A Day in the Life

The never-ending mountain of applicant folders

A never-ending mountain of applicant folders

I’ve been living in Cabo Verde for six months! I’ve visited four of ten Cabo Verdean islands, adjudicated more than 1,200 visas, and submitted my bid list for my next post. Yikes. And now that I have a better understanding of what I do (it was a long learning curve), I thought I’d fill you all in as well. So below, I present: A Day in the Life of the American Vice Consul in Cabo Verde. Also known as, me.

7:40 AM

I nudge the curb and gear my car into park, proud of myself for once again surviving the seven hectic traffic circles between my house and the U.S. Embassy. I open the car door, letting myself adjust to the buzz of street noise before swinging out onto the cobblestones. I say hello to the group of women who sit on plastic buckets selling fresh tuna to pedestrians and walk through the sunny breeze while rummaging through my purse for my security badge. As I pass the line of visa applicants outside the embassy who certainly woke up much earlier than I, I wonder who decided that American embassies should open an hour earlier than any other American office on the planet.

8:00 AM

I settle into my chair and flip on the desk lamp I brought to improve the office’s fluorescent lighting. As I pull a Tupperwared muffin out of my purse, I ponder if any of my houseplants could survive a move to my window-less desk. I log onto my computer and start typing out responses to last night’s emails.

By 9am, the Consular section’s local staff have gotten a head start on applicant intake and my boss and I are called to the windows to begin our interviews for the day. All Cabo Verdeans need a visa to visit, study, or work in the United States and must come to the U.S. Embassy for a visa interview. My boss and I will spend the next few hours interviewing applicants in Portuguese through bullet-proof glass to determine if they are eligible for visas to the United States. There are thousands of U.S. immigration laws, exceptions, and ineligibilities to consider. I often stare blankly at applicants as my mind spins through the rolodex of immigration rules that may apply to any one particular case. In the end, there is only time to speak to each applicant for about three minutes. This is also the most heartbreaking part of the job, as it often involves denying the visas of perfectly nice people who don’t qualify for the visas for which they applied. Parents argue. Children cry. Grandmas glare.

11:30 AM

I return all my checklists and guides to their blue folder, switch off my window’s microphone and return to my office, rethinking the morning’s cases. I check emails and hope I don’t see anyone that I denied at lunch.

1:30 PM

Following a sunny lunch at one of the outdoor cafes near the Embassy, I head back to the office to fight back the growing stack of applicant folders that have begun to pile up on my desk. This involves running name checks, checking fingerprint and facial recognition databases, requesting and sorting additional documentation, and looking up the finer details of immigration law in the State Department’s 800+ page guidance. I feel very academic and lawyerly. But usually at about three cases in, I remember why I’m glad I’m not a lawyer.

3:30 PM

Once I’ve sorted through all my applicant cases for the day, I have a few hours to work on some long-term projects. These projects include everything from revamping our applicant waiting room, to planning educational videos for the Facebook page, or organizing outreach trips to the other islands to answer Cabo Verdeans’ visa questions in person. The Consular section does data validation studies to determine if people are using their visas correctly. We write editorials to explain the finer points of immigration law to the Cabo Verdean public. We debate new U.S. immigration policy changes and research how these changes will affect our adjudications. At the end of the day, our goal is two-sided: to prevent illegal immigration and visa misuse, but to also encourage legitimate travel to the U.S.

5:30 PM

The U.S. Embassy in Praia is small, and unlike most embassies, we don’t have U.S. Marine guards for security. This means that one of us diplomats is responsible for kicking everyone out of their offices each night and making sure the embassy is secured until the next morning. So at 5:30pm, I usually find myself scrambling to answer one last email, making sure all the Consular safes are locked, and hitting the lights.

Until tomorrow – até amanhã!

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Until Next Time!

Today is the day! In just a few hours, I’ll be off on one heck of a big adventure.

My apartment is as empty as it was when I first walked through the door. My little sister, who graced me with her presence here in DC, has left me to start an awesome new job at National Geographic. My patriotic Flag Day decorations have finally been taken down. And the veritable mountain of sunscreen in the corner of my living room has been whisked off to West Africa.

I’ve been in DC for ten months and have learned a lot. I speak Portuguese now and can ram a car through a barricade. I’ve finally mastered submitting a travel claim through the State Department’s online system and know which vending machines at FSI accept credit cards. I’ve single-handedly fixed three State Department printers, can [maybe] detect a fraudulent passport, and can [somewhat] patch up a bullet wound. I’m now able to eyeball when a pile of my belongings weighs about 200 lbs and discuss U.S. visa ineligibilities at length. I can issue both U.S. passports and visas and am a pro at getting vaccinations. Most importantly, I can finally go through the diplomats line at JFK.

I’ve spent the past few weeks seeing family and friends, both old and new. I’ve shopped and sorted and packed and repacked yet again. I’ve taken long walks that smell of fall and have found a home for all my house plants. I’ve annoyed my cats and squeezed in one last movie night with my family. I even managed to sneak in a New York City bagel.

It’s bittersweet to be leaving so many people and places behind, but as a wise bear once said, “how lucky I am to have something that makes saying goodbye so hard.” I must be even luckier than Pooh, because I don’t plan on saying goodbye at all. Rather… until next time!

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Love you all!

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A few of my favorite people!

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More of my favorite people! (Who are all better at squatting than me…)

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A diplomat once told me it’s important to document your Foreign Service homes and the memories they hold. So here ’tis: me and my sister’s lovely little home in Washington, DC.

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A diplomat once told me it’s important to document your Foreign Service homes and the memories they hold. So here ’tis: me and my sister’s lovely little home in Washington, DC.

Portuguese Will Be the Death of Me

Being paid to learn a language is an incredibly cool part of this job. For diplomats, foreign language fluency is both a logistical necessity and a nod of respect to other cultures. As Nelson Mandela once so eloquently summarized, “if you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his own language, that goes to his heart.”

However. The joy I feel at someday being a bilingual representative of the United States does not prevent waves of terror from crashing through my very core. Because I have a total of 24 weeks to become fluent in Portuguese. A mere 168 days. I’m currently on my eighth week, which means that I have just 16 weeks left. This also means that I have my first formal evaluation next week, in which I must prove that I can speak/read at a 1+/1+ level.

[The audience hears a thud as the protagonist topples to the floor.]

The State Department uses the ILR Scale of Fluency, which ranks individuals on a 1-5 scale. At 8 weeks, I must speak/read at a 1+/1+ level. At 16 weeks, a 2+/2+, and at 24 weeks, a 3/3. If I miss any of these benchmarks, some lucky language teacher will call my future boss and tell them that I won’t get to post on time. Even more stress-inducing is the fact that I need fluency in at least one foreign language to receive tenure as a diplomat. The stakes are high.

[The audience hears the panicked crinkling of chocolate egg wrappers.]

The timing and required level of fluency vary based on the language you’re learning. If you’re learning Russian, you have 32 weeks to reach a 2/2. If you’re learning Mandarin, you have 36 weeks to reach a 2/1. But fear not. No matter what language you’re learning, the timing is short enough to give you crazed panic eyes. The mark of a true language-learning diplomat.

For reference, below are three videos, showing what an English learner sounds like at a 1+, 2+, and 3 speaking level. Now, please excuse me. I must go locate more chocolate.

ILR Speaking – Level 1+

ILR Level 1+

You got this, self.

ILR Speaking – Level 2+

ILR Level 2+

Dear heavens above.

ILR Speaking – Level 3

ILR Level 3

MAYDAY. MAYDAY. EVERYBODY PANIC.

Flag Day!

Flag Day has come and gone and my classmates and I have all survived! The energy of the room was electric as nervous parents fretted over color-coded bid lists and State Department employees lined the walls, reliving the excitement of Flag Days past. My friends readied their cameras and specially-made Flag Day bingo cards, ready to provide emotional support should I happen to trip on my way to the front of the room.

I was one of the last people called, so I sat with my stomach in knots as the number of remaining flags dwindled. What countries were left? Should I exit my row to the right or left? Was the panic making my curls frazzled? Suddenly, I heard my name called from afar and found myself shaking the ambassador’s hand.

So where will I be going? Cabo Verde!

“Don’t tip over. Don’t tip over. Don’t tip over.”

One of my highs! Cabo Verde is a chain of ten islands off the coast of West Africa. Combined, the islands (including three volcanos – gulp) are about as big as Rhode Island, but what Cabo Verde lacks in land mass, it makes up for in exuberance. The country is known for its music, beaches, and people, yet more Cabo Verdeans actually live abroad than in the country, which boasts a population of just 500,000. Cabo Verde has a higher standard of living than any other West African nation and gained independence from Portugal in 1975. As a result, the country’s official language is Portuguese, although many citizens also speak Crioulo, an African/Creole/Portuguese mix. Perhaps most importantly, there is one goat for every two people in Cabo Verde. Goats mean cheese.

My new home!

Let’s zoom in a tad…

There it is!

I’ve listened to other people’s Flag Day stories for years, but being in my own was surreal. The Foreign Service is now tangible. The job exists. I can mentally picture the next two years of my life. And I can’t wait to get started. I will spend the next few months in intensive Portuguese and Consular training and will depart for post in October. Time to get to work!

Inauguration Day

 

“We the people of the United States…”


Today is a fascinating day to be in Washington, DC. The city is resplendent in red, white, and blue and people from all walks of life are seeing our nation’s capitol for the first time. A president who served this country and its people for eight years is stepping down and another is assuming his responsibility. Our nation is in the midst of change.

It is also a fascinating time to be working for the State Department. Many offices contain nothing but cardboard boxes as the former occupants find themselves looking for new employment. Career ambassadors who have served their country for 30 years have left their posts, their jobs suddenly back up for grabs. Last week, we were briefed on the State Department’s structure, with the caveat that in just a few days, entire bureaus may no longer exist. Meanwhile, hallway upon hallway of transition team staff work furiously to figure it all out. And even though I’ve spent the past two weeks being briefed by everyone from ambassadors to security staff to resilience counselors, I’ve not heard a single person complain.

The reason? Because there’s still work to be done. No matter what’s happening here at home, other countries in this world still depend on the help and example of the United States of America. And as rocky as the past year has been for this nation, millions of people in the world are far from enjoying our many privileges. There are still people in this world without access to food or medicine or education. There are people in this world whose homes have been turned into war zones. In very few countries do people have the freedom to attend their president’s inauguration one day and then protest peacefully in support of issues they care about the next. And in very few countries can an ordinary citizen not only share their political opinions, but openly affect change in their country. We are lucky to have been born in the United States of America.

Last week, my class was briefed on the mission of the U.S. Department of State: To shape and sustain a peaceful, prosperous, just, and democratic world, and foster conditions for stability and progress for the benefit of the American people and people everywhere. The striking thing about this mission is that it is built upon the idea that our freedom depends on others being free. Our prosperity depends on others being prosperous. And our security depends on others being secure. The best way to help ourselves is by helping others and that is a mission I am proud to represent. We are all we the people.

Goodbye, New York City!

In a few hours, I’ll be boarding a flight with a one-way ticket to D.C., which means that in a few hours, I will also say goodbye to New York City, my home for the past five years.

I was seven years old when I decided to move to New York City. It was a snowy December and my mittened family took a day trip to see the Radio City Rockettes. I remember weaving through the bundled crowds on Fifth Avenue and stomping through snowbanks as yellow taxis flew past. I was handed a giant pretzel from a vendor beneath a red and white umbrella and later craned my neck to see the arched ceiling of St. Patrick’s Cathedral. As Christmas carols jingled merrily in the background, my sister and I leaned over the edge of the Rockefeller Skating Rink and listened to the happy shrieks of the skaters below. And oddly enough, I don’t remember the Rockettes at all, because all I could think about was the city on the other side of the doors.

Rockefeller Center in New York City

I will miss New York City. I will miss the constant onslaught of new people and places, 3am cake delivery, and scone and cheese nights. I will miss the creaky front door of my first apartment building, the one that in five years, never properly locked. I will miss falling asleep to distant sirens and waking up to mariachi bands warbling below my window. I will miss the rumbling subways, Central Park picnics, and the ever-watching Empire State Building. I will miss afternoon tea at the Pembroke Room, backstage Broadway tours, and singing at Carnegie Hall. I will miss walking into a shiny midtown office building every day, feeling important, but then feeling like a imposter whenever I found myself in Saks or the Ritz-Carlton. I will miss having my friends and family camped out on my living room floor and opening my apartment door to find my boyfriend holding a bouquet of flowers. I will miss the grinning tourists who are thrilled just to be taking pictures of the city in which I was lucky enough to live. And oh how I will miss New York City bagels.

Rockefeller Center is still my favorite place in New York City. Not because of the busy crowds or the sparkling tree or the hundreds of flags waving in the breeze, but because that’s where it all started. Even today, some 20 years after I saw New York City for the first time, I can sit near that same bustling skating rink surrounded by skyscrapers and feel the city’s magic. Each day that I lived here was, quite literally, a dream come true.

Until next time, New York City!

Packing. Packing. And more packing.

Since joining the Foreign Service, the most frequently asked question has been, “So what exactly does a diplomat do?” And while I’ve heard rumor of negotiating international treaties and preventing WWIII, all I can say for sure is that diplomats pack. They pack a lot.

Since September, I have been in a constant state of moving. The end goal was to gather my belongings in a single location so that the government movers need only make one stop. However, due to expiring apartment leases, an existing job, and a two-week trip to India, my belongings were instead scattered across the Eastern seaboard. I’ve moved out of two NYC apartments in just three months. I’ve bribed friends into driving carloads of boxes to my parents’ house. And I’ve attempted to sedate my mother as she watched her guest bedroom, my sister’s bedroom, and her garage become overrun by suitcases, plastic bins, and extra shoes.

Messy room of stuff

You should see the garage!

Messy garage

The garage. Help.

Then there’s the buying. As there is no promise that Djibouti (or wherever I may end up) has a ready supply of home comforts, diplomats are instructed to bring these things with them. Consequently, I watched in horror as the BJs/Marshalls/WalMart cashiers rang up my industrial quantities of sugar, toilet paper, and shampoo. And toothbrushes, pasta, and Tupperware. And baking soda, new towels, and wrapping paper. How many cans of tomato paste should I bring? HOW MANY CANS?

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I’m smiling because I haven’t checked out yet.

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Is 40 lbs of sugar too much?

And lastly, there’s the sorting. Diplomats are required to sort their belongings into three piles. Pile #1: the two suitcases you bring to D.C. for training. Pile #2: Unaccompanied Air Baggage (UAB), the 200 lbs of belongings that will be sent to you in D.C. and then packed up again and sent to your first post. Pile #3: Household Effects (HHE), the 18,000 lbs of belongings that you won’t see again until several months after you get to your first post. The trickiest thing about sorting is that you don’t know where your first post will be be or for how long you’ll be in D.C. So yes, pack both your parka and your bathing suit.

Sorted piles

Sorted piles plus one stowaway.

Yesterday was the biggest move of all. A large truck pulled up in front of my parents’ house and two gentlemen began assembling cardboard boxes the size of NYC apartments. But after giving me the grief I deserve for having multiple cheese knife sets, the movers took one look at my carefully sorted piles and said that their moving company forbids packing canned goods or liquids. MY TOMATO PASTE. So having read one too many blogs about packing in the Foreign Service and knowing the rules all too well, I called the State Department’s Transportation Office. With assurances that they’d resolve the issue, I went back to pacing the house, removing cats from cardboard boxes, and wondering what I was going to do with hundreds of pounds of unpacked canned goods. But wonder of wonders, no more than 20 minutes later, the movers got a call from their company’s owner saying to pack it all. I assume President Obama called and insisted I have tomato paste with me in Djibouti.

Movng truck

Making sure the tomato paste is safe.

Cat with boxes.

Causing trouble.

mom-and-me

My mom, the good sport. Even after her guest room pillows were accidentally packed…

So six hours later, with the canned goods packed and all five cats accounted for, my belongings were driven off into the distance. And with the happy thought that I have several whole months before I need to pack up and move again, I promptly fell asleep at 8pm.

Moving truck

Goodbye, things! See you in Djibouti!