Category Archives: Foreign Service Stuff

State Department Memories

It has been (almost) six months since I semi-voluntarily left the State Department.  Since then, I’ve been on sabbatical, figuring out what to do next.  I’ve done some traveling to Italy, Greece, Montenegro and Albania (and want to do more), and spent a lot of time thinking about my five years in service to my country.

I promised some folks that once I was out, I would explain in more detail why I left, but as I have time and this forum, I plan to expand that over the next months to a more generic discussion of the role of the State Department, and if I get really full of myself, the role of the U.S. in the world.

As I wrote in my application to join the Foreign Service, I am a child of the Kennedy generation who were called to public service.  It took me decades to answer, but I saw my late in life decision to join the Foreign Service as service.  Moreover, I felt I had something beyond many people to offer.  As I was unable to write in any EER, I brought 30+ years of experience in journalism, broadcasting, software, management and politics that I wanted to integrate into my new job.  It is with this assumption that I chose a political track within the Foreign Service.  Unfortunately, it was not to be.

Despite regular reassurances during our initial training, the bottom line is that the State Department has no idea what to do with second and third career officers and what they bring from their earlier careers.  In fact, the system is set up to be hostile to the use of their experience.  No company in the private sector would bring in a new employee with 20 years experience and treat them the same way as a new hire right out of college, but that’s the policy of the State Department.  No company in the private sector would bring in a specialist in one area and require them to spend two years on the equivalent of “working in the mail room”, but that’s what the State Department does with new FSOs, sending them to the visa window for a tour or two.  Whatever motivation and enthusiasm they might have brought to the job is ground down doing something they didn’t apply to do, or expect to spend the rest of their career doing.  If a 20 something FSO has 25 or 30 years of a career ahead of them, it might be seen as a short excursion, but if you only have a few tours before hitting the mandatory retirement age, it is a big chunk of your remaining work life, and the public service you signed up for.

With the experience of a lifetime, in the private sector, one can usually find a way to supplement or work around such limits of the bureaucracy.  Indeed, I had spent the previous 20 years or so always inventing my next job and selling it to my superiors.  There is no opportunity for such outside of the box thinking in the State Department, because I think there is no advantage for anyone up the line who has gotten ahead by getting along to take the “risk” of coloring outside the lines.

The  bottom line was, a third career I had entered thinking it was a perfect match, having been a “generalist” throughout my career, mostly in careers which valued specialists, ended up being anything but.  There are careers for those who value rules and structure, and ones for those of us cultural creatives who need to constantly push the boundaries to do the bigger job.  I just couldn’t spend any more time in the box.

I’ll talk some more about specifics in depth in later posts, but I wanted to get started.  This post, and the ones which follow, are not a criticism of the people I met in the Foreign Service, who for the most part are smart, friendly and dedicated.  It is the system which is broken, at least for some of us.

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1000 Islands, no waiting…

I am doing my best to enjoy my last months in the Foreign Service, which for the most part means enjoying where I am, which is Ottawa, Canada.  It’s an easy area to like.  It’s pretty country.  The people are friendly.  There are good museums and good parks and interesting events.  One of the places I’ve wanted to go for some time is the 1000 islands, which is 1800 islands in the St. Lawrence river between the U.S. and Canada.

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Cruise boats ply the river among the islands, and I’ve meant to take one a few times, but weather or timing stopped me, until recently when the CLO sponsored a trip to two of the biggest islands and their castles.

IMG_0484First was Boldt Castle.  Built as a tribute to one man’s love for his wife, he actually shut down construction when she unexpectedly passed and it sat derelict for decades.  Now being restored and completed, it’s in U.S. waters so we actually had to pass through passport control and customs to get on the island.  Not just a “castle”, the Boldt is a complex of building on this island (Heart Island, because it’s shaped like a heart…the Valentines kind, not the middle of your chest kind) and another nearby, where there is a giant boathouse.  Then there’s the grand entrance by water designed to look like a cross between the Arc du Triumphe and something from a castle on the Rhine.IMG_0496  It was to lead up past a gazebo and into a grand staircase, but the grand staircase was never completed, and only the ruins of the stone which was to be used to build it remains on the island.IMG_0501IMG_0520 pano

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.They’re working on restoring the interior with period pieces, since the original owner never reached the point of furnishing it,  This stained glass dome is over the main staircase.

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.The secret stairwell of Singer Castle.

.Next is Singer Castle, built as a summer retreat.  The bridge and tower to the right was the covered entrance for people arriving by boat.

.The library in Singer Castle.  I want a library like this.

.IMG_0493The main stairwell at Boldt Castle.  Right below this is the indoor pool, which is still awaiting restoration.

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Spelunking the “Diefenbunker”

I remember back 20 or 30 years when a 727 crashed west of Washington DC.  The reporters at the time noted that the aircraft had crashed into “the super-secret Mount Weather facility”, which we learned was one of the emergency shelters for the government in case of nuclear war.  Some time after that, we learned of the shelter for the Congress at the Greenbriar resort.  I still  wonder why there is a 747-capable runway in the middle of nowhere west of my home in Ashburn, VA.

Canada has the “Diefenbunker.”  Named after the then-Prime Minister John Diefenbaker by the reporter who discovered its purpose before it was even complete (more on that later), it was decommissioned in the 1990s and now serves as a “Cold War Museum” on the outskirts of Ottawa in a small town named Carp (Question for further research – did the town ever have a radio stations with the call letters C-A-R-P?).

Designed to be able to absorb a glancing hit from a nuclear explosion (they were counting on nobody actually dropping a bomb on the facility since it was secret, except it wasn’t), 535 members of the Canadian government including the Governor General and Prime Minister were supportable for up to 30 days.

You enter the “Diefenbunker” through a long tunnel that runs perpendicular to the main entrance with a door at each end.  The idea was to have any shock wave past through the tunnel rather than knock down the door.  There’s a vestibule where you’d be identified for entry (or not) followed by a radiation check.  If you weren’t safe, back out you went.  No families (not even the PM’s), no members of Parliament (except the heads of the Ministries).  The opposition had its own bunker elsewhere (I’m not making that up!) which wasn’t as deep or secure (I am making that part up).

The bunker itself is a bit of a time capsule.  Although it was in use as a commuinications center until the 1990s, a lot of the furnishings scream 1960’s government office, from the gray metal desks to the dial telephones.  The computer room has the required spinning reel tape drives and blinky lights.  There was a small broadcast (radio only) studio where one CBC anchor who was on the list would communicate with the public.  There was a large concrete vault with separate doors (heavier than the ones to the outside world) which would have held the gold reserves.

So, how was the secret spilled?  Well, as I said, there is a town right next door so there needed to be a cover story for the construction.  Officially, it was to be a small Army communications station.  But people were suspicious given all the digging.  Then a Toronto newspaper reporter flew over the site in a light plane and saw 72 toilets lined up ready for installation, the jig was up.

The bunker has never been used for its designed purpose.  The closest it came was in 1962 during the Cuban Missile Crisis.  Diefenbaker said he’d never set foot in the thing after he learned his family couldn’t come along (there is pointedly a single bed in the PM’s suite).  Reportedly, the only PM who ever visited was Pierre Trudeau, who was treated to a dinner of spaghetti and meatballs, and promptly cut its budget in half.

The Diefenbunker is certainly worth a visit if you’re interested in that era of history and happen to be in or near Ottawa.  One bit of irony.  John Diefenbaker is known for, among other things, cancelling the Avro Arrow Mach 2+ fighter in favor of US missiles (and perhaps, building a huge bunker…actually lots of them across Canada).  Many of the engineers who worked on the Arrow went on to join the Apollo program and helped us land on the moon.  So what’s for sale at the Diefenbunker gift shop?  Plastic models of the Arrow.

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All Experiments Yield Results — Just not always positive ones

So here’s the story…

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That’s how I started this blog in 2008, almost six years ago, as I had begun my adventure in the Foreign Service.  At the time, I hadn’t begun A-100 (or even been called for a class) yet, but was hoping, as I told people back then, that a job with “Generalist” in its title was what I had been looking for all my life.

It didn’t turn out that way.

So, at the end of my tour in Ottawa (which isn’t for almost another year) I will be leaving the Foreign Service.  I’ve begin the fairly long and somewhat complicated process of resignation and separation, and started thinking about what to do next.

Should I finally work on the novel I’ve always wanted to write?  Is it time to finally run for elected office, or get neck deep in someone else’s campaign as a staffer?  Should I worry about salary, or just go for the most interesting opportunity (which provides health insurance :))?

If you’ve followed at all my adventures, or are just curious what leads someone to start (and end) a third career, you may be wondering “why?”

The short version is, after two tours as a consular officer, which isn’t what I wanted to do, and dealing with the government bureaucracy which is the State Department, and looking at the bid list opportunities for the next two or three years, I didn’t see anything which would result in my getting up each morning excited to go to work.

The long version will have to wait, maybe until after I’m completely out :).

I have met some great people in the Foreign Service, people I hope will be friends (if remote ones) for life.  It’s given me the opportunity to live in Benin and Canada and visit several other remote places.  I’ve learned how to recreate American food with African ingredients, and introduced corndogs to Cotonou.

So I’ll spend the next eleven months doing my job in Ottawa, thinking about future opportunities and challenges, figuring out what upgrades to make to the house in Ashburn, plotting out my Foreign Service centered sitcom and, from time to time, posting in this blog as the adventure continues.

It’s exciting.  And life should be exciting.

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Musical Chairs

All of Foreign Service life is a game of musical chairs.  Every few years we all walk around the world and end up sitting down in one of the chairs for a few years.  Perhaps your chair is in Fiji, maybe France,  perhaps the Phillipines.

But I’ve found there is another, smaller game of musical chairs played every holiday, where we try to get together with friends, family and old post-mates only to discover they are traveling to meet with other friends, family and old post-mates elsewhere.  So, Labor Day came and went, and in spite of a bunch of old Cotonou friends being back inthe US, and my making it a five day weekend, I had no luck getting together with any of them.  Fortunately, there was still family.

The other reason I had to have the prius “Carry me back to Ol’ Virginny” is that it was due for its annual inspection, and I have an ulterior motive for keeping it in good standing in the Old Dominion.  back when I bought my Prius, you could get special license plates for hybrids which allowed you to drive solo on the HOV lanes in-state, for example, I-66 inside the Beltway during rush hour.  They’ve discontinued  the practice for new hybrids, but us oldies are grandfathered in (for now).  So, I’ve been very careful to keep my driver’s license and registration current in Virginia.  It means paying insurance in the US and Canada, but if I’m ever commuting into DC or nearby again, its worth it.

For those of you overseas with the Foreign Service who have a home in Virginia, it is possible to keep your Virginia drivers’ license.  Unlike many benefits, this is one where we fall under the same law as the military.   Try http://www.dmv.state.va.us/webdoc/general/outsideva/diplomat.asp.

Looking for that, I also found we veterans can get a Virginia ID card, although I don’t know exactly what benefits it bestows.  Try http://www.dmv.state.va.us/webdoc/citizen/id/vet_id.asp.   Now I just need to find my DD-214.

It was interesting to be in a “swing state” for a few days, which meant wall to wall political ads.  I’m happy to be away from them now (although if Michigan again becomes a swing state, we get some of our US TV out of Detroit).

Among my jobs here in Ottawa is voting officer, so I’ll wrap up this post with some graphic encouragement.

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Exit the Penny (2)

In April, shortly after I arrived in Ottawa (http://hogline.wordpress.com/2012/04/07/observing-ottawa/) I posted that one of the differences in Canada was that they were eliminating the penny.

It took until this week for me to visit the Royal Canadian Mint in Ottawa, where they don’t make pennies, but they haven’t for some time, until this year.  I’ll explain it all in a moment.

Just like in the U.S. we have Mints in Philadelphia and Denver (and San Francisco, and at one point New Orleans), in Canada they have Mints in Ottawa and Winnipeg.  Unlike the U.S., they only make coinage for circulation in one of them, Winnipeg.  All the loonies and twonies and Canadian nickels you’ve seen came from Winnipeg.  Down the street from the U.S. Embassy in Ottawa, they do design, management, refine gold and silver, and strike coins for numismatic purposes (coin collectors).

So, this week they invited the Ambassador to visit the neighbors, and he invited the rest of us along.

The nice thing about tagging along with the Ambassador on trips like this is you get the Ambassadorial treatment.  You meet the boss.  They provide refreshments.  You get to go into the gold vault.  No photos, but let me explain that the gold vault is both impressive and surprising.  Impressive because there’s a WHOLE LOT OF GOLD there, in every form from shavings to huge bars, refined and unrefined, even huge rolls worth 10’s of millions of dollars out of which they stamp coins.  Surprising because it looks like a place you’d store your power tools if they were as heavy as…well…gold.  Heavy duty, industrial grade, metal shelves.  Lots of the gold is stored in Tupperware crates.  Not exactly your impression from movies like “Goldfinger”.


The Royal Canadian Mint (it’s a Crown Corporation, which means it’s owned by the government but runs like a private business) makes a lot of its profits through its numismatic efforts.  The Canadians make some really cool looking coins, both for themselves and dozens of other countries around the world.  Some are commemorative (for example, the silver “penny” pictured above next to its soon to be extinct model) and others are solely for marketing purposes (from the Chinese Zodiac to Star Wars).  Coins may include crystals, holograms, paint or enamel.

The Canadians are also trying to take the lead in making coins inexpensively.  They have invested a lot of money in new technology.  Canadian coins are now made of a sandwich of steel, nickel and copper alloys, which allows them to make a nickel for about two cents.  U.S. nickels (according to the RCM folks) cost about 10 cents each to make.  Best I can tell from their presentation, the trick is keeping the steel core from rusting by making sure when the coins are struck the nickel and copper layers are not pierced.

In any case, the RCM is worth a visit when you come to Ottawa, even if you don’t get to go with the Ambassador.  It’s by Byward Market and right next to the Museum of Fine Arts (which I also need to get to), down the street from the U.S. Embassy).  Stop by and say hello.

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Calgary Trip – Continued

When I last left you we had arrived at Lake Louise.  The lake is glacier fed, and as you can see from this panorama I took, is an odd shade of blue-green.  This is due to the suspended rock dust scraped off by the glacier on its trip down to the lake.  Although I didn’t take the time to do so, the boats and canoes you can rent over to the left side of the lake look like fun.  Over to the right, you can see the lodge right by the lake.Image

I posted this one before, but I have to tell the story.  I’m not a photographer, but I’ve learned a few tricks to make photos interesting.  One is to put something in the foreground, like an overhanging branch from a tree.  Another is to choose an unusual angle.  Put the two together and you get this photo.

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To get the rocks into the foreground required me to lie flat on my stomach on the path.  This is not the first time I’ve used this angle in a photo, and it always seems to make other tourists laugh…or wonder if I’m injured.  For example, here’s where I used it in Shanghai.

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Half a dozen young, Chinese students came over to offer to help me up :).

After the lake, I continued up the highway to see some more glaciers.  For example, there’s this one, which looks like a claw, even though the bottom talon has just about melted away with climate change.

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Continue a while longer and you’ll come to Bow Lake and its associated Glacier.

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Then you notice the sun is starting to go down, and there isn’t a gas station within 80 miles and you’re below a quarter tank, so you turn around.

Maybe it’s Canada. maybe it’s the remote west, but there isn’t a gas station at every overpass coming back from the mountains into Calgary.  In fact, I was getting buzzes and beeps and blinking gas pumps on my dashboard when I was finally able to pull into one, but I did manage to escape the embarrassment of running out of gas on a  remote Canadian highway.

There was supposed to be more of this – more pictures, different parts of Calgary, but I came down with an unexpected chest cold my last day at work there and couldn’t get out of bed the following Saturday I had set aside for more tourism.  I guess I’ll have to go back.  For one thing, I want to ride the bobsled and the ziplines.

Calgary Olympic Site

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Another new year

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Calgary photos part one

Calgary Olympic Site

Bow Glacier  and Lake

Crows foot glacier.  The bottom toe was bigger until a few years ago.

Driving west into the mountains

Lake Louise

 

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Calgary, sans Stampede

Photos to follow!

Canada’s a big place, and up until now, I’d only been in a very small part of it.  In my life, I’ve never been west (in Canada) of Toronto, which is pretty far east.  So, when I had the opportunity to spend a week’s TDY in Calgary, I jumped at it.

Calgary, like Denver,  sits just to the east of the Rocky Mountains (a little further away, as I learned on my drive to the mountains, but certainly in the vicinity.)  It was home of the 1988 Winter Olympics (more on that later) and for the past 100 years, of the Calgary Stampede, which had the bad taste to end just before I got there.  Like Denver, it’s at altitude.  Calgary is the kilometer-high city (actually a bit over a kilometer) and the altitude and normal dryness of the air results in a climate which even when warm in the daytime, cools significantly at night.

Arriving Saturday around lunchtime, I proceeded to get lost at least three, maybe four (depending on how you count) times on my way to my home away from home.  That was with Google Maps directions.  I finally headed dead reckoning for the general vicinity of where I knew the house was, hoping to find a familiar sounding street.  That worked, although I took a few laps around the block to find the house kinda hidden behind some hedges.  Calgary, in spite of downtown being a conventional grid, seems determined to make sure it’s hard to get to there from here, using a combination of having both numbered streets and avenues, random one way streets,  places where the grid ends, light rail only roads and construction to keep you paying attention.

Sunday, I headed out at 0 dark 30 (two hours time change, remember, so I was awake anyway) for the mountains.  What was my plan?  Drive west until I found them!  The way to do that is on the Trans-Canada, and I had seen the exit for it on my way from the Airport.  When I took the exit from the highway, I was suprised to find that, at least in this section, the Trans-Canada was more Route 66 than I-66.  In other words – it was a regular surface road with traffic lights, railroad crossings and such instead of the expected limited access highway.  Eventually it cleared Calgary and became what I had expected for the most part, divided highway headed West.  Just about the time that happens, appearing to your left at the top of a hill is what, after a few seconds, you realize are the ski jumping towers from 1988 (also the bobsled, luge and ice arenas, but it takes a while longer to realize that.)

It’s about now you really begin to sense the mountains coming up, and notice a few things:

  1. They are very steep, more so than the ones in Colorado
  2. They are very “Rocky”, grey stone from about a third of the way up to the tip.  It really jumps out at you, even at a distance.

Just keep driving, and eventually you come to the last stop before entering the National Park…Canmore.  I didn’t stop there because which exit to take wasn’t obvious from the Trans-Canada and it was still very early in the morning, and all I really needed was batteries for the camera.  A few miles up the road, and you enter Banff National Park.  Like in the U.S., you pay for access to the National Parks these days.  They’re worth it, but you shouldn’t have to pay for things like National Parks, Interstate Highways and other federal institutions you have already paid taxes toward (I feel the same about Passports).  Of course, I’ve paid nothing toward the Canadian National Park system, so charge away!  They didn’t ask my nationality at the gate.

In order to appreciate parks you have to appreciate parks.  It’s about the scenery.  It’s about the experience.  It’s about the quiet and the beauty and the unusual.  This isn’t Disney World (or Disneyland…Canadians can’t seem to keep them straight), it’s mile and miles of mountains, streams, lakes and trees with just occasional interruptions for the town of Banff or the hotel at Lake Louise.  In fact, they warn you to keep your car topped off before entering parts of the park because there are no gas stations for long stretches (that’s true out of the park too…we’ll get to that.)

Pretty soon you realize you’re not only driving into the mountains, but up.  It’s nothing obvious, but the peaks start to be snowcapped and the temperature starts to drop (I wish cars came with altimeters!).  By the time you get to Banff (yes, the town’s inside the park) the temperature had dropped almost ten degrees Celcicus.  Nothing was open in Banff except the Tim Horton’s (still looking for batteries),  so I had a coffee and apple fritter and pressed on.

The next place to get off and hunt for batteries was Lake Louise.  I eventually bought some there at a gas station, and it is better left unsaid what batteries cost in the only place open in the middle of a no-competition zone, but I wanted to take pictures, and the little red battery low symbol was flashing ominously.  With what gas cost, I didn’t buy any.

Lake Louise is a glacier-fed wonder. And on that note, we’ll take a break.

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