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Yesterday, I read a letter to the editor in my hometown newspaper.  May 5 was Foreign Affairs Day, a day when Americans are asked to honor the people who serve our country overseas.  The letter just reminded people of our commitment to public service and the sacrifices we make.  It was nice.  Then I read the first – and so far only – comment:  “I applaud Rex Tillerson’s call for a 9 percent reduction in force.  The State Department has gotten out of control.”

The State Department has gotten out of control.  Huh.  Okay.  I’m guessing that the commenter doesn’t know a whole heck of a lot about State, so I thought it might be good to demonstrate just how “out of control” we are.

  • Out of control State Department employees like me spend much of our careers living and working overseas, and no – we’re not sipping champagne in Europe.  I mean yes – of course we have embassies and consulates in Europe, but we also have them in other parts of the world that aren’t so nice.
  • And speaking of Europe, many Americans love to travel to Europe and unfortunately, shit happens.  You lost your passport, you pocket was picked, you got sick and needed to be hospitalized, or – heaven forbid – something worse.  Out of control foreign service officers like me are there for you.  We’ll take your call at all hours of the night (believe me, I have); we will print a new passport for you; we will arrange for you to get money if yours was stolen; if you’re destitute, we will find a safe place for you to lay your head until you can get on your flight home; we will go to the hospital to visit you, contact your family, and help you navigate this foreign hospital system.  If you’re the victim of a crime, we will help you report it to the police and stay with you as long as you need us.  If you’re the perpetrator of a crime, we will still be there for you.  We will visit you in jail regularly and make sure you are treated fairly.  We’ll give you a list of attorneys who can help you defend yourself in court.  We’ll be there for you even if you’re guilty.
  • If you’re a bit more adventurous, we’ll be there too.  We will travel eight hours or more over treacherous roads in dangerous territory, putting our own lives at risk, to help secure your release from kidnappers.
  • Hey, you want to expand your business into this new foreign market but you don’t know exactly how to do it?  We can help.  We will put you in contact with reputable business people in your field, set up meetings for you, and help you understand the market.
  • Your kid wants to spend a gap year wandering through South America?  Cool.  We’ve got all kinds of info about every country in the region.  Everything from entry and exit requirements to the political/economic climate to the safety of the airport runways. We can tell you about human rights issues in country; scams you and your kid should be aware of; parts of the country you might want to avoid because of criminal or terrorist activity.  We can tell you about the government, the country’s infrastructure, its medical system, and available social services.

And on and on.  This list is endless.  We can do all this and more because we are there.  Every day.  Away from our friends and families.  We miss birthdays, holidays, baptisms, weddings, and funerals.  I know what you’re thinking:  nobody’s forcing you to have this career.  You’re absolutely right and that’s my point.  We chose this life because we love the U.S.  We make the sacrifices and miss those special milestone events because we believe in public service.

Yeah.  We are so freakin’ out of control.

Fifteen years ago today, I started this crazy adventure called the Foreign Service.  I took an oath to support and defend the U.S. Constitution.  And I’ve done that every day since, in places like Albania, Belize, Italy, Nigeria and Washington, DC.  I don’t regret a minute of it.

So next time you hear someone say the State Department is bloated, out of control, or a waste of U.S. tax dollars, think.  Think of this blog post and the many others out there that are also highlighting the great work of State Department and its foreign and civil service.  Think about our commitment to the United States.  Think about what you would do if we weren’t out there.  And then find a State Department employee and say thanks.

You’re welcome.

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There’s a man who stands outside the Foggy Bottom metro station almost every day, belting out gospel songs.  I kind of hate this guy.  He’s not a very good singer, but he has a powerful set of lungs.  Yet there he is almost every morning, rain or shine, his tip jar at his feet.  So I wondered:  what keeps him coming back, fighting for space at the top of the escalators, competing with all the other singers, musicians, and student groups selling Krispy Kreme donuts?  Is it the acoustics?  The tips?  Is this how he makes a living?  Does he earn enough to pay his rent or buy a meal?  How does he not get discouraged and throw in the towel?

I think I may have the answer:  faith.  He has faith that he’ll remember the words, that his voice won’t fail him, that the tips will come.

And it occurred to me that these days, I have to do the same.  The climate in Washington is cold – and I’m not talking about the weather.  Federal government employees have taken it on the chin:  three years with no pay raises, sequester, politicians and the public calling us lazy, incompetent, or worse.  And now the government is shut down.  Most feds have been forced to stay at home for the last two weeks; some are working without pay.  I am one of the lucky ones:  State Department management cobbled together no-year and multi-year funds to keep us open and operating – and collecting a paycheck.  But who knows how long that will last?

Let me tell you what I do know:  federal employees are hard working, bright, dedicated people who are proud to serve our country.  We smile and grit our teeth when people call us leeches or describe this shutdown as a “vacation.”  Guess what?  It’s not a vacation when you’re stressed out about how you’re going to pay your mortgage or your kid’s school fees.  We will keep working and waiting and hoping that our elected leaders will put an end to this madness.

And like that out of tune gospel singer at the top of the escalators, we will keep the faith.

Today, I left my office – located at 23rd and C Streets – at 5:10 p.m.  The traffic was already backed up on 23rd, cars barely inching forward toward Constitution Avenue.  Why?  Who knows.  Maybe an accident on I-66, the light rain that was falling, or a stalled vehicle.  I was serenaded by bleating car horns as I walked down 23rd to the Foggy Bottom Metro Station.  Because honking one’s horn instantly gets the traffic moving.  I stood at the corner – along with all of the other walkers – waiting for the traffic light to signal “walk.”  A man turned to me and said, “This is why I take the train.”  I giggled, (yes, I still giggle) and replied, “I know, right?”

In spite of the elevator outages, the collapsed escalators, and the single-tracking, this is why I choose WMATA.  Enough said.

First, full disclosure:  I am a government employee and proud of it.  I love working for the U.S. State Department, and I love knowing that what I do has an impact. 

After seven years overseas, I’m back in Washington DC.  Since I live in Arlington, VA and work at Main State in DC, I ride the infamous Metro to work every day.  The system isn’t perfect, but it works for me.  One of the perks I receive is transit benefits.  I filled out one form, which includes my SmartTrip card number and the cost of my roundtrip commute.  Once my application is approved, I will receive a monthly reminder to download the funds to my fare card at one of the kiosks in the metro station.  Excellent.  As long as that fare card is not lost or stolen, I’m golden.

Or not. 

Edvard Munch's "The Scream"...or a photo of me after talking to Metro?

Back in December, I lost my SmartTrip card.  Totally my fault.  I remember using the card one night to get from my gym in Clarendon to my car in Ballston.  I brought the card home.  Then I lost it.  Although I am convinced that the card is somewhere in my condo waiting to be discovered, I realized that I had to move on, cancel it, and get a new card.  Done, done, and done.

Okay, but what about my transit benefits?  I took care of that too.  I updated my application form, sent it in, and received notification of its approval.  I was told that my benefits would resume in February.  Okay, that’s the price I must pay for being careless.  I understand. 

It’s February 2.  Would you like to place a bet on whether I’ve received my benefits? 

This morning I called Smart Benefits, the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority’s office that manages the program, for assistance.   A truly enlightening experience.

  1. Smart Benefits has no record of me in their system.  How is that possible?  I’ve been receiving benefits since October!  Finally, after repeatedly insisting that they should have my records, my records are discovered.  I officially exist.
  2. Clarification:  they have a record of my old card, but not my new one.  How is that possible?  Did you register the new card, ma’am?  When I called to cancel the old one, the customer service agent told me she would automatically register the new one.  And that, my friends, was my fatal error.  I believed her.
  3. Oh, we see your January and February benefits assigned to your old card, just waiting to be downloaded by you.  How. Is. That. Possible?  I cancelled the card in December.  I notified my employer of the cancellation in December.  Why would they (my employer) continue to send benefits to that card and why would they (Smart Benefits) continue to accept them?  Foolish girl, you’re asking logical questions in an illogical world.
  4. Okay.  Fine.  Whatever.  How do I fix this?  I am told that I need to register my new card and inform my employer that I have a new card.  Am I speaking in a vacuum?  Have you heard anything I’ve said?  I was told the new card was registered.  I did inform my employer back in December.  I have proof that they received and approved my notification!  Silly girl, you have to do it again.  Maybe we’ll get it right this time. 
  5. Why don’t you call the Department of Transportation, which administers the program for State, and ask them to transfer your benefits to your new card?  I’ll even give you the telephone number.  Thanks, I guess.  I call and speak to a lovely woman, who is forced to hear this long, painful saga.  She is patient.  She is kind.  She tells me that she cannot help me because my employer insists that all requests for changes be sent to them.  I believe there is a form you must fill out, she says.  Did I go to sleep in the real world and wake up in a Kafka novel?  What have I been saying?  The form was filled out.  Submitted.  Read.  Reviewed.  Approved.  No matter, you must do it again. 

And so, like the demoralized, thoroughly indoctrinated drone that I am I contain my rage, suppress my tears, and fill out the form.  Again.  Praise be!  They have responded already!  I open the email.  It’s an auto-reply message, telling me my message has been received and will be responded to within 5-7 days.

What can I do, but wait?  Wait for them – the infamous “them” – to decide that my existence is real, that my inquiry is worthy of review and investigation, and that I am deserving of a real response. 

Does anyone else feel my pain? 

Tell me I’m not alone! 

Tell me about your crazy “Brazil”-like (look it up) experience with bureaucracy – government or otherwise.

Letter from a Jewish-American university student

In my last article – about my visit to the National Archives – I mentioned a letter from a Jewish-American woman who had won an opportunity to study in Germany.  In the 1930s.  I wanted to correct an error first:  she wrote to President Roosevelt, not the State Department as stated in my post.  I also wanted to share a photo of the actual letter because it is such a compelling story.

This photograph is courtesy of my colleague, Melissa VonHinken.

The National Archives, with its amazing collection of American history, has been in the news (at least in The Washington Post!) quite a bit lately – but for all the wrong reasons.  One amateur historian’s mistake should not, however, stop you from paying a visit if you’ve never done so before.

Last week, I visited the Archives for the first time.  Did you know that in addition to the building located on Pennsylvania Avenue (that’s where you’ll find the U.S. Constitution, the Declaration of Independence, and the Bill of Rights), there is also an incredible facility in College Park, MD?  This is where all of the recent permanently valuable collections are kept.  Keep in mind, the Archives collection numbers in the billions, so “recent” includes documents from the 1800s!  I went to the College Park facility with some of my Consular Affairs colleagues to learn more about the State Department’s rich history.

Nathaniel Hawthorne, U.S. Consul to Liverpool

A diplomat’s job is not easy – it’s not all cocktail parties and social teas!  Some of the items we saw illustrated the mundane nature of diplomatic life:  inventories of items ranging from stamps to envelopes to paper.  Not even U.S. Consul to Liverpool (1853-1857) Nathaniel Hawthorne would have been exempt from these!

Other documents showed the trust Americans placed in our diplomats’ advice.  We saw a letter from a young Jewish-American woman, written in 1934, asking the State Department for guidance.  She had won a prestigious scholarship to a university in Germany.  Her parents were worried for her safety.  Would it be safe for her to go?  We don’t know her decision, and that question haunted many of us.

Diplomats overseas also provided on-the-ground spot reporting, such as informing Washington of the widespread violence occurring in Leipzig in November 1938.  Today, we know the shocking events that followed.  But what of those diplomats on the ground?  Did they have any idea what was coming?  Further research at the Archives is required.

Telegram from Consulate General Leipzig

The National Archives are free and open to anyone who wishes to conduct research – which makes them unique among the world’s archives.  We heard stories of foreign researchers coming to the National Archives who were shocked to discover that they could have access to any documents, films, photographs or other media in the building at no charge!  Some even use the National Archives to gather information about their own country’s past.

Americans should be proud of the Archives’ efforts to maintain our national history for future generations.  Take some time to visit the Archives – whether to research your own personal history or our nation’s.  You won’t regret it.

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Unaccompanied Baggage

Unpacking the best U.S. Foreign Service blogs