Monday, October 27, 2008

We Have Pumpkins!

Not quite the Halloween event of rollicking around the pumpkin patch to one pick out, but we now have pumpkins for Halloween. Krishna pre-ordered them at the market last week, since they are not a popular item this time of year. They are beautiful!

They put us in the mood to start our Halloween decorating with our supplies ordered from Oriental Trading about a month ago.

Change to Post: I later tagged this post with "trailing partner" since Anonymous Attorney comments may be thought provoking for others. Please see comments below, in full post:

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Closing the Puja Season

On October 9th most of the pandals were broken down and the goddesses taken to the Hooghly river to honor and send off until next year. Here is one large one pandal that we visited complete with kid's rides and food stalls.

We are looking forward to next year to experience once again the creativity of Kolkata.

Thursday, October 9, 2008

More Puja Photos

This pandal stood out for two reasons: the kids inside were having a great time and the sculptures looked like they were carved out of solid milk chocolate, yum!

The outside of the pandal

Lights hung around the neighborhoods

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

A Pandal of Generosity

Another Durga Puja display that stood out, was cared for by a older couple that appeared to open up the front door to their house. The two of them hung out by the statue and greeted those who passed by with handmade sweets and friendly banter.

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

At the Height of Puja Season

October 5th through 9th is the most popular time of the Puja season in West Bengal, a celebration of Durga Puja. The holiday is celebrated in neighborhoods around the city with the creation of very elaborate displays or "pandals." Walking around from pandal to pandal in your new Durga clothes is the thing to do, especially on the third and fourth nights of the festival.

From the website, "Durga, in Sanskrit means 'She who is incomprehensible or difficult to reach.' Goddess Durga is a form of Sakti worshiped for her gracious as well as terrifying aspect. Mother of the Universe, she represents the infinite power of the universe and is a symbol of a female dynamism. The manifestation of Goddess Durga is said to emerge from Her formless essence and the two are inseparable."

Tonight we made our way to a neighborhood to take in the sights. After a quick ride on the metro for about 9 cents each way, we headed towards the music and lights. We had yet to see so many beautiful saris being worn in the streets - ones with gold and silver embroidery and reflective decoration to light up at night.

Photos from my favorite pandal of the night:

More posts on Durga Puja:
More Puja Photos
Tour of Kumartuli (where the idols are created) with Calcutta Walks
A Pandal of Generosity
Durga Drums
Closing the Puja Season

Sunday, October 5, 2008

Octoberfest in Kolkata

Unpacking our HHE took only about three days, it was the cleaning, organizing and finding places to put things that took much longer than expected. When packing up in D.C., we took all of our drawers that had been stuffed with odds and ends and dumped them in large Ziplock bags - a real time saver. But I am now wondering if we will ever go through them while here or will the bags stay for several tours?

And now for something different... We recently we attended the Taj Bengal's Octoberfest. It was a different event from those we had been to before, they recreated a German beer hall. There were wood tables with benches, small kegs on every table and a brass band flown in from Germany.

The food was traditional Bavarian fare - wursts, potato salad, spatzle, and liver soup. The good cheer was provided by the German consulate, the guests of honor at the event with a very long conga line and many rounds of Ein Prosit.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Our HHE (Household Effects) Arrived!

At 8:00am on Tuesday morning, we got word that our HHE was entering the compound. I looked outside the window and saw the truck covered in blue and orange tarps and said, "Wow, this is going to be easy." Then Alan pointed to the white tarp-covered truck right beside it.

The crew stacked boxes in the various rooms. They also opened the boxes, removed paper from objects and hauled emptied boxes and paper away.

Living room after emptying boxes.

I became an expert at straightening and stacking paper while unloading the kitchen items. Otherwise, I would have been engulfed with it.

Sicily is content with the arrival of her high chair. Yes, those are boxes in the background. We are still unpacking on day three and will probably be still unpacking into the weekend.

Update: Save some packing paper! Krishna kept a bunch of paper and used it as shelf lining in our kitchen cabinets. About a year later she, threw out the old paper lining and put in a new set. It also came in handy for wrapping fragile objects and art paper for Sicily. If you can keep that fabulous packing paper, I highly recommend it!

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Beginning of Puja Season

Durga Puja is one of the most popular festivals in Kolkata, an annual celebration of the goddess Durga. Durga is the mother of Ganesha, a form of the wife of Shiva and is depicted as a warrior with ten arms who rides a lion or a tiger. The Durga Puja will begin on October 5th of this year, but it is also the time of year to pay respect to other gods as well.

Today, the city was celebrating a puja for Viswakarma, the god of engineering. Many cars and taxis were decorated with flowers and banana leaves.

Our engineering and maintenance staff created a puja for the consulate. Hand tools and clippings from around the compound were displayed in front of the deity for blessings. A priest chanted Vedic rituals making sacrificial offerings (such as ghee and oils) in a pit of fire and sprayed holy water on the plant room and heavy duty equipment, including cars, for smooth and efficient functioning throughout the year.

The engineering staff spent time preparing the fruits for the ceremony, including cutting out coconut meat from its shell, cracking fresh water chestnuts and plucking the pulp out of large pommelos. This bounty was then served to the celebrants after the ceremony.

Tomorrow the image of the deity will be taken out for immersion in the river, a ritual dipping.

I also went to a meeting in Salt Lake this afternoon, the high-tech center of Kolkata. There, the puja music was flowing between the IT campuses, Viswakarma was having a great day.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Waiting and Deciding on a Car

The one part of foreign service life that can be tricky to navigate is owning a car. Country import restrictions dictate what kind you can ship into the country. Some countries have restrictions on the age of the car, not allowing cars older than two years. Some right-side drive countries will not let you import a left-side drive car. And in some of those countries, it is not a safe choice to bring a left-side drive car!

Our last car was the leased Mighty Mazda 5. We decided not to purchase the car at the end of the lease but to transfer the lease to another FSO, who was in Washington D.C. for training. We made this decision mainly because India is a right-hand drive country.

Prior to leaving, we researched purchasing a right-side drive car from a handful of Japanese export companies. Some that were recommended by other FSOs included: Papera Traders Ltd., Autorec and These companies have a decent inventory at a good price. The shipping is comparable to the cost-construct amount.

Another option for purchasing a car is from other diplomats at post, including diplomats from other countries. It is not uncommon for a -buy my car- email to be sent around the diplomatic community when someone is leaving. Larger posts have ads in their CLO newsletters. Many CLOs will add you to their email newsletter list prior to arriving.

The State Department does allow you to store a car in the U.S., but this will preclude you from shipping another one to post. You can only do one. I remember one livelines discussion well, someone was trying to decide if they should keep their current car in storage and arrange for post transportation locally. The best response was to evaluate how much value the car will lose sitting in storage. Is it better to sell it now two years younger or wait to see if you can use it two years later while you pay for a different car or transportation at post?

We decided to wait until we arrived in Kolkata to decide on a car. If you are single or without kids you may be able to get by with taxis, the metro and autorickshaws. They are a good deal. But it has come time for us to get a car.

Taking a look at the local car market as well, Tatas and some other Indian brands are more expensive than we expected; except for the classic and grand Ambassador. About the price of a Vespa scooter in the U.S., the car is looking like a great option for us. Thank you India!

Image from Hindustan Motors

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

A Brief Recount of the Written Exam, Oral Exam and the Register

This post is a special request for Brent in Maryland. I thought others would be interested in the answers to the questions he asked, so it turned into a post.

In writing this I realized how much I know about the process, and I am not the officer! It is more anxiety-ridden than applying to your dream university but the experience is similar - taking the big exam, painfully waiting for the acceptance email and completely opening up a world of new opportunities.

Preparation for the Written Exam
As you may have heard, the exam recently changed, it is offered more frequently during the year and it is computer-based. There are more questions related to your previous personal experience. But it is still very tough!

You should keep up-to-date with current affairs by reading newspapers, both national and international, for a while prior to taking the test. There are some preparation classes in the Washington D.C. area that you could consider taking. I would also recommend practicing writing short essays on a subject with a time limit.

Passing the Written Exam
The exam is pass/fail. Your score is not considered in the subsequent steps. Passing the written exam feels like a tremendous achievement, and it is. Few people pass. But it is still only one step in a many step process. Still up on the list: passing the oral exams, getting your security clearance, getting your medical clearance, and getting your number called off the list.

Preparation for the Oral Exam
The oral exam is like one long job interview. The best preparation is really some introspection about what you have accomplished, how you accomplished it and what you want to do with your life. After figuring those things out, practice clearly articulating those ideas to others.

Passing the Oral Exam
There are three different components of the oral exam: group exercise, structured interview, case management study. The evaluation criteria for each of these components is based on 13 dimensions, such as judgment, communication, and leadership. At the end of the day, you will learn which sections you passed, be given a total score, and told if you passed the oral exam. This score determines your position on the hiring list.

Getting Additional Points for a Language
After passing the oral exam, you can test in a language to get additional language points added to your score. This is helpful since it will place you higher in the rankings. Additional points are also given for military service.

You can test in more than one language, but you will only receive points for one language. Different languages have different points associated with them. So if you have skills in more than one language, choose the one that will earn you more points -- so long as you're interested in serving in a country that speaks that language. These tests are conversational and taken over the phone. The conversations may cover a range of subjects. The common Romance languages tests are harder than most people expect.

But don't despair if you don't pass the initial language test, there is another opportunity to test again after you start A-100 to see how much additional training you may need for an assignment. You get up to two opportunities for language study before tenure: one full language and one top-off language.

Getting the Call
After passing the oral exam, you must pass your security clearance, medical clearance and final suitability review before you are officially placed on the list, also known as the "register." This can take a while, so you want to make sure you get everything in as soon as you can. Once these three steps are complete, you then get placed on your chosen cone's list and ranked by your score and the date you were placed on the list.

For each class, a number of slots are selected for each cone. The administrators work their way down the ranked lists, making offers until all spots are filled. Many times people at the very top know they can pick their preferred class, so they may defer until a preferred date.

Classes vary in size, and some can be pretty small. So the previous numbers and rankings are no indication of how many will be called and how far they may go down the list. There is a list-serve dedicated to those on the lists, and some very generous people spend their time keeping unofficial rankings. Any member of this list is supposed to report in when they get the call, so that people will know how far they have moved down the list, if any one has passed, etc.

You can stay on the register for up to 18 months waiting for a call before you must start the process all over again. During this period, your rank on the register will fluctuate as people come and go off the list. And whether your number is called depends on the size of the classes, your rank on the list, and how many people defer for a later class. There are many variables, such as federal budgets, so the experience can be a roller coaster.

And if you can start your household inventory and scanning in all your important documents as soon as you pass the written exam, you may get it all done before you leave for your first post!

Best of luck!

Sunday, September 7, 2008

Remnants from a Past Vacation

Alan and I are addicted to Napa valley in the Fall. After our first vacation there together, we vowed to try to make it back as often as we could. In 2006, we happily booked our trip looking forward to the changing leaves, the beautiful weather, great food and fantastic wine.

Then our cards really came in. Alan has a wine blog, which has been on hiatus especially after joining the foreign service, Winesmith. A fellow blogger had to cancel his vacation to Napa where he had lined up some activities and wanted to know if we could take them off his hands. In return, Alan would have to write reviews of the different places. What a very small price to play for a night's stay at the Jordan winery and a trip on the Napa Valley Wine Train.

Jordan wine is exceptional and has a cult following. Everyone else on the tour seemed to drink case loads of it and only it. On the Napa Valley Wine Train, we had a really fun time, with great food and great company including a film team from Spain.

They were making a film about wine, not from the typical perspective of technique and geography but about the intangible qualities of wine - what makes us love it so much. Their hard work has finally paid off with a debut on PBS in California, called The Spirit of New Wine.

From the pictures they just sent, it looks like we may be in the film enjoying a glass or two on the train. If you are in the Sonoma region or can get PBS affiliate KRCB, check the film out on October 12th for the first installment, then on October 19th for the second. Congrats Love One On Productions!

Sunday, August 31, 2008

Happy Independence Day Kyrgyz Republic

Most of the other officers had other plans for this holiday weekend, so we carried one for the team and went to another event this busy weekend, a celebration of the Kyrgyz Republic's national day. It was at the Oberoi, a very nice hotel with great food.

Saturday, August 30, 2008

Kolkata: The City of Protests

Last Wednesday was the largest "bandh" we have experienced yet. As wikipedia describes it, a bandh is "a form of protest used by political activists in some countries in South Asia like India and Nepal. During a bandh, a major political party or a large chunk of a community declares a general strike, usually lasting one day.”

West Bengal, where Kolkata is located, has the most bandhs, about 40-50 per year. Many are held in our area, so we are often affected by them. Mostly they are peaceful demonstrations meant to generate attention by snarling up traffic.

What made last Wednesday's so special is that everyone in the entire city of Kolkata was banned from opening business and commuting, or they would have been harassed or threatened. This included trains, airplanes, cars, taxis, autorickshaws, buses, any mode of transportation. Many who commute daily, had to stay home for the day. The bandh was to protest rising inflation.

The next day I was in a meeting with a handful of university professors from around the city, and I asked them how they dealt with all of the unknown disruptions. They excitedly looked at me, since I now had a glimpse of their challenging circumstances and said, see this is why we can not plan in advance, not even a semester in advance. With these challenges and the many others students face in Kolkata, it is extremely commendable how Kolkata schools turn out so many well-educated students.

Image from BBC World News

Friday, August 29, 2008

Wrapping a Sari

We have been lucky to be invited to several events lately, mostly because we are at small post with less than a dozen officers. At larger posts the handed-down invitation comes much less often to junior officers.

This weekend, the Kolkata International Women's Club is hosting its yearly Monsoon Ball. It is raining very heavily right now, so the weather will be perfect. Since my dresses are in our undelivered HHE (household effects), I decided to try to wear a sari to the event.

Naively, I went to a shop on Tuesday, fours days ahead of the event, thinking that I had plenty of time and easily found two candidates. The fabrics in Kolkata are amazing, many silk and linen blends with intricate embroidery are typical.

Upon arriving home and asking our nanny her opinion, I was educated on sari preparation. I had to also find fabric for the choli lining (mid-drift top) and petticoat (skirt worn underneath); then find a tailor to make the choli, petticoat and fall of the sari. No ready-to-wear sarees!

Luckily, there was a tailor down the street that was able to take measurements and rush the job for a fee. If all goes well, the sari will be ready for the event.

The wrap is quite complicated with folds like a fan in the front. I'm giving myself an extra hour to get ready. All that I need now is to remember to hold in my stomach and walk without tripping over the fabric.

A great book on the cultural significance of the sari in India is The Sari by Mukulika Banerjee. It describes not only the meaning of different styles across India, but also the significance of the sari to women and their relationship to other people.

Update: Here I am right before the event.

Images from Utsav Sarees

Thursday, August 14, 2008

South Park Street Cemetery

Nestled away in a section of the famous Park Street is the oldest Christian cemetery in Kolkata, opened in 1767 and closed full in 1769. In 1978, a large preservation project restored the cemetery to a place for visitors from almost complete dilapidation.

The British are buried here, many in Kolkata for the East India Company. As the cemetery's well written brochure describes "With few lofty ceilings or airy verandahs, without ice, and without medical knowledge and no immunity to tropical diseases, they were all too often cut down in their youth."

We also heard that the earliest British were unwilling to adapt their conservative dress with many layers and petticoats, which also lead to the inability to handle the environment of Kolkata.

One of the more striking tombs is that of "Hindu" Stuart. Who wanted to be a Hindu - but since you can not convert to Hinduism, you are born into it - he settled for a tomb that looked like a Hindu temple.

Saturday, August 9, 2008

Saturday Morning with Calcutta Walks

Kolkata is definitely a city of contrasts, which was reinforced on our early (7:00am!) walk today with Calcutta Walks, a really great collection of people that are trying to promote the appreciation of culture and history in Kolkata.
Most Kolkatans do not really get going until 10:00 to 11:00am, so it was the perfect time to explore the famous Park Street of Kolkata. Our guides told us there is no other street like it in India, there may be shopping districts but no other avenue dedicated to "hedonism." Supposedly Ricky Martin frequents Park Street when he is in town to check in on his charity organization.

One decadent part of Park Street is the confectionery shop Flurys, which is a must visit restaurant in all of the guide books. We got a behind the scenes tour, with a view of pastry in the making.

The city is changing rapidly to accommodate contemporary times, but you can still see glimpses of a grand past - once called the city of palaces - in the older buildings.
and a popular past, a pan (betel leaves) stall.
Related Post: Tour of Kumartuli with Calcutta Walks

Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Without the Highchair

How we most often dine with Sicily in Kolkata, out for Italian food at Fire and Ice Pizzeria with one of our sponsors.

Sicily's highchair went into our HHE (household effects shipped on a ship) since it didn't fit into the boxes that must be used for UAB (air shipment). We purchased a Phil & Ted's MeToo! Travel Highchairto use until the permanent highchair arrived.

It worked well in our temporary apartment since there was a thinner top. In our apartment and at some restaurants our luck ran out and we cannot fit the hook-on since the table tops are too thick. We have our eye on a Totseat that looks to be more adaptable.

Sicily in the MeToo! at our temporary apartment with Chicken Tikka pizza from Pizza Hut. Best Pizza Hut pizza we have ever had.

Eating a meal in our new apartment on one of the dinning chairs.

Learning New Languages

We have had some issues with our Internet connection, our UAB (unaccompanied air baggage) arrived and we have been venturing out more lately, so it has been a while since our last post. An interesting topic that I have been thinking about lately is learning a new language for this post and/or our next desired post.

As a junior FSO, you can get up to two opportunities to learn a language: one full language course (unknown to you prior) and one top-off language course (you have the basics already). These courses are aligned with assigned posts.

One strategy that junior FSOs consider is learning a language outside of formal training, on their own, to be eligible for the second top-off course. There are a several options (outside of buying a book/software) available including:

1. Rosetta Stone software offered through FSI (other brands available on the FSI campus as well),
2. FSI language courses online (a non-profit organization for the promotion of languages),
3. taking classes offered through the country's consulate or embassy,
4. and hiring a tutor.

In Kolkata, Bengali is the most commonly used language, then English. Hindi is the third most popular language. There are very reasonable tutors to learn Bengali and other consulates offer language classes.

If you are an EFM, you are eligible for training through FSI, both when the FSO is at FSI for training and online.

An interesting online resource for considering learning a language is the How to Learn Any Language website. It has analysis of the language including its relative beauty, chic factor, usefulness and overall difficulty.

Sunday, July 27, 2008

The Three Flavors of Drexel (Marvin J. Perry)

Drexel, a U.S. furniture company out of North Carolina, supplies much of the furniture for U.S. State Department residences around the world. From our experience to date, the furniture is solidly built and heavy to move (!), unlike some of our IKEA furniture.

From a recent livelines discussion, there appears to be three common furniture lines purchased: (my own labels) the American heritage, coastal compliments and garden rattan. We happen to have all three collections in our apartment so I thought I would share a few furniture details.

Garden Rattan, my personal favorite:

Coastal Compliments, brings back memories of U.S. beach vacations:

and American Heritage:

One funny story about the same furniture used around the world was recently shared on FSParent, a Yahoo group for FSO parents. It was about a family that had just arrived at their new post with only items in their suitcases. After unpacking them, the kids became really upset and asked, “where are all our toys?” The parents explained that it would take a while since UAB and HHE had to arrive at different times. The kids screamed back, “but our furniture is already here!”

Update: Although most of our current furniture is Drexel Heritage, I learned that the State Department orders from Marvin J. Perry which carries other manufacturers. They also supply Marriott hotels and Sunrise Assist Living Centers. Find company information on their website.