Thursday, March 16, 2006

San Francisco Consultations

Officers going for their first consular tours in the EAP can choose to perform their obligatory DHS consultations in either LA or San Francisco; having already lived in LA for part of my college years, I was excited to have a chance to see northern California instead (while, you know, serving my country). The following is a list of Some Things to Know for those of you Consulting with DHS in San Francisco:

1. The taxi from the airport to the Hilton Downtown costs about $35-$40. I believe the hotel also runs a shuttle service for $25, but it was long past running when I arrived in SF (a little after midnight...).

2. a) The Hilton Downtown (like many other hotels in the area) charges the government rate of $130 a night; but this does not include about $20 per night's worth of taxes. This didn't bother me particularly, but might have been nice to know before check-out. You can voucher the taxi fare and the $130, but not the taxes.
b) Still, I'd recommend the Hilton. The location is great: an easy 30 minute walk to DHS, even shorter to Japantown and Chinatown. Plus, there's a 24 hour Indian food restaurant across the street from the hotel -- paneer tikka masala and naan bread anytime you want it! How cool is that? (Pretty darn cool, in case you're unsure.)

3. The first day of consultations with DHS takes place at the ICE building downtown, not at the airport. The building is located at 630 Sansome ST, between Washington and Jackson (six blocks north of Market AVE). Turn right when you leave the Hilton, then left at Sansome ST. Like I said before, an easy 30 minute walk from the hotel -- you'll have time to stop for coffee along the way. Or perhaps some tikka masala..?

4. To enter the ICE building, you will need your appointment letter (which should have been sent to you by email) and a photo ID. As with DC bars and clubs, the people manning the entrance will view your State Department ID with suspicion, and not a small touch of pity. Make sure you have your drivers license to back it up.

5. While a shirt and tie are appropriate, no one I saw at DHS had a jacket -- not even draped over a chair or on a hanger. I wouldn't think you'd need to wear one either (and indeed, I never put mine on). Granted though, I was there in March; things might be different in the dead of winter.

6. Also, no need for pen or paper. If you have business cards to give out, that might be helpful, but do you really think DHS is going to call you when there's a problem? (Yeah, I didn't figure they would either...) If you can get some of their contact info, that's the most important thing. Now that I'm at post, we're trying to coordinate more with DHS for information sharing, and the contacts are actually coming in handy.

7. If you're not going to what's considered a high fraud post, don't expect consultations to last all that long, or to be very specific to your particular job. Most of my DHS conversations went like this:

DHS -- Hi, I'm in charge of drug-smuggling, trafficking in persons, and fraudulent marriages. These are big topics, and I'm eager to discuss them. So, where are you headed?
Me -- Osaka.
DHS -- Oh. [blink blink] ...so, you like sushi then?

[NOTE: I have since discovered that there is actually a pretty fair amount of fraud in Japan... Despite stereotypes, the Japanese are not any more or less trustworthy than anyone else on the planet.]

8. Not that it wasn't interesting! The DHS folks are very amicable, and pretty candid. I got to sit in on an assylum interview, and learned more about how DHS interprets immigration law (in some cases, differently than I think State does). And also, I learned how I can make things easier for them on my end -- mainly, by more often annotating visas (which is an easy thing to do, but wouldn't have occurred to me if they hadn't asked).

9. You'll get a break for lunch. There are some restaurants near the ICE; the DHS people were happy to give me directions, and will even eat with you if they're not busy.

10. Day two of consultations happens at the airport, and the dress code is even more lax -- just dress as you want for your plane ride (I went in jeans, with no problem). The customs workers are incredibly busy, and I thought it was good of them to make time for me. Some of what you'll see is repeat from the ConGen trip to Dulles, but a good refresher. I actually got to see what happens when someone with a 'Crime of Moral Turpitude' conviction tries to enter without a visa, and from Japan no less! (Okay, well, I thought it was pretty exciting, but maybe I tend to set the bar a bit low -- ask me about the macadamia nut factory I toured on the Big Island sometime. Or the kim chee museum in Korea...)

11. And on a completely unrelated note, crochet hooks and sewing needles are now allowed on planes. But of course, despite having dragged along yarn, books, and study materials, I managed to do nothing but sit still and THINK for the entire duration of the 11 hour flight to Tokyo. I do NOT recommend thinking for 11 hours straight; I don't suspect it's very healthy.

Saturday, March 11, 2006

Master First-Time Departure List

For all of you soon to leave FSI for post, here's a list of things you'll need to do (but remember that this is the 'no spouse, no kids, no pet, no car' list; any of those 4 things will increase your tasks exponentially):

1. Keep in mind that Moving is Expensive. Not just the move itself, but the whole moving season -- there are goodbye parties and dinners for all your departing colleagues, and it can really drain your budget. Be prepared!

2. Travel Orders -- get these as soon as possible from your HR tech, as they are (at least nominally) necessary for a lot of what you'll be doing. Officially, these should be issued 90 days prior to your departure. At the latest, you'll need them 5 days before your packout. Your CDO and the FSI travel office can help put pressure on your HR tech to issue your orders, if need be.

3. Arrange packout, flights, and consultation times / hotel reservations* -- this should be done approximately 2 months before your departure date, sooner if you're moving during the peak season (i.e., summer). NOTE THAT ALL OF THIS CAN BE DONE AT FSI! There is no need to deal with anyone at Main State to schedule your move; simply talk to the nice folks in the FSI travel office, located in Building E across from the Health Clinic. Moving can be scheduled Mon, Wed, Fri, while flight and hotel reservations can be made any weekday. Most people schedule their packouts to take place during their DC consultation days. For hotels and flights, first make a temporary reservation, then confirm after scheduling consultations with DHS*. (Use the contact information provided in ConGen to arrange your consultations.)

4. Remember that a single person is only allowed 250 lbs (including packaging) in her or his UAB. Ask the movers to bring a scale; otherwise, you will be charged for any excess weight. Some posts will charge you a storage fee if your UAB arrives before you do, so don't get overzealous about sending it out early. Oh, and be sure that the warehouse in Hagerstown has an inventory of your storage items on hand before your things are sent from storage. Without an inventory, your shipment could be delayed in customs while your post country's CBP equivalent merrily tears open all your boxes... The Hagerstown folks are great, so just call them and they'll check to make sure that your file is in order.

5. If you have anything in storage you would like sent, tell the moving guy in the FSI travel office -- he will arrange to have it shipped to your post. If you are sending only part of what you have in storage, you will need to travel to the warehouse ('SA-25', and no, the shuttle doesn't run there!) in Hagerstown, MD to 'Aggregate and Segregate' (A/S). You are allowed one A/S prior to post departure; otherwise, one must pay to access the warehouse.

6. Make sure your vouchers are in order at least one week before your packout, NOT one week before your departure -- if you have any discrepancies to work out (i.e., they think you still owe money on the initial travel advance whereas you are pretty sure you don't), you'll want to be able to access your voucher records. This proves rather difficult if said records are already en route to post.

7. Medical Stuff -- all posts require you to be subjected to some sort of vaccine, pill, or shot; even Japan required typhoid pills. All these are available free of charge in the FSI Health Clinic, located in Building E; the clinic advises that you begin receiving any necessary treatments approximately 6 weeks prior to departure. If you don't yet have your travel orders, you can also show them your 'letter of appointment' (which your CDO should send you by email after your post assignment is confirmed) to receive the required treatments.

8. Diplomatic Passport -- You can apply for this in the Foreign Service Lounge (FSL), located at Main State, rm. 1252. There is a passport window in the back of the lounge. You'll need a copy of your travel orders or letter of appointment, and passport size photos (available for free in Main State, rm B266 -- best accessed through the joggers' entrance, otherwise you're liable to encounter a minotaur trying to find it). There is also apparently some form required which I was clueless about, but which the nice lady at the window pooh-poohed, saying, "Oh, nobody remembers that." So I wouldn't worry about the form...

9. Wait until about 45 days prior to your departure to apply for your dip passport; that way, as soon as you pick up the passport from the FSL, you can look it over, think, "Cool! I'm a diplomat," and then hand it right back and ask for Your Visa. This will also require travel orders or letter of appointment, pictures (which the photo people in B266 will have given you), and finally that you know the name and phone number of the person you're replacing, unless your position has been newly created. Why on earth they had to know this, I don't know, but they did; you can figure it out using the email global address system, or ask your CDO. NOTE THAT THE PASSPORT / VISA WINDOW IS ONLY OPEN FROM 9AM - 2:30PM! But the B266 photo room is open longer...

10. At the FSL, you can also pick up packets of instructions / materials for mailing official letters to post. These letters are supposed to be sent 4 to 6 weeks prior to your actual arrival date, and should include that date in the letter. When you give a return address on the letter, use the FSI mailing address, not the physical address. They are happy to give you a card with this address on it in the Registrar's office; they can also tell you your post's address, in case you can't find it on the State intranet.

11. More important than the official introduction letter is your Arrival Notice. This is a cable your HR tech sends to post, outlining your travel plans. There is an arrival notice form in the Registrar's office for you to fill out and then fax to your HR tech. This should be done as soon as you have firm travel plans.

12. Check out of FSI -- this is the very last thing to do before you leave FSI; basically, the Registrar's office just wants to make sure you've jumped through all the above-mentioned hoops. They'll give you a check-out form, which you must take from one part of FSI to another to be signed. The whole form need not be filled out, however; ask the office workers in the Registrar's to specify what actually needs to be signed, and what you can ignore. Mostly, you need to show:

a) your vouchers are in order
b) you've returned all study materials to your training department (language, ConGen, etc.)
c) you've signed the book in rm 1304, ending your FSI email account. If you don't sign this book, it delays opening your new email account at post. (This is assuming that the computer office at FSI actually does delete your account after you sign, which they almost never do... Expect a delay at post.)

13. If all of this sounds relatively easy, that's because it really is. Just rely on the FSI travel office and the Registrar for any other information you need; they're great, honestly, and will happily suffer through all of your questions and concerns.

*This applies only to those officers departing for their first consular tours...

Tuesday, March 07, 2006

Joining the Dork Side*

Yes, friends, it's true: I have given into temptation and bought myself an iMac. And let me just say, it is beautiful. Light poured forth from the box and angels singing in chorus descended from the heavens when I opened it. My Compaq laptop sulked in an out-of-date, poorly designed fashion in the corner while I ooh-ed and ahh-ed at the goodness that is Apple. I am a convert. Though there is something faintly disturbing about a computer that comes with a pack of logo stickers. Who actually puts Apple stickers on their belongings? Will there come a time when I am willing -- even eager -- to do so? Have I given myself over to something more insidious than I realize? (It is a very seductive piece of machinery; you should see the way the light pulses while it's in 'sleep' mode... I kept expecting it to ask me to play a game of chess...)

In other news, my packout is complete as of yesterday. Which means, if you're following, that the lovely and expensive new iMac purchased over the weekend is now back in the box, happily winging its way to Japan, and not to be seen again for at least a month. Still, there is something so wonderful about living in an empty room, and I am feeling remarkably placid. It's not at all how I thought I'd be. The State Department has done its best to assist in this new-found halcyon condition by offering five days of 'consultation time' prior to departure. In theory, one should use these days to carry on highly informative conversations with various Main State contacts before going to post; in practice, this is not all that helpful for someone going to her first post to fulfill a pretty standard consular role. I have no idea what to even ask these highly informative people. So, instead I'm using consultation days more for their unofficial secondary function: as time to take care of various niggling administrative stuff. Like packout, for instance. And doctors appointments. And vouchers. And probably a whole host of other things I won't remember until the last minute. (Though I'll be posting an organized pre-departure list in not too long, to assist those of you who might need it.)

Portuguese ended with a whimper, and I'm doing the best I can to flush it from my system and recapture some semblance of my past Japanese glory. The last thing I need is to be spouting a lot of 'Bon dia! Tudo bem?'s while I'm bowing to the Japanese FSOs. To that end, I've set aside a couple of Japanese books to read on the plane. We'll see how it goes. I should probably try to re-memorize a few of the Japanese consular terms, too. Maybe I'll do that during my remaining consultation days. Maybe.

*I know buying an Apple is really more nerdy than dorky, but 'Becoming a Nerd-herder' didn't have the same ring...