Sunday, October 17, 2010

Better Late Than Never

I'm going to skip the drawn out explanation about how I've been meaning to update the blog for weeks and weeks now and just say I made it safely to Beirut and am having the absolute time of my life! After months of training, packing, stressing, goodbyes, and more freaking out, the cats and I arrived in Beirut in mid-September. One month in and I'm slowly developing a routine, though I'm quickly learning that life in Lebanon can't be lived by following a predictable schedule!

Life in Beirut is fantastic, though it's much different than most of our other Embassies as all employees live on the Embassy compound. Apparently compared to other Foreign Service housing ours is very small, but I live in a charming two-story bungalow with a balcony off my bedroom that overlooks the Mediterranean. This might be a hardship post, but I'll take a sweeping sea view any day of the week!  

Work has definitely been a whirlwind. My colleagues are so smart and helpful, and they've really made this transition much smoother than it could have been. One of the most heartbreaking things I've done so far is tour Palestinian refugee camps. I was part of a group observing UN-funded schools in action, and I will never forget the conditions under which the children have to study. The cramped classrooms, extreme heat, and lack of a playground don't encourage scholarship, but the students were so attentive and eager to learn. The kids-especially the girls-were eager to describe what they wanted to be when they grow up and knew how important education would be in achieving their dreams. I was so inspired by their determination-I'm not sure I would be as dedicated in similar circumstances. 

Life outside of work is also busy and lots of fun.  I've played on the Embassy softball team, sampled many of Beirut's tasty restaurants, and attended my first representational event: the Harley-Davidson Dealership Grand Opening. Oh yes, there's quite the Harley following here though the clientèle isn't exactly what you'd see in DC over Veteran's Day...I also attended the Spanish National Day party, and the wine and paella convinced me that Madrid needs to be at the top of my list for my second post! Yep, one month in and I'm already thinking about the next place. I need to work on this whole living in the moment thing. One way to do so is head to the spa-this is definitely a great place to pamper yourself! I indulged in a manicure, pedicure, and facial for a grand total of $65-mango mimosa included! And that's considered a bit pricey for Beirut. I plan on getting extremely spoiled while I'm here. 

Well, that's the first month in a nutshell! Here's hoping that updating the blog becomes a regular occurrence =)

Friday, July 23, 2010

Bueller? Bueller?

So apparently I'm not as good at maintaining a blog as I thought I would be. Being busy shouldn't mean that I automatically fall off the face of the Earth, but I've mastered the art of being incommunicado....A lot of the past month really wouldn't have made for interesting posts anyway, so I'll save you all the pain of reading, and myself of writing, a detailed account of life after A-100.

I knew that I would be busy, but I wasn't quite as prepared for juggling all of the little details involved in an overseas move while also learning the ins and outs of US visa laws. I will be spending one of my two years in Beirut as a consular officer, so right now I'm taking a course fondly called "ConGen". I had no idea how complicated the whole process is, but it's been fascinating to learn about processes that have directly affected my family (the naturalization process, registering a birth abroad, tourist visas, etc).

Here's a rundown of some of the other superfun logistics I've been wrangling with, and if anyone has tips on moving overseas I would love to hear them!

1. Set my travel itinerary
2. Decided to take the cats with me
3. Changed my travel itinerary
4. Decided the cats should stay in DC
5. Donated multiple bags of stuff to Goodwill
6. Had a freakout
7. Learned about passports and visas
8. Decided to take the cats with me
9. Had another freakout
10. Destressed with a Sex and the City marathon with one of my best friends
11. Repeatedly taking deep breaths

At this point, all of my travel plans are book and the kitties have plane reservations. Now it's time to focus on organizing all of my stuff, as well as making list after list of just about everything. In the meantime, I'm trying to come up with a DC Bucket List and actually stay on top of this blog. Stay tuned!

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Flag Day!

The Friday before Flag Day I found out I received a 3/3 on my Arabic exam! Most government agencies assess language skills based on the Interagency Language Roundtable scale, and a 3/3 translates as "general professional proficiency." While that sounds like a pretty inflated assessment of my skills, I'll take the compliment-especially because it gets me off language probation and one step closer to meeting tenure requirements!

Fast forward to Monday, June 7th: Flag Day. I don't think I've been that anxious in a looong time. It was all I could do to stay focused during the morning sessions. Never before had one moment in time had such an impact on my life and future, and I have absolutely no control over it! Where will I live? When will I leave? Can Gene come with me? Will he be able to find a job? Will we get engaged? Can the cats come with me? All of my "what if" questions would finally come to an end once the name of my post was announced. No more hypotheticals. I would finally be able to plan my life again.

Two of my best friends accompanied Gene to Flag Day. I was so glad to have friendly faces in the audience, yet my nervousness couldn't be assuaged. When it was finally time to take our seats, I grabbed a spot in the front row with a few friends. Armed with a copy of the bid list, I first crossed off the names of posts that wouldn't be filled by our class. One by one, city names were read and happy colleagues made their way to the front to claim their flag. Several of my "high" posts were called, including Cairo. I was really starting to wonder where I was going to guess was between Jeddah and Jerusalem. After Sana'a was called, then Jeddah, I was pretty sure Jerusalem was it. Then a flag came up for a post I had ranked high, but really didn't think I had a chance to get. Not only would it use my language skills, but it would fulfill my one year Consular requirement as well as provide a year of in-cone Political training. It also had fabulous weather and food, plus a high differential and plenty of R&Rs. I looked back at my class, trying to guess who would get this exciting post. Then, all of a sudden, I heard my name....

I'm going to Beirut!!!

I spent the rest of the ceremony tracking my colleagues' posts, but once the event was over it was all I could do not to jump for joy and cheer. I'm off to Lebanon in September!!! Wahooooo!

I've Got Skills

After we turned in our bid lists, the next week and a half was spent honing a variety of skills needed to be a successful FSO. We had an overnight retreat out in Wild and Wonderful West Virginia that consisted of a plethora of team building exercises. I was very disappointed not to spend two days doing trust falls and ropes courses, we had a lot of fun getting to know one another and hanging out outside of the office setting!

The following week we worked on "core skills": public speaking, speech writing, and fielding questions in a variety of settings. I wish I could say I handled all of this with grace, but man public speaking makes me nervous! I did my best to be confident, and I definitely think I did better answering questions from the public, but I really need to work on delivering speeches. If I do say so myself, I think I wrote a decent speech. However standing behind that lectern, all confidence, eye contact, and a steady voice went out the window. Not really sure how long it will take, but I see plenty of sessions in front of the mirror in my future....  

Three Weeks Later

Well, I thought I would be much better about updating this blog. So much has transpired since my last entry that instead of writing one long posting, I'm going to break it up into topics. Flag Day, Swearing-In, getting ready for my first post...but let's back up to The Woods.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Calling All Box Checkers!

Hi, my name is Laila, and I am a Box Checker. Hi Laila.

Like many people in the Foreign Service, I am a Type A overachiever. I'm always been a compulsive list maker, but apparently now I'm a box checker as well. For this to make sense, I guess I need to back up a bit. In order to make tenure, every FSO must be off language probation, serve one year in a Consular position, and for those of us with Critical Needs Language (CNL) points, must serve one of the first two tours in a country that uses the CNL.

Last week I had a meeting with my advisor to discuss my preferences and how I ranked the bid list. One of the first things he said to me after I sat down was that I was quite the Box Checker. I didn't know how to take that at first, especially since I've been trying to internalize the unofficial Foreign Service mantra "It Depends" and am making an honest attempt to be flexible. The last thing I wanted to do was appear rigid to the person who holds the direction of the next two years of my life in his hands. My most important preference showed my true nature though: use CNL points and/or take a Consular position. I'm lucky enough to already be off language probation, so I figured if I could get the other two requirements out of the way in the first tour then I would be free to choose what I wanted for the second tour. I guess that doesn't sound quite as flexible as I had hoped....

After our meeting, I considered my advisor's suggestions and spent a good portion of the weekend researching countries and ranking, rearranging, then re-ranking the bid list. Last night I submitted my final list of preferences and the ranked bid list, so now it's out of my hands and the chips will fall where they may. I plan on spending the next 13 days trying to be flexible, but for now I'll be answering most questions with "It Depends".

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

What a Week!

I was totally unprepared for how exhausting A-100 was going to be, but I also had no idea how much I was going to love it! This last week has been a complete whirlwind, and as family and friends can attest, I've pretty much fallen off the radar. We officially started the 153rd A-100 class (Orientation for Junior FSOs) on Tuesday, and have since been listening to high-ranking speakers, learning the ins and outs of State, and receiving the highly anticipated bid list.

Oh, the bid list. I have spent the last five days excitedly researching cities all over the world, including googling many to find out where they were even located! We aren't allowed to publish the list, but I can say that it's pretty fantastic. I've done my initial ranking of the posts, but don't have to submit the list until next week so I'm sure it will change several more times...My biggest hope is that I'll go somewhere where I can use my Arabic, preferably in a large city. Of course it would be also nice if Gene had some employment opportunities, or at the very least a reliable internet connection for telecommuting purposes. I happily signed several forms indicating that I'm World Wide Available so we'll have to wait and see what happens!

Now I just have to wait three more weeks till Flag Day!!

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Every MOH has a HOH!

I am officially a Foreign Service Officer! That still sounds so weird to say. So many years prepping for this moment, so many months wading through the application process, and now here I am, a State Department employee! Don't mind me while I sit here and do my happy dance.

To overuse my school analogy, today was like class registration. Except for the part where we swore to uphold the Constitution. I feel very lucky to have already held two jobs in my life that require me to pledge allegiance to this country. Even though this wasn't my first time saying the oath, it still gave me goose bumps!

“I, Super Happy Brand New FSO, do solemnly swear that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same; that I take this obligation freely, without any mental reservation or purpose of evasion, and I will well and faithfully discharge the duties of the office on which I am about to enter. So help me God.”

We spent the rest of the day listening to fascinating power point presentations about health insurance, retirement benefits, and various other administrivia. My favorite speaker dropped by at the end of the day to discuss traveling for State. During the Q&A portion, the subject of marriage while at post came up. In no uncertain terms, the speaker informed us that there's no problem "acquiring" a husband when you're abroad. Glad to know it's no more complicated than picking up a piece of antique furniture or a handwoven rug!

Now of course he was teasing, but this made me think about my own situation and two of my favorite Foreign Service acronyms: MOHs and HOHs. Since Gene and I aren't married, in the eyes of the government he's my Member of Household [MOH] and I'm the Head of Household [HOH]. I'll wait for the jokes to stop.

Still waiting.

Ok. Whether or not we'll get married has to be one of the most frequently questions we get asked, right after "where are you going?" and "what will he do?" So here's a quick explanation for those of you who haven't heard our decision: we aren't rushing to the alter. Neither of us wants to get married before we're ready just because it's convenient and we'd get more money, although the extra money sure would be nice...I'm unbelievable lucky to have a boyfriend who is so supportive of me taking this job that I want to make sure I'm equally supportive for him. It will take some time to figure out what he can do abroad and if this lifestyle really is for him. I'm pretty certain it is for me, but this is my dream, and I don't see the need in putting any undue pressure on him or our relationship. Plus, there's no reason to hurry down the aisle towards yet another acronym: EFM [Eligible Family Member]. Although it does beat the slightly pejorative "trailing husband."

Now the paperwork is done, my freshly printed badge is in hand, and A-100 training begins tomorrow!

Monday, May 10, 2010

Back to School

So tomorrow is the big day! This moment has been months in the making, and yet it seems like it just snuck up on me. I've spent the last week closing one chapter of my life, saying goodbyes to friends and colleagues, and spending several evenings celebrating the transition from one job to another. Somewhere in there I've managed to shop far too often, buy a few too many suits and pairs of dress shoes, and host a meet-and greet for a group of my A-100 colleagues. (The goverment is full of fun acronyms, which I will outline more thoroughly in a future post, but A-100 is the orientation program for Junior Foreign Service Officers.)

Growing up, I was always the kid who couldn't wait for the new school year to start. I looked forward to the back-to-school trip to Staples to buy new colored pencils, notebooks, and pretty much any other office supply you could imagine. I got my first planner in the sixth grade, and every year since then I've had a bit too much fun picking out the perfect organizer. Now five years after college graduation, I feel like tomorrow is the first day of school all over again. And just like elementary school, I have a new notebook and pen ready to go, albeit in a more professional looking bag instead of my old Jansport backpack. I have butterflies in the pit of my stomach, but it's mixed with excitement, and just like the old days, I can't wait to get the schedule for the next five weeks. Nothing like a syllabus on the first day to get me out of bed in the morning. Yes, I'm just that cool.

Tonight the 151st A-100 class hosted a reception to welcome my class, the 153rd A-100, into the Foreign Service. It was great meeting so many of my classmates, and seeing familiar friendly faces from my party last night. At least this will make the first day a bit less nervewracking. Now all that's left is obsessing over the perfect outfit.

Thursday, April 29, 2010

Welcome to the Future

Before I can write about where I'm going, I need to take a moment and reflect on where I've been. Maybe it was the fact that I got my first passport when I was five weeks old. Or maybe it was because I had moved five times and visited three continents by the time I was nine. Maybe it was because I was so frustrated that I couldn't communicate with my Urdu-speaking grandmother. Whatever caused it, I have known since I was little that my life would include frequent international travel and exposure to new languages and cultures.And for the past 15 years, I have aspired to join the Foreign Service.

In middle school, I idolized Madeleine Albright as she became the first female Secretary of State. I couldn't imagine a cooler job than flying around the globe and meeting with foreign dignitaries, and my inner feminist was thrilled that a woman represented America abroad. While my teenage understanding of the intricacies of international diplomacy was minimal and a bit simplistic, I knew that I wanted to be involved in solving the world's problems and bringing people closer together. I read what I could about Secretary Albright, and when I learned she received a degree in International Relations I decided I would do the same. I lobbied my parents extensively in an effort to convince them that I must attend college in Washington, DC, and after much debate, they agreed and off I went to The George Washington University. When I received my BA from the Elliott School of International Affairs, I felt one step closer to living my dream.

Fast forward five years, and I'm sitting here in disbelief. I began the application process for the Foreign Service in December 2008, and now I'm less than two weeks away from being sworn in as a United States Diplomat. What began nearly two decades ago as a dream to travel the world, learn new languages, and explore other cultures, will become my reality in just 12 days. Although I have always wanted this, I'm not sure I ever thought it would actually happen. Thank you to everyone who believed in me and helped me to get where I am today. Without your enduring love and support, none of this would have been possible.

I don't want to sound like I'm accepting some award and I won't rattle off a list of people to thank, but I can't ignore how my story wouldn't be possible anywhere else. The fact that the daughter of a small-town Kentucky mom and a Pakistani immigrant dad could be appointed to the United States Diplomatic Corps, due solely to hard work, determination, and support, amazes me. I am so proud to have the opportunity to represent our nation and to show how anything is possible here if you just put your mind to it. I am so proud of the US for welcoming immigrants from all over the world so they can take a chance at living their dreams and providing their children with better lives (my home state's new immigration bill excluded). I think I've devoted more than enough space to this, but I want everyone to know how grateful I am to begin this new career, how humbled I am by my future responsibilities, and how I'll do my best to make everyone back home proud.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

There's a First Time for Everything

Welcome to my blog! Never thought I would actually say that, but here I am anyway. This is my attempt to keep in touch with family and friends as I settle into my new role of American Diplomat. That still sounds weird to say! I don't start at the State Department until May 10th, so stay tuned as the adventure unfolds. Enjoy!