Grace on Pace

Tag - Foreign Service Construction Engineer

Israel Long Weekend

Israel Long Weekend

Israel Long Weekend

I sat on a stone bench outside old city Jerusalem with my 76-year father in law.  A small man of 5’5,” hair peppered with silver and hands refined by decades of machining industrial equipment, picking palm nuts and tapping rubber trees.

This was the tail end of our Israel long weekend through the land of the great monotheistic religions.  The first night in Tel Aviv, my father-in-law left our apartment to purchase some milk and came back with a story of how he was stopped by a man who wanted to provide him with “many beautiful ladies.”  My father in-law responded that he already had all the ladies he needed in his room…not bothering to mention they were his wife, daughter and two granddaughters.

At the Dead Sea, Grandpa pocketed salt rocks that he carefully wrapped in the flyer he had picked up at the airport.  These quickly joined a Jaffa magnet for the fridge, a stone from Bethlehem, and the rosary laid on the Stone of Anointing.   Bracelets for each female grandchild were also added.

Trip planning proved to be a bumpy ride for me.  Multi-generational coordination of disparate schedules and an unexpected Israel Independence Day holiday left Grandpa with at least one of his girls in tow at all times.  Many a night we arrived back at the apartment sleepless and disoriented, into what I had imagined as a way to mend breaking my in-laws hearts for undertaking this Foreign Service adventure.  Across the room was grandpa packing the Tupperware with snacks for tomorrow’s journey.

And then, we landed at the Mount of Olives, with Grandpa and me sitting on that stone bench resting after a long sightseeing day.  A twenty-something woman sat across from us.  Her hair was so naturally blonde it was almost white.  A local man in brown pants and a white shirt began talking to her in broken English.  The blonde responded, heavily tinged with a American southern accent.  She became more and more uncomfortable, especially when the man insisted she join him for some food.

Soon Grandpa, still sitting, shook his index finger at the man and exclaimed “no you don’t.”  The man, startled a bit basically said: “I don’t have to listen to you.  You’re not her Grandfather.”  Grandpa replied: “How do you know!”  The man considered this coming from an Asian man sitting next to a younger Caucasian for a few seconds, and then just walked away.

The blonde’s relief and the gratitude in her eyes were thanks enough.  I am still in awe of how he helped that young girl so instinctively.

Then it was time for our trip home and Grandpa had a treat for us that we will never forget. Two sleeping babies, one in his lap, and one leaning against his arm in the seat behind us.  Flipping through a magazine, I showed Grandpa a beautiful Cyprus beach.  “All expense paid trip to Cyprus,” if you stay for a couple more weeks I joked (he knew I was serious though).

Our Foreign Service Handshake Story

Foreign Service Handshake

Foreign Service Handshake – The Process

As a Foreign Service Construction Engineer, every couple of years or so you get to pour your eyes over a list of places where you (and your family) could potentially spend the next 2, 3 or 4 years of your lives.  The end goal is a Foreign Service handshake or assignment offer.   It’s not altogether different from a roller coaster ride at times.  Exuberance jerks as you see your dream destination. Then, immediately you reconcile yourself to going to a few of the hardship posts.  You order rank them with a brief explanation of your overall goals. 

The process is fluid as positions fill and new ones come online.  It’s very demanding. After all,  how do you compare a new embassy project in a city where crime is widespread, but has a great preschool, to a renovation project at a post with few families, but the tourism opportunities are plentiful?

Construction Engineers have a second layer of complexity. “All areas become part of the process,” a colleague describes.  Because we are not simply taking over a permanent position at post, “everything merges with project status.”  Our projects have billions of dollars and the itineraries of hundreds of people at stake.  Difficulties for us in the assignment process start when a project schedule wobbles.

Foreign Service Handshake – Our Story

Jennilou and I had some long conversations throughout our journey.  Early in the process we received an offer for our last choice of six.  We excitedly and unreservedly accepted, even though “there were issues that needed sorting out.”  With construction, one tiny pebble can trigger an avalanche. So long before we help quarterback construction efforts on-site, it’s important someone makes preparations.  Waiting line theory and congestion logic become a part of our actual lives.  We quickly found out that changes in assignments are necessary for a successful organization.

In the end, my decision was to quit my job and travel the world.  I have always wanted to say that.  I guess to be more precise, in an odd twist of fate, our second choice was the end result.  A vacant position and delay to my current assignment, has our Foreign Service Handshake sending us to Turkey.  I am officially the Construction Manager on the Ankara New Embassy Compound project!

It’s hard to think of anything comparing to what we are doing.  I love being in a role where every minute of my day is spent moving projects forward, solving problems, and helping people out. We have so much experience and expertise within our organization that there’s no problem you can’t solve if you talk to enough people.  I have made some great friends and met incredible people so far here in Washington and abroad.  I couldn’t be happier to be part of the team that delivers a facility like this to all the folks I’m lucky enough to work alongside.

My Petra Hiking Adventure

Petra Hiking Adventure

My Petra Hiking Adventure

I didn’t have a map for my Petra hiking adventure — my guidebook was lacking in any details—and Google Maps was out of the question.  With only a memory of a scene looking down on Petra’s Treasury, I had just figured I’d arrive and hike my way to this notorious vantage point.

“I guess this is the start of the trail,” I murmured to myself, looking up the dusty, undulating path that gradually climbed out of the valley.  With an apple and a liter of water in my pack, I began my hike with a spirit of adventure and a confident sense of direction.

The first hour or so trekking the path was fairly straight forward. I spotted a few goats along the way, but nobody seemed to be attending to them. Perhaps people were hiding from the stranger passing through?  Eventually though the path became less “defined”. I kept finding myself having to backtrack. 

On one of these detours I heard footsteps reverberating in the canyon. I couldn’t tell which direction it was coming from, so I decided to hold tight and have a sip of water.  In the distance, a small figure along the pathway came into focus.

“Uh, hello,” I called out.

“I never thought I’d catch you,” said the girl gasping with exhaustion.  “I’m scared, can we walk together” 

So just like that, Yuen became my latest travel companion in my wanderings.  Chinese and thirty or so, she was touring the country as part of her solo adventure around the world.  Like myself, she too had seen pictures from former hikers and was keen on finding the famous setting.

“Well, it’s got to be that way,” I said.

Full of optimism that we might not actually die alone in the desert heat, we took the risk and trekked on. Conscious of our near-empty water supply, we alternated leading the way. 

 “Oh my God, there it is!” Yuan exclaimed.

It was not a mirage. However, it was not the vantage point we were after; no Treasury to be found. We followed a stone path and stairway that led us to the base of the cliff—only for it to bring us to a mysterious figure.

“I am Adnan,” he greeted us. The Bedouin spoke English in an Arabic accent, with a loud voice. “This is William Shakespeare,” he continued, referring to the darling mule at his side.

“Is this your house?” Yuan asked the mysterious man.

“Yes, I am Bedouin. I live in the desert,” he answered.

Yuan continued the conversation with him.  I on the other hand, was still on guard. But before I could assess the peculiar Bedouin’s demeanor or possible motives, she was already on the back of his Mr. Shakespeare.  She was hitching a ride and saving us the trouble of having to wander the desert like Moses in the meantime. However, I was a little annoyed that I was still on foot while Yuan got to ride the beast of burden.

“Where are you from?” Adnan asked the two of us.

“America and China,” we answered.

“America!” he said with recognition. “I know America. Land of the M and M’s.” And then he started mentioning all the other American brands he knew. Just as soon as I thought his English was good enough to give us a lecture on American politics, we had arrived. Adnan held out his hand with a smile, and spoke another American phrase I knew.

“No money, no honey,” he joked.  We gladly paid him the five dinar for his assistance, and scurried down to the cliffs edge.

“We did it!” raved Yuan. “I can’t believe it! We made it!”

Aside from grinding out our Petra hiking adventure, the sight was truly breathtaking. One can only imagine Johann Burckhardt, or Indian Jones for that matter, making their way across the desert and riding up to the wonder for the first time.  It was  a special moment and certainly the highlight of my Veterans Day weekend trip to Jordan.

Oktoberfest Rest Stop

Oktoberfest Rest Stop

Oktoberfest Rest Stop – Munich 2016

Somehow with two babies back at home still in diapers, I’m spending an evening in an Oktoberfest beer hall.  Cheers to travel regulations laid out in 14 FAM 584.4, my temporary duty yonder (TDY) has afforded me an evening in Munich on my way to Ankara.

The Oktoberfest has its origins in the year 1810. However, it looked a bit different then, as the first Oktoberfest was a horse-race, held as a part of the wedding festivities of Bavarian King Ludwig I.  This year, much press has been afforded to a ring of steel thrown up around the site at a previously open entrance.  Ultimately I think either way we would be doomed, but sometimes I wonder whether it would be more fun to travel to the past or to the future.  As I dazedly checked into my hotel, I decided to ponder it further with a quick jet lag induced nap.

Recharged, I hit the town in search of oompah, lederhosen, dirndl and lager. Despite this year’s beer being mixed with security concerns, I easily followed the hordes to the world’s largest folk fest.  The beer tents can be summed up as a classic Munich scene.  Despite being a mega party, the pavilions themselves create a special Bavarian coziness and knack for savoring the moment.

After surveying the scene in a few of the tents, I finally found an empty sliver at the end of one of the Paulaner festival hall tables.  Knowing I had to wake up early for my flight to Ankara, I leaned over to my table mate and politely questioned whether they sold half-liters. “This is a Biergarten, not a kindergarten!!” he yelled over the polka music.  Instantly, I was spending an evening in a frothy beer hall, clinking mugs with new friends, immersed in a boisterous and belching Bavarian atmosphere.

As I sat fuzzily in the terminal waiting for my morning flight, I returned to my hypothetical time travel dilemma.  Although seeing Ludwig hitched in the year 1810 would be on any one’s bucket list, I concluded going back to the past was out.  If I went back in time I would probably end up wanting to do something to change my present.  On the flip side, seeing a future Octoberfest might seem equally depressing.  After all, it means your future will always be such that you have to muddle through it and absent of pleasures such as finding yourself unexpectedly in Munich.  Stephen Hawking sums it up in an interesting way:

…the best evidence we have that time travel is not possible, and never will be, is that we have not been invaded by hordes of tourists from the future.

In all honesty, after thousands of miles and weeks without a good night’s rest, I had thought very hard about staying in and making it a real rest stop.  In the end though, life is surely to deal us the hard things, and when it deals unexpected ones, this is just a excellent reminder to seize them.  I guess even it means an Oktoberfest “Rest Stop”…haha.

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Holiday Season in Berlin

Holiday Season in Berlin
Holiday Season in Berlin

Joining the Foreign Service permits a different kind of travel, by allowing you to become immersed in the local culture for up to three years.  We have traveled all over the world, but until this most recent adventure, never had the fortune to stay in a city more than a few days.  We have always tried to see as much as possible by “hitting” the highlights before jetting off to our next destination.  On my latest assignment, I got my first taste of “slow travel” with a six week temporary duty assignment to Berlin.  Fortunately for me, Jennilou and Esmei agreed to tag along for a holiday season in Berlin.

Setting up shop for our extended stay at the Hotel Otto, it was great to have such a fantastic home for exploring the city.  With Berlin playing host to over sixty Christmas markets annually, one of the highlights of our trip was getting to experience the shops at our leisure throughout the trip.  We also made evening and weekend trips to the Reichstag Building, Brandenburg Gate, Pergamon Museum, The Holocaust Memorial – Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, Gendarmenmarkt, Berlin Cathedral, East Side Gallery, Zoologischer Garten, Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church, Charlottenburg Palace, Television Tower, Sony Center, and Hackescher Markt.  The metropolis is certainly charged with political history and reminders of a turbulent 20th-century are everywhere.  It seemed the more highlights we “hit”, the more we discovered existed.

For all the fond memories I have of Berlin, the tragedies which took place in Paris and San Bernardino during our posting will forever distinguish the stay.  Watching thousands of people march past our embassy to pay their respects across the street to the French at the mounting display of candles and flowers will be unforgettable.  I commit to memory the events that evoked an anxiety to bring the girls into crowed Christmas markets.  It’s sad to think about giving any space for fear and intolerance to terrorism and it gives all the more reason to stand together as humanity to uphold our way of life.

Exploring more slowly during our holiday season in Berlin allowed us to form a stronger connection to the place we were visiting.  With plenty of time, we didn’t feel the stress of attempting to knock out every site in our guidebook.  Instead, we stayed long enough to recognize commuting mates, shop in the local markets, and pick our favorite restaurants.  I have come to realize that few societies move as quickly as Americans do, and getting the chance to find myself slowing down a bit over time into the pace of the German culture, was a terrific feeling.

For recaps of the weekend getaways during my latest assignment, check out the following posts below:

Long Weekend in Northern Italy

Long Weekend in Northern Italy

Because my temporary duty assignment spanned the Thanksgiving Holiday, we were afforded the rare opportunity of a long weekend in Europe.  The possibilities seemed endless as we lay awake at night searching for deals and studying guidebooks.  In reality though, notwithstanding the $39 round trip fare from Berlin, we were going to rationalize a long weekend in northern Italy.  The trip began years before we tied the knot, when Jennilou and I shared our stories about a perfect marriage. Hers could be paraphrased like this:

“____ and I are moving to Europe to work for an NGO helping to eliminate poverty in developing countries.  We will live in a cozy home filled with children and laughter. One of our favorite things to do in the summer will be to drive our convertible to the end of Italy, eating pizza and pasta, while washing it down with fantastic wine.  There, we will have a picnic at sunset, fall asleep under the stars and wake up in the morning and go home.”

Years later, now that my name fortunately filled the ____, we were finally around to planning her dream.  We would fly to Venice, rent a car, and drive to Tuscany for Thanksgiving.

We arrived mid-afternoon to Florence and immediately felt blown away as we looked down onto the cityscape from the hotel deck.  That evening, we strolled to the nearby Piazzale Michelangelo and then down the hill to see Ponte VecchioPiazza della Signoria, and Piazza del Duomo, before finding a small pizzeria for some chow.  The next morning, we headed up the hill to take in the magnificent views at the Basilica San Miniato al Monte, before returning to the city center to scale the Cathedral of Santa Maria dei Fiore and visit the Accademia and Uffizi Galleries.

The next day, we decided to head for the coast and make a few stops on our way back to Venice.  We arrived in Pisa mid morning and spent a couple hours grabbing a bite, strolling, and watching tourists prop up the Leaning Tower of Pisa.

Our next stop was the picturesque Portofino along the Italian riviera.  We decided to hike up to Castello Brown to watch the sun set, before having to reluctantly pull ourselves away.  One day we will be back!

After ditching our rental car that evening at the airport, we hopped aboard a ferry and set sail for the Hotel Metropole. In Venice, everything looks and feels so romantic, foreign, peculiar, I don’t know…fill in the ____.  For example, Venetian buildings are built like boats: three layers of wood and a lacquer finish. Apparently, once a month, during the full moon, the ocean fills the restaurants with three feet of salt water. The staff puts chairs and rugs on the tables the night before and comes to work early to mop up the place before opening for business.

We had a blast taking everything in as we wandered amongst the canals to check out the Grand Canal, Saint Mark’s Basilica (Basilica di San Marco), Doges’ Palace, St. Mark’s SquareSt. Mary of the Friars, and Santa Maria della Salute.

All in all, although we have probably come late to Italy, it was lovelier now, perhaps, than in our younger days that seemed to never be fulfilled.  Even now though, content with leisure toward the shifted axis of our new baby girl, we appear to never be where we are, but somewhere else, even in Italy.

Self Drive Sarajevo to Dubrovnik

elf Drive Sarajevo to Dubrovnik

Self Drive Sarajevo to Dubrovnik

When I was 12 years old, a family of Bosnian refugees became our neighbors.  That same summer, I was working full time building an intense tree house and happened to cut my left index finger with a hand saw.  A few weeks later my parents hosted a BBQ, where I was proudly showing our family and friends the scar, when a shy teenager approached us perplexing all of us as he pointed from body part to body part signaling with a show of hands the horrors he had gone through.  An unshielded experience I will never forget.

Last week I traveled to Sarajevo to support a new warehouse under construction.  History was inescapable as I strolled through Old Town during the evenings.  Although independent during medieval times, Bosnia and Herzegovina has more recently endured a multitude of regimes at the epicenter of east-west struggles.  Four centuries of Ottoman rule, four decades of Austro-Hungarian law, and 75 years under the Kingdom and Socialist Republic of Yugoslavia, Bosnia and Herzegovina is notorious for its cultural heritage inherited from bygone civilizations.

What you can’t miss as you walk around town is the destruction resulting from a November 1990 national assembly, where communist power was replaced by a coalition of three ethnically based parties.  Over a three year period approximately 100,000 Bosniaks, Serbs, and Croats became casualties of the Bosnian War.  Burnt out homes and buildings in disrepair are a constant reminder of the violence and carnage that took place only 20 years ago.

With my departure set for Sunday and the project getting rained out Saturday, I decided to spend the drizzly day renting a car and touring the area.  I got up early and drove west to Mostar and the location of the UNESCO World Heritage Sites of Stari most and Old-Town.  Along the way, I traveled along the Neretva River, managing a glimpse of the Mehmed Paša Sokolović Bridge in Višegrad, before getting drenched on my quick stroll through Mostar.  Plotting my next move as I tried to dry out, I decided to head for the coast and make the most of the bad weather to see the Dalmatia coast.  Luckily, my late afternoon arrival from the long journey rewarded me with a glimmer of sunshine and a view of Dubrovnik, one of the most photogenic towns on the Adriatic.  It was hard to pull myself away, but with my plane scheduled to leave in the early morning, after a hurried dinner and walk through the medieval city, I was forced to make a bee line over the mountains to Sarajevo.

Of course much has changed since the war and the region is now a bustling with cities full of cafes, shops, and tourists.  As I drove through the winding mountains at night, I couldn’t help but remember my neighbor having to leave his home all those years ago.  If anything, it became a reminder that it’s not so much about making history these days as it is to quiet it; because there are still too many streets branded with conflict and anguish that have good people afraid to walk down them.

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France and Belgium With a New Set of Eyes

France and Belgium With a New Set of Eyes

When I was twelve years old, I left the United States for the first time (well besides Canada) for a trip to my cousins wedding in France.  I can’t recall the trip in much detail and tragically the pictures were lost in a flood a few years ago.  Luckily, at the end of August, projects in Lyon and Brussels allowed me to revisit the region and gave me the chance to see France and Belgium with a new set of eyes.  Not only because I would be 20 years removed from my initial visit, but this time Jennilou and Esmei were tagging along.

Lyon to Bruges Map

My project in Lyon was our first stop. Again, most of my time was consumed preparing and attending the conference, but with Jennilou able to spend the day discovering the city, she had our two evening strolls planned without a squandered step.  Known as the “the gastronomic capital of the world,” Lyon’s setting at the meeting of the Rhône and Saône rivers made it a beautiful place to spend a summer evening relaxing at an outdoor café.  By the time we headed north I began feeling a hint of nostalgia, as the longer we stayed, the more familiar the food, smells, and overall surroundings seemed.

Needing to be in Brussels by Monday morning, we rented a car Friday and journeyed north to Paris for the weekend.  However, since Esmei and I get antsy after a few hours in the car, we decided to make a couple stops in route. Our first stop was Château de Chambord, the hunting lodge for Francis I and the largest château in the Loire Valley (Also, and probably better known as the inspiration for the Beast’s castle in the 1991 animated Disney film Beauty and the Beast). With a Leonardo da Vinci design, 1,800 workers, and a twenty-eight year schedule the pad was impressive to say the least.

Wishing we had more time to spend at the castle, but excited to make one more stop before Paris, we pushed north to the Chartres Cathedral, where between 1194 and 1260, three hundred craftsmen were able to create one of the finest examples of architecture in the world. The facades and structure were worth the trip, but experiencing the original stained glass windows from the interior was incredible.

Exhausted we rolled into the “City of Lights” with a sleeping baby and ready to hit the hay before our big day in Paris.  In the morning, we began our day in the true heart of the city with Cathédrale Notre Dame de Paris. Next we headed west to the Musée du Louvre and home of da Vinci’s Mona Lisa. At twelve years old, it’s understandable that I couldn’t fully appreciate the magnitude of what I was experiencing all those years ago, but being the first time I have had the chance to revisit a foreign place, I began to understand the old adage about the real voyage of discovery consisting not in seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes. If anything doing a trip like this reminded of the person I once was and allowed me to better judge the person I have become. In short a boy with an attention problem who dreaded setting foot in a museum, to someone that would just assume spend the day staring at old buildings.

Next on the agenda was a stroll up the Champs Elysees to the Arc de Triomphe.  Luckily for me nothing caught Jennilou’s eye as I charged along.  The coolest part of the day was our walk to the Eiffel Tower.  Even before it came into sight, I remember letting Jennilou know that it was just around the corner to a large set of steps overlooking the tower.  Until that moment, I had forgotten sitting on those very steps with my parents one evening when I was twelve years old.

With a just a half day at our disposal before needing to head north to Belgium, we were up early for the train to the Palace of Versailles.  Roving the grounds and wandering the halls made it easy to understand how the chateau came to symbolize a system of absolute monarchy.  How can you blame the citizens for inciting a Revolution, when Louis XIV could fund a war by sending his silver chamber pots to mint?

Keen at finally seeing the NATO Headquarters project in person, we took the Sunday evening train to Brussels and settled into our hotel for my upcoming week of work.  Between Monday and Friday I was tied up with the incredible 245,000 square meters of office space set on a 41-hectare campus.  Designed to symbolize eight fingers in a clasp of unity, the building would be the future home of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s 28 member countries and 19 partner nations.

NATO Headquarters

NATO Headquarters

Again, Jennilou explored the city by day and took me to the highlights at night.  With our limited time together, we made the most of it by hitting a local restaurant each night mixing in evening strolls to the Grand Place, Manneken Pis, St. Michael and St. Gudula Cathedral, and the Royal Palace of Brussels.

The highlight of our trip was getting to see an old friend on our last evening.  Finishing up work in the morning, we took the afternoon train to Bruges, where we met up with our former Beijing hostel roommate Bert Vermeesch.  It turns out Bert was born and raised in Bruges and operates a fledgling tour guide service.  Reconnecting with our friend as we strolled through town listening to his quirky local perspective to the Belfry of Bruges, Church of Our Lady Bruges, Market Place reminded us how funny and weird life can really be.   We lose touch with a lot of people due to geographical reasons, but that’s not an acceptable reason to lose a good friend.  Great people like Bert are hard to come by.

It turns out nostalgia is a beautiful feeling.  Reconnecting with a childhood place or a long lost friend reminds us of the way things once were, the happiness that we experienced growing up, and all the wonder.  If anything, I would do it again in a heartbeat just for the sake of the smile it brought to my face watching Bert change that diaper.

Foreign Service European Bureau

Foreign Service Construction Engineer – European Bureau

My first three months working in the Foreign Service European Bureau as a Foreign Service Construction Engineer have been a whirlwind of on the job training and travel.  As a Construction Executive within the Bureau of Overseas Building Operations in DC, I focus on supporting Project Director’s in the field and representing the Construction Management division as part of the Core Project Team during design. A large part of my job is contract management, working with the Contracting Officers that issue and modify contracts. Whether it be a request to add work to the contract or an equitable adjustment to the contractor, we are responsible for all the technical requirements for the modification.  All of our projects revolve around supporting U.S. interests in the following European countries:

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Although we are not currently working in every country, the seven year average life span from design to accreditation has us working in many of them.  Most of the lime light goes to the large scale embassy’s and consulate’s under construction in our region pictured below, but the smaller projects tend to be just as much contract management work.

Oddly, my first trip as a diplomat did not take place in the European Bureau, but rather the Bureau of Western Hemisphere Affairs. As part of our on the job training, a colleague and I were sent to Suriname for a week to shadow a Project Director on a New Embassy Campus being constructed in Paramaribo. It was a great to finally see a project underway and experience what 400 workers can do in a day. Also, as an added bonus, our trip overlapped a milestone achievement and the corresponding topping out ceremony. To be honest though, one of the best parts of the trip was our layover in Aruba. Seven hours gave us just enough time to stash our bags and take a dip.

For my first real work trip, I traveled to Lithuania for a project I inherited from a colleague leaving for his first overseas post. The three-phased project is being implemented on an existing 10-acre site in central Vilnius, where site work of the major rehabilitation project included in Phase I was completed in 2010. Phase II, designed by Kling Stubbins of Washington, DC, includes the expansion of the Post Communications Center (PCC); heating, ventilation, air conditioning (HVAC), and sprinkler system upgrades; and egress. Since it was going to be a long trip, I decided to book Jennilou and Esmei a ticket to follow along. Despite working six days a week for most of the time, we did manage a few evening strolls around old town.

The highlight of the trip was a weekend getaway for Jennilou’s first Mother’s day. After renting a car in Vilnius, we headed north to Latvia, with stops at Trakai Island Castle, the Hill of Crosses in Siauliai, and Rundale to visit its opulent palace – the Baltic’s version of Versailles, built by the architect responsible for St Petersburg’s Winter Palace.

After a morning spent exploring the dizzying array of of decorated facades in Riga, we skipped east to take in the crumbling castles in Sigulda before making our way back to Vilnius.

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Despite the small sample size, as far as I can tell, I’ve found my dream job.  My colleagues keep telling me the only downside was the administration work while living in DC during their first tour. If this is the worst part, I can’t wait to see what’s next.


Foreign Service Specialist Orientation

Foreign Service Specialist Orientation – 136th Class

My first day of Foreign Service Specialist Orientation and government employment began at the Harry S Truman Building or headquarters of the United States Department of State. It was very professional and organized throughout the day. We recited the oath of office, filled out new employee paperwork, obtained our IDs, and received a variety of new hire briefings. I ended up sitting next to a Diplomatic Security candidate from California who had drove five days to arrive in DC. My new colleague was also fluent in Arabic. Everyone seemed to be happy, friendly, and extremely intelligent.

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On day two, and for most of remaining training, we attended the George P. Shultz National Foreign Affairs Training Center (NFATC). The campus is the government’s primary training institution for officers and support personnel of the U.S. foreign affairs community, preparing American diplomats and other professionals to promote U.S. foreign affairs interests overseas and in Washington, DC. The facility is on a beautiful 72-acre campus which provides over 500 training courses to more than 30,000 people a year.

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To sum it up, orientation was a fire hose of information designed to give us a starting point of what the State Department and Foreign Service is really about. At times it was an overload of information and things did not always apply to me specifically, but I can appreciate the need for a reference point as we assume our new roles. I had absolutely no free time in the evenings between homework (additional computer-based training), selling our house, finding an apartment, and trying to function as a whole with a 3 month in our temporary apartment at Oakwood.

One of the most exciting days of orientation is a ritual called “Flag Day.” As a tradition in the Foreign Service Specialist orientation class, it’s truly an amazing moment. Preceding the event, everyone in the class is given a bid list with potential posts to rank order. The Career Development Officer’s compile their lists and reveal the onward assignments by presenting a flag as we gather together with our families.  Some people jump and cheer, while others suffer temporary shock. For Foreign Service Construction Engineers, it’s a bit uneventful as we know our first assignment will be Washington DC or  Arlington Virginia and the following flag to be specific. However, after getting to know your colleagues so well over the orientation, it’s awesome to see them with their families so thrilled to finally know where they are headed.

Virgina Flag

An unexpected surprise from Flag Day was a folder containing the region I would be assigned to in Washington. We were told Africa and Near East Asia were up for grabs and with little preference for either, my colleague and I had simply flipped a coin and bid accordingly. However, when we received our envelope, I had been assigned Europe and she had received East Asia Pacific. If this sounds a bit confusing, below is a map of how the State Department sees and refers to the world.

Map

The culmination of orientation was a final swearing in at the Harry S Truman Building. The morning before the event, we were informed (S) would be performing the oath. I didn’t think much of it at the time, perhaps because I was so tired, but when I met Jennilou at the entrance to help with the stroller, she told me she had overhead that Secretary Kerry was presenting. Ohhh, the (S) at the top of the organizational chart, I realized embarrassed. We all sat a bit star struck as we recited…

I ________, do solemnly swear that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic, that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same, that I take this obligation freely, without any mental reservation or purpose of evasion, and I will well and faithfully discharge the duties of the office on which I am about to enter. So help me God.”

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