A Traveler in the Foreign Service: Not much of a diplomat

My journey into the U.S. Foreign Service started as a Colonel Muammar Gaddafi impersonator in a school auditorium near Buffalo, New York in 1986. I was taking part in an 8th grade Model U.N. assembly, and had been given the difficult brief of dressing up like a citizen of Malta and delivering a speech advocating Maltese interests, whatever those were during the Cold War.

According to my trusty Encyclopedia Britannica, (remember those?) Libya was one of Malta’s primary trading partners, and since it appeared to be relatively close to Libya on the map, I went ahead and donned a flowing white Arab-style robe with matching headdress and aviator sunglasses for my speech. A photograph of me in my Gaddafi costume appeared in The Buffalo News, and someone at my school decided to send a copy of the press clipping to the embassy of Malta in Washington, in the absurd belief that they might find some amusement in the fact that a 13-year old boy was photographed grossly misrepresenting their country.

A few weeks later, I received a package from the office of the Prime Minister of Malta with some books about the country, along with a scathing letter, which darkly and absurdly hinted at a sinister, anti-Maltese conspiracy perpetrated by our “so-called free press” in Buffalo. My school was convinced that I’d created an international incident and forwarded the letter to the State Department. Five months later, I received a letter from the State Department’s Desk Officer for Malta, which contained an unlikely piece of advice: consider a career in diplomacy.

My parents bought me a shortwave radio and the crackling sounds of far-off places fed my desire to see the world. After college, I took jobs in advertising and publishing more or less to fund travel opportunities, and took off as soon as my bank account allowed for extended overland trips in Europe, the Middle East, Russia, Central Asia and China. The trips left gaping holes in my resume but renewed my interest in joining the Foreign Service.

Wanderlust is a romanticized concept but it can also be an affliction, a malady that prevents people from becoming settled, productive members of the rat race. After returning to Chicago, my adopted hometown, after along overland trip in 2000, I resolved to make a serious push to get into the Foreign Service, in the hopes that it would be a career that could channel my wanderlust into something productive. Rehabilitate me, if you will.Others have had much longer and more distinguished careers in the Foreign Service than I have, and this series isn’t meant to be a definitive account of what life in the service is like. There are more than 5,000 Foreign Service Officers working in some 200 posts all around the world, and everyone has their own stories, experiences and perspectives.

When I tell people that I was in the Foreign Service, I get a lot of blank stares and awkward questions. Even well educated people often have no idea what the Foreign Service is.

“Is that like the French Foreign Legion?” a medical doctor and Ivy League graduate once asked me.

In this series, former Foreign Service Officer, Dave Seminara, will attempt to explain what the Foreign Service is and isn’t, share some Foreign Service vignettes, and provide an answer to this question: is the Foreign Service a good career option for compulsive travelers?

Next: ‘You’ve Never Smoked any Marijuana?’ Getting into the Foreign Service

Read more from A Traveler in the Foreign Service here.