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.


Linda G said...

Larry - I have just signed up to take the Foreign Service exam and your blog is SO helpful. It is scaring me and encouraging me at the same time, while making me laugh out loud. I hope, if I make it, I can work with people like you! Linda G.

Anonymous said...

Your blog keeps getting better and better! Your older articles are not as good as newer ones you have a lot more creativity and originality now keep it up!

Anonymous said...

So I'm curious what exactly was covered in your Economics training. Would you mind sharing?