A Traveler in the Foreign Service: The list, the call, the flag- assignments in the Foreign Service

The most common question I get from people who have a passing interest in joining the Foreign Service is: how hard is to get posted to Rome, Paris, Prague, Sydney and other popular vacation destinations. The best way to get a feel for your chances is to have a look at the complete list of U.S. embassies and consulates abroad.

There are more than 200 posts in the Foreign Service and for every Prague there are at least ten places more like Karachi or Bujumbura. The largest U.S. embassy in the world is Baghdad, so your chances of donning a flak jacket by the Tigris over the course of a career are infinitely greater than enjoying a tour in Rome.

On the first day of my career in the Foreign Service, I was sitting in an auditorium next to my fiancée, and in the company of 94 other Foreign Service Officers (FSOs) and their families, waiting for the list. All incoming FSOs start their careers with a two-month long class called A-100, a sort of intro to diplomacy, and on the first day, everyone had already heard that the list was coming.

The list would contain all the jobs around the world we’d have to bid on, and I had butterflies in my stomach as I sat waiting to see ours.

“There are ninety-five jobs on this list- one for each of you,” said John Dinkelman, our course coordinator whom we came to know as “Dink.” “All of these jobs will be filled.”

Dink went on to proscribe the rules: each of us had to bid on twenty-five of the ninety-five jobs; near the end of the class, we’d have a Flag Day, in which we’d be given a flag, representing our assignment. The Career Development Officers (CDOs) would try to send us all to posts we had bid on, but if that wasn’t possible, they’d make what Dink referred to as the call. If you got the call, it meant that you were going someplace that wasn’t on your bid list.

When Dink finally passed the list out, I scanned through the listing of ninety-five jobs and felt a surge of excitement. Tblisi. Tashkent. Buenos Aires. Skopje. New Delhi. Guangzhou. The idea that I’d soon be living in one of these places seemed a bit surreal. But there were also some sobering spots on the list that I wasn’t keen on as well: Kingston, Port au Prince, Karachi, Tijuana, Addis Ababa and Dhaka to name a few.

Just prior to Flag Day, we were taken to a downscale “resort” in West Virginia for a retreat and it was fascinating to watch people kiss up to the three CDOs who would decide our fates. They were like rock stars for the weekend but I didn’t court them because I was afraid that it might backfire.

Most of my classmates had the good sense to compile their bid list based primarily on the jobs and their career interests. There are five career tracks in the Foreign Service, called “cones”- consular, economic, management, political and public diplomacy. FSOs enter the service as junior officers; the first two assignments are directed by the CDOs and one of the first two tours has to be consular.

But I wasn’t thinking about the list in terms of career tracks. For me, it was like a big travel brochure and I used Lonely Planet and other guidebooks to research the various posts. My first choice was Tashkent because I’d been to Uzbekistan the year before and had fallen in love with Bukhara. I’d later come to realize how silly this mindset was, but at the time I was blissfully unaware of the fact that what makes a place great to visit doesn’t necessarily make it a place you want to live in for 2-3 years.

In the days leading up to Flag Day, I lived in fear of getting the call, but thankfully it never came, and as we assembled in an auditorium at the Foreign Service Institute for the moment of truth- Flag Day- Dink told us he had good news.

“No one got the call, so you are all headed somewhere you bid on,” he said, standing at a podium next to a long table filled with dozens of flags from all over the world.

Dink started calling names and handing out flags and it was fascinating to see how people responded to their assignment. Most smiled, a few looked mildly disappointed, a couple jumped up and down on the way to the podium, as if they’d just been told to “come on down,” on The Price is Right, and one young woman was seen actually shedding tears shortly after being handed her flag. (Destination: Kingston, Jamaica)

A couple that met and fell in love during A-100 requested tandem assignments to the same post and the lovebirds were both handed Polish flags. (Never mind the fact that they broke up a few days later and approached the CDOs to request split assignments, which were granted.)

Dozens of names were called and a whole slew of posts I’d bid on fell by the wayside. Tashkent. Moscow. Stockholm. Buenos Aires. Almaty. Minsk. And then I heard my name called while Dink was clutching a flag that looked like….what the hell flag was that? For an excruciatingly long moment I heard my name and saw the flag but couldn’t figure out what country I was headed to. It looked like the flag of imperial Japan, but then Dink uttered the words.

“Consular assignment, Skopje, Macedonia,” he said.

Skopje was my sixth choice, so I was relatively pleased. My fiancé, Jen, was back in Chicago finishing up a graduate degree, so while everyone else celebrated or grieved in the auditorium, I snuck outside to make my own version of the call.

“Where are we going?” she asked, breathlessly.

“Skopje, Macedonia,” I said.

There was a very long period of silence while we both digested this news, until, finally, Jen spoke.

“Is that good or bad?”

I had no idea but knew we were about to find out.

(Note: The call has now gone the way of the typewriter. FSOs now have to bid on everything on their list.)

[Flickr image via Haysels]

Next: Stuck in an elevator- a perfect metaphor for life in a fishbowl.

Read more from A Traveler in the Foreign Service here.

Tomorrow is Passport Day in the USA

Tomorrow the U.S. Department of State will hold its third annual Passport Day, giving Americans an opportunity to apply for their first passport, or renew their current one. To commemorate the event, all regional passport agencies, along with most application acceptance facilities, including post offices, will be open and no appointments will be necessary.

These agencies are rarely open on a Saturday, which makes this a perfect time to apply for that passport you’ve been meaning to get or renew your old one, particularly if you have an international trip on the horizon. Remember, it takes approximately 4-6 weeks to process a passport application, although for an extra $60 you can expedite the process, getting your documents in about half the time.

If you are planning on participating in Passport Day, you may want to get to your facility early. Due to the fact that many travelers often can’t visit their nearest facility during regular hours, and since no appointment is needed, there is the possibility of long lines. Before you go, you’ll also want to make sure you have all the necessary forms, and a proper photo, with you as well. First time applicants will find everything they need by clicking here and information on renewals can be found here.

The number of Americans who hold a passport has increased steadily over the past few years, but if you still haven’t gotten around to getting yours yet, now is the time. Haven’t you always wanted to visit Paris or Rome or some other wonderful destination? The first step in making that trip a reality is getting your passport.

For more information on Passport Day in the USA and to find the nearest passport agency to you, click here.

Worldwide travel alert issued in wake of Bin Laden’s killing

The U.S. State Department issued an updated worldwide travel alert in response to the news that broke last night about the death of Osama Bin Laden in Pakistan.

Fears of anti-American retaliation attacks in response to the killing spurred the department to issue updated guidance about what travelers and those living abroad should do to keep themselves safe.

“Given the uncertainty and volatility of the current situation, U.S. citizens in areas where recent events could cause anti-American violence are strongly urged to limit their travel outside of their homes and hotels and avoid mass gatherings and demonstrations,” the warning stated.

Want to know what you should do to protect yourself? Check out these tips.

State Department issues Libya travel warning – read more about this forbidden destination

As the unrest in the Middle East continues, the US Department of State has issued a Libya travel warning, advising Americans to steer clear of the country, and especially of “gatherings” there. The Wall Street Journal reports:

“‘U.S. citizens in Libya should minimize overall travel in-country, exercise extreme caution when traveling, and limit all travel after dark,’ the US said in a travel advisory. It said demonstrations, violence and looting were all possible over the next several days, and urged US citizens to stay away from any gatherings.

‘Even peaceful ones can quickly become unruly and a foreigner could become a target of harassment, or worse,’ according to the State Department advisory.”

I know I’m not the only one who will have no trouble staying out of Libya in the near future. Confession time: I had never considered going there. So, why do people travel to Libya? Gadling’s Tom Johansmeyer posted about a package deal there back in August 2010 (An easy way to get to Libya), with quotes about its “archaeological riches” and “a sense of discovery in a land virtually unknown to the modern world.” Libya also reportedly has 1250 miles of coastline “teeming with underwater wrecks, ruins and Nazi gold,” making it a highly-prized scuba diving destination (see: Diving in Libya). Furthermore, it’s a popular cruise ship port for the British and Italians (see: Will Libya Again Open to US Cruise Passengers?).

In case you or any of your friends were already in-the-know about the secret wonders of Libya, Americans in Libya are being urged to contact the embassy in Tripoli with the following contact details:

  • +218 (0)21-337-3250
  • After business hours: 091-220-5207
  • LibyaEmergencyUSC@state.gov

[Source: WSJ]

[Photo by anniemullinsuk via Flickr.]

Ten things to know about your destination before you go

So you’ve chosen your vacation destination – booked the tickets, agonized over TripAdvisor to find a hotel, and bought the guidebooks or downloaded the apps. Whether you like to plan your itinerary in advance or play it by ear, there are a few things you should research in advance to make your arrival – and your trip – go smoothly.

From airport taxis to local laws to transit passes, what should you know before you go?

  1. Best way from the airport to the city – This should be your first order of business – figuring out the most efficient and/or least expensive way to get to your hotel before you find yourself being hounded by taxi touts at baggage claim or standing in the rain waiting for a bus that comes every two hours. London’s Heathrow Express is a great compromise between an exorbitant taxi ride and a long Tube ride with transfers, but other cities may have cheap cab fares (find out approximately what you should pay before you get in the car) or excellent public transportation systems connecting with the airport. Check out any guidebook or the Getting In section of a Wikitravel article for the best info and check if your hotel offers pick up service for a good value.
  2. How much cash to start with and in what denominations – Now that you know how to get to your hotel, you’ll need cash to pay for your transfer. No matter what the exchange rate, you should find out how much money to withdraw from the ATM or exchange at the airport (note: most airports in the world have ATMs and will give you a better value than exchanging currency, but it never hurts to have some backup cash). Lonely Planet‘s Cost Index is great for determining about how much cash will cover a taxi ride, a meal or two, and other expenses for your first day or so. Some countries will give you large bills that are hard to break – try entering an odd amount like 130 to get some smaller bills or visit a newsstand to get change.
  3. What’s the tipping culture – So you’re in the taxi, cash in hand to pay the driver, do you tip? In many countries, like Turkey, people don’t generally tip taxi drivers, perhaps rounding up to the nearest lira or two, so a 38 TL fare would cost 40 TL (taxi drivers here are so loathe to give change they may eat the cost of a 52 TL fare and give you change for the 50). Likewise for restaurants and cafes, 10% is standard in many places outside of the US and often included in the bill. I’ll never forget leaving a 20% tip on top of an included 10% in a London bar – the waitress was thrilled but I felt like a fool. Figure out what’s appropriate and do as the locals do to avoid stiffing or overcompensating for service.
  4. A few key phrases in the local language – This is a necessity in some countries, and always a courtesy to know a few words of a foreign language. “Please” and “thank you” and “where is the bathroom?” will always be useful, and “two beers,” “another one” and “check” will usually result in good things.
  5. When to leave for the airport when you depart – It’s hard to think about going home when you’re enjoying vacation, but knowing how much time to allow for your departure can help you to maximize your last day. While your airline might tell you how far in advance to arrive, better to ask someone who really knows how long to budget, like your hotel concierge. A Lisbon hotel front desk clerk once saved me several hours waiting at the airport by letting me know the recommended three hours before check-in was overkill.
  6. What’s legal – Learning about the local laws can save you headaches and money. I just discovered that in Warsaw, jaywalking is illegal and punishable by a 50 zl fine, hence why all the residents wait patiently at crosswalks for the light to change. In some cities, it’s fine to bring a bottle of wine or beer into a park for a picnic, but in others, public drinking can get you fined. Knowing what’s legal can also help you avoid (or seek out, depending on your proclivities) potential danger areas such as red light districts. Wikitravel is good at listing info on local laws and dangers.
  7. What days museums are free or discounted – Visiting a museum on a free day might allow you to see something you’d otherwise miss due to the admission price, and free nights are often packed with locals and fun events. Find out what days you can get free to help plan your itinerary. Rick Steves’ guides always have a good summary of free (as well as closed) days.
  8. The real value of a transit or tourist pass – Many cities have a museum or tourist card that you can purchase to get free admission at many sites for a set time. But before you invest in a pass, check out if you really want to go to the included places (cheesy sights like wax musuems are invariably included) and if you’d have enough time to really enjoy visiting them all. Similarly, public transportation passes can be great in a city like New York, where a Metrocard can save you time and money, but if you prefer to walk or cab around town, you might skip it. The single best deal I’ve found is the Japan rail pass, which must be purchased in your home country, and gives free or discounted access to public transit and many of the country’s awesome bullet trains.
  9. Where to get help if you need it – I used to think registering with the U.S. Department of State when traveling abroad was a bit silly but a friend at the embassy in Istanbul stressed how important it is in case of a disaster in locating citizens, as well as to help Americans abroad in trouble. Leave your travel details with friends back home, carry the contact details for your embassy and credit cards and check your insurance policy for coverage away from home.
  10. Can’t-miss tips from locals and travelers – Here’s where social media can really help you have a great vacation – before departure, ask your travel-savvy friends on Facebook and Twitter what their don’t-miss recommendations are for what to see or where to eat. Even if they are well-known attractions, having a tip from someone who’s been there will help you prioritize. You can always ask us at Gadling, chances are one of us has been there and can provide recommendations – just post to our Facebook page or send us a tweet @Gadling.

Other tips you’ve found handy to know in advance? Leave us yours in the comments.