First Impressions

You know how sometimes you feel like you’re in just the right place at just the right time? That’s how I’ve felt ever since stepping off the plane in Cabo Verde!

I am incredibly lucky to have been sent to Cabo Verde for my first post. The embassy is small, which means that my colleagues are incredibly close-knit. They’ve all gone out of their way to make sure I’m taken care of: I arrived to a fridge stocked with banana bread and a desk stocked with Post-Its. My boss graciously lets me pester him with 473 questions a day and the consular section’s local staff have invited me to perform with their singing group. Even the Ambassador himself took me on a day trip around the island to get my bearings. Getting hungry? Choose from three different dinner invites. Need an emergency pie plate? Take two and a kitchen scale. House run out of water? An emergency water truck shows up in 10 minutes. The community here is impressive, to say the least.

There are plenty of things here in Cabo Verde to be thankful for (and since I still have a leftover Thanksgiving pie in the freezer, I’m allowed to make a list). For example, the awesome water pressure in my new shower. Or the Orca store, which is a cross between a NYC bodega and an American Target, and which is currently a winter wonderland with impressively decked halls. I’m thankful that Amazon can deliver throw pillows to an island in the middle of the Atlantic within two weeks. I’m thankful that I have a car and friends who are willing to repeatedly put their lives at risk as I drive them through the lawless-ish streets of Cabo Verde. I’m thankful for people who understand technology and know how to sync my computer to my TV and can make phones work internationally. I’m thankful for my Portuguese training, because I️ would quite literally be lost and hungry and bad at my job without it. I’m thankful for the movie theater that plays new release American movies in English with Portuguese subtitles and will mix the sweet and salty popcorns for you. I’m thankful for the guards who watch my fortress of a house all night and I’m thankful for the local plant fair that helped me make my fortress of a house feel more like home.

So thank you to Cabo Verde, for welcoming me with open arms. And thank you to the United States, for hiring me to do this awesome job!

Cidade Velha, Cabo Verde

Lunch views in Cidade Velha, Cabo Verde

Palm frond ceilings

Woven palm frond ceilings, complete with fish

Cidade Velha, Cabo Verde

It looks like Jurassic Park here!

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That’ll do.

Tarrafal, Cabo Verde

Spotted in Tarrafal, Cabo Verde

Tarrafal, Cabo Verde

Those lunch views just keep on comin’…

Mindelo, Cabo Verde

Spotted in Mindelo, Cabo Verde

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Entirely unposed… me in Cabo Verde!

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Swearing In

It’s official!

On a sunny Friday in February, my foreign service colleagues and I escorted our families through the halls of the Harry S. Truman State Department Building, attempting to show off our newfound insider knowledge, but instead getting lost in the maze of white hallways. We gathered in one of the formal auditoriums and listened as Under Secretary Tom Shannon welcomed us to, “lives of significance and consequence.” We then stood, raised our right hands, and took the above oath of office.

Pretty powerful stuff. We’ve been reminded many times throughout our training that our lives are no longer ours; we serve a greater purpose and must put the needs of American public ahead of our own. Nothing makes that mission resonate more than pledging your commitment alongside 100 of the brightest people you’ll ever meet.

Even the oath itself has historical importance. The oath was originally created by George Washington and the Founding Fathers, who were explicit that U.S. government officials not swear allegiance to an individual (as had been done in Great Britain to the king), but to the Constitution. This oath was later amended by Abraham Lincoln during the Civil War, when officers had to swear that they in no way supported the Confederacy. Following the Civil War, this oath was again amended by Congress, who developed the wording that is used today. And now this is the same oath that the Vice President takes!

Congratulations to the United States’ newest diplomats!

My family: the best cheerleaders in the house!

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!

The Bid List

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Darn right I will.

The past few weeks have been a whirlwind of activity. A downright whirl of wind. I’ve spent my days in A-100, State Department speak for basic training. And I’ve spent my nights bouncing between happy hours with my new 189th A-100 classmates. My pool game is improving.

I will delve into A-100 training in a future post, but for now I want to focus on The Bid List. The Bid List is the list of job openings for us newbies. Aka, a single piece of paper that determines the direction of our entire lives. Exaggeration? I think not. Somewhere on this piece of paper is the name of the city in which I’ll spend the next two years. The city that will determine what language I’ll learn, how long I’ll be in DC, and whether I’ll have guaranteed access to scones in the near future. The city that will impact the trajectory of my entire State Department career. How’s that for epic? You’d think such a document would arrive embossed and stamped with a wax seal. Or at least laminated. But alas, on an otherwise normal Wednesday afternoon, a single piece of plain paper was dropped on our desks. My subsequent thoughts:

Bureau: SCA (“South and Central Asia! I know where that is!”)
Post: Tashkent (“Wait. Where is Tashkent?”)*
Cone: CONS (“Behold my visa-processing future!”)
Language: TB 3/3 (“Tajiki. That’s fun!”)

*I get hollered at if I divulge state secrets. This is not a real bid list post. Please don’t fire me.

That’s all the information we get. Listed for each post is the region, a city name (no countries, that’s too easy), the cone (U.S. diplomats are hired to work within one of five cones: Public Diplomacy, Consular, Management, Political, or Economic – all newbies are required to do at least one Consular tour), and the required language level (based on the 1-5 ILR fluency scale – a 3/3 designating fluency in Speaking/Reading). We have two weeks to research and rank each post as a high, medium, or low based on our personal preferences. We then turn our completed lists over to our Career Development Officers, who compare the lists of us chipper hopefuls, cross-reference our preferences with the needs of the service, and assign us our first posts as U.S. diplomats. My internal dialogue for the past few weeks went something like this:

How cold is cold? Do they have Internet? How big are the bugs I’ll find in my shower? Will I have a shower? Will I have to drive on the other side of the road? Do they have cheese? Do I have to bleach all my vegetables? How concerned am I with air pollution? Do I want danger pay incentive? What do they mean when they say the air smells like fish? Can people come visit? Is learning Tajiki useful? Should I spend a year learning Mandarin instead? Why did I agree to be worldwide available? Do my preferences really even matter? Am I too manic for island life? Thank heavens I don’t have any pets. Or worse, children. Land mines? I need to be worried about land mines?!

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A list of languages taught by the State Department. Kinyarwanda, anyone?

Having ranked and re-ranked the posts hundreds of times, I have officially submitted The Bid List. My future is no longer in my hands. And it is absolutely thrilling. In less than a week, I’ll be sitting anxiously in an auditorium among my shaky peers as we clutch highlighters and copies of our lists. The name of each post will be called out randomly to an audience of 500 family and friends. And then through the suspense hanging in the air we’ll hear the name of one of our classmates. When my name is called, I’ll walk shakily to the stage, where I’ll accept the flag of my new host country, pause for an official picture, and try to remember to address the flag-hander-outer as Mr. Ambassador. Wish me luck.

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.