Thursday, February 28, 2008

Cocktail Diplomacy

Diplomats have long lived with the image of doing nothing but going to cocktail parties and living the high life. I'll concede that this reputation is somewhat deserved, but I'll also say that a lot of interesting things can happen at cocktail parties. You can learn a lot just by observing who's there and who isn't, who is talking to whom, and what this person is saying about that person. It's kinda like a junior high school dance.

I attended the Kuwait National Day and the Bulgaria National Day celebrations this week. Lots of people in military uniforms or national costumes (I wonder if I should wear a cowboy hat to the next reception). An acquaintance from a more liberal Arab country was trying to sample some Bulgarian wine while hiding from the diplomats from stricter Muslim countries who kept strolling nearby. It was interesting to listen to a diplomat from the United Arab Emirates comment on his perception of human rights in Romania. But the most tantalizing tidbit was watching a high-ranking diplomat from an EU country firmly, but politely, express his displeasure to the Serbian ambassador about the inadequate security provided to Western embassies in Belgrade during the recent Kosovo riots.

So you see, important diplomacy can take place over stuffed mushrooms and brie.

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Would you like fries with your visa?

After a 4 month hiatus doing immigrant visas, I am back in the non-immigrant visa (NIV) saddle. The best part of doing immigrant visas is the slower pace. The emphasis with NIVs is on volume and speed. Get 'em in, get 'em out, kinda like a fast food restaurant. In Bucharest, this means each officer does at least 80 interviews by lunchtime (1:00). Compared to some other consulates, that may not sound like a lot. But visa mills tend to have more slam dunk cases - either clearly issuable or clearly not. In Bucharest, the vast majority of our cases aren't black and white and require some digging. The fast pace of NIV work has a few consequences. One, by the time I get to the cafeteria, I'm incapable of making another decision (the girl who works at the register usually ends up deciding what I will have for lunch). Two, it is mentally draining. Doing hundreds of interviews every week for 2 years turns your brain to mush. Three, I have to wonder if making important decisions in a matter of seconds will rub off on other areas of my life. Will I start making significant life-changing decisions based solely on a gut feeling or a perceived micro-expression on the face of friend?

The slower pace of IVs is not the only thing I enjoyed. In most cases, you issue the visa. Which means you make people happy. Sure, there are the stinker cases that you don't want to issue, but you just hold your nose and do it. I particularly enjoyed giving an immigrant visa to a young man whose entire family had immigrated to the United States, but because he was over 21 at the time, he was too old to be considered a dependent. So after waiting patiently for 7 years he was finally able to join his family in America. He was such a nice guy and had no bitterness at all about being separated from his family. I wished I could have made the moment special for him, like dropping balloons from the ceiling or hiring a marching band to play the national anthem. Instead, he just smiled, thanked me, and off he went.

Sunday, February 3, 2008

Arabic is Hard

When I first received notification that my next assignment is Baghdad, I immediately started reading as much as I could about the embassy, the job, the country, etc. Although I'm not required to learn Arabic, I enrolled in a distance learning course so I could study the languge during my free time. I worried a little that learning a foreign language while still in Bucharest might interfere with my Romanian language abilities. Ha! After reviewing the Arabic alphabet for the last 2 weeks, there is no danger of my brain suddenly swelling with Arabic proficiency at the expense of my Romanian skills. Arabic is hard. If it was just a matter of learning a different script, I think I could handle that with a lot of studying; although, having 4 variations of a character depending on where in the word the character is located does seem like overkill. But the real challenge is the pronounciation. Some of these sounds just cannot be made by a mouth that was born and raised in suburban America.

Besides taking Arabic lessons, I've also started making other preparations for my departure. Being the plan-ahead perfectionist that I am (two terrible qualities to have as a foreign service officer), I have taken the initiative to start organizing my departure from Bucharest and my training schedule in Washington D.C. To be precise, I have taken the initiative several times now, because the training program for Iraq-bound officers keeps changing. Almost hourly. You would think that after 2+ years in the Foreign Service I would remember that planning ahead is futile and will only get me in trouble. A good friend recently expressed her frustration about planning her departure from Post as "barely contained rage yoked to an apparently misplaced desire for reasonableness."

But it will all work out in the end. And I have a big bottle of Migraine Strength Exedrin to get me through. AlHamdu lillh!