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!