17 December 2009

The Color Commentator

This is the moniker my wife has given me w/r/t this blog. And apparently she thinks I suck at my job, as she was harassing me the other night for not posting enough. Know what? She's right. I need to be more a of Jerry Remy to her Don Orsillo than a Tim McCarver to her Joe Buck.

See, in baseball broadcasts, you have the play-by-play guy and you have the color guy. The play-by-play guy is matter-of-fact, calling the game as he sees it. This is Joanne. She's going to describe what getting thru A-100 and language training is like. How hard it is to join the Foreign Service. What a pain-in-the-ass the Security Clearance is. The color guy, on the other hand, is supposed to come up with factoids and anecdotal stuff to enhance the normally-boring straight description of the game. He brings up stats, injects humor, and otherwise provides little trinkets of information that wouldn't usually be available to the casual fan. I'm the color guy, and I've been asleep in the booth for the past few innings (a lot like Harry Caray used to do).

So here's a maelstrom of trivial and anecdotal information compiled thru detailed scientific research which I hope you will find interesting and useful. (No animals were harmed in the making of this list)

1) The basic kitchen setup at Oakwood sucks. SUCKS. You get really basic stuff (plates, glasses, silverware, some utensils). You also get a knife block containing six of the world's dullest knives. If you like to cook, bring your own gear and put the crap that passes for kitchen equipment here in the closet until you leave. You may thank me later.

2) Our apartment doubles as a sauna. Or a greenhouse. We face south and are on the top floor. When the sun shines, the temperature in here easily goes up to 85+ degrees. Opening the window does nothing. Opening the balcony door does too much. Joanne likes to joke that I'm secretly in training for life in the D.R. (it's a tropical freaking island). I don't find the humor in sweating all day every day while home. Still trying to find a solution for this.

3) The two supermarkets closest to Oakwood FC are atrocious. Dirty, poorly stocked, and just unpleasant to shop in. This, however, doesn't prevent me from shopping there. While both are under a half mile away, it takes 15 minutes to get to them. So going much further to a nice supermarket is a little unreasonable, especially when I typically have a small child in tow.

4) The existence of the Eden Center in our back yard is awesome at every moment of the day except between 5:45 and 6:00 a.m. when the garbage trucks come through and make a hell of a racket. It never fails to wake our son up. Not cool.

5) Snow. Seriously, Virginians. You don't have to panic and go to Target and buy 3 scrapers, a snow shovel, 2 emergency blankets, 10 chem lights, 3 gallons of arctic-grade windshield fluid, Coleman stove, and a huge honkin' car emergency kit for your car when 1-2 inches are forecast. A Southern friend told me, however, that it's not the apocalypse until all the bread and TP are sold out with the threat of some flurries. There's snow in the forecast for the weekend, better stock up.

6) Parking spaces. They're tiny. Cross into the District or MD, and they regain their normal width. In VA, however, they're about 6" narrower than in any other part of the country. This is truth.

That's all for today, I guess. I'll try to keep up with this blog a little more and wow you with more Tales from NoVA.

06 December 2009

We are off to the Dominican Republic!!

Flag Day, 2009.  Flag day is a tradition in the Foreign Service Officer orientation class.  It's truly an amazing moment.  Some people jump and cheer, others suffer temporary shock -- regardless of how they ranked their assigned assignment.  One of my orientation coordinators share this fantastic story (paraphrased):

"I ranked H-- at the top of my list. First, actually.  No one else wanted it as much as me.  I told my friends that's where I was going.  I told my entire family.  On flag day they held up the H-- flag, paused, and called my name.  Suddenly, my heart sank.  I felt like my life was over." 

In all fairness, the day does define an FSO's destiny for the next 1-3 years.  In the extreme, it can be the first step in a life-long connection with your post.  After they held up the red and blue flag of the Dominican Republic and called, my name, I felt numb.  By the time I sat down I was already calculating how my family would like it, what it would mean for my language training, and what this meant for my career.  It's silly, but the State Department admits it likes to hire "planners," so I think this is a normal reaction for many of us!!

My conclusion:  Gee, if the State Department wants to send me to a tropical paradise for two years, where the weather is warm, the fruit is plentiful, and my son can be fluent in Spanish before he is 5-years-old, then I'll take it!  I mean, look at the pictures on the official country homepage!

Dave has decided he wants to track down the Boston Red Sox in the Dominican Republic.  David Ortiz, aka "Papi," is from the DR and has a children's foundation that helps fund pediatric critical care: http://www.davidortizchildrensfund.org/.  He's also considering working for the embassy, or maybe just hanging out in a hammock with some Dominican rum.  The way I see it, he has a little equity coming to him from supporting me through law school. 

Tomorrow I start Spanish language training. The introduction to language training they gave us in A-100 "freaked me out" a little bit.  I imagine I'll be fine, but the speech they like to give goes a little like this: "So, if you majored in a language in college you probably got to a 1+ score according to our system.  You might have made it to a 2 if you were really good.  We're going to take you from a 0 to a 3 in six months."   Wow.  And wow.  Well, I'm just grateful that learning a language is part of my job.  They're actually paying me to do this!!!!  Yipee!!!  (Jealous, anyone?)

01 November 2009

Trick-or-Treat: The Bid List Has Arrived!

Friday marked the end of our first week of "A-100 training," a reference to the room number where the first groups of Foreign Service Officers (FSOs) received orientation to the tradecraft of diplomacy.  The majority of A-100 happens at the Foreign Service Institute in Virginia.  My fellow classmates and I represent the 149th A-100 class! I feel privileged to be among such an impressive crowd, and it's still sinking in that I've finally made it here.

The most anticipated part of the first week was receiving our "bid list."  We get a single list with about ten more posts than there are people in our class.  Somewhere on that list is the name of our home for two years.  But, which one will it be?  We get to list preferences of low, medium and high.  However, we have signed up to follow the needs of the Foreign Service, so although most people get a "high" or "medium" there is no guarantee.  Much of the last few days has been spent researching posts, for which the Overseas Briefing Center provides ample information.

My sister wanted to know exactly what it is I do. "People ask me and I can't exactly say," she says.  I asked if I ought to post a link to my job here.  She said that would be helpful.

I encourage any of my law school colleagues to check out the job, as this recession has made it difficult for lawyers-in-waiting to find jobs.  However, the State Department has been authorized to hire almost triple the usual number of new FSOs.  The process can be long and arduous at times, but so is law school.  There are somewhere around a dozen or so lawyers in our class.

Many of the people at FSI stay in the same temporary housing.  As a result, there is an excellent sense of community.  Dave has met and befriended a handful of spouses already, mostly by just wandering around the complex with Aidan during the days I am at class.  His particular favorite thus far is a gorgeous Israeli woman who has a son about the same age as Aidan.

The "Oakwood" organized trick-or-treating for all the kids in the 4-building complex. I'm guessing there were around 100 apartments that participated.  It was the best setting for Aidan's first real Halloween experience.  At the beginning he had no idea what was going on, but the idea that people would let you grab big handfuls of candy out of a bowl made his little brain erupt with joy.  He was also fascinated by all the costumes.

With little time to come up with a costume because of our recent move, Dave saved the day by hand-making (!) a Domo-kun costume.  I think the oldest person who got the reference was about 25-years-old.  You can think of him as the fuzzy brown guy who sells coffee for 7-Eleven; or perhaps the mascot for Japan's NHK television station; or perhaps you know the reference which should not be linked to in polite company.

25 October 2009

And I thought the roads in Boston were bad....

Just an opportunity to vent here...

This is the closest approximation to what I imagine the Seventh Circle of Hell to look like:

View Larger Map

So, Seven Corners (a stone's throw from Oakwood) is quite possibly the biggest beating of all time w/r/t roadways and their various nuances. I would have loved to use another descriptive term, but my wife wanted me to keep it clean. This particular intersection happens to be where pretty much everything you'll ever need while staying at Oakwood is located. Food store, clothing stores, Target, Home Depot, CVS, amazing Asian food, liquor store, etc. are all located in this miasma of urban planning.

I drove regularly in Boston for 8 years. It sucked. This was in the Big Dig's heyday, where traffic patterns changed on a weekly basis. Even on the worst day, no traffic issue in Boston could possibly come close to Seven Corners. 28/3/93/Red Auerbach Way in Boston is a pleasant walk in the park, comparatively.

1) It takes 10 minutes to reverse direction. Lights are incredibly long and not even remotely synced to alleviate "blocking the box."

2) Nothing is clearly marked or identified off of Arlington Blvd. You get off on these little access roads and hope to hell you took the right one. All the while, through traffic is doing 60 m.p.h. in all lanes and getting impatient with you, you silly out-of-towner.

3) Planning on taking a quick jaunt out on a weekend to do some errands? Are your destinations on opposite sides of Arlington Blvd.? Good luck to you, my friend. Block out 3+ hours.

My advice is this: drive around this intersection late at night, reversing directions frequently... only then can you get a feel for which lanes are used for what purposes. And DO NOT TRUST Google Maps. They lie. I know the Google Street View car (or maybe trike) has been through here, but there's no way they actually tried to navigate this area in any logical or sensible fashion.

Welcome to Seven Corners!


Childproofing your Oakwood Apartment

If you're like us and have a small, active, and adventurous child, you'll want to take note of the issue with the balconies here. We're up on the 7th floor, and it's a long way down. When we first saw the balcony, both of us agreed that the space in between the railings was just a hair too wide. One trip to Home Depot later (and a hell of a headache while there - trying to determine the best method), we made it almost impossible for the wee lad to propel himself off the balcony to certain death.

Keep it in mind when you come to Oakwood with your infant/toddler. Better safe (and ugly as sin) than sorry.


22 October 2009

Packing Out - Where are my sunglasses?

We survived two pack outs! Even after a week of throwing things out and organizing, it was a whirlwind and several things were inadvertently packed into our Household Effects (HHE), a.k.a. the boxes stored in a warehouse until we depart DC for our first post. Rumor has it that we could be without our precious stuff for up to ten months depending on the kind of language training I might need. Admittedly, my Type A personality made it difficult to allow others to pack for us. Dave loved it! (No heavy lifting!)

The movers (from Miller Brothers - an agent of Nationwide) were frighteningly efficient. They packed everything and loaded it in a day. You can imagine the pace with which they worked. Here is a list of some of the things we forgot to take out of their devastating path:

Dave's sunglasses
Dave glasses (see a theme yet?)
Dave's winter coats
Aidan's lion and frog :(
Many pairs of shoes we could have used
Almost lost Dave's suits - he had to bargain to get them back out of the box

Our advice: don't even think that you will have the ability to "tell" them about what goes or doesn't -- separate in advance. We did that about 80% and still lost some things in the end. I feel the worst about the lion. . .ten months can be a long time to a one-year-old. But a newly discovered leopard at Nana's house fixed that situation for now.

Above is a picture of what the Unaccompanied Air Baggage (UAB) boxes look like. Since we are a family of three, we had 550 lbs to work with, or the equivalent of three of these boxes. Whatever we can fit in the UAB comes with us to DC. So hard to decide!

Here is Dave glaring at Jack. The dogs used the chaos to their advantage to sneak lots of "bed time" while we were packing. Moving them overseas will be quite the challenge, so stay tuned.

After everything was gone, we still spent two days cleaning, painting and doing little fixes to our condo. We're putting it on the market to see what happens. Since we may never see it again, we took a (tired) family photo as we were locking the door for the last time:

Right now we are homeless in Buffalo. We packed out some things from my parents house, and are staying at the family home before our drive to DC. We're hoping to say hello to my brother's first child, who should be making an appearance any day now!

On a final note, here's Aidan enjoying his goodbye cupcake at the going away party thrown by Dave's family:

A-100 starts Monday!! Wish us luck!

28 September 2009

Shedding the Packrat

Today I scheduled our pack-out: October 14th. This knowledge caused us great happiness and anxiety at the same time. While it is fantastic to have real dates before us after such a long, uncertain wait for the job offer from State, the reality that we have to pare down our belongings looms large. Really, its a kind of mild panic. I ask myself: "what if I need the copy of my thesis printed on acid-free archive paper?" GONE! Those letters from friends in high school? GONE! Anything of value we are giving away on Freecycle New Haven.

State does allow up to 18,000 pounds of "stuff" to be stored in what I can only imagine is a Indiana-Jones-style warehouse somewhere in Maryland. You can usually take about 7,200 pounds of that with you to each post. However, you only get access to your "stuff" each time you change post. So really, am I taking the ceramic pig I picked up in Chicago to India or Brazil or wherever we end up? No! Do I really want to put it in storage for 20 years? No! So its GONE!

The picture is our coffee table covered in random things that we can't quite bring ourselves to throw out yet. Jack, the chocolate lab, appears undaunted. All he cares is that we remember his food.

I think our pack out is a little early because my brother is about to welcome his first child to the world. We're heading to Buffalo in our Audi Allroad station wagon for a few days to give him some needed support and love, before our final destination near the Foreign Service Institute in Virginia. State only covers housing two days before the start of class, so most people pack out a little later, I assume.

27 September 2009

The Husband

This is Dave (the husband). As a spouse of an FSO, I'll have a lot to say about the process, trials and tribulations, etc. And, yes, I am completely supportive of our newly-complicated lifestyle. It's going to be an adventure however we look at it, and I'm excited.

My background: B.A. in English Literature from Tufts, Master's Degree in Higher Education Administration technically from NYU, but most coursework was done at Harvard. After all of this, I'm a recruiter in Advertising, with inclinations leaning towards interactive media. I also have a good grasp on Project Management in the interactive space, but currently am using none of my professional skills (unless coordinating our move is considered PM). I'm a native Connecticutian (or Nutmegger, if you will), with a stint of 10 years in Boston where I picked up some bad speech habits - i.e. the Boston accent. This has been marred by 6 weeks in Buffalo in the last 2 months, where I picked up the long "a" common to the Midwest (it's easier, and well, I'm lazy).

I'll be posting here and there about our time in D.C., packing out, settling our affairs in the States for a long absence, etc. You know, the fun stuff. Both Joanne and I hope you find this blog useful (or even find it in the first place), informative, funny, and overall worth reading.

More updates to come soon.

Getting the Call ( actually it was an email)

September 4, 2009 started our adventure as a Foreign Service family. I was granted security clearance after eight excruciating months of investigation and a few days later was placed on the register for eligible hires. My offer came immediately, as the State Department is currently in a hiring phase. From start to finish, the whole process took a little more than fourteen months. My chosen specialization is in the Consular Track. I start October 26th.

Our little family includes my husband (Dave), son, Aidan (20 months), and our two dogs, Jack (chocolate lab) and Neuf (beagle). I suppose managing a small child and two dogs will certainly be challenging. Luckily, my husband Dave is up for the adventure, and has supported my ambition to join the State Department every step of the way.

Right now what lies ahead for us remains a bit of a cloud. About a week ago we received a packet of complex paperwork and a guide to our move that the State Department produces (It's Your Move). Although things seem straightforward, I think every FSO-to-be finds themselves flooded with small questions/issues that are only solved with time and trial-and-error.

And therein lies the purpose of this blog. I mean it to be as informational as possible for people interested in the Foreign Service, as well as a way to update family and friends on our progress. We have to wait until October 1, the start of the fiscal year, before we can get our "pack-out" arranged. In the mean time we are opening new accounts, selecting health plans, throwing things out, and giving things away. We'll see what comes next.