Saturday, April 21, 2007

Urdu Is A 'Superhard' Language

At noon on Friday I became a fully commissioned officer in the United States Foreign Service. Undersecretary Nicholas Burns, the number three person in the Department of State after Rice and Negroponte, issued the oath of office to the 133rd class of Foreign Service Officers in the Benjamin Franklin Room on the eighth floor of the State Department building. Interestingly enough, the oath we give is the same oath used to swear in the president. We are sworn to support and defend the constitution of the United States and are now proud members of America's diplomatic corps. As our instructors constantly drill into us, when we're abroad the headlines will always begin, "U.S. Diplomat, Larry Gemmell, was found wandering the streets of Kafiristan in a state of bewilderment, wearing a small yellow hat and leading an obviously embarrassed pig on a leash". The message, of course, is that we will be identified first and foremost as U.S. Diplomats, as if me waving my Dip Passport around and screaming, "I have immunity, I have immunity!", would leave any doubt.

The photo of me at the podium is just an illustration of what I'd look like if I were the Secretary of State. The picture has been artfully cropped to exclude the two security gorillas closing in on me from either side. Subsequent photos, if they had been taken, would have shown 'U.S. Diplomat, Larry Gemmell' being dragged unceremoniously off the podium and sent in chastised shame back to his seat.

On Thursday we wrapped up the Orientation phase of our training, turned in our State Department laptops and said goodbye to the Orientation staff. For seven weeks we've been a group, chugging along together like a team but when the Swearing-in Ceremony ended today, we had just finished the last group activity in which the 133rd will ever participate. From the moment we were given our first assignments, we've all become pretty focused on our own futures and pretty anxious to get on with them. Each of us has an individually tailored training schedule designed to provide us with the tools to succeed at our first overseas posting. On Monday, for example, I begin Area Studies Asia. This is an examination of the history, culture, people and problems in that region of the world. In the coming months I'll also get job-specific courses necessary to perform the duties of a General Services Officer such as Acquisitions, Logistics, Real Estate and Contracts. I'm also scheduled for Duty Officer training, Emergency Medical training and a couple of FS computer courses. Towards the end of my training program I'll receive a security course that's mandatory for personnel headed to Iraq, Afghanistan or Pakistan and is known fondly around the State Department as the "Crash & Bang" course. And then I'll begin to study Urdu.

The Foreign Service Institute (FSI) has the finest language training program in the world. It is mandated by law that all Foreign Service Officers must demonstrate proficiency in at least one foreign language to receive tenure. The FSI has created a standardized test to determine one's ability to speak, read and understand any language in the world. The test takes about two hours and consists of speaking with a native speaker and reading several texts in the language of choice. I took the test on Wednesday in Bulgarian and found it to be a very interesting experience. By 'interesting' I mean, of course, excruciatingly painful, demeaning and degrading. The Native Speaker and I failed to achieve any semblance of rapport and, apparently, failed to communicate on any level which surprised me because I thought we were actually having a conversation at one point. I may have, inadvertently, chosen an inappropriate word or two during the question and answer part of the test. My clue that this may have happened was the look of shock, horror and disgust I got from the NS and her immediate refusal to speak another word to me. Lack of communication proved to be somewhat of a handicap when it came to scoring my efforts in the verbal part of the test. I also failed to achieve any meaningful connection with the written portion of the test, although I did have more rapport with the pieces of paper than with the NS. So, after two and one half years of Peace Corps language classes, private tutors and struggling along in the country, I scored a 1/1 on my Bulgarian test. In order to come off of language probation and qualify for tenure, I needed a 2/2.

My colleague, Denise Shen, took her test in Mandarin the same day and we met in the cafeteria to commiserate. I was still sulking and told her that I'd only scored a 1/1 and she said that she'd only scored a 1+/1 on her test. "Yes," I said, "but I spent two and one half years in Bulgaria."

"Larry," she said, "I'm Chinese!"

It's nice to have friends who can cheer you up.

The FSI divides the languages of the world into categories. Languages that are easier than others to learn are called, diplomatically, World Languages. I guess it would be insulting to some countries to say that their language is 'easy'. French and Spanish are a couple of World Languages and while the French seem proud of their reputation for being 'easy', their language is not. In order to come off of language probation in a World Language you have to score a 3/3. I can assure you that there are Spaniards and Frenchmen who don't speak or read their own languages at a 3/3 level. The next group up is the 'hard' languages. Bulgarian is a hard language, as are Russian, Polish and Czech. The qualifying level for 'hard' languages is a 2/2. That's a 2 in speaking and a 2 in reading.

The final group of languages are the 'superhard' languages. Chinese, Arabic and Urdu are examples of 'superhard' languages. Yes, Urdu. The bar on 'superhard' languages is lowered to 2/1. The full language course for Urdu runs about 44 weeks. I get a six week course to familiarize me with the language and then a year of working with our Pakistani employees at the embassy to hone my skills. How tough can it be? One hundred fifty million Pakistanis, some of them quite small children, speak Urdu effortlessly. So my plan will be to speak only Urdu every day while I'm engaging in facilities and motorpool management. Because the traffic in Islamabad is reputed to be among the worst in the world as far as observance of any of the rules of the road is concerned, I'm sure to learn a colorful phrase or two and this time I intend to fully commit them to memory so they don't suddenly pop out during an FSI language test.

Now that I know that I'll be at the FSI until late October or early November, I'll begin to look around for a more permanent apartment to rent. The weather is getting nicer and I want to spend a lot more time on the weekends exploring Washington, DC. I have six months to get to know the city and complete all my training. Then I'll be off to an incredibly interesting and exotic part of the world where I can, hopefully, make a contribution of some kind.

A final word on Diplomatic Immunity, as one of our instructors put it, "If you find yourself in a situation where you're wondering if your diplomatic immunity will cover you, you're already somewhere you should never have gone."

The gentleman in the photo with me is Ambassador Harry Thomas, a senior official in the State Department who spends his mornings briefing Condoleeza Rice and his afternoons being, among other things, our class mentor.

Friday, April 13, 2007

Geneva!!! not where I'm going. However, one of my colleagues is going there and I'm really happy for him. Anyway, today was Flag Day, the day we all received our first assignments. The day's second event very early this morning was a meeting on the Hill. That's Congress for those of you who aren't familiar with Washington DC. The first event was actually breakfast at Annie's house. She is one of my colleagues who lives in DC and she invited the other forty-three of us over for breakfast since she lives just a block or two from the Capitol Building. She deserves a medal for hosting forty-three donut eating, mimosa drinking, coffee swilling entry level Foreign Service Officers with topics of conversation that ranged from ... "Where do you think you're going?" ... all the way to ... "I hope I get sent to (insert country of choice)".

After breakfast we marched over to the Rayburn Building for our meeting and listened to three pretty good speakers describe the current relationship between the State Department and Congress. It boils down to this; 'we do foreign policy, they hold the purse strings. However, sometimes they want to do foreign policy and they still control the purse strings'. Part of our jobs, especially as entry level officers, will be the care and handling of CoDels or Congressional Delegations. Surprisingly enough it seems that it will be every bit as damaging to our careers to lose the Speaker of the House's luggage as it would be to lose the President's. Who knew? It's ironic that I, who worked in the airline industry for many years and know from experience that there are only two types of baggage..carry-on and lost, will now be responsible for ensuring that senior government officials don't have to buy an emergency tube of toothpaste from the nearest 7-11 or borrow underwear from the entry level officer closest to them in size.

After our meeting on the Hill, we had a couple of free hours to ramp up the stress levels before our Flag ceremony. I ran home to my computer to see if I could pick up a new pitcher for my fantasy baseball team, but others just wasted this free time. Then, at 3:00 o'clock we gathered at the Field House at the campus and the festivities began. All the senior officials from the Foreign Service Institute were there and with much ceremony they carried in a table with the flags of forty-four countries stuck into little stands. The head of the Career Development Officers pulled each flag out in turn, we shouted out the country and then he announced the lucky student's name. In several cases there was more than one job being filled at the same post so he stated the job and then the student's name.

It may interest you to know that the flag of Pakistan is green and white with a crescent and a star on it and while he was able to pronounce Islamabad perfectly Dean sort of slurred his way through my name and Larry isn't all that difficult to say. So, I'm going to Islamabad, not Geneva. They are alike in many ways apart from Geneva being in Switzerland and Islamabad being in Pakistan and the Swiss speak French and German and the Pakistanis speak that other world language, Urdu and the Swiss have a history remaining neutral and the Pakistanis ... don't.

Fortunately for me, I much prefer the Islamabad position. The truth is that I couldn't be happier with my posting and the competition for this job was pretty serious. I'll be in training in Washington until the end of October and then I'll leave for Islamabad to begin work around the beginning of November. I'll be the GSO or General Services Officer at our embassy. This position is an administrative one rather than a political job. I won't be involved with political, economic or consular affairs, I'll be working to keep the facilities and infrastructure trouble-free. Ironic again, isn't it, that I, who has been known to drive in a screw with a hammer because it was faster, will now be responsible for the maintenance and care of hundreds of millions of dollars worth of government property?

Orientation ends next Friday and then we'll begin the second phase of our training and then we'll depart for our posts. I for one am already practicing saying, "I'm sorry Mr. President, your baggage seems to be on a camel headed for Karachi. I've got a pair of undershorts here you can use if you'll just hold this screw for me while I hammer it in?"

Wednesday, April 11, 2007


While our ceremonial swearing-in day is probably the most significant event of the entire seven week orientation program, it is still an afterthought to tomorrow. Tomorrow has occupied our thoughts and conversations every single day since Day One. On Day One we were sworn into the Foreign Service (so we could be entered onto the payroll), herded like lost lambs to our classroom and home for the next seven weeks, plunked into pre-assigned seats and handed our initial stacks of paperwork.

Then we were given our 'bidlist' and the most interesting thing in the world became that piece of white paper. Printed on it were approximately fifty Foreign Service positions located everywhere from Abuja to Sao Paulo. We spent the next week or so obsessing over the list and learning how to construct meaningful bids. Although our first two tours will be 'directed' or assigned tours, we were still given quite a bit of input on where we'd like to go or which job we'd prefer to do. Each of us was also given a private session with a Career Development Officer to make a case for our selections.

So, for the past six and one half weeks amid lessons on Public Diplomacy, Diplomatic History and Privileges and Immunity, we all found time to put together our own list of where each of us is certain to be going. Two of the women in the class are married to Foreign Service Officers and actually do know that they are going to Amman and Phnom Penh. The rest of us are using deductive reasoning and absolutely baseless wishing to try to convince each other that we can only be going to.....somewhere we want.

For the past six weeks, no matter where a conversation began, it always ended up in the same, where do you think you'll go? Finding out where we're being sent isn't the only thing we'll learn at Flag Day tomorrow. Along with our first post, we'll be given our training schedule and can finally make some plans for after Orientation. Members of the 133rd A-100 will begin leaving for their posts as early as June and as late as next March. The job and language training required will determine the schedule.

So, tomorrow we'll assemble in the Field House and be called up one by one to be handed a flag from the country of our first post. I'm hoping for a post with a huge pay differential, a very light workload, and great living conditions, near a beautiful beach. Do we have an embassy in Maui?

Sunday, April 01, 2007

Cherry Blossom Time

This, for those of you who don't know, is the Jefferson Memorial during the Cherry Blossom Festival. A couple of my colleagues organized a day to go and see the Kite Festival at the Washington Memorial, the Cherry Blossoms at the Jefferson Memorial and the Slavic Festival in some courtyard down a street by a highway. The weather was perfect and a small group of us wandered around the Mall and the side streets of DC for several hours. It was a great way to stretch our legs after a long week of class. The kites were just what you'd imagine, little black dots way up in the sky. Many of them were, apparently, quite beautiful for people with either binoculars or telephoto vision. There were huddled clumps of kite 'enthusiasts' doing what enthusiasts of any ilk tend to do...beating their hobby to death with expertise. Somehow, a few small children managed to get ahold of a couple of kites and threatened to bring the whole kite flying world to its knees by simply throwing their kites into air and having fun. A man spoke without pause into a microphone and sounded as if he were speaking in Klingon, but with great enthusiasm and much expertise.

So we wandered around dodging kites and kids and generally enjoyed the morning. Looking towards the Lincoln Memorial from the Washington Memorial we were overcome with the same thought and three of us called out for "Gennnnnny" from "Forrest Gump" with one voice. We 'B' Diplomats alright, but not necessarily mature diplomats. Then we headed over to the Tidal Basin to check out the cherry trees. They were in full bloom, as advertised, and while we admired the beauty of Spring, one of the group was overcome by her allergies and went home.

From the Cherry Blossoms, we headed over to the Slavic Festival. It was being co-hosted by several embassies, including the Bulgarian Embassy so I was quite excited about the almost certain prospect of rakia and shopska salad. Imagine my disappointment when I found only a single card table booth with a couple of brochures and not a drop to drink anywhere in sight. I talked to the woman at the booth for a few minutes and managed to get the name of a decent Bulgarian restaurant in Arlington, so the trip wasn't a complete waste of time. There was food being served at the Festival and there were several folk-singing and folk-dancing groups but none of them were from Bulgaria. There was a quasi-Chalga singer, but she was from Ukraine. I spoke briefly with the Deputy Chief of Mission from the Bulgarian Embassy and he too seemed disappointed that they hadn't brought along any rakia. He gave me permission to take this picture with the Bulgarian flag and we somberly shook hands and said, "Dovishdane".

In the evening, I joined another group of colleagues to watch the Georgetown/Ohio State basketball game. We found a bar in Georgetown with standing room and drank our beers surrounded by rabid student fans. There was a police presence in the Georgetown streets of a magnitude exceeded only in Fallujah or Baghdad and it was absolutely clear that they intended to keep the lid on any over-exuberant celebrations. Unfortunately, Georgetown lost and the air went right out of that balloon so the evening ended with a whimper rather than a bang. Still, it was a nice change of pace day for me and, as I'm not really a "riot" sort of guy, I enjoyed the quiet walk home and smoked my cigar in peace.

I'm getting to know some of my colleagues a bit better and I'm enjoying all the time I get to spend with them. As a group we seem to have moved from positions of "I really hope I get sent to (insert country here) and I really don't want to go to (insert some other country here)" to "I don't care where I'm sent as long as they send me somewhere!" The more we learn, the more we realize that we just aren't able to judge which are the 'good' posts and which are the ones to be avoided. While it's easy to figure out which parts of the world we'd like to either live in or avoid, we just don't know much about the morale at the individual posts. The staff at the posts are the most important ingredient in determining whether or not our time there will be pleasant or miserable. Until we've been in the service for awhile, however, we won't really know anything about the various staff reputations. For example, we've been told that Lagos has a great staff and extremely high morale while a couple of western european embassies have morale 'issues'. Surprisingly enough, this information did not lead to a stampede in bidding for Lagos. My strategy in bidding has been to bid for all the Management jobs and Consular jobs in any part of the world I think would be interesting. One of our first two assignments will be a Consular tour and I'm looking forward to mine. Vice-Consul Gemmell in Florence sounds about right to me.

On April 13th we are being given a reception by the corps of retired foreign service officers. In their wisdom, the powers that be have made me the coordinator for the event. You'd have to ask yourself why they have so little regard for the retired foreign service officers. Anyway, I plan to coordinate like crazy just as soon as I figure out exactly what that entails. Foreign Service...broadening my horizons.

We begin Week Five tomorrow and baseball season starts tonight. How much better can one man's life be?