Live from Cairo

So, it turns out life happened and I haven’t updated in months. The past few months involved finding the man of my dreams, finishing Arabic, and moving to Cairo. And I’m happy to report that I have survived so far. There have been a few hurdles and a few surprises, but I’m just trying to go with the flow.

I’ve officially been in Cairo for a week now. My first impressions and expectations were vastly different. Many people painted a very bleak picture of Cairo for me. I am more than happy to report that Cairo is nothing like my expectations. The streets are clean, the people are friendly, the traffic is manageable (except for a few nights ago), and as a single woman I’ve been mostly left alone. The food has been a real treat. I’ve tried something new every night. My neighborhood is quiet, lined with trees, and I often feel like I’m living in Lawrence of Arabia or Casablanca times. Last night I went with a few coworkers and other random folks on a felucca. Feluccas are small sailboats that cruise the Nile. For 100 pounds, you can sail the Nile in style for less than the price of a cocktail in DC. It was glorious to say the least. But the best part was the array of conversations aboard our vessel.

One colleague is also well versed in Faust. One person knows a friend of me and Mike. Another person is also a huge fan of South African pinotage wine. And the best coincidence of them all? Someone served in Peace Corps Ghana in the town right next to me, just 2 years before me. Everyone has been incredibly welcoming and friendly. It is a real treat to walk into a new country, a new house, a new work environment and instantly feel at home.

I know that consular work will be draining, exhausting, and emotionally difficult. But I also know that it will be completely worth it. Every single person that comes before you wants to travel, work, or live in the United States. They all want what I was born into. It seems rather high and mighty to look at consular from the 30,000ft level, but it makes the experience much more humbling for me. I can’t go a week without a good ole slice of humble pie, otherwise I’m just dead inside. Also, pie is tasty.

In other news, I moved into my permanent (for two years) place. It is gigantic in comparison to every other place I’ve ever had. The largest place I’ve ever had was in Wenchi and that was two rooms. Now I have two bedrooms, two bathrooms, two storage rooms, two closets, a giant kitchen, a dining room with more table space than my silverware can accommodate, and a lovely living room. The space is insane. At first I thought it felt a little cramped, but then I rearranged and now it feels much bigger. My only complaint is the paint smell. It was so strong last night/this morning that I had ginger ale and crackers for breakfast; it was the only thing I felt safe eating. But, I felt incredibly lucky that I only had to run over to the PX to buy American crackers and ginger ale with my credit card.

Cairo (and the Embassy community) truly has it all. I miss my other half every second of every day. I wish more than anything he could be here with me so we could experience this great place together. Alas, life has different plans. For now. With my first week of work under my belt, I’m ready to see where this great adventure takes me!

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How to Maintain a Positive Attitude During Language Training

I’ll be the first to say that maintaining a positive attitude during language training is tough. Really tough. You are on a constant rollercoaster of language emotions; one day you feel great about your abilities and the next day you can’t even say “أمريكي” (American). It is exhausting, exhilarating, frustrating, and pretty damn cool all at the same time. I’ve found that the things that bother me the most in class are things that have bothered me for years, for example, constantly being interrupted. In the afternoons, I struggle to both stay awake and read tongue twisting Arabic sentences. And while honestly, I like to commiserate with my colleagues, language training really isn’t that bad. Yes, I lament daily about the trials I must endure to survive 8 long months of Arabic, but it is probably because if I went around shouting from the rooftops how freaking awesome language training is, people would look at me like I was crazy. Well and Diplomatic Security would probably have issues with that. I’ve found that in order to conform to the group mentality, I need to throw in a daily complaint about how terrible my class truly is. I really wish I didn’t have to do this or rather feel like it was necessary, but it is the psychology of long term language training. But, I don’t want it to be. And I don’t think it should be. It is too easy to fall into a jaded trap. I will say that I do believe it is important to advocate for yourself and your learning style though. If your class does not facilitate the learning you need, then you should feel empowered to speak with your teacher, supervisor, and learning consultant to discuss concerns.

So how does one break the cycle and maintain a positive attitude during language training?

1. Stick a post it note on the back of your door that says “suck it up cupcake.” Read it every morning.
2. Write down every day one thing that you did well in class. If you knocked it out of the park, right down everything.
3. Focus on what you can do rather than what you can’t do. At least for those moments of weakness.
4. Write down on a piece of paper the amount of money the Department of State is spending to train you in another language. Now divide that by the amount of money you spend in rent (if you are a non-local). Follow this up with a dollop of whipped cream on the humble pie.
5. Figure out how to say in your language why you joined the Foreign Service, all of it and from the heart.
6. Walk every hallway at FSI during lunch and look at the number of classrooms and languages.
7. Calculate the number of teachers in your department. All of those people have jobs because of people like you.
8. Celebrate success by taking a break from studying. Go out and enjoy the city and everything it has to offer. When else will you be able to live virtually free in a city that offers the Smithsonian, Kennedy Center, Bao Bao the panda, and Americans who theoretically know how to use traffic circles?
9. Shadow a congressional constituent services intern.
10. Lastly, take a moment to reflect on what lead you to this opportunity.

Starting 2015 With Some Variables, a Baader-Meinhof, and Some Perspective

2015 is the year I will finally head to my first post. I find that both thrilling and terrifying. How am I going to be prepared in 6 months to determine the merits of someone’s visa application, in Arabic? Luckily, I still have four more months of Arabic and a Consular General training to prepare me for the next two years. What do I have in the meantime though? A German exam. Because, you know, self-inflicted language torture is my thing.

I never got to test in German during A-100 because there were 100 people in my class and only so many resources to test all of us in all of our languages. So priority was given to people with languages on our bid list and people who self identified at a high level, that’s my theory anyway. From a resource management perspective it makes complete sense, you have only so many resources available and you need to narrow down and pair a list of 117 posts with 100 people. You need something to help with filtering. Once those resources are used, you may have time and capacity to test a few other people. Do you waste those resources on people who identified their language skills at low or do you test the people who have a good chance of getting off language probation? It makes complete sense to me, but it doesn’t mean I’m particularly thrilled to be taking the German exam 4 months into my Arabic training. But then I retort to myself, this is 100% self-inflicted. I could have taken the test earlier or I could have postponed it until consular training. I made the decision to take it in January during A-100 though.

Something I’ve discovered about myself recently is fairly intriguing from a Foreign Service perspective. This is in no way where I was going with this blog post, but let’s follow this train of thought. I always knew I was good at reasoning, deduction and pattern recognition, if you go back and search in my blog for “variables” “options” or “possible” you’ll find quite a few posts spanning the years. I always knew this was how my brain worked, but didn’t realize it until recently. Which lead me to remember the Baader-Meinhof concept: “Baader-Meinhof is the phenomenon where one happens upon some obscure piece of information–often an unfamiliar word or name–and soon afterwards encounters the same subject again, often repeatedly.” It’s because our brains love patterns and we are always looking for patterns in the chaos. From my Hi-Lab (higher level language aptitude test) results, I know that my brain is seemingly extra hard wired for processing patterns. And now that I’m conscious of my own ability (also related to Baader-Meinhof, see how that works), I’ve become conscious of how my brain is processing the information. Before, I would just let my brain run and do it’s thing, such as with the decision to take the German test in January, a seemingly arbitrary month. But now, it’s like I have a window into what my brain is doing, as if I could watch it process variables, analyze patterns, and make decisions or inferences based on the information I have at hand.

To me it is like a tree. At first, I see the whole tree with every leaf, twig, branch. I notice the color of the leaves, how tall it is, and it’s shape. Then I look closer and focus on only one branch. It is as if I were trying to identify the species of the tree without having any prior knowledge of arboriculture. From the branch, I then look at the whole structure of the branch again. Then I dig deeper, looking at individual leaves and twigs. Then I start to prune away the branches until I have just a part of the tree left, the part that has all the information I need. Then I may have two or three ideas of what it might be. I take one last look, make a decision, but then immediately explain to myself my reasoning. Being very careful to acknowledge the variables and biases that influenced my decision, including my lack of knowledge. And most of this happens in the span of 30 seconds, maximum.

So when I decided to take my German test in January, I never thought to myself “why do I want to take this test?” I only thought to myself “when is the most advantageous time.” I knew that they were changing the test format in January. I also knew that I’d be in Arabic for 8-9 months. I knew that my German was rusty. I knew that I would have a few weeks of no class in December. I also knew that near the end of my Arabic studies, the pressure would be higher. I knew that I get a form of test anxiety. I also knew that I needed to pass my Arabic test. January was the only time that made sense to me, after looking at all those variables and factors. I never once considered how the German test would affect me stress-wise or emotionally. Those are non-factors in my brain. I’m hard-wired for rational, which is in fact thanks to the half of me that is German. A pretty big chunk of the reason why I decided to take the German test was because I knew it would help me prepare for the Arabic test.

So what am I getting at with all this rambling? I feel like this experience is very indicative of how my brain works. Right now I’m mildly stressing out about my German test, but I know that it doesn’t matter. That doesn’t stop the stress though. I can be conscious of what is going on in my brain, but I can’t necessarily change it’s course. I am mildly stressed because I want to do well on a test. Why? Because I grew up in an environment that emphasized achievement. I can be completely rational about a decision, but that does not mean it still doesn’t impact me in other ways. One of the reasons I decided to take the German test was directly correlated to preparing me for a future possibility. I found a way to better position myself for a future event, therefore I was willing to put myself through a bit of hardship in order to simply feel prepared. Which is exactly what I’ve done my entire life, I’ve always looked past the present hardships towards a simpler future. Consciously and unconsciously, I’m always trying to set myself up for success, even at the expense of present comfort.

But the beauty is that Peace Corps taught me that present hardship is not in fact hardship. It is all perspective: “this too shall pass.” Everything we do in life is a lesson for the future. We learn from our mistakes and successes and grow. We decide to take the difficult route (while finding the best route through the difficulties, at least I do) because that’s where we find our strength. I am not purposefully inflicting German language pain upon myself, I am doing this because I know that it will have a positive influence on my own peace of mind when the stakes are higher with Arabic, when it really counts. And my brain knows that is what I need. But that doesn’t mean I have to let German completely stress me out, in fact I quite enjoy switching back to something familiar. I’ve been so deep into Arabic for the past 4 months, it feels nice to step into something reassuring again.

With language you never know what progress you are making, so it is easy to feel discouraged. But through this process of attempting German and Arabic at the same time, I found a small confidence in myself. I was able to translate an article from German into Arabic in class on Friday, having been off for 2 weeks. I didn’t translate into English, I went directly from German to Arabic. And you know what? That was pretty damn cool. Even though I am still too embarrassed and lacking in confidence to speak German in front of people I find intimidating, I found a bit of confidence in class on Friday, the bit I needed. IMG_20150102_182113336~2~2Then I made an incredibly elaborate German meal: Jaegerschnitzel completely from scratch. I made the breadcrumbs, I made the sauce, I even had to have a lengthy conversation with a Whole Foods butcher to get the cut of veal I wanted. It reminded me of my Oma and how proud she would have been that I actually pulled off the perfect schnitzel.

I think she’d be proud of what I’ve accomplished so far as well, besides the schnitzel. So even when language kicks my ass, whichever language it is, I can’t lose sight of the purpose and my reason for doing this. I’m doing this because I am lucky enough to have the coolest job on earth.

2014: And I went from this to that and this again

I sit on my couch, having just finished watching one of my ultimate guilty pleasure movies: My Best Friend’s Wedding. I incidentally just returned from my best friend’s house as well, clear on the other side of the U.S. The past 24 hours represent the past year in a nutshell: a whirlwind of balancing my new career with my family and friends.

2014 has been the best year of my life. It has also been a test of patience and adjustment. I went from being an only child with no relatives living within 1000 miles, to suddenly having sisters and a very large extended family within 50 miles. I went from Peace Corps back to advertising, and clearly not handling it very well. (But the blog post it inspired continues to strike a chord with RPCVs everywhere!) I went from complete uncertainty about the future to more uncertainty to far too much excitement to care. I went from “now what” to 8 months of Arabic training! I went from RPCV consumerism guilt to taxpayer guilt. I went from Arabic to German four separate times on the plane just this morning.  I went from being a cashier at Whole Foods to a diplomat in one day.

January of this year, I sat in a computer room awaiting my fate. That hour ticked by so slowly as I waited and waited, while people kept being called away leaving me with two other people questioning what we could have done differently. But with one smile and a “let us be the first to congratulate you” my whole world changed. That moment, forever etched in my brain, was one I’d dreamed of for 10 years. And when I finally opened my envelope and saw that my score was high enough to ensure I was called off the register, I felt every emotion possible stream through my body. The second I saw my score, I knew that my dreams came true because I worked for it. I put everything into that day and I was rewarded. Turns out hard work and dedication really do produce results, but sometimes it takes a while. January 23, 2014 changed my life.

This year has also been about maintaining the relationships that are most important to me. But, it isn’t easy when there is a lot of physical distance between you and everyone else. And it won’t improve next year when you can tack on an extra 10,000 miles. But, I’ve tried really hard to make the time for my family and friends. Financially, it isn’t easy either, but I know it is important to them. It is always hard on me when I get back though, because it hits me that I live a completely different lifestyle than what 90% of people are used to. I’m a fair weather friend, daughter, sister now and while I don’t particularly like labeling myself that, that’s just sort of how the cookie crumbles. My lifestyle and priorities are completely different from most of the people I know (outside of the Foreign Service). It is not a vacation until I’ve eaten at the restaurant I’ve meticulously researched. Or it is not a family event until I’ve explained “yes, I’m aware of the dangers of living in Egypt.” I’m at this weird point in my life where I’m a complete outsider within my own family or friend group. I’m that wackadoodle relative or friend that you bring up over the dinner table, wondering “what’s she doing now?” But it’s okay, this is what I’ve chosen and I know that if it were easy it wouldn’t be as rewarding.

2014 was the year in which I sat at a picnic table on my lunch break devouring my delicious Whole Foods salad when everything changed. I still remember looking at my phone while scarfing down some mashed sweet potatoes with candied pecans. I remember checking my email and reading in big bold yellow highlighted text that my name was added to the register and my score was high enough to be selected for the June/July class. And then proceeding to lose it. My fork was still midway to my mouth when I started half-crying, half-hyperventilating. And then I called everyone. Passing the oral assessment was the most glorious feeling on Earth, but getting invited to a class that truly was hyperventilate worthy. 2014 was the year that I made my dreams a reality.

My father is an immigrant. His family didn’t have a lot. My mom didn’t have much growing up either; her dad worked in a sardine factory. But they both worked hard and did everything they could to provide me with opportunities, the opportunities they didn’t have growing up. I went to a competitive and challenging public high school 30 minutes from home, because I knew that it was what I needed to grow. I pursued my own challenges and I haven’t stopped since.
This is my lesson from 2014: hard work pays off. Dreams are a reality, but only if you accept that they are also a challenge. You can’t just be handed your dream career or vacation or experience or relationship. You have to work for it. You have to want it and you can’t give up. Dreams are difficult to obtain for a reason, but determination to succeed and just plain ole hard work can put them within your grasp. I didn’t give up, even after failing multiple times. But as my favorite quote from Edison goes: “I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that don’t work.”

2014 was a year of many changes, but all of them put me right where I am today: extremely happy, grateful, and humbled to have been given such a wonderful year to cherish.

Ugh, argh, and sigh

Area Studies makes me feel like a complete and total failure, so that’s fun. But on the other hand, it helps me defend my decision to not go to grad school. It also makes me really love management issues even more. Can someone give me a logistics issue to handle? Anyone? Gah, what I wouldn’t do for a terrible customer service problem right about now. Area Studies just makes me realize that policy isn’t my strong point. It doesn’t help that I have absolutely no background whatsoever in this part of the world. It also doesn’t help when people associated with the class let me know that I have no background, because I didn’t already feel like an idiot. I am learning, but I feel like my curve is Mount Everest. But, you know what? Not everyone has to get to the top. I’m happy to just schlep around the bags down at basecamp. I’ll do the dirty work and let someone else tackle the summit. I really do want to learn, but my struggle is the least of anyone’s worries.

Why does this class do such a good job of exposing my insecurities? Some days I hold back tears because I’m so lost, I feel like I’ll never make it in this profession. I spend half the class trying to just understand the words the lecturers are using. At least once I start Arabic classes, I’ll know it is a foreign language.

And then while, Area Studies is beating me to pulp in the corner, I’ve got other crap going on. I’m in a holding pattern, which means I’m still waiting to get my diplomatic passport and visas. I need to extend my stay in DC, which means I need to contact someone, I think, but I still need to figure out who that is. I always feel like I’m forgetting something all the time. But at least I’m keeping up with my TSP!

And then there is the glaring issue of life. A-100 made me question a few of my fundamental beliefs about how I want to live my life. I’ve been clinging on to my self-sufficient, independent attitude for so long. I can’t tell anymore if it was a coping mechanism or if I actually believe it. I feel like a piece of clothing, tumbling in a dryer. I’m just spinning and spinning and I have no clue when I’ll stop spinning. And the more I think about my own internal upheaval, the more I cling to anything I can, perhaps another lost sock in the dryer. So many things in my life feel like they have all flipped upside down and I don’t know how to look at them anymore. Maybe I just need to work on my Ender’s Game attitude – there is no up or down, only a different perspective.

I guess I’m just a little lost in this whole new world. I’ll find my way soon enough, probably right after Area Studies is over.

A-100 Calorie Slice of Humble Pie

Today was our last full class of A-100. I honestly cannot believe it is already over. It feels like the longest and shortest 6 weeks of my life. Just like during my Peace Corps training, I’ve quickly made some wonderful friends. I’ve been so impressed with my new colleagues, it is hard to imagine going through this experience without them. I want to share with you a story from today.

This morning we had a discussion summing up everything we’ve learned in class and how we plan on applying it. Something that really struck me from these last six weeks was the focus on “me.” My employee review, my bid, my post, my future, my boss, my impact. While we touched on teamwork, especially during our offsite retreat, I felt like the emphasis was more on the individual and less on the team. And it makes sense, that’s what most interesting and sought after during a training. How does this affect me? That was my impression of the sessions. My takeaway from the class was just that though – teamwork. Yesterday and today, it really hit me that this isn’t about me. They’ve given me the tools and knowledge to be a better cog. But this is about the team. In the last two weeks, I’ve really felt the “me” mentality in class. I think that’s what made it all the more clear to me. Sometimes we learn by observing what’s missing and not what’s right in front of us. Today really allowed me to step back 10 steps and see the big picture. I am not a single Foreign Service Officer serving my country in a far off land. I am part of a team working to create a more secure, democratic, and prosperous world for the benefit of the American people and the international community. We are a team. The 178th A-100 class is a team. The men and women of the U.S. Foreign Service are a team. Every employee of the Department of State is part of the team. We may all have different personal goals, career objectives, areas of expertise, and regional specialities, but we share one thing in common – our mission. Together we are stronger and make this world a better place.

Teamwork was my key takeaway from my A-100 experience, but I’d like to share just one more quick lesson learnt.

Before I joined the Foreign Service, I would label myself as an 11 on a scale of 1-10, 10 being insanely competitive. I knew coming into the Foreign Service that this trait often leads to poor morale and unnecessary comparisons. This was something I’ve been trying to work on for years. During my first week of A-100, I was served a giant slice of humble pie washed down with a big gulp of get over yourself. My colleagues were smarter, funnier, prettier, more experienced, and generally way cooler than me. I was no longer fighting to be taken seriously. Suddenly, I wasn’t Miss Perfect. I felt like I was the bottom of the barrel in our class. And you know what? It was so incredibly good for me to feel that way. Even though that first bite of humble pie was hard to swallow, as soon as I kept it down, the rest of the pie tasted so sweet. I needed to not be the best at something. I needed everyone to be better than me. I also found through this process an incredible group of people who supported me. I found that it is easier to climb out of the bottom of the barrel, when a few people reach their hands in and pull you back up. Because, this is all a team effort. My competitive streak has turned into but a half erased pencil marking. I can’t kill a bad habit in just six weeks, but I’ve found that my perspective has changed. I am no longer looking at myself and what I can do, I’m looking at everyone else and wondering how we can all work together.

Flag Day

What’s not to love about a ceremony involving tiny flags, years of anticipation, and deliberately built up anxiety? Flag Day is a time honored tradition for A-100 classes. We find out our assignments in the most intense way possible. I’m hoarse from screaming in excitement for my colleagues. So here’s how it all works for my friends and family who don’t know, don’t worry my full story of the Flag Day bonanza is below.

We receive a list of posts for our group. Each person ranks the posts on the list: high, medium, low. You can add comments if you choose. Then after the fifth week of training, they tell us where we are going in an elaborate ceremony that’s really just bottled diplomat anxiety.

 

I wasn’t feeling any emotion towards Flag Day until about an hour before it started. And then suddenly, the gravity of the situation hit me like a space station flying at 17,500 miles an hour. I might have had a mild panic attack. I wasn’t nervous about any of the posts on our list, I think I was just overcome with a multitude of emotions. First, I couldn’t believe this was actually real. Second, my life was about to change, I think it is okay to freak out a bit. Third, it was incredibly hot and muggy. Fourth, I knew that everyone else had the same nervous energy as me, it was feeding off each other. Fifth, I was just plain excited. These factors and emotions almost knocked me out. I came pretty close to passing out at one point before the ceremony started. Luckily, my wonderful colleagues all started fanning me and getting me some air. The energy was so indescribable. The only way I can try to explain it is this: imagine dreaming of something for 10 years, knowing that it is about to happen in a matter of moments, and that crazy jittery feeling you have when you drink too much caffeine. That’s how I felt.

Finally the ceremony started and quickly I realized I really don’t know flags. Okay, let’s step back for a second and I’ll give you some details. Of the posts, I ranked 25% low, 29% high, and 46% medium. My lows were mainly Russian speaking posts. My highs were all over the place. And my mediums were primarily non-consular posts and a smattering of “eh” places. When I met with my Career Development Officer to explain my preferences, I told her “surprise me.” And she did!

So I completely forgot how I ranked any of my posts prior to the ceremony. Once the ceremony began, I noticed that quickly many of my lows were disappearing. When my absolute low was called and someone seemed happy to get it, I was so relieved, I actually remembered to breathe again. One of my friend’s high posts was called, but she didn’t get it. But there were two posts, so there was hope she’d get the next one. I really wanted her to go there. My friend sitting to my left was on the edge of her seat every time an India came up. She’s dreamed of India for over a decade. But they kept calling different posts. Suddenly the Egyptian flag appears on screen and it felt like forever. I turned to my friend on my right, who wanted Egypt and said something to the effect of “you got this.” And then they called my name. And I was shocked. I remember standing up and walking towards the flag having no idea what was going on and then a few seconds later – emotion! Crazy, excited emotion! I started jumping up and down and throwing my hands in the air. Egypt was one of my highs. As I let all the nervous energy drain out of me, I sat down and immediately burst into tears. Tears of pure joy and excitement. I don’t think ecstatic is a strong enough word to describe how I was reacting. Weeks of suppressed caring and distancing myself from any attachment led to an utter breakdown in social norms. Tears were streaming down my face and I just couldn’t stop them. Of course my friend to the left starts crying with me, while still waiting to hear her name. Then suddenly another Near East post comes up and my friend on the right gets excited. This is a good post too and another one of her highs. They call her name and she much more gracefully than me goes and collects her flag. We are going to be neighbors, sort of. Well region neighbors. My friend on the left is still waiting, and they haven’t called any of her India dream posts. She’s in a full state of freaking out all while I’m sitting there trying to hold it together. One of my colleagues told me during my public speaking exercise that behind a podium I look like I’m trying to burst out of a jar. That’s how I felt sitting in my chair.

Suddenly, an India flag flashes on the screen and her dream post is called, followed by her name. Commence screaming. Two of my other friends got their absolute #1 posts as well. Dreams for everyone! I’m so happy with the people who are also in my region. But let’s rewind again. Why was I so excited to get Egypt? Many of my friends and family are concerned about the current state of affairs in the region. Well, back in the day, elementary school to be exact, I wanted to do a few different jobs. I wanted to be an architect and cruise ship captain. But I also wanted to be an Egyptologist. I’ve been fascinated with the culture and history since at least first grade. I even gave a report in front of the entire school in a Cleopatra costume. That’s elementary school dedication there. Ever since, I’ve always had a special place in my heart for Egypt. It is the sole place on my bucket list that is a requirement. It was where I originally wanted to go on a post Peace Corps trip, but couldn’t at the time. I almost bought a book to learn hieroglyphics at one point. I’m so excited for this challenge. I guess I need to actually look up post information about Egypt. I’m going to have plenty of time though, as I will now be learning Arabic.

What an adventure! And now for a quick way to wrap up my life: