Thursday, November 26, 2015

لا أفهم الفرنسية

You are a waiter.  Your customer is a blonde, blue-eyed foreigner.  She says to you -- in Arabic -- "I don't speak French."  You:
a) switch to German -- it's only logical
b) persist in French -- she'll probably pick it up in time to read the menu and place an order
c) give an exaggerated smile and back away slowly

You are a taxi driver.  Your passenger is a blonde, blue-eyed foreigner.  She says to you -- in Arabic -- "I don't speak French."  You:
a) turn up the radio
b) double the fare
c) phone a friend
d) assist her in putting on her seatbelt, finding her wallet, reaching for her umbrella -- she probably needs help, poor ignorant thing.  And if that means your hands keep side swiping her breasts, well, that's hardly your fault, is it?

You are a teller.  The person checking out is a blonde, blue-eyed foreigner.  She says to you -- in Arabic -- "I don't speak French."  You:
a) fold your hands in disgust.  This transaction is over.
b) carry on with your rote French-language dialogue, because it is impossible to skip the step in your programming where you determine whether or not she has a loyalty card
c) judge her angrily for trying to give you money
d) reflect on why your country's service economy is faltering

You are a blonde, blue-eyed foreigner.  You spend most of your day saying -- in Arabic -- "I don't speak French."  You:
a) take a week off work and spend the time in private tutoring to plump up your Arabic reading skills
b) lobby the Department to next teach you COBOL
c) decide to speak exclusively to host country nationals in Japanese -- more fun, and just as effective
d) wipe the croissant crumbs off the lip of your espresso cup and take the good with the bad

Saturday, October 31, 2015

Five Indications Your Political Interlocutor is Never Going to Speak to You Again

"Gosh, you look younger than you sound on the phone."

"Hey, thanks for putting me in touch with your Defense Attache."

"So, you're the acting Acting Ambassador?"

"Honestly, a political solution just really isn't my thing."

"Guess what!  I finally got my U.S. visa."

Saturday, July 04, 2015

Aviate, Navigate, Communicate

An airline friend of mine told me that when pilots realize they're losing control of the situation or are starting to panic, they're taught to focus on three things:  first, figure out how to keep the plane in the air, making sure to take in the aircraft as a whole and not fixate on any one issue; next, assess where you are and which direction you're headed; and lastly, tell air traffic control what's happening and ask for instruction.  Those three things in that order.  Aviate, Navigate, Communicate.

Trying to figure out how to structure a new office in a new place, I find that this directive is a helpful guide -- on occasion I'm actively conscious of us moving from one stage to another and back again.  I just hope air traffic control is patient as we figure out what all the various lights and switches and levers mean.  I'm not certain that our SCape masks double as flotation devices.

Saturday, May 09, 2015

Own Statement

This has been a whirlwind of a year.  Between rushing to beat the other students to the school kitchen on 'pizza days', navigating Omani traffic circles, and finding time to undertake Post's weekly radio checks in the midst of a busy beach-side study schedule, I've maintained a focus on Department goals and advancing U.S. interests.

This rating season, I'm particularly proud of my significant contributions to pronunciation of the letter ع.  This has allowed increased communication on globalization, recycling, and opposition movements within 1920s Arab theater schools.  Just the other day, an Omani contact asked me if I had strong opinions on shisha flavors.  "Yes," I told him with confidence.  "I prefer 'grape with mint'."  Such important intercultural exchange would not have been possible were it not for my direct and continued efforts with this letter.

This rating period has also provided opportunities to hone my problem solving skills.  Upon arriving at school one day to find the classrooms unsuitably chilly, I quickly set about analyzing the situation.  After conferring with colleagues, we soon identified the problem:  improper A/C settings.  At my suggestion, we implemented a group system of monitoring and surreptitiously adjusting the A/C during class breaks.  The result?  A better learning environment, increased camaraderie, and potentially tens of thousands in savings to the Omani government through a reduced burden on their energy subsidy program.  We expect these newly freed resources to be channeled into shared U.S.-Omani interests of counterterrorism, protection of international waterways, and frankincense production.

Lastly, I've taken full advantage of provided opportunities to increase my substantive knowledge.  Not only do I now know three different Arabic words for 'goat', I can also identify local goats by origin and ascertain whether they are of the meaty or merely decorative variety.  My studied knowledge of the local coffee shop menu proved invaluable when told the cafe had run out of caramel -- I was able to instantaneously switch my order to a chai latte, thus salvaging an intense study session that might not have taken place without sugar and caffeine.  And during Secretary Kerry's visit to Muscat, I was able to identify from the press pictures exactly which area of Souq Mutrah he had traversed, using this as a starting point to further discussion on the P5+1 negotiations with Iran and their impact on Oman's tourism sector.  Omani counterparts reported this conversation was "interesting" and provided "new and unexpected information."

All and all, it's been a full year, and I've been pleased by the chance to serve my country in such a direct and fulfilling way.  I plan to seek out similar challenges in all my future postings, and thus concur with my rater's recommendation that I be promoted at the earliest available opportunity.

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Security Clearance Time!

Please respond to the following in as much detail as possible.  Failure to completely and correctly answer all questions may result in administrative action against you, including but not limited to loss of your security clearance, jail time, and permanent placement on Post's Fourth of July planning committee.

1.  Do you have now, or have you ever had at any point within the past seven (7) years, a spouse, cohabitant, family member, friend, acquaintance, work colleague, or pet?  Yes ___  No ___

1a) If the answer to (1) is 'Yes', please provide the details of each, including full name, birthdate, citizenship(s), physical address, legal address, phone number(s), blood type, date of initial contact, extent and type of contact, frequency of contact, phase of moon during contact, and degree of separation from Kevin Bacon. [Note:  please limit your response to three pages.]

1b) If pet's name is "Spot," please describe the color of the spot(s), the number, and their approximate size(s).

2.  Did you include your Facebook friends in the above list?  Yes ___  No ___

2a) If the answer to (2) is 'No', we invite you to correct your mistake.

3.  Do you have now, or have you ever had at any point within the past seven (7) years, a personal email account?  Yes ___  No ___

3a) If the answer to (3) is 'Yes', do you now use, or have you ever used at any point within the past seven (7) years, your personal email account for work related purposes?  Yes ___  No ___  Kind of ___

3b) If the answer to (3a) is 'Kind of', are you a former Secretary of State?  Yes ___  No ___

3c) If the answer to (3b) is 'Yes', may we provide your name to the New York Times?  They keep calling.

4. Do you have now, or have you ever had at any point within the past seven (7) years, a personal passport?  Yes ___  No ___

4a) If the answer to (4) is 'Yes', please provide the document number, the date and place of issuance, the date of expiry, and a short essay describing your passport photo.  If the answer to (4) is 'No', please skip to question (6).

5.  Have you, at any point within the past seven (7) years, used your passport for personal travel outside of the United States?  [Note:  Dubai is outside of the United States.]  Yes ___  No ___

5a) If the answer to (5) is 'Yes', please list all trips taken, including the date of the trip, the purpose of the trip, your port of entry, where you stayed, what you ate, what you wore, and which embarrassing ex-boyfriend accompanied you.

5b) If you have photos of you and your embarrassing ex-boyfriend(s), please provide them to DS for posting on the Department's website.

6.  Please list all your places of physical residence within the past seven (7) years.  Include whether you enjoyed the place of residence, what time of year is best to visit, a recommended local hotel, and a list of nearby restaurants and tourist attractions.  [Note:  if one of your previous or current places of residence is 'Hawaii', please be informed that determination of your clearance eligibility may require extra time and multiple on site trips by a DS agent.]

7.  How would you describe 'Gary Busey'?  Creepy ___  Avuncular ___  I am Gary Busey ___

7a) If the answer to (7) is 'I am Gary Busey', please note your clearance is revoked.  This decision is not subject to appeal.

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Treasure Island

Foreign language is as boundless as the sea and just as hard to drink.  Maybe there's some excitement in knowing that it's a bottomless project; no matter your level of mastery, there will always be something new to discover.*  The sheer breadth of material to cover, however, allows for unwise drift.  Every so often I'll look up and realize I'm rowing away from the group, following some interesting but little relevant current (with 'relevancy' here meaning 'on our final exam').  The others are indulgent, but I'm not supposed to wander too far from the flotilla.

This happened to me in second grade, too.  My school, in a fit of progressivism, allowed us free rein in choosing our studies.  I don't remember doing anything that year but reading contentedly in a corner, though probably we had meditation sessions and talked about our feelings.  My third grade teacher -- in a different district -- taught me with barely checked disdain how to sit in a desk, face the chalkboard, and head and number my papers.  There were workbooks; multiplication tables suddenly became of paramount importance.  It was bewildering.  Third grade bit hard.  (Mrs. Proudfoot, if you're out there, just know that I never liked you, either.)

It's the second grade-style planetary nature of language learning that motivates me, though whether this is due to my own lazy stubborness or to a more respectable curiosity-fueled sense of wonder, I'm unsure.  I would love these last few months to be a time of wonder, with language discovered in context, all of us peripatetically exploring the Arabic terrain instead of trudging down a path marked by grammar charts.  Too bad that "I don't know, Madam Ambassador; I saw a shiny thing the week we covered that topic" is probably not going to cut it when I get to post.

*I admit that I'm not finding this all that exciting just now

Sunday, November 09, 2014


"Hey, check it out -- a rainbow."

"Oh, yeah; nice.  How do you say 'rainbow' in Arabic?"

"I don't know.  It's never come up."

"Hey, check it out -- is that some 'sectarian violence'?  Or maybe a 'car bomb'?"

"Now you're talking."