Friday, January 29, 2010

AFSA Links for Supporting FSO-related Haiti Victims

Natalie received this message from the American Foreign Service Association (AFSA), so I thought I'd pass it along to everyone:

"AFSA wishes to express its deepest condolences to the family, friends and colleagues of those in the Foreign Service community who perished in the devastating January 12 earthquake in Haiti. One Foreign Service Officer and at least six Foreign Service Nationals are among the fallen, with 28 others unaccounted for:

"Victoria DeLong: A 27-year veteran of the Foreign Service and an AFSA member, Victoria served as the Cultural Affairs Officer in Port-au-Prince. She had fallen in love with the people and culture of Haiti and called this tour the highlight of her career. Donations in her memory of Victoria Delong can be made to the Little Flower/Rosa Mina Orphanage, where Vickie volunteered. Online donations can be made through the Partners in Progress website. There, click on "make a donation" to get the donations page. Where it asks "How should we use your donation", there is a drop down menu, and Little Flower/Rosa Mina is third on the list of options. On behalf of AFSA and its members, AFSA President Susan Johnson will present Victoria’s family with a United States flag at the funeral this weekend.

"We also mourn the terrible loss of so many of our FSN colleagues. The Foreign Service National (FSN) Emergency Relief Fund enables the Department of State to respond to crises affecting locally employed staff overseas. To donate to the fund, send a check to the Department’s Gift Fund Coordinator, Donna Bordley, RM/CFO, Rm. 7427, 2201 C Street NW, Washington DC 20520. Make checks payable to the U.S. Department of State, designation for the “FSN Emergency Relief Fund.” State and USAID employees may also check their intranet for guidance on donation by cash or credit cards.

"Our thoughts are also with State Department employee Andrew Wyllie, who tragically lost his wife Laurence and his two young sons, Evan and Baptiste, in the earthquake.

"As a part of honoring their memory, AFSA has opened an online condolence and remembrance page. Please share your thoughts on those who gave their lives by e-mailing them to They will be posted each day. We encourage you to express your support for the dedication, courage and professionalism of your colleagues and fellow members of our Foreign Service family/community. The families of the fallen will then be provided with a bound book containing all the messages regarding their loved ones."

Unless anything else develops, I'm likely done blogging on Haiti as there are several, more reliable resources available. And I encourage you all to use them because just as former President George W. Bush said (and I never thought I would see the day I would be paraphrasing him without a punchline), after the news-cycle passes by Haiti, there still will be a of lot work that needs to be done to recover, rebuild and improve the nation's infrastructure and national psyche.

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Congratulations 148th A-100

Last night, the 148th A-100 class hosted its fundraiser at Ghana Cafe, and it exceeded all expectations.

Though the numbers are at this point are extremely rough, early estimates were that the event brought in a few thousand dollars, which will be spread evenly between two charities - Doctors without Borders and the Foreign Service National (FSN) Emergency Relief Fund.

(Note: For whatever reason, the FSN fund is even more behind the times than I am when it comes to technology, and it does not have a Web site <gasp!>. So here is is snippet from the Associates of the American Foreign Service Worldwide's facebook page: The Foreign Service National (FSN) Emergency Relief Fund enables the Department of State to respond to crises affecting our FSN employees overseas. To donate to the fund, send a check to the Department’s Gift Fund Coordinator, Donna Bordley, RM/CFO, Rm. 7427, 2201 C Street NW, Washington DC 20520. Make checks payable to the U.S. Department of State, designation for the FSN Emergency Relief Fund.)

Congratulations are especially in order because of how quickly this event came together. Planning began (to the best of my knowledge) as recently as late last week, and in that time, the 148th also managed to get the word out through some of the big players in the Washington media including The Washington Post and the local NBC affiliate.

A thank you also needs to be given to Ghana Cafe, which has agreed to donate 20% of its alcohol sales from the evening to 148th's efforts.

It was a great event that packed the building to near capacity for most of the night. Good job once again, 148th.

This from the 148th A-100 organizers: "I wanted to thank all of you for the tremendous effort that many of you put in to making the Aide Ayiti fundraiser an enormous success. Thanks to all of your efforts, we raised $3667.00 last night for two very worthy causes. We also had around 300 people come through the door, and we increased the profits for, and supported a local small business."

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

An Open Letter to the U.S. Government

Dear U.S. Government,

I was quite distressed to learn that in addition to the unfortunate passing of Victoria DeLong, three “obviously, they’re not government employees” (according to Assistant Secretary Philip J. Crowley) also died in Haiti.

I don’t know anything about these people, in part because you haven’t released their identities. I hope this is because you still are contacting family members, but when this task is complete—if it isn’t already—then I urge you to let us learn more about the three “dependents” (Crowley again).

I don't know who these people were, but I feel a slight connection. They've been through what I'm going through, and some day, I'll experience what they've experienced as an American expatriate.

You shared the identity of Ms. DeLong, and The Washington Post wrote a wonderful article detailing her life as a foreign service officer.

It would be nice to share with the American public that while the FSOs are doing their jobs representing the United States in foreign countries, many of them do so with their families. Instead, you strung together this beautiful bit of prose: “Yeah, they’re part of the official – they were there in an official status as accompanying family members in Haiti…But they’re not – obviously, they’re not U.S. employees.”

Suddenly EF’M doesn’t seem so tongue-in-cheek. (This is Crowley below, and so far, I don't like him very much.)

Let’s be clear, Crowley, while we do not receive paychecks from the government, we are (or will be, as the case pertains to me) representing the United States as well.

In fact, the day after your impersonal references to the additional paperwork that travels with your FSOs, Hillary Clinton said, “We know that when we send someone to serve in a post overseas, the family serves, whether the family accompanies the officer or stays behind. We know that there is a family that is involved in most cases.”

Let’s up those are not just words, and a good place to start would be to tell the stories of the three Americans who died serving their country in Haiti.

I guess I misread one of Clinton's remarks, and the State Department did identify the three EFMs as Andrew Wyllie's wife Laurence and his two young sons Evan and Baptiste. The way the statement was worded, I thought he was employed with the United Nations, and while tragically losing his family, I worried there still were three more EFMs the government had not identified. Here is an article from The Newport Daily Express and another that shares some about the family. Regardless, I still was upset with Crowley's choice of words, which is why I decided to leave this post up.

Monday, January 25, 2010

AEFM?: Afterthought on Errors, Fallacies and Misstatements

So unlike several other foreign service office-related blogs, I never bothered to include a disclaimer stating that the government and I are not related, our views are different and so on and so forth.

I didn’t think it was particularly necessary as I am not a government employee, and my first posted concluded with me stating, in so many words, f*#$ the government.

But after posting for a couple of weeks, and as I have learned more about the FSO subculture, I’ve decided to add this small disclaimer: Sometimes, I’m wrong, just slightly off, or embellishing.

I was inspired to add this disclaimer after doing a little research and discovering I’m not technically an EFM because that acronym denotes a dependent status. Now, I imagine Natalie would argue that I am indeed more dependent on her than I ought to be, but as far as the government is concerned, I’m actually an Appointment Eligible Family Member (AEFM), because I could serve as a direct-hire employee for either a Family Member Appointment (FMA) or Temporary Appointment (TEMP) position. (Holy crap this just keeps spawning more acronyms!)

AEFM interferes with my blog title, and as I have no intention of ever working for the U.S. government (one my many mantras, to Natalie’s chagrin and possible embarrassment is: “I don’t work for the government; the government works for me.”), so therefore, I have no problem dropping the “A” and never mentioning it again.

So in conclusion, please don’t take my postings as any official government stance and please don’t hold me accountable for any inaccuracies. My writings are based on memories intended to be entertaining, and I don’t double check facts and figures.

Friday, January 22, 2010

Charitable Works

I wanted to share with everyone three charities my wife and I are/will be involved with.

First, for those of you who live in the D.C. area, the Fightin' 148th is hosting a fundraiser to support the Foreign Service National (FSN) Emergency Relief Fund to support the locally engaged staff in Haiti as well as Doctors without Borders. There's some info on the event in the image to the right, but in case it doesn't appear on your screen, the event is from 6-11 p.m., Wednesday, Jan. 27 at the Ghana Cafe, 1336 14th St. NW. The suggested donation is $5-$10, and Ghana Cafe will donate an additional $1 for every beer sold and $2 for every cocktail.

And there is a decent shot I'll be working a beer-only bar at some point in the evening, so stop by, donate, have a drink and tell me what I can do to make this blog more appealing.

Further down the road a bit, I'll be running in the Cincinnati Mini Marathon & Heart Walk with my brother-in-law-in-law (my sister-in-law's husband) to raise money for the American Heart Association. Eric is creating a team to raise money in memory of his father, and if you are interested in donating (or running/walking, if you live in the Cincinnati area) feel free to do so by clicking here.

And finally, Natalie will be walking in the Avon Walk for Breast Cancer in Washington, D.C., on May 1 and 2. She doesn't have a donation page set up, yet, but I'll pass that information along when it becomes available. Natalie and her sister, Mindy, will be walking in memory of their mother, Laraine T. Long, who died last summer after an 18-year fight with breast cancer.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Celebrating A-100 Graduation

I wanted to post something today, but I was feeling lazy, so I’m dipping into past events as an excuse to post this surprise party video.

Since we’ve been married, Natalie has made it very clear that she wanted a surprise party, thus making it impossible to plan a surprise party for her birthday. Every year as her birthday approached, I’d be asked if she was getting her surprise party this year.

Fast forward to 2009 with her passing her oral exam, getting called into A-100 and getting our Hermosillo post, I decided I should do something a little special for her, so I chose this my chance to catch her off guard with a surprise party.

I decided to use the Sunday evening after the swearing-in ceremony because 1) it was short notice, so it had to be a Sunday so people could attend and 2) the ceremony provided an event to actually celebrate (though it really turned more into a post-Flag Day party, just a week after the fact).

After hacking into her facebook account and scrolling through her cell phone on this rare occasion it wasn’t in her hand, I was able to invite several hometown, high school, college and area friends, former work colleagues, family and some fellow 148th members to the tune of about 80 invitees altogether (about 40 arrived).

I told the lie of our apartment in association with a fictional local restaurant group was hosting a Taste of Crystal City-type event in our apartment’s party room, which she bought hook-line-and-sinker.

And I spent about a week preparing food and decorations, storing them at friends’ places and making up excuses about preparing lots of food to give to our friends as we got closer to the party.

There were several close calls, luck and lots and lots of assistance from others to pull this off right under nose, but as you can tell from the video, she definitely was not expecting this.

So without further ado, enjoy!

P.S. For some reason, the video seems to be interfering with the comments section. If you really want to leave a comment, you need to click on this post's title first. Then at the bottom of the page, the comment section springs back to life.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

A Call-to-Arms for Spanish Assistance

Rosetta Stone. My Spanish lifeline, yet also my biggest hurdle.

For the uninitiated, part of the FSO training regimen involves necessary language training. So the government (thanks, taxpayers!) provides intensive language courses that essentially become the forever-studying-for-overseas' (FSO’s) fulltime job.

Kindly enough, the government (thanks again, taxpayers!) also opens the door to us, eagers-for-mastering (EFMs) a foreign language, if space permits. Of course, the other qualification is if the family’s economic situation permits.

But as I have to work 40-hour weeks to pay the bills, the government (really, taxpayers, you are outdoing yourselves!) provides an online version of the Rosetta Stone for spouses unable to give up their jobs and attend classes.

In the early going, I was a big fan. I still remain relatively impressed with the program, but it suffers from a huge drawback. No English. I hope I’m not giving away too many secrets, but the program works by using images and matching the images to the Spanish words. Up until my specific gripe, which is coming shortly, I’ve actually preferred this method because the pictures are more memorable than an English translation.

But the problem arises when the lessons get more complex, and they are trying to describe a verb that doesn’t really provide an action. The first encounter was the verb tener, “to have.” After a few images, I was able to piece that one together, but how do you illustrated someone having something?

Now, I’m only up to the second chapter, and I’ve reached a sticking point. The offending sentence: Yo quiero a mi padre. And several variations with third person subjects like: El nino quiere a su perro. And then the corresponding pictures show either a person hugging his/her father or a boy hugging his dog, etc.

As we all remember from Taco Bell commercials, when a chihuahua says “Yo quiero Taco Bell,” it means it wants Taco Bell. But we’ve never heard that dog utter “Yo quiero a Taco Bell.” What does that “a” mean? How does it affect the verb, querer?

The best of I’ve gathered is that it means “love,” but heaven forbid Rosetta Stone from providing a glossary of terms to address any confusion for their images’ inadequacies. So if anyone speaks Spanish, could you please help me with this translation?

Saturday, January 16, 2010

EFM: Everybody’s Favorite Mutt

Okay, so by now, you’ve been introduced to two of the major characters in this blog—myself and my wife. The third most important character is Tiffy, our dog since Labor Day 2007.

Sadly, I’ve been informed that Tiffy technically does not qualify for EFM status, so she cannot technically be everybody’s favorite mutt, but I’m maintaining the right to call her that anyway until I think of something better for her than member of household (MOH; the H will probably be for “hound,” but I haven’t really given this much thought, yet).

Anyway, here is Tiffy’s brief story. She is what we call a “trial baby;” something to test our nurturing ability before we take that plunge and cause some irreparable harm to a person. And while still a living creature, we hedged our bets further by rescuing her from a shelter, so at the very least, even if we turned out to be bad owners, we were probably still an upgrade.

As it is, the shelter had little information on her providing mere “guestimations” for her age (we’re calling her birthday March 1, 2006) and her breed mix. They maintained she was some sort of cocker spaniel mix. Then our vet let us to believe she is an Australian shepherd mix. And I had a woman on the street suggest she is a leonberger mix with some sort of shepherd, perhaps, which after researching leonbergers, the appearance and some of the behavior seems similar, but she is about 100 pounds lighter than a pure bred. If she is a leonberger mix, I hope for the mother’s sake that she was the leonberger and not the father.

She is a good dog that lies around most of the day and doesn’t get into things she is not supposed unless we really tempt fate and leave something out for an extended period of time. She has never bitten at a person, though she has a few dogs in the neighborhood she doesn’t seem to particularly like. Typically, she keeps to herself and hardly acknowledges the existence of other people outside of Natalie and me and a select few she has welcomed in the pack.

She favors women to men; she definitely favors Natalie over me, and all of the other “pack” members are women. And she is uncomfortably cautious around people of darker skin.

Tiffy (by the way, that was the name she had when we adopted her) was probably the most disappointed to learn of our Hermosillo post because she has thick, black fur. She finds northern Virginia summers unbearably hot, so I pity what Mexico will do to her. Other than the “winter” months, she will have to be shaved the whole time we are there.

On the plus side, however, Mexico does not have any sort of bordering rules, which is another reason why we were ambivalent toward the Mexican posts. I just hope she has enough sense to leave the rattlesnakes alone.

That is about all I will share for now, though I’m sure she will appear again in this blog, so I just wanted to get the introductions out of the way.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

EFM: Explaining Flag (Day) Meticulously

This post is a corollary to the previous post intended to provide a little more insight into our bidding process and what happened on Flag Day.

First, let’s talk about the bid list. This is where dreams begin, and are eventually dashed. Going back even further, as Natalie was accepted into the 148th A-100 class (good job, honey!), I immediately started imagining life in Istanbul, a Mediterranean resort, any Caribbean island, or an African safari, etc. Believe it or not, I was not fantasizing about a Mexican desert.

But most of those ideas quickly were put aside as we developed our bidding strategy. A very quick explanation for the uninitiated: in our case, there were 90 or so A-100 members and about 90 or so posts to bid on. While the State Department would like to send everyone some place they would like to go, ultimately, the State needs to put people where they need them the most.

But to gauge where federal service oath-takers (FSOs) want to go, they rank every possible destination on a scale of three resulting in a fairly ambiguous hierarchy. (I forget if one is the highest or lowest ranking, so for these purposes, I will designate as high, low and medium bids).

So our strategy was to highly rank posts that would require Natalie to learn a world language (French, Portuguese or Spanish) because she is required to be fluent in one by the end of her first five years to receive tenure. With that in mind, we ranked all English-speaking posts (or posts that do not require fluency in a second language) as low essentially eliminating London, Sydney, Kingston, Geneva and Washington.

Using this language criterion, we also shelved my favorite destinations because we decided it would not be practical to learn Greek, Nepali or Turkish because those languages are suitable for one country only. So Athens, Kathmandu, Istanbul and other such locales got ranked medium as a not-too-shabby consolation prize if we did not get any of our high bids.

The second criterion we considered was gaining some equity; in State speak, equity essentially is how many bonus points you get in bidding on your second post, the less desirable the post, the more equity you get.

In hindsight, however, we were not very consistent in applying this as Port au Prince, Haiti, with its 45 equity points (the second highest number as equity tops out at 50 and seems to be awarded in intervals of five) was only a medium on our list while Hermosillo only had 10 points at the time we bid. Apparently it was boosted to 15 recently, so we’ve got that, which is nice.

One final contributing factor was the Mexico issue. On our bid list, there were about 15 Mexican posts, meaning almost 20% of the 148th would go somewhere in Mexico. To show that we were at least considering the possibility of moving to Mexico, we ranked some of the destinations high such Hermosillo, Merida and others (I think Tijuana and Guadalajara) and the rest were medium including Mexico City, Nuevo Laredo, Matamoros, and the dreaded Ciudad Juarez, which four members of the 148th were assigned.

Weeks after submitting our final bid list rankings, Flag Day arrived. Sitting in the audience with my sister-in-law, her husband and a copy of our bid list, we waited in anticipation of the announcement with thoughts on Maputo, Mozambique; Montevideo, Uruguay; Sao Paulo, Brazil; Lome, Togo; and a few other destinations sticking out prominently in my mind.

Even before the first flags were distributed, they announced a few posts that would not be filled, some of which were on our high list. This got me excited that if they were not filling all of those on our high list, it must mean we have one of our highs. (I later learned that this is not necessarily true).

Slowly, the process seemed to drag as first all of the D.C. posts were distributed, and they were numerous. Then a few of our highs were given out. Then a couple of posts I dreaded (and silently cheered) were given to others.

Then Montevideo was gone followed by the Brazilian posts and Lome and a few other African posts that fascinated me.

Our high list was depleting, as we were in the latter half of names called off until it seemed we were down to Maputo. I was certain of it. I think Natalie was certain of it, too, as we would exchange glances from time to time.

Then Maputo was announced, and it was not us. As I crossed it off my printout, I quickly scanned to see what our remaining highs were. Then I saw Hermosillo, and it seemed that as soon as I discovered that high on our list, almost instantaneously, the master of ceremonies announced “Hermosillo, Mexico” and before she even added my wife’s name (which she missed pronounced our surname), I looked at my sister-in-law and said this was us.

Natalie and I made a classic mistake, which was to focus to the point of obsession only a handful of posts, when really, the entire list is a possibility. She later confessed she did not even remember ranking Hermosillo as high, and when the ceremony ended and we went to meet Natalie, there was a few seconds where the disappointment could be seen on her face and I worried she was going to have a breakdown.

But by the time the post-ceremony happy hour ended, and after a few Coronas, she was genuinely excited about Hermosillo. (A quick aside, during the happy hour, I asked the bartender if she had any Mexican beers, and she said no. I questioned further inquiring about Dos Equis or Corona, causing her to reply, “Oh, I do have Corona.” How does a bartender not know the origin of Corona? Dos Equis, I was willing to forgive, but Corona? Really?).

So that is our cautionary tale about how to prepare yourself for Flag Day as well as some advice on filling out a bid list.

Monday, January 11, 2010

EFM: Even Follows to Mexico

In the spirit of hating government acronyms, and I promise not to dwell much longer on the topic, EFM also denotes the slightly begrudging manner in which we received our first post assignment.

This posting headline saps a little of the anticipation for you the reader, so I won’t delay in announcing we were assigned to Hermosillo, Mexico. I’ve quickly learned that unless you’re from Mexico, and maybe from the American Southwest, Hermosillo means nothing to you.

And on Flag Day, i.e. A-100 lottery drawing day, it meant nothing to me other than we were moving somewhere in Mexico.

Go ahead and do a Wikipedia search of Hermosillo; I’ll wait as it won’t take too terribly long to read up on the northwestern city.

Fine, I’ll give you the highlights, if you can call them that. First and foremost, the city is known for its hot temperatures making it one of the hottest cities in Mexico. For seven months out of the year, the average temperature is at least 90°F; three months average more than 100°F. We’re talking averages here. The records inch very close to 120°F. January is the only month the average low dips below 50°F.

When first describing Hermosillo to friends and family, after bemoaning the heat, I tell them this is essentially Mexico’s Detroit without the violence, racial tension and the Lions. In other words, they have a Ford plant, but this one actually makes cars. There also is a hint of Texas as Hermosillo is home of the carne asada and all things beef.

It also is a city that enjoys its baseball franchise, the Naranjeros (Orange Growers), which has won 14 Mexican Pacific League titles, or about as many titles as all of Detroit’s sports franchises combined (I could be way off as that was just a guess and one more cheap shot at Detroit).

To be fair, I’m hardly the first person to judge this city harshly. We bought the July 2007 edition of The Rough Guide to Mexico, and it summed up Hermosillo like this: “While it is an interesting enough to experience such a stereotypically Mexican town, there’s no reason to stay here long.” Long is a relative term, but I assume the authors would determine two years to be “long.”

But before I wear out my welcome before even arriving, I should add that Hermosillo was ranked somewhat highly on our bid list though for those going through the process, you quickly learn that not all “high bids” are created equal.

I also should say that I was intrigued by several of the other Mexican posts available because I do have an extraordinary fascination with the American-Mexican War of 1848. Bizarre, I know. So some of the other possibilities such as Matamoros or Monterrey were more appealing to me because they played prominent roles in the beginning of the war (the first major battle was the siege of Matamoros).

Learning Spanish also should prove to be quite a valuable skill as well. And there are some beaches along the Gulf of California (or Mar de Cortés to the locals) only about an hour’s drive away at Bahía de Kino. And I hope to learn to make a tasty mole sauce among other Mexican dishes.

So while I’m justifiably skeptical of what two years in Hermosillo will entail, I refuse to be entirely disappointed and plan on making the best of the experience.

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Beware Government Acronyms

First, a quick thank you and welcome to the inaugural posting of Ef’m.

Before I delve too much into the back story of why I’m here, let me quickly explain that I’m a late technology adapter. It wasn’t until 2005 that I finally signed off on this whole DVD thing (though I’m still not entirely sure it bests VHS cassettes considering the whole susceptibility to scratches aspect) and I remain strongly opposed to creating an online networking account (read as Facebook, LinkedIn, etc.). This is my first blog post, and I’ve been dragged in kicking and screaming to some degree.

Reminding you once again of my penchant as a late-adapter, this blog really is about a year and a half behind in events, so let’s get up to speed.

During the summer of 2008, my wife, Natalie, casually informed me she wants to apply to be a foreign service officer (FSO--the acronyms begin), which means we will be living all over the world, and it is a very long application process that could take years. I gave my blessing and file that thought away in my soon-to-be-dismissed section of my memory bank.

Long story short, she passes every test on her first go around (good job, honey!) and miraculously squeaks her way into the 148th A-100 class. For the uninitiated, an A-100 class is group of any number (seems to between 75 and 100 these days) of approved FSO applicants that will complete the six-week introductory training course before moving onto their specializations. There are several A-100 classes every year.

Somewhere in that process, Natalie becomes an FSO, and I became an eligible family member (EFM). Yuck! Where did the government get the right to turn me into an acronym—and a lame one at that?

Even FSO is a bit acrid, so I’ve re-acronized the government’s distasteful acronyms. These are a little more flexible and can change with the moods. Most often, FSO now means fervent significant other, but the “F” can be upgraded to favorable, fantastic, or fabulous; or it can be downgraded to fascist, fastidious, or when I’m really angry, fatuous.

But what to call myself and others in my position? This was more difficult, because it risks following into the same trap the government did—generalizing us into a group, and in essence, marginalizing us. So generically, I’m fine with efficient familial manager, but like with FSO, I’m sure Natalie will have different EFMs for me such as exhaustive, fat malcontent, or extremely flexible mainstay, depending on how supportive I’m being at the time.

The key, I suppose, is to not let the government dictate too much as to what we are supposed to be. Yeah, I understand for legal purposes, they need some generic terms to cover who gets to travel on the taxpayers’ dime (thanks taxpayers!), but I’m not some generic EFM. So, I say ef’m.