Houston, TX: Washington, DC: Dublin, Ireland:

Saturday, December 13, 2014

Lessons Learned From Third Tour Bidding

Now that I am safely panelled and ready to start getting travel orders and so on, I feel like I can talk about third-tour bidding without calling down some sort of jinx and getting my awesome job taken away by the gods or the fates or the Needs of the Service. This was my first stab at mid-level bidding, and here's what I learned:

Bid Early - This is something everyone tells you, and it's SO true. Bids opened at the beginning of August and closed mid-October, so it sounds like you have ten weeks to play with. You do not. The more competitive jobs I bid on had a short list of candidates put together after only two weeks, and all of them had their top choices picked, interviewed, and laid out in rank order by the week before bids closed. No matter what kind of work-related or personal craziness you have going on in your life at the time, as soon as bids open you had better be making your list and sending out resumes or you will be left in the cold.

In-Cone Experience Is VITAL - For this round of bidding I was an econ-coned officer looking for an econ job, but with more consular experience than anything else. That's just how the luck of the draw and the Needs of the Service set up my first two tours. Were any of my interviewers even slightly interested in all the exciting and worthwhile things I've done in consular? Not even a teeny tiny bit. I got my new job entirely on the strength of my one year of econ experience in Conakry, and that's it. For hiring purposes the last two and a half years may as well not have happened. I have a friend who was not assigned any in-cone experience in his first two tours and he had a terrible time bidding for his third tour. He ended up sacrificing all other considerations to get an in-cone job, ANY in-cone job, because if he didn't get one now he'd be even less competitive next time, and then what?

Be Realistic - Most of the mentor-types I talked to, when asked about bidding, said some variation of "just bid on jobs you think are interesting and everything will work out." So I did. What I learned is that many of the jobs I thought were interesting were also interesting to other bidders - dozens and dozens of other bidders. Not just the plush European posts either; jobs in places most people would never consider as vacation destinations were also mobbed with applicants. As a third-tour bidder you are either a freshly-promoted 03 or still an 04, and you're competing against others like you, but also against people who have one or multiple 03 tours under their belt already. Those people have way more experience than you and are going to be more competitive candidates for highly-sought jobs. So temper that advice above and bid on jobs that interest you, but make sure at least some of them are also jobs you realistically think you can get. If all of your top choices have tons of bidders and posts haven't shown much special interest in you, it may be time to lower your expectations and look at the list with fresh eyes. You may one day get to Paris, but probably not on your third tour.

Monday, December 8, 2014

Le Weekend à Paris

Les pingouins de Paris vous souhaitent un Joyeux Noël
I went to Paris last weekend, because I could, and to visit a friend from Conakry who lives there now. We had a lovely time shopping at Christmas markets, going to museums for free, browsing used books, devouring delicious snails (well, one of us did), drinking the richest, thickest hot chocolate ever, and just walking around appreciating the city. I forget sometimes how beautiful some other cities are because I live in practical, workaday Dublin, with its flat mud-colored Georgian rowhouses, squat '70s office blocks, and streets and streets of identical duplexes. Dublin certainly has its charms, but oh, Paris!

I also confirmed that my French is total shite after two years of disuse, so after Christmas I'll have to trot my derrière down the the Alliance Française and start whipping it back into shape. My French, that is, not my derrière, though after the coming Christmas delights (and the HUGE box of chocolates I bought this weekend) that may need some improvement as well.

Sunday, November 30, 2014

If You Want Something Done Right, You Have to Do It Yourself

I had an unusual Thanksgiving this year. On Wednesday the embassy had the annual Thanksgiving lunch, catered by a local restaurant. It was good food and good craic, but not quite what I'm used to at home. And then on Thursday I went to a friend's house for dinner, where I was promised both food and entertainment in the form of a deep-fried turkey. When the oil had failed to reach frying temperature by 10:30pm we gave up and feasted on stuffing and green beans and Doritos and muffins and pie. A good time was had by all, but a traditional Thanksgiving meal, not so much.

My Thanksgiving dinner needs unsatisfied, I did the only sensible thing. After six hours at work on a Saturday watching paint dry in the service of our consular section remodel, I stopped at the grocery store on the way home and picked up a few things. Four hours later, I had this:

Achievement Unlocked: Food Coma

Yes, I cheated, just a little bit. I cooked a chicken instead of a turkey, because there's only one of me and because I was not about to wait on a frozen bird. And I bought the squash and the bacon pre-cut, because you can do that in Ireland. I did have to roast and peel the chestnuts for the green beans though, which was a pain. For dessert I was forced to make do with leftover apple tart, because my dulce de leche pumpkin pie needed time to cool. So I ate some for breakfast this morning, because I'm an adult and I can do whatever I want.

Breakfast of Champions
Thanksgiving is now officially, successfully, complete. This means it's time to track down a tree, hang the stockings, turn on the carols, and start getting ready for Christmas!

Thursday, November 27, 2014

Things For Which I Am Thankful

Handshakes. Radiators. Vacation plans. Sister Christmas! Friends who inspire me to be a better person. Dishwashers. Discretionary income. Tailors. Self-sufficiency. Irish coffee glasses. Green spaces. Gastropubs. Automatic cat feeders. Visitors. Tamales. Sleeping in. Perspective. Modern dentistry. Streaming video. Human ingenuity. Showtunes. Sea spray. Karaoke. Constructive criticism, and the ability to recognize it as such. Fireplaces. Hope. Passport stamps. Comparative linguistics. Good genes. Wellies. The craic. Road trips. VAT refunds. Family who are always there for me, even if they can't be here with me.

Etc., etc., etc.

Monday, November 10, 2014

Hand: Shaken!


Today I got the thing I have spent the past 4+ months obsessing about: a handshake, State Department code for a job offer for my next post. I will be going to Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, to work as an econ officer at the U.S. Mission to the African Union.

I'm really excited about this job. I plan to spend a lot of my career in Africa, so this is a unique opportunity to really get to know the whole continent. I've learned a lot in my time in consular work, but I'm happy to be getting back to my core function as an econ officer. I've also heard nice things about Addis as a place to live, and baby sis in Dubai will only be a few hours away. It's a win all around!

As thrilled as I am about my new assignment, I am almost as thrilled just to have the bidding process over with. It was just as long and stressful and time-consuming as everyone said it was, and the tension and uncertainty cast a bit of a cloud over the past few months of my life. But now it's done, and I can focus on spending the next 8-9 months on the things that really matter: planning for Addis and making the most of Dublin while I still can. 

Friday, October 31, 2014

Things I've Liked on the Internet Recently

After 9,000 years of selective breeding corn, peaches, and watermelon are practically unrecognizable - and much, much tastier.
Remember Spirograph? You can play with it on the internet now. But even cooler than that is Spirograph pancakes.
A semi-scholarly analysis of the costs of the damage wreaked by Calvin of Calvin and Hobbes on his poor hapless parents*
This is your brain on metaphors
One way to solve the chicken-or-egg problem? Make the egg from scratch.
Fingerprint words - a meditation on the words that make us who we are

Here's a bunch of great music videos:

The iOS Autocomplete Song - no deep meanings here, but it is pretty catchy
Give It Up - a brand new song built from random YouTube videos
99 Red Balloons played with nothing but actual red balloons. (He only used 4 though.)
OK Go has a fun new video that was filmed with a drone in Japan
And from the forthcoming Annie remake, You're Never Fully Dressed Without a Smile

And finally, a Rube Goldberg machine powered by light:



*Yes, I know this is all in good fun, but I do have a quibble with the methodology. By mixing price estimates in 2014 dollars for given events and explicitly stated costs as given in the comic (in 1985-1996 dollars, depending on the year of the strip), the author underestimates the cost of Calvin at today's prices by failing to account for inflation.

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Adventures

I have never considered myself to be an adventurous person. I am generally risk-averse. I stay home a lot and do boring things like reading books and watching television. I'm not into extreme sports. I disapprove of motorcycles. I do not have tattoos. I'm very happy to have my steady government job with a steady government paycheck; the thought of trying to make a living freelancing or starting my own business terrifies me. I have a will and a power of attorney and an emergency fund, in case. I make plans and backup plans. I don't really do spontaneity. Not only do I not live on the edge, I don't even live within shouting distance of it, and I like it that way.

But recently I had a conversation with a new acquaintance that made me reassess my claim to a life of dull predictability. We were discussing my fondness for travel and he asked me if there was anywhere really weird I wanted to go. I asked what he meant by "weird", and the example he gave was Iceland. I have actually been to Iceland - it was a lot of fun and I'd love to go back. And while Iceland certainly is a unique place, the thought of visiting another EU country only a few hours away does not seem to me to be a particularly "out there" thing to do. I somewhat frequently get on planes and go, alone, to places where I have never been, may not know anyone, and don't speak the native language. This does not strike me as a big deal, but some people apparently find this shockingly unusual and courageous. Adventurous, if you will.

And then of course there's the whole Foreign Service thing. When I mention having lived in West Africa for a few years most regular, non-globally-nomadic people react as if I said I had been living on Mars. And I suppose, for most people, the two prospects are both so tremendously unlikely that it almost amounts to the same thing. But moving around the world is a thing that I do now, and a thing that a lot of my friends do, so it's started to seem kind of normal. Not when I think about it rationally, but it just feels that way. And this is something that might possibly be considered by a not-insignificant number of sensible, logical people to be kind of an adventure.

And who am I to argue with that? Perhaps I should pay more attention to the adventures I do have and appreciate them for what they are.

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Do You Like Me? Circle Yes/No

Bidding. It's almost over, and I can't wait until it is.

Bids are due tomorrow, and after that there's nothing to do but wait and see how it all works out. Until it does all work out one way or another my mental state can perhaps best be compared to that of a wallflower quivering in a corner of a crepe-papered middle school gymnasium, worried that no one will ask her to dance. It'll be another month or so until real job offers start being made, which is a long time to quiver.

In fact this whole procedure has been deeply reminiscent of the awkwardness of middle and high school dating. I have pursued my crushes with (I hope) adequate ardour to convince them of my interest, but (again, I hope) not so much as to seem desperate, because that's never cool. I have done the bureaucratic equivalent of sending my friends over to talk to that cute guy for me, in the form of asking people to weigh in for me with decision-makers they know. I have agonized over polite, functional emails, trying to figure out if Job X likes me, or if maybe they LIKE me like me, but maybe not as much as they like that blonde cheerleader? And every time someone calls or doesn't call, emails or doesn't email, I drive myself nuts asking what does it meeeeeeeean? This is not good for my mental health.

Friends and colleagues have tried to be supportive and reassuring as I (and hundreds of others just like me) go through this painful process, but the reality is that this is a very competitive bidding season. On a purely numerical basis the chances of not being asked to dance - even by that guy with the face full of pimples and two left feet - are higher than usual, and I am deeply concerned about it. I have had some expressions of interest lately that have done wonders for my peace of mind, but I can't really relax until I have an honest-to-god job offer. Just one more month to go.

Sunday, October 5, 2014

Vicarious Tourism: Pragislavapest

Yes, I know the combo names are kind of ridiculous but I just can't help myself. Last week I went on vacation (again!) to Prague, Bratislava, and Budapest. I had friends to visit in the latter two, and I had just heard amazing things about Prague and always wanted to go. It was a great trip.

Prague lived up to all the great things I had heard. It really is a singularly beautiful city. Imperial grandeur, fairytale charm, baroque opulence, art nouveau intricacies, gothic heights - it's all there, with a sparkling river and scenic hills to set everything off to best advantage. Just lovely. I went on a marathon 4-hour walking tour, ate an incredible meal at La Degustation, and heard an organ recital in the splendor (and amazing acoustics) of St. Nicholas Cathedral. I also took a day trip to Kutna Hora, a former silver mining town now known mostly for the Sedlec Ossuary, a small chapel elaborately decorated with human bones. Definitely a sight to see.

Bratislava turns out to be a pleasant little place. There's not much in the way of big tourist attractions, but you can see the crown and the cathedral used for the coronation of generations of Hungarian kings and emperors. Bratislava was the capital of the Kingdom of Hungary before it was moved to Budapest and still retained its status as the coronation city. I learned a lot about Slovakia while I was there, though starting from an admittedly low base. Another thing I loved? It's so cheap! I had a delicious and satisfying meal with two half-liter beers for 10 EUR, which wouldn't even have covered the beer in Dublin. Got to love that.

Budapest was my favorite of the cities I visited on this trip, hands down. It's not as charming as Prague but more imposing, with plenty of atmospheric decayed grandeur - something I particularly love. The best thing I did there was to devote several hours to a relaxing soak in the Gellert Baths, a majestic art nouveau bathing house on the Buda side of the river with a domed and colonnaded indoor pool, one of the first ever wave pools, a series of thermal pools in different temperatures, and all kinds of things. I could have stayed all day. The two days I had there was nowhere near enough time so I'll have to go back, one of these days.


Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Speaking Irish

One more thing I did during the Ulster Road Trip was to take my Irish out for a spin at a sleepy pub in rural Donegal. My all-of-40-hours of Irish classes turned out to be just barely enough for me to successfully order and pay for drinks as Gaelige, have an EXTREMELY basic conversation with the sweet elderly Irishmen straight out of central casting who occupied the barstools, and impress the pants off the British couple staying at our B&B who happened to witness my performance. I was very proud.

But even aside from this achievement, after just over a year in Dublin I have noticed that I am starting, slowly, inevitably, to adopt the local dialect of English, which has a distinct character shaped largely by the characteristics of Irish Gaelic. I am more apt than previously to answer questions with full sentences - "I do"; "I am"; "I won't" - instead of yes and no, a local quirk arising from the Irish language's total lack of such useful affirmations and negations. I have been known to refer to someone as "your man" on occasion. The first time the words, "ah, you'll be grand" - THE classic Irish phrase - emerged from my lips I felt like I was being possessed by some kind of Paddy poltergeist, but it's coming more comfortably now.

Some things I haven't quite picked up yet. My ability to pronounce "th" sounds - a phoneme Irish lacks - remains intact, despite being surrounded by people who think "tree tirty" is a good time for tea. I have not (as far as I can tell) adopted the local obsession for progressive verbs, where "I'll see you" becomes "I'll be seeing you" and "I just did..." turns into "I'm after doing..." My Gaelic grammar is insufficiently advanced to determine if this is an Irish feature imported into English, but I'd bet money that it is. And if I ever start ending every single sentence with emphatic repetitive phrases you'll have to extract me from Ireland by force for my own good, so you will.

But I have not quite another year left in Ireland, plenty of time to get used to saying things like "fillum", "deadly", and "feck", just in time to go back to America where my hybrid Hiberno-American English will seem even weirder than it does here. Feck, it's grand, y'all!