The Foreign Service Institute, a big part of our lives

FSI is 70*

When my spouse joined the Foreign Service (FS) in 2006 as a second career, the Foreign Service Institute (FSI) became my new home.  I do not say this lightly; I used to spend more awake time at FSI than in my real home, haunting the campus for training or just for lunch to meet future colleagues.  I learned and benefited from FSI for 10 years as a spouse (technically an Eligible Family Member – EFM in our jargon) and now I have returned to FSI as a Civil Service employee.  Most EFMs only know the Transition Center (TC) at FSI; it actually regroups four other schools providing training in different aspects of a profession and in foreign languages.  I have been an eager learner of all five, and this is my tribute to FSI, turning 70 this year.

FSI70

As most EFMs, my first steps in this new life led me to the Overseas Briefing Center (OBC, a division of TC), where I was able to browse through numerous documentation on all potential posts, watch videos, and register for many interesting classes: Realities of Foreign Service Life, Protocol, Explaining America, EFM Employment, Security Overseas, Logistics, etc. Even our children participated in a Security Overseas seminar where they were encouraged to kick and scream on top of their lungs if they were tentatively kidnapped – imagine us, the parents, in the adjacent room hearing the screams!  We paid it back when our kids produced a quality video on Dakar which won first prize. I am also grateful for TC to invite me regularly as a panel member to help other EFMs, sharing with them my candid experience on FS topics.

During one of the TC workshop, I learned that EFMs could join the Direct Hires (the spouse who has a permanent contract in the Foreign Service) in the professional studies curricula.  To increase my chances to get an EFM position in an embassy overseas, I immediately enrolled in the General Services Officer (GSO) class in the School of Professional and Area Studies (SPAS).  Once completed, I began the Consular training.  As a result of being so well informed and trained, I started at my first embassy in Dakar with a job waiting for me, well-armed to understand my surroundings and act appropriately. Actually, colleagues thought I was a Direct Hire!  Many years later, I attended the CLO training in Frankfurt where I met many neighboring colleagues. This allowed me to build inter-mission partnerships beneficial to our Commissary and share cultural and entertainment information.

The SPAS Pakistan Familiarization course became the key to our fantastic tour in a country reputed to be difficult.  I understood the generic “Islam” label covered many different faiths, learned about tribes and ethnicities, the political landscape shaped by a tumultuous history, and why it took ten months for my husband to get his visa … This allowed us to better understand and communicate with people of Pakistan, friendly strangers in stores, streets, and even children in the mountains.

In the Margalla Hills

Young Villagers in the Margalla Hills

After Dakar, we were assigned to Mexico City and the School of Language Studies (SLS) helped me brush up on my Spanish with distance learning classes followed by a mentor. This allowed me to fill a vacant position where a cleared American with a 3-3 level was sought – I was the only one qualified in the pool of 100+ EFMs! Before going to Pakistan, I took Urdu classes, which facilitated my integration with local colleagues at USAID and with our local implementers. I realized that learning to write the beautiful alphabet helped me learn faster because I could read signs around me and practice outside the classroom.

Between earthquakes in Mexico and a rather unstable situation in Pakistan, I became a natural student of the Leadership and Management School (LMS), learning about Crisis Management Overseas and the No FEAR Act.  While never subject to a real crisis – besides regular earthquakes in Mexico City, coups in all countries surrounding Senegal during our tour, and lock-down in Islamabad, I always felt more secure and less prone to panic knowing that I knew how to act during a dire situation.

In my previous career I have designed many websites but a technical person would eventually code and create them.  With the School of Applied Information Technology (SAIT), I learned SharePoint and was able to create a SharePoint site to advocate for environmental matters at Embassy Budapest.

After eight years overseas we are now back in the United States, and I became a Civil Service employee, starting my learning “series” again.  First, I learned to defend myself in perilous situations during a Basic Defense course (TC); then I participated in the Civil Service Orientation course (SPAS); and later in the Knowledge Management Foundations course (SAIT).

FSI just opened this year a new division: the Center of Excellence in Foreign Affairs Resilience (CEFAR), and with the general context, domestically and overseas, we sure do need a lot of resilience in the Foreign Service!  FSI also provides Distance Learning classes and SkillSoft classes that anyone from the foreign affairs agencies can follow from the comfort of their home, one hour at a time. I cannot encourage enough EFMs to look at the impressive catalog and take a class or two from home or join a class on campus.  FSI has made a permanent positive mark on the lives our entire family, preparing us well for this strange new adventure in the Foreign Service.

*The complete FSI history is available on Amazon: FSI at 70: Future Forward: A History of the Foreign Service Institute.

Ode to Summer in Budapest

We came back from holiday missing part of the summer in Budapest. We missed the worse flood ever: something like one month of rain in two hours, and we missed the historical record of temperature at over 40 degrees Celsius. People complain about the heat but I can’t get enough of it! And what is 40 when you come from Islamabad with 48 every day for three months?!

I also missed my jogging around the cemetery of the wolf, a perfect 25-minute loop jog route from home in the Buda hills. So today I took little Venus – an Italian greyhound is always little even at adult age, a mere eight pounds – and off we went to see the seasonal changes to our neighborhood. Everywhere the leaves and grass were overgrown and wild. I was especially looking for ‘my’ plum spots. There are many fruit trees in the neighborhood and for some reasons Hungarians let fruits fall and rot on the road. This must be a rich-neighborhood in the city trend; I doubt they do this in the country side. First, I found the Reine Claude plum tree, a dark purple variety. There were some left on the tree, and many squashed on the road. I reaped a small kilo and walk to the second yummy tree, the Mirabelle tree – the tiny yellow variety. It seems that the season was over earlier as there were none left on the tree, only a few on the road.

There are many florists around the cemetery, three to five vendors at every entrance. I always chose the closest ones to home to be able to jog as much as possible before carrying loads of flowers and plants. Today I made a huge bouquet with irises and different kind of daisies for the ridiculously cheap amount of 6 euros, which mean 4.80€ after we get the VAT back. Together with high quality-cheap bill restaurants, this is one of the greatest pleasures of Hungary: live like a king for a fraction of the cost, yet being in the heart of Europe.

My day got even brighter when I arrived back home and was greeted by our red apple tree whose branches bend under the weight of a myriad of tiny red apples. They need another few weeks to be ripe. Then I went around the house to discover that the peaches on the tree are already ripe. I was also greeted by some old sad Russian songs coming from the neighbor on the south side and the new neighbor on the north side introduced himself: a Brit married to a Hungarian lady; they just purchased a house who had been on sale for over two years.

When we lived in Dakar, we were lucky enough to have a house with multiple fruit trees: mango, bananas and oranges. I also planted two papaya trees – too late for us but our colleagues who inhabited the house after us thanked us for them. In Islamabad, I planted two papaya trees immediately upon arrival, to have time to taste them before departure – alas a sudden frost killed them both before I had time to protect them for the winter. We had figs, tomatoes and basil to console ourselves!

This afternoon I planted oregano and mint in the garden, gift of a fortunate colleague who has too much in his garden to supply a pizzeria and a Moroccan tea room. I also added yellow pansies to pink carnations and geraniums to beautify the terrace. I had a thought for all my colleagues PCSing this summer, fighting twisted regulations, nasty airlines, and Drexel atrocities …

Today it is 35 degrees Celsius, the sun is high, and the sky is deep blue – I love Budapest!

A Perfect Weekend in Sine Saloum

Summary: 1 night in a baobab tree and 1 night in a refined B&B to discover Palmarin and Joal-Fadiouth, the heart of Sine Saloum.

Day 1 – leave at 6:00 am from Dakar. This little sacrifice ensures you arrive in Joal (75 miles – 120 km) in about 2 hours, instead of 4 or 5. The road is well paved and it is straight after Saly and Mbour.

After Joal, you are on a dirt road for 20 miles where 20 mph is about the maximum speed you want to submit your wheels to. Take the direction of Fadial and Samba Dia. About 5 miles after Joal is the oldest and biggest baobab in Senegal:  over 850 years. You can climb inside … to see the bats and the open sky. Note: on the photo is a ‘baby’ baobab, I don’t want to spoil the surprise of the biggest one in Senegal.

DSC_0380

After Samba Dia, turn right (South) to reach Palmarin Ngallou. The Lodge des Collines de Niassam is well marked – sharp turn on the left and dirt road for less than a mile to reach the reception. They propose several types of accommodation and since we needed 3 rooms we tried them all: the baobab room (big bed), the Berber tent room (3 small beds), and the Laguna room (big bed) where your suite is on the water, on stilts. This place also has a small swimming pool and more details can be found on their beautiful bilingual website, www.niassam.com.

Tip: when you make reservation, be sure to let them know if you are a resident, since they have different prices.

After some rest, we drove to Djiffer, the end of the peninsula. There you can rent a pirogue to go up the Saloum river and into the mangrove. It is hard to get the price under 40,000 francs but it is for a tour of 2 to 3 hours for as many people as the pirogue can fit (10 comfortably). We reached the village of Falia where we took smaller pirogues to go into the mangrove. They rarely see “toubabs” (white people) in this village and were very excited and friendly.

There are only a few restaurants in Djiffer and they are extremely simple – you eat the take of the day basically. Between the hotel and Djiffer sits the Royal Lodge where you can indulge in Western comfort, if need be.

Day 2 – After exploring the small island in front of the hotel, reachable by foot or private pirogue, we left this charming place and went back to Joal.

We stayed at the romantic B&B Keur Seynabou, very well marked and on the beach with view on the ocean. The hostess offers 3 very well decorated big rooms (sleep 2 to 4) and a swimming pool surrounded by bougainvillea of all colors.

They organize trips in the mangrove, fishing trips, visit of Fadiouth, etc. In the afternoon we took a trip to the mangrove with their boat.

Day 3 – We went to Fadiouth (nice walk from the B&B). The catholic mass with djembe and chorus starts at 9h30. Even for non-Catholics it is a marvelous show. At the end of the mass you have hundreds of colorful people coming out, all with great dresses and assorted hats. This tiny island only accessible by a long wooden bridge or by boat boasts the tranquility of a no-car island where you walk on white seashells in the streets. We visited the market and went back to the B&B.

DSC_0671

Then we headed back. After 25 miles, we were in Saly for lunch. The restaurant Chez Marie has an innovative menu with reasonable prices. On the main road to Saly it is before the roundabout, just after Bicis and a big karaoke disco, on the left.

You may do it differently but this is how we did it and enjoyed it tremendously. To explore more of Sine Saloum if you have more time you could also go to N’Dangane (East after Joal and Samba Dia) to reach Mar Lodge by boat.

My jobs in the Foreign Service – Part II – Dakar

About family employment, this link http://www.state.gov/m/dghr/flo/c1959.htm will lead you to information far more complete than anything I can say. I just want to bring some personal touches beyond the statistics. See Part I published yesterday for a full picture.

When my husband applied for the Foreign Service we lived in France and knew one person, in a different section, in the Foreign Service. We were not inundated with tips, we had no clue what or where we were getting into. When he applied we had very little chances that he would be selected because I was foreign-born. I had a full time job (60+ hours per week and my 4-hour per day commute, except when I was travelling one to two weeks per month) as marketing director for Europe so I did not look for any information about what might potentially happen … or not. Once my husband received his offer, he had two weeks to pack and leave (the email had been sitting in his inbox for another three weeks but we had no connection during our holidays in Africa) after a clearance/decision process which took three years. He had to leave without me and the kids. We were not prepared. Once he left, I used all my lonely nights to do some research. I learned the many acronyms, the few jobs for spouses, the housing and schools situation; I educated myself. I understood I would have to fight to get a job but sometimes it just depends on your date of arrival, and that I might work only one year out of two or not at all. After eight months, we were ready to join my husband in Virginia.

Commercial Specialist – I had a great start in the Foreign Service since, as soon as I landed in Senegal, I began as a Commercial Specialist for the Department of Commerce U.S. Foreign Commercial Service (a sister agency to State within the Foreign Affairs)! I had applied in April, received the offer promptly after my interview and only moved to Senegal three months later, ahead of my husband actually. Being francophone with a background in sales and marketing were the key skills which helped me seize this amazing job.

Based in Dakar, I was in charge of all West Africa and part of Central Africa.  On one hand my customers were in the U.S. and I had to advise them about the best strategies to enter the West African markets, which sectors were in demand for U.S. products, which importers were solvent. On the other hand I had African importers who wanted to know who they could import from, which companies were reliable and used to do business overseas. The big thrill of this job was organizing and leading delegation of West Africans to trade fairs in Las Vegas or New York on various topics such as building materials or cosmetics.

Community Liaison Office Coordinator – For ‘needs of service’ I also became a CLO in Dakar, a fascinating job which is considered the Rolls Royce of jobs for EFMs (eligible family members) within the Department of State. There is a long definition for CLO that you can check on the link at the top of the page. The short definition is: ‘in charge of good morale’ of everybody in the mission. If officers have good morale they will work better. If their EFMs are happy, the officer will be able to concentrate on his job. It sounds simple but it is a complex job since it encompasses eight areas of intervention and involves a lot of un-rooted people. Some happy to be there, some grinding their teeth. And this complex job changes with every continent and every country because hardships come from different elements.

I will continue later on my jobs in Mexico City, Islamabad and Budapest.