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.

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Foreign Service – Expect the unexpected!

Life in the Foreign Service brings many unexpected moments and crazy memories and this is the way I like it.

Nobody told me I would …

  • Pilot a Cessna over the Sine Saloum Delta in Senegal – I don’t even have a pilot’s license!
  • Glide from baobab to baobab like Tarzan near the reserve of Bandia.
  • Eat ‘yassa’ chicken with my hands, sitting on the floor in a tiny village near Joal.
  • Take West African businessmen and women to a trade show in Las Vegas and be their nanny 24/7.
  • Drive from Dakar to Bamako on the side of the road, in the sand, because it was safer than dealing with the potholes on the road.
  • Meet Madeleine Albright at breakfast during an American Chamber of Commerce event in Mexico City.
  • Take the kids to Acapulco and learn that, just near us, the narco-traffickers had chopped a dozen heads.
  • Meet and kiss Margarita Zavala, a federal deputy, wife of then president of Mexico Felipe Calderón.
  • Welcome musician and singer Seal at the consulate, chitchat and take photos.
  • Enjoy a lucha libre show with its masked warriors. Lucha libre is a very well-choreographed wrestling competition with heroes and villains. The fun was also among the spectators, for example grandmothers gesturing and yelling chinga tu madre and all other kind of nondescript foul language.
  • Meet and kiss vice-president Biden after his speech at the Embassy in Mexico City, and later receive a letter of appreciation in Pakistan, letter forwarded from Mexico even though it had a wrong address for the Embassy in Mexico.
  • Be car-chased by a crazy man in Chiapas where hubby had to remember and apply all his classes of Crash & Bang defensive driving.
  • Eat powdered ants in a wonderful Mexican dish.
  • Participate and rank top 2 in the first ever triathlon of my life in Islamabad at an age when some of us are grandmothers.
  • Climb the full size brass antelope in the Karachi airport on a dare given by my female boss – who did it too!
  • Be called daughter by a toothless Pakistani villager, thankful that via USAID we brought her electricity.
  • Hike the Margalla hills every week and befriend Pakistani girls in the mountains.
  • Become a designer and invent many unique dresses and shirts thanks to the sewing skills of my Pakistani tailor.
  • Sleep on the floor of the hut of unknown Thai mountain villagers.
  • Buy a beautiful and unique piece of embroidery in Thailand that the embroiderer consented to sell only because I was married.
  • Eat in bamboo plates from bamboo dishes with bamboo chopsticks that had all been carved in front of my eyes a few minutes before the meal.
  • Taste savory dishes of curly-haired pig during the Mangalica festival in Budapest.
  • Celebrate Valentine’s day in Bosnia (usually more synonym of war than love unfortunately).
  • Visit an exhibition in total darkness, led by a blind guide and experience like a blind person what life is like, dinner included.
  • Hike to the top of Mount Triglav, the highest mountain of Slovenia at 2864 meters (9,400 feet).
  • Eat foie gras in a special ‘Magyar’ McDonald burger, the libamajjal, where liba means goose, maj liver and the –al suffix with.
  • Climb a Via Ferrata for the first time in my life: the steep via Ferrata Hans-von-Haid-Steig trail to reach Mount Rax in Styria, Austria at 2 000 meters.
  • Learn a few words of Chinese because I am working as a TDYer in Beijing, China, in the middle of the summer – yet the weather is not as hot as in Budapest or Paris.

Some friends tell me ‘I didn’t know you were doing these kinds of thing’ and I answer ‘me neither’!

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.

So many addresses …

I had promised to count the exact number of physical addresses I have lived in so far. I had mentioned making a comparison between home number 17 and number 21. My husband has reached 27 actually. Not me. No such “luck”. I have only lived in 16 houses but since 8 of them happened in only 7 years… I got carried away!

Seven years ago I joined my husband starting his second career. We lived in a small apartment in Virginia which was house number 9 for me and number 20 for him. We had to learn the different neighborhoods to pick the right one for school purposes. After three months there we found a little brick house (#10) in a great neighborhood with very good schools and fantastic neighbors. It was my first time living in the United States for real (I had had summer jobs in Florida when I was a student) and it felt unreal, like in a movie from the 1950s. Kids running, playing in the street, basketball, hide and seek, no worrying parents. Neighbors bringing you welcome carrot cakes and chocolate chip cookies. One day my son came back, amazed, from his new friend’s house describing how the cookies were in a glass jar because the mom had cooked them herself – shame on me buying them at the supermarket! Christmas caroling from house to house.  Sycamores in the fall.

Alas less than a year later we were assigned to our first tour overseas. I say alas because we were leaving our fantastic neighbors but we were obviously also happy to finally start our big adventure. We landed in West Africa and a huge white house welcomed us (#11). White outside, white inside floors, walls, ceilings. No cookies from neighbors here but the call of the muezzin five times a day and a stray dog who adopted us, named Roxy by my daughter. Senegal is a francophone country so it was very easy for us to settle and we welcomed the warmer climate.

After two years we came back to the United States and lived in Arizona (#12) a few months before our next assignment to Mexico City (#13). We lived in an apartment because the choice was an apartment in the Polanco area (my favorite place in the city) or a house in the hills, which meant horrendous commute and much colder weather. After almost two years in Mexico we moved to the greenest city of this part of the world: Islamabad (#14). It is funny how you don’t grow up fantasizing about making Pakistan your home country … and yet we had a great time there, much better than anticipated.

After one year in Islamabad we moved to Budapest in a nice house (#15) but for technical reasons we had to move again after six weeks and finally settle in house #16.

I now need to explain why I wrote physical address and not just address, why each time we move we are actually juggling with seven snail-mail addresses!!!

1 – our permanent address in the United States (use for banking & retirement)

2 – our permanent address in France (use for banking & retirement)

3 – our official address in Washington (use for official mail)

4 – our personal address in Dulles (use for online shopping with sites who refuse to ship to DPO)

5 – our DPO address in the U.S. (the most used for online shopping)

6 – our address at the Embassy (our official response when asked where we live; also for invoices for example)

7 – our real address (we only give it to friends and the school shuttle)

Yes, you need to be organized when you become a Foreign Service Officer.