Sunday, January 25, 2009

Obamarama Day

The Inauguration is finally over and the 1.8 million strangers who spent four days here stepping on my toes have all gone home! The city is settling back into its normal levels of insanity and I have a new boss. Granted there are several hundred people on the org chart between me and the Secretary of State but I'm definitely down there at the bottom somewhere. From her first meeting with State Department employees, SecState Hillary Clinton, apparently, believes that diplomacy should be conducted by the country's diplomats and not by its Armed Forces. She's even talking about giving us the resources to do our jobs. What can the woman possibly be thinking? Insanity indeed!

It all began on Sunday with a concert (by assorted celebrities) and speech (by Obama) at the Lincoln Memorial. The closest I could get to the event was the WWII Memorial and I never did find the friends I was supposed to meet. Although my cell phone wouldn't work, everyone else's seemed to and I was surrounded by people shouting into phones, "I'm by the fountain!", "I'm wearing a black coat!", I'm right next to the woman waving her hat!" This proved to be only marginally useful because there were several hundred thousand people by the fountain, two thirds of them wearing black coats and every woman in DC was waving her hat! The cell phone shouters, bless their souls, continued to bellow and gesture wildly in the hopes that their black coat and hat waving woman were somehow distinguishable from all the others. A mating orgy of a million geese would have shown more decorum.

The 500,000 people in my immediate area and I were watching everything on a Jumbotron and it occurred to me that a) I would see and hear everything much better by sitting on my couch watching my tv and b) all these people were going to leave the Mall at the same time as soon as the concert ended. So I bolted and caught the speech on tv while enjoying a cigar and a cold drink. But I was there, at least for the start of the concert.

Half a Million or so of my new best friends!

On Monday night I put on my tux, snapped the red silk suspenders into place and went to the Illinois Inaugural Ball with some friends from Islamabad. The Ball was held at the Renaissance Hotel and to get in we stood in line to get into a line to get to the line going into the hotel. At one point we made it into a tent where, six across, we shuffled back and forth in a snaking line to the door. Once we actually got into the hotel, we were shunted into a line for the mandatory coat check and then into a line to the escalators going down to the first of three floors hosting the Ball. Obama and Oprah were both there, but we couldn't get to the floor they were on. So my fear of having to stand around making small talk with Obama was for nothing. Still, we had a lot of fun just being there. There were open bars everywhere and plates of finger food appeared here and there. Although we could get to the bars, the food trays disappeared like grain under a cloud of locusts. The tickets to the Ball were $300 and, once in, the drinks were free so my friend Aidan Liddle and I made it our goal to drink that sum in brandy. I finally admitted defeat and went home but I'm pretty sure Aidan accomplished his mission. I got home about 2:00am, caught a few hours sleep and then headed back to the Mall for the Inauguration.

I got to the Metro station across the street from my apartment at about 7:00am to give myself plenty of time to get downtown. At the station, I discovered that the only way to get onto a train to DC was to board one heading west (away from DC), go to the end of the line and get on an eastbound train there. Even then, I was standing and jammed up against everyone else. At one point we were so packed in that I thought I was going to have to "do the right thing" by the unfortunate woman standing right in front of me. Fortunately for her, the doors opened just as I was about to offer to marry her and 250,000 people got out of our car which gave us room to separate slightly. I needed to get to the Federal Center station but we were informed that they had shut down that station and the two before it because there were so many people on the street that people in the stations couldn't exit and there was no more room on the platforms for any additional arrivals. I hopped off about a mile from the spot where I was to meet a friend and began to work my way towards that area on foot.

I had two tickets in the reserved section and even though they were for the farthest back reserved section they got us into this tiny exclusive area. Enough people to populate a small midwestern state also had tickets for this 'exclusive' area so, once again, we made many many new friends. My friend and I connected outside the gate, against all odds, and we shuffled forward inches at a time until we found places to stand that had a fairly decent view of the Jumbotron. The hard part was over and all we had to do was stand perfectly still in our six square inches of turf for about three hours in the freezing cold until the ceremony began. My friend had hand and foot warmers while I resorted to shivering uncontrollably to keep warm.

Hand and foot warmers functioning perfectly!

There's Obama! See, he's in a black coat standing right beside a woman waving her hat!!

Being there was worth all the hassle and discomfort. It was quite an amazing experience to be in the crowd watching this Inauguration. There were 1.76 million people on the Mall (I arrived at this figure by counting their feet and dividing by two) and people were for the most part courteous and pleasant to each other. The crowd cheered Obama into office and then began the six inch shuffle towards the exits. At one point we were standing in the middle of an intersection unable to move in any direction for about fifteen minutes. People were amazingly civil through all this crush and frustration. I skipped the Metro and walked home. The roads and bridges had all been closed to traffic so the walk home was actually very pleasant once I got out of the main press of humanity. I made it home in time to catch the parade on tv and it was a somewhat strange experience to have my couch all to myself.

The Jumbotron Inaugural Speech.

The Inauguration was pure magic. I'm really happy that I was able to be here to see it live (by that I mean, of course, on the Jumbotron)! Expectations are incredibly high for Obama but I'll be content if he can manage to get us back onto a positive track in the next four years. I'm not asking for miracles. Of course, if we begin to use diplomacy instead of guns we run a very real risk of having peace break out.

Thursday, January 01, 2009

Back At FSI (Foreign Service Institute)

So now I'm a 'veteran' junior entry level Foreign Service Officer. I've got a tour under my belt and I'm being readied for my second foray into the world of international diplomacy. There are five career tracks called 'cones' in the Foreign Service, Political, Economic, Public Diplomacy, Management and Consular. I, for example, am Management coned and my tour as a GSO in Islamabad was 'within cone'. However, it is perfectly acceptable to work 'out of cone' and for every entry-level officer not Consular coned it is mandatory at least once because within our first two tours we must serve at least one year as a Consular Officer. I bid on a two year tour in Rome that will allow me to serve as an Economics Officer for the first year and a Consular Officer for the second.

As an Economics Officer, I'll be gathering information on specific sectors of the Italian economy, analyzing that information and drafting carefully considered and well thought out cables meant to convey that information back to the Department of State. So they tell me. I hope to do much of this 'information gathering' in the cafes that line the Via Veneto and I intend to filter a lot of the information through a nice glass or two of chianti. I just completed a three week course on "How To Be An Economics Officer", so I'm ready. Talk to people, write cables; talk to more people, write more cables. The talking to people part is undoubtedly where the chianti comes into play.

During my year as a Consular Officer, I'll be working in one of three areas; Immigrant Visas, Non-Immigrant Visas or American Citizen Services. People intending to come to the US to live permanently need an immigrant visa; visitors, tourists, students, business people or anyone coming on a temporary basis need a non-immigrant visa; and, Americans requiring any sort of assistance become the responsibility of the ACS unit. The Consular training course is six weeks long, covers all three areas and is extremely detail oriented. I won't actually begin consular work in Rome until the end of 2010 so there is a very slight possibility that I'll have forgotten one or two of the less important details by then. Fortunately, I have friends in the course who are actually taking notes and they can expect a call from me in 2010.

Over the Christmas/New Year's holiday, we had some 'no progress' days at FSI. These are, as the name suggests, days when no classes are scheduled but which must be accounted for in one way or another. Our options were to use accrued annual leave, report to FSI at 9:00am and 2:00pm every day to sign in and then leave or find gainful employment within the Department of State for those days. Because my status at FSI is 'Post to Post' I am given per diem allowances to help defray the cost of my temporary stay in Washington. Under State rules, I lose those per diems for any day I take annual leave. If the days of leave bracket a weekend, then I lose the per diems for the weekend too. So taking annual leave to cover my 'no progress' days would have been financially painful. Reporting to FSI at 9:00 and 2:00 to sign a register seemed bureaucratically absurd and a waste of time. So I found gainful employment elsewhere at State.

For four consecutive days I was the Italy Desk Officer. Desk Officers are responsible for channeling information to and from their assigned countries and some countries are more information intense than others. Italy, for example, was fairly quiet over Christmas while Israel was hopping (in this case 'hopping' is a euphemism for bombing the Gaza strip). I was given an opportunity to sit in for the real Desk Officer who was on leave and it sounded like more fun than reporting to FSI every day at 9:00 and 2:00. So, on each of the four 'no progress' days I put on a suit and tie and went to work at the Harry S. Truman Department of State offices in Washington, by God, DC, just like the big kids. It was an interesting and valuable experience because as an Economics Officer in Rome, I'll be interacting with the Desk on a daily basis. The cafeteria at the HST bulding is also much better than the one at FSI.

The most interesting thing to happen while I was on the Desk was a demonstration outside the building by Palestinian sympathizers who were trying to bring attention to the situation in Gaza. They were gathered directly below our windows and were well organized and quite peaceful. I spent some time trying to think of a sign I could hold up in the window that might incite them to violence but became distracted by actual work and then it was time to go home and my experience as the Italy Desk Officer was over. Now I'm back at FSI, in what we don't seem to refer to as 'progress days', and will finish the Consular training program in February.

Right after Consular training, I'll begin taking Italian lessons full time. All Foreign Service Officers are required by law to be fluent in one or more foreign languages in order to attain tenure. Therefore, it's critical for me to pass Italian at a fluent (3/3) level in order to get off of language probation and qualify for tenure. Although this does add some stress and pressure to the situation, I'm really looking forward to learning Italian and have expressed my willingness to serve my third tour (the one after Rome) in any country that speaks Italian. That opens the door to Italy, San Marino and the Vatican. I'm flexible.

I have a ticket to the Illinois Inaugural Ball on October 19th. I have a proper tuxedo and cummerbund (but am lacking suspenders at the moment) and my shoes are polished and ready. I'm told that, of the many Balls that night, the Illinois Ball is the one to attend because the President-Elect will certainly make an appearance there. A group of us will be going together so I don't have to worry about standing around by myself and being forced to make small talk with the Prez-to-be.

This picture was taken at the British High Commission's Monsoon Ball in Islamabad. The same tux and friends will be going with me to the Illinois Inaugural Ball.

Shades of Bulgaria. Today when I got home from FSI, the elevators in my building were in the decidedly non-functioning mode. This happened regularly in Stara Zagora but now there are two minor differences. First, in Stara Zagora I lived on the eighth floor while in Arlington I have to hike up to the sixteenth floor and, second, the rent here is approximately ten times higher than it was in Bulgaria. If the elevators aren't repaired soon I fully expect to have a team of sherpas available to carry me up. As a result of climbing sixteen flights of stairs, I have come to realize how badly out of shape I am and I've made a resolution to do something about it.

In the corner of my living room, behind a very nice folding screen and tucked away beside the tv is a treadmill. It's in the upright 'stowed away' position and my plan is to lower it into the 'ready to use' position in the next day or so. Because these machines are quite complicated and can be very dangerous if used by the uninitiated, I plan to read the manual until I've mastered all the controls, say for the next week or so. Eventually, I'll take to standing on it from time to time when it isn't running. I think of this as the acclimation stage. Sooner or later I'll fire it up and begin exercising. This is the self-inflicted pain stage. I figure that by March or so I'll be running like the wind on the damn thing. Hopefully, by then the elevators will be fixed!

By August, I plan to be in shape again, know the vagaries of consular law and economics and speak perfect Italian. Of course, I can always call my buddy Barack if I need to apply for a waiver on the whole perfect Italian thing. Sure, we're tight, we socialize, small talk, small talk, small talk, the man won't leave me alone.