I've heard of him once or twice...

Another contact brought his family to the reception, and as we stood around munching on Krispy Kreme and sipping champagne, his wife discovered that A) I speak Turkish, which thrilled her since she speaks no English, B) I'm an only child, and my mother misses me, and C) I'm the same age as their daughter.  I now have an adopted mother who calls me canim ("my dear") and wants me to come have dinner with them regularly.  I love Turkey.