Saturday, November 12, 2016

Handshake Day: The Day Formerly Known as Flag Day

I often  joke that I joined the Foreign Service so that I could finally live in a house with more than one bathroom.  Another reason is because I always need something on the horizon to look forward to, to wonder about, to plan for.  I endlessly spin the "What If?" wheel and try different lives on for size.  This is why the State Department's world map of our overseas posts is hung in front of our treadmill.  Therefore, while bidding season is certainly an anxiety-inducing process, it's the kind of anxiety that comes with a toy surprise at the end. 

Our first two tours were announced with an exciting Flag Day ceremony. I learned of our third tour (my second as an FSO), through an email that simultaneously was sent to thousands of officers worldwide who were bidding at that time.  In Juarez, with its crew of 48 entry-level officers, this made for yelps, gasps, smiles (no tears that I saw) and a lot of leaving our interview window (and some perplexed applicants) to hug each other.  But the mid-level process of informing bidders of their assignments is a horse of a different color. Although 2016 debuted the improved and abbreviated bidding season, it still d r a g g e d   o u t  over a week leading up to "Handshake Day" as bureaus made decisions of their top candidate(s), checked in with candidates to confirm interest and then re-shuffled their decks as needed. Prohibited from offering a final handshake (read: JOB) until October 31st this year, many bidders were pre-informed of their Most Favorite Bidder status for certain jobs in the week prior to Halloween.   

The "street view" of this process, however, was that day by day I heard from friends worldwide who had/had not gotten these "air kiss" emails (see this post for what that means).  Monday became Tuesday became Thursday without receiving any word from Consular Affairs, despite staring at my BlackBerry's little red New Message notification light and calculating and then re-calculating the time difference between Eastern and Eastern European Time.  Finally, just before going to bed on Thursday, the email arrived. It said that my bid for a particular position was being most favorably viewed (or something like that). 

Therefore, in keeping with the Flag Day tradition, I'd like to announce that we will be heading to....

The Netherlands Antilles?

Let me give you another clue:

Yup - back to the Mother Ship in Washington, DC. 

So now let's talk about some difficult stuff. Where to start?

First, when that BlackBerry red light blinked and I furiously typed in my password, saw a message from Consular Bidders and quickly scanned it, I was in our living room, winding down the evening and watching a bit of TV with my husband and my visiting mother and step father.  We'd just seen something - I don't remember what - that prompted my husband to start joking around and singing "Vamos a la playa!" because first on our bid list was a job in a popular island tourist destination in the Caribbean. This is a busy post with a huge need for consular officers, for which I already have the required the language score and for which the timing of our departure from Bucharest coincided nicely with the job's start date.  Meaning: I thought I had a very good shot at it. 

As I read the short message and saw that instead I was the top candidate for a domestic job ranked second on my list, I knew I had only a moment before I had to break his heart. 

You would now be correct in thinking, "Well then why did you bid on this job if you really wanted to go elsewhere?"  Because I had to list ten viable options. Because it's a great job. Because the position description, the conversations I had with the chief of the unit, the second in charge and the incumbent currently occupying the chair all made it sound like it was designed for me, my professional background and my personal interests. Because back in 2012 when I first saw someone who was doing this job - I thought to myself, "I want to do THAT!" 

That's why.  

The rest of the message said something like, "Where does this position rank on your bid list?" meaning, "And do you like us, too, or should we move on?"  I read it out loud to my husband and family and then in private conversation in our bedroom, my husband and I agonized over how to word my reply. I didn't want to lose this opportunity, but also wanted to let them know that, ahem, we really wanted to stay abroad. Essentially, this is a game of The Price is Right.  You contestant can have this beautiful washer-dryer set in front of you - OR - what's behind Curtain Number Two!  Because I certainly could have at that moment responded by saying, ehhhh - no thanks.  

Would this have endeared myself to the folks in Consular Affairs after selling myself so confidently for this position?  (I think that answer is obvious.)  

Would I have then been re-shuffled into the deck to become one of the unassigned on Handshake Day?  Possibly.  

Would I then be assigned to somewhere we really would prefer not to go at this time? Also possible. 

Did I swear to be worldwide available when I was hired? Yes. 

Had my husband and I discussed the eventual reality of going back to DC? Yes.  

So - what is it?

Let me now go back to the top of my posting.  Besides the jokes about joining the FS to have a house with more than one bathroom, I really joined so that we could live abroad and do really cool work at the same time. This was our plan from the day we met: to have an ex-pat life of fresh experiences and adventures, of feeling alive when faced with the joys and difficulties that come with living in new environments. But going back to the States, we'll just be regular ole' Americans. My husband will be a middle-aged guy looking for a job in a very competitive market with six years away from his usual profession and a desire not to return to that line of work anyway. One person's salary would barely cover our expenses in DC and drain all savings. More important - my husband has his own sense of pride and value that is very much tied to his being a productive member of society, having meaningful daily activities and the ability to carry his own financial burden. 

Further, moving to DC comes with some icky logistics. Not only does it mean we pay for our own housing in one of the most expensive U.S. cities, but also all the belongings and furniture the State Department kindly stored for us when we joined nearly six years ago will be delivered to our apartment within 90 days of our arrival. Please picture us in 600 square feet with cardboard boxes of text books, high school yearbooks and gardening equipment draped in colorful blankets. And paying 60% of our salary for the pleasure. 
I'm thinking...


Just add a litter box and two geriatric cats to the picture.

Please read this not as First World Whining, but as a real Foreign Service life tale with tentacles that reach out to zap sensitive nerves involving family member lives and difficult marital/family decisions.  (And we're not even a family of five trying to do the same thing - I can't even imagine what that'd be like.)

In the end, I am naturally an optimistic person who trusts that every turn in the road will bring unexpected pleasures.  We have always loved living in DC, a city that offers everything one could want (so long as they can pay for it and don't mind sharing it with millions of others).  I am excited about the actual job I will be doing and trust that when one does what they're passionate about - good things come.  I also have faith in my husband that he will have a more independent life and will be able to feel like an individual in his own right as opposed to the Trailing Spouse.  And maybe after all, it will really be like this:

Saturday, October 8, 2016

Bidding Mid-Level - May the Hunger Games Begin

Image result for signposts for far destinations

Ahhh yes, it's that time of year again! 

The trees are mellowing from vibrant greens to muted browns with yellow highlights. The sunlight has a softer, less brilliant feel and the morning commute requires a jacket.

No, no - not autumn - it's BIDDING time of year! 

The time of year that affects whole swathes of the Embassy at once, regardless of rank.  The time of year when we all have to start jockeying for our next job. Bumping into a coworker from another section in the hallway about now and the conversation is likely to go something like this: 

"Urgh... I'm bidding now..." to which you must offer a sympathetic nod.

"What's looking good to you? Where're you thinking of heading?" 

A list of continents, countries, specific jobs or simply, "Probably DC" comes next, which then will generally prompt: "Hey, my former boss/coworker/A-100 classmate is now chief of the whichever section there, at least I think she's still there. Let's see we were together in Ottawa in 2010, transferred in 2013, then language- yup, she'd still be there. I'd be happy to put in a good word for you." 

And so it goes - welcome to the world of Mid-Level Bidding!

Let me back up just a bit for you.  As an FSO or an FSS, the first two tours are directed. This doesn't mean we don't bid - we certainly do (full description here)  but from the third tour onward, and once tenured, we're considered to be mid-level and therefore the process is completely different. 

I'll walk you through the step-by-step, but be warned that it's as simple as this:

It all begins when the bid list comes out. 

Hahahaha! Almost fooled you!  
See, actually it starts well before the "official" bidding season (and for the more compulsive among us, this was like a year ago) with a scroll through the Department's Projected Vacancies street of dreams and nightmares. This is a list of all positions that are projected to be vacant (hence the name) during a particular transfer season. In my case, this is summer 2017.  In the FS we have only two seasons: summer and winter. There is no such thing as spring or fall bidding.  The summer season has the vast majority of jobs as anyone with school-aged children wants to move while the kids are on break to not interrupt the school year.  (Come to think of it, I don't know how this fares for kids in the Southern Hemisphere, but that's something for another time.)  From this list we can see what may, probably, possibly be available when we'll be leaving our current posts.  Why all the qualifiers? Because so many things can change. People leave their post early (curtail); people request to stay longer (extend); jobs are moved from one job classification to another (ceded); jobs are eliminated and jobs are created. Therefore the Projected Vacancies list is considered very fluid, and nothing is set until the official start of the bidding season, which just happened a few weeks ago. Therefore, the Projected Vacancies list just gives you an IDEA of what MIGHT be available. For me, sometimes it's the carrot that keeps me going. 
Finally, they wave the green flag for the official start to the budding season, the real bid list is active, and we're off to the Lobbying and Bidding races!  

Lobbying essentially means "applying" for a position you like, but naturally it is a multi-faceted process involving many sub-steps and side roads.  The object of the game is to submit a list of five to 10 jobs which are appropriate for your job level, language skills, timing of arrival, required experience and - of course - somewhere you might actually WANT to go and where your family won't leave you if you get sent there.  A senior officer once told me, "When you start your career - all you care about is where you're going. Later on, it's about the job you'll be doing. And finally, you just care about who you'll work with."  So, keeping ALL this in mind, this first elimination round will take your list from perhaps hundreds of possibilities (at my level at least), down to about 20 you could stomach.  
We start like this:

Image result for flickr salmon swimming upstream

With this shortened list, the next step is to contact the people who currently have the jobs you like (the incumbent) and ask them what it's like. You'll want to know not only about the work itself, but also the rest of the package: job opportunities for family members, pet importation, the city, the country, the work atmosphere, available schools, the medical situation etc... You'll bug the incumbent for some of these details, but the rest you'll research on your own either through the Department's resources, word of mouth over lunch table conversations, or through online resources, like Talesmag. If after all that, the spot sounds like it might be a fit, you'll also ask the incumbent who the decision maker is/will be as you'll need this for the next step.

Next, you'll have to contact the decision maker(s) to actually lobby for the position. Here is where the process goes in a million different directions, because this now depends on whether the bureau in Washington (which could be a regional bureau or one broken out by a special purpose, called a "functional bureau"), or the actual post have a say in who gets selected for the job.  Frequently it means contacting BOTH the bureau and the post.  As a first timer to lobbying, there is all sorts of awkwardness about just HOW to go about this. Is it just an email? A cold-call? How formal? How casual? Do I attach resume and list of references or wait to be asked? What if they don't respond - when do I bug them again? Do we have anyone in common I can refer to as an ice-breaker? If so - did that person get along well with this person or would I be shooting myself in the foot to lobby Santa Claus by telling him that my good friend Mr. Scrouge thought I'd be a great fit for this job?

In the meanwhile, don't forget to request your 360s. 
Your 360s - or in the Consular Affairs Bureau, the "CBAT" Consular Bidding and Assessment Tool - are references from peers, supervisors and subordinates with whom you've worked and who can honestly judge your ability to do the job and whether or not you play nice with others.  Things like: Is she detail-oriented or big-picture? Is she better in a team or working alone? Does she contribute to a positive work environment? And finally... Would you work with this person again?  

Okay, fair enough. So these 360s are sent to a central repository where all decision makers can access them right?  Nice try pal, but it ain't that easy. 

Depending on which/how many bureaus one is lobbying, you may have to request multiple DIFFERENT types of 360s from all your colleagues, bosses and supervisees, each with different types of questions and methods of submission. Some are multiple choice, some want narrative, some use comparisons and some all of the above. And remember, not only are you going through bidding yourself, you're also writing these things again and again for others.  It's just the way it is. 

Okay, so now we've narrowed down the bid list to five to ten jobs that meet all the criteria.  Now we're looking something like this:
Image result for flickr salmon swimming upstream

I'm learning that one should really only lobby hard for jobs they really want.  Because besides feeling like a two-faced liar selling yourself by listing reasons why you are perfect for the job and why they should pick YOU YOU YOU, you don't want to get the decision makers all excited about you if frankly, you're just not that into them.  So you throw you hat in the ring for up to ten jobs, but maybe you only lay on the charm for your top few picks.  

As the bidding season progresses, you'll begin to interview for some of the spots. This is a bit like speed-dating over the phone and across the time zones and it's awkward as each party tries to read the other to determine if they're a good match in both skills and personality for the job.  But at the same time, you want to know if you stand a chance or whether the job is out of your league.  The closer all get to the decision-making wire (aka "Handshake Day"), the more the decision makers and the applicants start to feel each other out (not UP!) about how serious they are. Something informally called an "air kiss" may be offered to let the #1 pick know that they are #1 and if it is reciprocal, they could expect to be offered the job.

Which brings us to Handshake Day.

Yes, it is actually called that.  This year, it will fall on Halloween, which I find quite ironic as truly some of us will get treats and some of us will get a rock.

Or, to continue my prior analogy:

Image result for bear and salmon flick

Only now, being caught by the bear is a GOOD thing and not the end of life as you know it.

Unfortunately, Handshake Day is not a happy day for everyone, and there will be a great many (great) people who are NOT eaten by the bear and who will just slide back down into the pool below to try again with another bear.  You see, there are far more salmon than there are bears, particularly at my level.  

If one is not a "successful bidder" as it's called, they get to continue bidding, but now the list has been scraped down to the bones.  Only bad posts? No, it's not that at all. It just means that we bidders have to "be flexible" as they say, and look at jobs that might not have caught our eye the first time.  Consider regions previously unconsidered, consider learning languages never heard of or countries you'll have to explain to your parents.  This process can, and does, continue well into the new year!  However, as people are shuffled into spots - it's very possible that positions will open that are really awesome which the original selectee, for any number of reasons, has abandoned.  And before you know it - you're going to a place that you didn't even know was originally available. 

So that's mid-level bidding in a very large nutshell.

Now, if you're part of a tandem couple (two employees in the same family), you can expect your bidding strategy to go from this:

Tic Tac Toe Clip ArtTo something more like this:

Image result for rubik's cube

Next up:  Stay tuned to see what handshake day reveals!

Sunday, August 21, 2016

Oh Romania! Sometimes you make...

Oh Romania! Sometimes you make me smile!

Have you ever come across something that so completely exemplifies the essence of something else - a person, place, thing - that it strikes you all at once and all you can do is conclude, "Yup, that is it EXACTLY!" An example so perfect from all angles that when presented to others, no further explanation is required? Here's what I mean: I had a close friend in college who read ferociously and collected books to the point of possibly needing an intervention.  One day, when asked how she liked a recent visit to a mid-western state known more for corn than for literature, she wrinkled her nose and said simply, "I went into a book store and there was nothing I wanted to buy."  With that one image - I knew all I needed to know about the place.

I had this very experience recently that summed up my experience of Romania thus far. 

Last weekend, my husband and I took advantage of a Romanian holiday on Monday for an overnight trip into the mountains. Specifically, to the Făgăraş mountains via highway 7C, called the Transfăgărăşan, that climbs steeply up the southern side of the Transylvanian Alps and then drops into the heart of Transylvania. Started in the 1970s under Ceauşescu, this two-lane "highway" winds to a summit of 6600 ft in a series of curves and switchbacks which were clearly constructed to mimic Christmas tree lights still in their packaging. Here, see for yourself this snapshot of the highway map:

But don't take just my word for it, the guys at Top Gear also declared it one of the most spectacular roads in the world a few years back. You should see for yourself here

We got an early start from Bucharest, driving across the plains carpeted in corn and sunflowers, skirting the industrial city of Piteşti with its cooling towers on the horizon, through Curtea de Arges that just the day before had hosted the royal funeral for Queen Anne, and up into a series of foothill towns. Here the road was lined with small farms and mom-and-pop pensions offering beds to the hordes of travelers coming from all over Europe to tackle the Transfăgărăşan.  The scenery was worthy of Van Gogh, with hand-scythed haystacks in the fields and in front of every farm, small stands offering whatever is in season and manned by the weathered land owner.  At this time of year, it's melons, peppers, apples and pears, and with each farm having seemingly identical harvests, I wondered how one would choose where to stop and buy?  Is it the most attractive display? The most colorful shade umbrella? Perhaps just the easiest place to pull the car off the road? (Note to self to never buy a farm on a dangerous curve.) 

Just after clearing the foothill towns, the road began to get serious in the gorge below the Vidraru Dam. Which, as someone with a phobic reaction to dams, looked as massive as Hoover Dam but turns out to be "only" the 20th largest dam in the world. Still.

We passed under a triumphant Prometheus as the highway wound along the shaded shore of Lake Vidraru. We had peeks through the trees to the expansive surface of smooth, blue water without a speed or houseboat in sight and only a few lazy sightseeing ferries cruising the circumference.

See that peak in the background here, above the tree line? That's where we're headed. And to get there, we'll go through some (see below) "particularly dangerous curves."  I love that - not just dangerous, or very dangerous, but particularly dangerous. They say that the average speed over the Transfăgărăşan is 25 mph.  Clearly Top Gear had the road closed for their filming as they exceeded that average velocity just a wee bit.

Just past the lake the highway climbs, climbs to an unmistakably Alpine altitude. The traffic begins crawl and bunch up here as people pull off to wonder at the views, taking pictures and buying sausages and cheese.



This is where I had my first realization of something that so perfectly encapsulated Romania that I could only smile and shake my head.  See, given the vertical topography, it's only natural that waterfalls will dot the vistas.  One such waterfall, and not a particularly awesome one but pretty enough and earning points for accessibility to the roadside, brought all forward vehicular movement to a standstill.  Probably without exception (us included), every car stopped to park along the shoulder, and then as that filled up - in the lane, and then in both lanes, to discharge all passengers for a spree of unadulterated selfie-taking beside the waterfall, IN the waterfall and at the edge of the cliff.  But also, directly In front of the waterfall on the shoulder were umbrella'd tables of sausages, cheeses, jars of honey and other treats for sale by enterprising locals. My husband surmised that probably years ago some folks, upon noticing the irresistible attraction of the waterfall, said to themselves, "You know, people really like this spot. I bet they'd like some sausages while they're here. Or cheese, or even honey."  So now, with a shoulder about three feet wide, along with the natural attraction, there is thriving commerce that brings - and keeps - the entire highway at a halt.

After satiating their picture-taking urges, the visitors then plunk themselves down in the gravel just feet from the road's edge for a family picnic. Sure, why not? After all, we've just bought all this lovely sausage! And later, after leaving their lunch wrappings in piles on the ground, with bellies and cameras full, they get back in the car and muscle their way back up/down the highway using whatever road space they can find.  Naturally, it's no problem for the motorcycles, who don't even downshift as they whiz their way through this quagmire. 

We (somewhat guiltily) parked on the dangerous shoulder, got out to take our own pictures, bought zero sausages (although tempted) and dashed across the highway between cars to see the view because, well, because we could and everyone else was doing it.  

Which brings me to the second example in my story, a snapshot that embodied an essential aspect of this country, which sadly must be acknowledged - the feeling that the adults aren't watching and so the kids get to do what they want, even while knowing it's not what they're supposed to be doing.  I present to you camping in Romania: in the heart of this natural beauty we find families and groups of friends sharing full meals on proper tables and chairs they've brought from home, complete with tablecloths, plates and cutlery. This isn't grab-a-hot-dog-and-eat-while-standing American style, no sir. There are circles of conversation over the tables; someone erects the tricolor above a tent; there's an impromptu game of badminton over in the clearing... how civilized indeed!  

And then the camera pans out and we see MOUNDS of garbage piled meters from the dinner table.  Plus, behind every bush or tree, a semi-circle of toilet paper "flowers," or wet-wipes in various states of disintegration marking makeshift bathrooms. Frequently including diapers, feminine products and condoms.  Nice, eh? 

ALL of this is Romania to me.

Incredible natural beauty. That entrepreneurial spirit.  Engineering marvels such as the Transfăgărăşan highway and Vidraru Dam.  But combined with more than a pinch of childlike silliness of people doing whatever they want, when they feel like it, without regard for the long term or the effect on others. Complaining about political corruption spoiling their country and then throwing their garbage in some of the most beautiful environments you'll find and parking in the middle of the road.

Oh Romania, so often you make me smile.  

And other times you've taught me to turn down the corners of my mouth, shrug, and say "Ce să fac?"*

*Roughly translated as: What can I do? The frequent response to difficult situation.