Sunday, December 20, 2009
January 1, 2009 - The first annual Baghdad Bowl in the Green Zone.
February 2009 - I traveled to Madagascar (above) and Tanzania (below). What an amazing experience.
February 2009 - Playing tourist in the Green Zone with a couple friends, we get our picture taken with a squad of Iraqi soldiers.
March (or was it April?) 2009 - Meeting Secretary Clinton during her visit to Baghdad.
June 2009 - My final R&R started with a few days exploring Jordan. This picture was taken on a mule ride to a monastery above Petra.
June 2009 - On a dream vacation - a Mediterranean cruise starting in Barcelona and traveling to Monte Carlo, Italy, Greece and Croatia, ending in Venice (above, St. Mark's Basilica).
July 4, 2009 - Independence Day, Baghdad style. The DFAC staff always does an amazing job decorating for the holidays.
August 2009 - Leaving Baghdad after a 13 month assignment. I really enjoyed depositing the flak jacket and helmet for the last time!
August - September 2009 - Home Leave in California. I spent some time with family then finally got to enjoy the cabin I purchased in January. Big Bear offered lots of opportunities to enjoy the outdoors. The photo above was taken during a hike on the north side of Big Bear Lake.
November 2009 - After a wonderful Thanksgiving dinner, my family and I stayed at the cabin for a few days. It snowed like crazy, but we managed to have fun.
Best wishes for a happy and healthy 2010.
The most important reason is that passing "the test" has become more important than the true purpose of language training - preparing diplomats for their jobs overseas. How much class time is spent practicing for the test and learning tricks for getting a good score? ("Don't forget to start the speaking at length portion by saying, 'This morning I will speak to you on the topic of computers.'") I admit that test-taking skills often overlap with skills that will actually be useful in our jobs, but that is a fortunate coincidence, not necessarily by design.
Secondly, the test is a sword of Damocles hanging over the head of untenured junior officers. JOs need to pass the test to be eligible for tenure; therefore, the test becomes a painful distraction. The test is also used to measure, to some extent, the success or failure of instructors and sections. Think about the consequences of that.
Lastly, as any language student (and a fair number of instructors) will tell you, the test does not accurately measure a person's language proficiency. Nerves, a poor choice of topics, and even lucky guesses can affect a student's score.
I'm not sure what an appropriate alternative would be. Perhaps a panel of instructors observing students in class over a period of several days. Or students get to prepare a presentation on a topic of their choice followed by a Q&A session by instructors. I don't know what the answer is. But I think it's worth considering that the focus FSI puts on "the test" does not prepare students for their jobs. If you're lucky, your instructor will be able to balance both goals. If you're not lucky...
Saturday, December 5, 2009
I had two reactions to the news clips. The first - Why is he shouting at me? The second - Is he racing through the story so quickly because he gets paid by the number of stories he can squeeze into the newscast? More often than not, I leave class thinking, "I suck."
I guess language training is not an exercise in developing self-esteem.
Thursday, October 22, 2009
It reminds me of a time when I was traveling through Europe a couple years ago. The man at the airport check-in counter asked me a simple question to which I responded "Da, I mean yes, I mean ja, I mean si, I mean... where am I?" It's a very cosmopolitan life I lead.
Tuesday, October 6, 2009
I am the only student in my class. This is good for a few reasons. Namely, I'm only in the classroom 4 hours a day (but there's plenty of homework) and my teachers can customize the instruction to fit my pace and fluency. The other edge of that sword is that there's nobody else to take the heat for a while. It's all me all the time. And it would be nice sometimes to have another native English speaker in the class to help understand the grammatical explanations given by the non-native English speaking instructor. ("Did you understand when to use 'maa' in the post position and when not to?")
The other downside is that by the last hour of class on Friday my brain is slush. It just shuts down, like a stubborn mule that refuses to budge no matter how hard you kick it.
So now my stubborn mule brain and I have scaled the initial steep climb and have leveled off. I can see up ahead the rocky path of complicated conjugations, illogical verb tenses, and frustrating sentence structures. I'll need some sharp spurs in the next 9 months.
Thursday, September 10, 2009
Me: I'd like to request access to my OpenNet account and get my FSI INET account password.
IT guy: It looks like Baghdad hasn't transferred your account yet. You'll have to send them an email and ask that they transfer the account.
Me: Um, how can I send them an email if I can't log on?
IT guy: Try logging on to the NEASA server. It might take a while the first time.
Me: Ok. And my FSI INET account?
IT guy: Here's your password. You should be all set.
Me: I tried logging on to my FSI INET account but it says it's disabled and to see the network administrator.
IT guy: Huh. Let me try something... Ok it should work now.
Me: After 40 minutes, I was able to log on to OpenNet through the NEASA server yesterday and sent an email to Baghdad to have them transfer the account. But today I logged on but couldn't get anything done. Before the system crashed for the fourth (and final) time, I saw that someone in Baghdad had replied to my email, but I couldn't read it.
IT guy: Oh. Go see Oliver, he'll have to help you. But it looks like he's pretty busy with someone else right now.
Me: You're telling me that out of all the people at the IT Help Desk, only Oliver can assist me, and out of all the people at the IT Help Desk, only Oliver is unavailable right now?
IT guy: Yeah. Do you wanna wait?
On the next episode of The Circle of Strife - payroll & voucher bureaucracy.
Thursday, August 13, 2009
As my departure from Baghdad approaches, I've been thinking about the past year. Here's what I will miss and what I will not miss about Baghdad.
What I won't miss:
Stepping outside and getting sandblasted by 115 degree wind and dirt
Action memos and 8-page cables
Baked fish and steamed vegetables
Personal Protective Equipment (aka kevlar vest & helmet)
What I will miss:
Some incredible people
Flying in helicopters
Free all-you-can-eat ice cream
Big guys with guns opening the door for me
The DFAC when it's decorated for holidays
Wednesday, August 5, 2009
The election monitoring teams were split up, and I travelled to Sulaymania and Dohuk. Each location is about a 3 hour drive from our base in Erbil. Kurdistan is very safe compared to the rest of Iraq; in fact, the Kurds like to boast that not a single American has been killed in the region (I guess that’s true of you don’t count certain cities in disputed areas along the border with the rest of Iraq).
Despite the safer environment, our security was tight. Our convoy included 5 armored Suburbans and 11 armed bodyguards. Our driver was a “banged up” former from Georgia who addressed everyone as Sir or Ma’am. We wore our low profile movement.
The first day in Sulaymania I observed the special needs voting for the KRG soldiers, called the Peshmerga. The second day in Dohuk I observed the general voting. Our main job was to observe the actual voting process to make sure everything went according to the regulations. But the part I enjoyed the most was talking to the Kurds. Most seemed very happy to answer my questions (through an interpreter), although it’s likely they were just interested in a pleasant distraction from waiting in line in the extraordinary heat.
I was happy to see th in the car. This was not a eir enthusiasm and their confidence that this would be a free and fair election. I saw a surprising number of elderly people, but also young people. Some voting centers were more orderly than others, but standing in the heat for a couple hours would make anyone cranky.
As it turned out, the elections had a large turnout and the new opposition party, the Change party, won nearly twice as many parliament seats as expected. It was a historic election and I’m glad I got to see it up close.
Saturday, July 4, 2009
I missed the parades, the music, the outdoor BBQ, the flags, and the fireworks. But in Baghdad, no fireworks is probably a good thing.
Tuesday, June 23, 2009
The best change for me has been a sense that I can make a valuable contribution if given the chance. As the "office veteran," I am being utilized in a way that I haven't been before and it's nice. Of course, my time in the front office is coming to an end so this nice feeling will be short-lived.
A junior officer emailed me the other day because she is thinking about bidding on this position. She asked me to tell her about the job and it forced me to summarize the past 11 months; it wasn't easy. I told her about the dark side of what is a thankless job - the mundane tasks and the monotony. But I also told her that when I look back on this assignment when it's over, I will probably focus on the unique experiences it offered and the amazing people with whom I had the privilege to serve.
Two more months to go!
Wednesday, May 20, 2009
Monday, April 6, 2009
Embassy Baghdad receives Distinguished Visitor (DV) trips every month. This month alone we have three Congressional Delegations (CODELS). Unlike at most Embassies, where such a visit would shut down normal operations for weeks, these visits (with the exception of a presidential visit) rarely register more than a blip. That's mainly because we have a Legislative Affairs staff that coordinates the logistics of these trips. So the only extra work for me when a DV or CODEL comes to town is a little more paperwork.
CODEL itineraries usually include lunch with military constituents. I've never seen a member of Congress request to meet with constituent Foreign Service officers. Soldiers in fatigues make a better photo op than diplomats in suits.
Kudos to Representative Joe Wilson of South Carolina. When his CODEL arrived in the front office this week to meet with the Charge d'Affaires and the Commanding General, he broke away from the group to say hello and introduce himself to us lowly staffers and thank us for our service. That's never happened before.
Thursday, April 2, 2009
Saturday, March 21, 2009
Monday, March 16, 2009
The flight was on a C-130, an Air Force cargo plane that was designed for transporting cargo and hardened soldiers; it was not designed for transporting spoiled diplomats who cried when the Department stopped providing upgrades to business class, and it was certainly not designed for women. As part of the introductory briefing on board, the airman explains that for men who have to... relieve themselves, there is a fold-out urinal along one of the walls. For women, they have... a bucket.
What was supposed to be a 90 minute flight turned into a 4 hour trip. Some of us ladies just couldn't hold it anymore, so someone requested that accommodations be made. The airman, bless his heart, said, "gimme 5 minutes." He assembled a makeshift ladies room that consisted of a bucket, a small toilet seat obtained from God-knows-where, a plastic bag, and a tarp. Tragically, I did not take a photo of the C-130 ladies room, so the best I can do to share the experience of going to the bathroom on a C-130 is to describe it in the following way:
Step 1: Carefully make your way up and over the cargo pallet in order to access the ladies room from the un-tarped side.
Step 2: Don't look too closely at what you're about to sit on.
Step 3: Try to get as steady a footing as you can between the cargo pallet and the wall, compensating for the 40 degree slant on which the ladies room toilet has been temporarily set.
Step 4: Do your business and pray to Jesus that the tarp protecting your modesty from the rest of the passengers doesn't fall down.
And that is how a lady goes to the bathroom on a C-130 while it circles Baghdad.
Tuesday, March 3, 2009
Saturday, February 14, 2009
Wednesday, January 21, 2009
I donned my flak jacket and helmet, got my instructions from the security agent in charge, and got into an armored suburban. Rule number one when travelling with a PSD (personal security detail) – never open or close a door, the PSD does that. This is a good thing because those doors are heavy!
It is a short drive to the check point and we barely drove into the red zone before we arrived at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. All three vehicles parked in front of the building and, remembering rule number one, I waited. A team of armed men got out of the other two vehicles, surrounded the vehicle I was in and did a quick survey of the environment before opening my door. Then they surrounded me as we walked into the building.
Once inside I took off my flak jacket and found my contact with whom I exchanged the mail (we have diplomatic notes for them, and they have diplomatic notes for us). While I was waiting, the Iraqi official started off by congratulating us on our new president and then going on a rant about President Bush. I have a feeling he was just testing me to see if he could get a reaction from me, but I kept my mouth shut.
This is the good part. After we exchanged the letters, he asked how someone would go about finding a marriageable American woman. I thought perhaps I didn’t hear him correctly, but then he said very plainly that he wanted an American wife. I said something vague like, “that’s not an easy thing to do,” disliking the turn the conversation had taken. Sure enough, he asked me for my business card. I didn’t have one with me. "Next time," he said. Sure.
I don't know if the PSD agents are trained in extracting unmarried female diplomats from unwanted marriage proposals.
Wednesday, January 14, 2009
This time was different. The lunchtime crowd was mostly Iraqis and nearly all the tables were full. We walked to a table in the back, getting the stares that a black man, two white guys, and two red-headed women could expect from a cafe full of working class Iraqi men (I did spot a woman at one table later on). We had a wonderful meal of lamb and several side dishes of potatoes, beans, and eggplant.
The market/cafe is owned by Christian Iraqis. I know this because 1) the first time I visited, my colleagues introduced the owner; and 2) on the back wall is a large picture of Jesus and his disciples at the last supper, the framed print accessorized with a shiny tinsel boa. While Christians may suffer harassment in other parts of Iraq, at least here they seem to be doing good business.