Monday, March 28, 2011

The week that was too much

As of today, I am officially a Foreign Service officer--today was my first day, appropriately filled with many, many many information sessions and mountains of paper and fingerprints. Today was the culmination of a life-long dream and a year-long grueling examination and selection process. I would like to take this moment and tell you how incredibly honored and moved I am to have this unique opportunity to serve the country that has given me so much in the past 15 years. America is truly the land of everyone. Anyone who has the ambition, the stamina, the imagination and the mental strength to conjure up a dream and follow it, can come here and make it a reality. I can only hope that I will represent our country's interests with the skill and dignity its people deserve.

The week that led up to this day was, to put it mildly, rather busy I should think.
--I came back from NYC on the fabulous Bolt Bus ($15 each way, includes wireless Internet and power outlets and cozy leather seats) on Wednesday night.
--On Thursday, I spent the day shopping and preparing for the Lend-A-Hand-India happy hour, which I then helped set up and get started that same evening. One Martini, straight up, was consumed. (Thank you, fabulous M and A for coming and supporting!)
--On Friday, we took Son to the Diplomat's Aunt and Uncle place in Maryland, deposited him there and drove off to Eastern Market to have dinner with friends. Exhausted, I swore to go to bed the minute we came back but there I found Auntie watching "Red Dragon" and the combination of a heavily tattoo-ed Ralph Fiennes and a fiercely cannibalistic Hannibal Lecter proved irresistible. Plus, there was a monstrously large bag of Costco chili chips made available to me. I finally dragged my fatigued, profusely spiced up body to bed.
--On Saturday night, I had the fabulous pleasure of helping set up a pre-happy hour for my Foreign Service class. It was fantastic to see folks and put some names to faces especially since we had spent the past 3 weeks emailing each other inane messages and questions over a google group devoted to the class. I got there at 6.30pm and mentioned casually to the Diplomat (who stayed at home to babysit, giving me morose looks as I was getting ready) that I'd be back by 8.30 max. Many fun conversations, a rather embarrassing money collection episode, a scotch and a cigar later, I finally made it home by 10.30 pm.
--On Sunday, we were invited to a party for all families heading out to Bangladesh this year. I baked 2 pies for the party and was in the midst of the third one when the inevitable happened. It was supposed to be a real marvel, the one that people would remember me by and talk admiringly behind my back. I (very laboriously) made the crust from scratch and then put it to chill in the freezer. And yes, you guessed it--when I opened the freezer 10 mins later, the darned thing flew right into my face and fell into million little crusty pieces all over the floor. I felt like pouring the prepared custard over my head in irritation. So, two pies it was. After that party, we quickly drove off to the welcome reception for my FS class sponsored by one of the preceding classes. I just want to mention that I had been wearing 4-inch high heeled boots since 2 pm that day and it was pushing 7 pm at that point. Not to mention that Son refused to let go of my legs/hid under my dress during half of the time we were at the reception, which was a bit inconvenient since I was trying to come off as really classy, elegant and poised. Instead, I ended up trying to balance off a large martini glass with one hand, remove the child from underneath my skirt with the other and smile effortlessly all at the same time.
--Needless to say, today the day ended with (yet another) happy hour with my classmates in downtown Washington. Apparently,tomorrow will have the same fate. I am not sure that even I can cope with that kind of a schedule...

Incidentally, last night the Diplomat had a dream that he was being chased by giant live baklavas. You make your own conclusions...

Monday, March 21, 2011

Resting is underrated

I have been resting now for 8 days, which translates to sleeping in until 10am (or later), cooking up "interesting" recipes, making desserts, sewing, staring blankly at the TV watching some awful show or organizing happy hours for my future FSO compadres. I can tell you my disposition has considerably improved, and my outlook on life as well as my own looks have benefited from the lack of stress or daily Bangla training in them. I have been practicing my baking skills and the direct beneficiaries of that have been Diplomat's (and my former) Bengali classmates. Apparently, the cakes have been good enough to summon a friendly mouse to the classroom. No more baking then.I have to report with some disappointment that the Diplomat and his energetic FSO pals did not make it to NYC the previous weekend. I should have suspected so--it really takes a lot of coordination for three middle-aged married men with kids to go away. I, on the other hand, have organized a gals' weekend away in Miami, to take place some time in April. I'd like you to note that my partners in crime on this trip are either single or without children. It wasn't meant that way--simply, 95% of my other friends are pregnant. Go figure!The Diplomat and I came to NYC this weekend to dust off the furniture and paint the town red with some old pals. On Sunday, he and Son went back to Arlington, while I continue to dust the apartment and window shop in Manhattan. Good times!! We spent both Friday and Sat night partying till the wee hours in the city which has been rather taxing on us given that Son wakes up fresh and excited at 6.30-7am, while we have just gone to bed at 2 am. A few brief observations from NY:
1. I have never noticed it before, but in NYC there is a shocking number of (a) people walking dogs, (b) children in Bugaboos and (c) women in highly mismatched clothes also known as "very fashionable outfits."
2. I have finally seen with my own eyes a "greasing of the palm" of a club bouncer. On Sat night we went to the Hurricane Club, where to my utter grown-up, fashionably-clad dismay, we had to wait in line to get in. We were not happy (we=a group of group of grown up professionals)--waiting in line to get into a club was something we did when we were in our early 20 and penniless. While waiting, a decidedly unattractive gentleman came up, nodded knowingly to the self-important bouncer and shook his hand with what appeared to be $40. He went right in. Good for him.
Now, I would like to make a plug for a charity event that I am helping to put together in Washington, DC. I have been helping an organization called Lend A Hand India ( to launch their first event in Washington, DC. Lend-A-Hand India's mission is to make a difference in the lives of the poor through self help. By partnering with grassroots non-profit organizations, community groups, and local governments, we create better access to education, vocational training, career development, employment and entrepreneurial opportunities. Our goal is to help the poor realize their full potential to meet their aspirations for a better life.
Originally a NY-based organization, they would like to establish a presence in the capitol city. So I cordially invite you to attend Chocolate Fest @ Lend A Hand DC Chapter Launch and Meet the Founders ! Details as follows:

When: Thursday, March 24, 6:30pm-9:30pm
Where: Eden Lounge DC, 1716 I (eye) Street Northwest (Metro - Farragut West or North)
Join us for a fun evening of chocolate fountain, Bar specials, Live auction and entertainment on the occasion of launch of DC Chapter of Lend A Hand India.
Don't miss opportunity to hear live from the co-founders SunandaCome to know how you can get involved and volunteer with us ! Buy your tickets today..$10 only at
On this high note, I will end today's post. I am still in NYC where I have no Internet at home and so I have been in a freezing Starbucks for over an hour checking my endless email accounts. Time for lunch!

PS: I'd like it to be noted that while I was writing this, someone stole my umbrella which was resting peacefully behind my back at Starbucks...I LOVE New York!

Friday, March 11, 2011

I passed! Enter 2 weeks of freedom

Well, folks, I am now a proud graduate of the Bengali language training! I passed my exam with a 2 in speaking and 2+ in reading. Woah!!!! The Diplomat procured an unusually expensive bottle of champagne ($19.99!!!), a box of strawberries, a bouquet of gerberas and is bathing Son and putting him to bed! I am officially celebrating!
I will spend the next two weeks fixing my suits (A-100 program is done in business attire) since all of them are 3 sizes larger for me (go Weight Watchers!), staring at my feet, watching horrible daytime TV, rearranging needlessly the apartment, having ridiculously long lunches with friends, playing the piano and planning elaborate weekly menus. I am also off to NYC to dust off the apartment there, try to sell some obsolete Son paraphernalia from the baby days to make some cash to buy shoes, to see friends and celebrate my (relative) freedom.
Life is great!
Now if only someone would buy the apartment.....

Thursday, March 10, 2011

A night at the opera and ANOTHER Bangla exam

So, the Diplomat and I got cultural on Tuesday night and to my utter delight, went to the Kennedy Center to see Puccini's Madama Butterfly. Out of all the operas I have seen (and I have seen a lot), this has got to be the saddest one in the world. The story itself is horribly sad but to add to the drama, it includes a 3-year old child, whose mother (for no necessary reason) kills herself because the father (a seemingly heartless American) breaks her heart. By the middle of the second act, I was already sobbing uncontrollably and because I had no handkerchief, kept wiping my eyes with my expensive Indian pashmina shawl. Then, the little kid came out on the stage, and he looked so incredibly like Son that my crying may have turned into hysteria. The 80-plus old lady sitting next to me was peacefully sleeping through all the drama, giving away random delighted snores from time to time, but was waking up every single time right on cue to clap. A true music fiend, that one.
I had scored rather cheap orchestra seats tickets online and suspected that there was a catch. There was--turns out, we were seated in the second row from the stage. That meant that we could see every little detail from everyone's make-up and clothing, including the stitches on everyone's socks and unshaven hair. The opera began: a dashing young Pinkerton awaits his newly-acquired Japanese wife. He extols her youth (she is supposed to be 15), and her ephemeral lightness and body so slim and gentle that he is afraid to even hold her in his arms lest he crushes her. We are all thrilled to no end and cannot wait to see her. Cio-Cio San finally enters the stage and the magic suffers a bit since she appears to be about 35-38 and um, in no way ephemeral or light and certainly not crushable. At least not by the hot Brazilian tenor. However, whatever she lacks in posture and age, she makes up more than 100 times in singing and superb acting. Cio-Cio San was performed by Ana María Martínez, a phenomenal Puerto Rican soprano who absolutely rocked the role of the 15-year old tender Japanese Butterfly. Pinkerton, or Brazilian tenor Thiago Arancam, was equally superb. Confusingly enough, the American Consul (it felt so refreshing to see an opera, where the US Foreign Service was represented!) was performed by an Asian singer (a fabulous Korean baritone by the name of Hyung Yun). All in all, we had a fantastic time, marred only by the fact that we did not have cash and by the time we procured some, the Intermission between the acts was over and we had no champagne. And if you go to the opera, you have to at least have some (rather pricey) champagne and stare/discuss everyone else's dresses during the Intermission! My night was topped by my realization that the conductor was none other than......Placido Domingo! Yes, THAT Placido Domingo, one of the Three Tenors.

In other news, I AGAIN have a Bengali test, this time my final. It is tomorrow, at 1 pm, and after that, I am Bangla free. Well, until I go to Bangladesh. Cross your fingers for me, folks!

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

This just on--Passed Bangla Bex!!!

Wooo, hooo, now THIS is exciting news folks! So, that means I am released from my Russian BEX. With that, the last piece of our tandem puzzle falls into place.
Oh yeah, besides the small detail that my Bangla final is this Friday. Um, brrrrr....

Monday, March 7, 2011

Waiting for the BEX

So, I took the feared BEX exam in Bengali on Thursday afternoon. I am now still waiting for a response from BEX. Sigh...

The Diplomat and a couple of his FSI friends have decided to go to NYC for the upcoming weekend, where we still own an apartment (anyone in the market for a 2-bedroom in NYC???), and paint the town red like only 40 year old married men with kids can. It will be so wild. OK, it won't--he actually asked me for suggestions what to do. Awesome.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

A Class in US Protocol and Etiquette: "Eat the Goat Eyes!"

I had a rather entertaining weekend. As I had previously mentioned, I spent my Saturday at FSI taking a somewhat notorious 6-hour class called "U.S. Protocol and Representation Abroad." Oh boy! I was excited. I love hosting and entertaining, and all the formality that comes with our new job, so I simply could not wait to hear all the neat rules that govern all that in the Foreign Service. I thought you’d find it entertaining if I filled you in on the major points.
The day started on a rather upbeat note when we were sent in an adjacent room to practice lining up to and schmoozing at a (coffee) reception. Apparently, sitting in line to a reception is an art in and of itself--what with the shaking hands with the hostess, then with the guest of honor and then being literally whisked away by the line mover. Yes, a line mover--his job is to move a guest quickly out of the line after all the hand-shaking has been done and the guest decides to freeze like a lonely, petrified deer in headlights when faced with the room full of other people, merrily chatting away while balancing tiny plates with hors d'oeuvres and large glasses of wine. The goal of the exercise was to find a specific person (we were given a name) in the crowd and learn something interesting about them. As a result, about 35 people spent a frantic 15 minutes drinking orange juice and coffee with a cookie while trying to find out their appointed person unobtrusively and thusly introducing themselves to everyone else. Moral of the exercise: do NOT dip the cookie in the coffee (yes, some did), do NOT put the coffee cup on top of the OJ glass, eat a snack before you leave home (apparently, it is undesirable to get drunk fast at formal events, who knew) and dress appropriately (we were told the startling truth that Americans tend adhere to, um, rather relaxed dress code at formal events overseas--so, when invited to a BBQ in Latin America, put on some high heels and a slinky dress to be on the safe side, or an unnecessarily expensive linen suit, if applicable) and for all that is holy to you, do NOT eat and drink at the same time. Oh yes, and say good-bye when you leave. None of us did.
Then we were given a trillion rules on how to address folks and how NOT to introduce people to those of higher rank. It appears that it is rather inappropriate to say to the Ambassador of Panama (with whom you happen to play tennis regularly and know way too much about already), "Say Jose, this here is my man Sergey, a Third Secretary from the Ukrainian Embassy, he has just arrived and is looking for some good buddies to have fun." We were told that you NEVER, under ANY circumstances, call an Ambassador by his first name. Even if he begs you to. Even if you are dying to. Unless he is your husband (and even then I am not sure...).
Then we were given a 20 minute lecture on handing out business cards--a frightening and rule-filled process.
Mercifully, soon after that we were given a break to forage for food. We came back to a video from the 1980s (my God--the hair, the suits, the dresses with ginormous sleeves, the massive women's eye-wear, HOW EVER did all of those ever come out of fashion?!), which illustrated for us the proper decorum during business lunch, as well as the correct way to eat certain foods during such important meals. The examples included cutting a watermelon, eating strawberries without cream, eating strawberries WITH cream, eating MIXED fruit, snails, fish with bone, fish WITHOUT bone, and so forth. In the end, I just felt bad for the poor fella, who kept eating food after food during his presentation. I swear I could notice him nearly gagging as he was served food #67--a boiled egg--after he has just eaten a steak, a fish WITH bone, a chicken leg, some pasta, a pile of berries and a soup.
After the break, we were ushered into another room to decipher the fine art of proper dining. Our teacher was a wife of an Ambassador with an impressive list of diplomas in protocol and etiquette from all over the world. She was originally from Mexico and spoke impeccable English with fabulous Latin accent, which along with her apparent passion for her subject (she literally told us, "I am VERY passionate about this!), made the 2 hour presentation most entertaining. I thought she was superb!
She had lined one table with every imaginable dining-related instrument known in the world--from Chinese chopsticks' resting thingy, to strangely shaped Dutch spoons for serving mini appetizers, also called Amuse-gueule spoon (see illustration here, to forks for eating lobster, shrimp, snail, oyster, and any other sea critter that had the audacity to hide behind a shell, various types of fish and game, to a knife resting thingy, to even hooks for hanging your purse at the table. Another table had an elaborate setting for a semi-formal dinner. After we ooh-ed and ahh-ed for 15 minutes, we took our seats and the education began. One after the other came rules at an amazing speed and even more amazing logic:
--you serve food hovering from the left and remove it from the right
--a man escorts a lady to the table, pulls the chairs and she MUST enter it from the right hand side
--do NOT bring drinks to the dining table from the cocktail hour (try to tell THAT to young wedding guest)
--the host pours wine 1/2 to 2/3 of a glass and once your wine is over do NOT ask for more, you lush, wait for the host to notice and pour you some
--serve sherry with the soup and remove it promptly with the removal of the soup even if the guest is desperately clutching to his miniscule sherry glass
--couples should split upon entering a party, not stick to each in fear
--keep your elbows together-"You are not flying anywhere!"
--split couples at the table UNLESS they are only engaged (I suppose the rule came from the fear that if you split them, they might get interested in someone else during dinner? I imagine that happened at a few formal parties and British put an end to the nonsense)
--and for the love of Pete, NEVER EVER put napkin rings for a formal dinner!
We received a demonstration on eating a soup (I volunteered; I did wrong) and given the stern warning "Do not scuba dive in the soup!"
We were also told that no matter how detesting the food on our plate is, we MUST eat a bit, and then "Divide and decorate"--cut things in pieces and strew them around the plate to make it look like we ate a lot.
And finally, NEVER offend the host by not eating something out of disgust--our brave lecturer told us that she had eaten it all--rats, snakes, monkey, donkey, horse, bugs, ears, guts, butt and really bad salad, but she swore she would never ever eat eyes. And would you know it--once, as she was entering the dining hall at a particularly festive and formal diplomatic party, there they were--from her dining plate two appetizer goat eyes were staring plaintively at her saying, "Don't eat me!" (her words, not mine). But then her husband, the American Ambassador, looked her just as plaintively and she knew what she had to do--eat the damn eyes. And so she did. Now THAT is what I call a brave diplomat.
Filled with horror and awe, we moved on to the last part of the day--a lesson on seating arrangements. At least we got that part right. With head bursting with formalities, I picked up the Diplomat and Son and headed over to a party for FSI bloggers. I can safely say that NONE of the above-mentioned rules were observed there. Everyone ate and drank at the same time, often with their mouth filled with both, children ran and yelled all over the party room at Falls Church Oakwood, and we all gesticulated wildly while holding forks and knives (do not that, “you are at a dinner, not conducting at the Met Opera with a fork!!”). Nevertheless, extremely good times were had by all. Especially since someone had brought in an exceptionally fabulous desert of graham crackers and custard crème on which I overate.
This week will see me take the BEX Bangla exam on Thursday at 1 pm. I need some MAJOR luck on that one.

It is open to EFMs but since there are a lot of people wanting to get in, you have to sign up for it ASAP and wait for approval. The class is offered roughly every 2 months or so, on a Saturday. The next one will be on 4/2/11.