Tuesday, February 25, 2014

We speak Portuguese!!

It has been practically a month since I last wrote, wow. Been busy, you know? Finishing language training, completing about 785 administrative tasks related to leaving the warm bosom of the Foreign Service Institute, packing my scarce possessions…

Speaking of the training, I just passed my Portuguese test, and apparently, in the learned opinion of the State Department, I now speak Portuguese on a fairly intelligent level. Look at me, yey!! Let me tell you about those State Department language tests. They are all conducted on the top floor of the building where there are few rooms and people only go to test. It looks and feels desolate. And desperate. You can practically smell the desperation in that area. Or maybe it is just sweat and dust from nervous students.\

The way the exam is conducted makes things even worse. After you check-in for the exam, and fill out a form that you will never discuss its contents with anyone, you sit there nervously in a semi-circle with other colleagues who are also awaiting the guillotine (also known as language test) while fighting the un-ladylike urge to bite on your freshly manicured nails. The testing center has exams all the time, in all kinds of languages. Everyone sits there, tightly wound, making stupid jokes and bitching about the testing process. You can feel something ominous up in the air. And then suddenly various executioners, cleverly disguised as examiners, come by and take the trembling officers one by one into the torture cells, designed to look like sound-proof testing rooms. It is a humbling experience. And if you are sitting there, wondering why this is such a big deal, let me tell you – each language student has to reach a certain level of proficiency, depending on the language and the job he or she is going to. If you fail, you ain’t going to post. You go home. You feel awful, you might even feel sorry for yourself. The department gives you more time at FSI to learn the language and you mournfully wish your colleagues who have passed to have fun and good luck at post. And so, you go in the testing room, facing the two examiners, and lose valuable 2 hours of your life trying to prove how great you know Albanian, or Farsi, Norwegian or Amharic or whatever else elusive and twisty language you have been sweating over the past months. Once it is done, you are sent back to the waiting room to watch how your hair slowly turns white from worry. Gradually, the rest of your compadres file out of their rooms and all gather back to discuss their performance. As it turns out, everyone thinks that they did God-awful. I just wish someone, someday has the balls to state coolly, “I killed that exam! I was awesome! I am as fluent in Bengali as was Rabindranath Tagore. I am THE shit!” Clearly, no one ever says that or else the rest of the trembling crowd might tear him or her to pieces in their neurosis after the exam. In a few deathly long minutes, you are summoned back in to be informed just how miserably you have done and how you have barely squeaked by the necessary score and just what a shame you are to the Department. Or not. Depends.

What I love watching, though, is the lit faces of those colleagues who just fly out of those rooms upon hearing that they have passed and look like happy lunatics! Yey, congratulations! You are now ready to go to Ouagadougou (yes, this is a real place!). I will never understand why the Department tests us. Our teachers, who spend way too much time with us every day can tell you in two seconds whether or not we are at a certain level, and how much more we need. None of this exam nonsense is necessary if you have studied the language at FSI and people have monitored your shaky progress. I have vowed to become boss of FSI one day so that I can dispense with this vile practice once and for all. Seriously.

This past weekend was spent pleasantly with 2 of our closest couples and their kids in a rented house in Deep Creek, Maryland. As the Diplomat passed his own exam on Friday morning, we collected Son from school, and set on the 3.5 hr journey to spend a lovely weekend with friends, eat and drink and try to forget as much Portuguese as possible. With about 30 mins to our destination, our friends P&C called us with the exciting news that the street leading to our house is solid frozen and their SUV refused to climb there. Given that we drive a toy car with rear-wheel drive, we would never make it. In addition, they cannot find where the house actually is given that the whole area is pitch black. Exciting! I immediately began calling the owner (who was apparently caring for her sick ancient aunt on the West Coast and her husband whom we later concluded works for the CIA (we based this clever deduction on the fact that we found a CIA mug in the house! Solid logic)). No one picked up for some time and it took a somewhat terse email to her to finally get some traction.

The owner informed me rather shocked that the plough-guy must have been there. Sure, I said, but he might just as well have been bird-watching for there was a solid sheet of ice on the way to the house. She then cheerfully asked me if we had any other place to stay in town. Icily, I remarked that we do not, that we have just driven 4 hours and have 4 tired, hysterical children in the cars. She said she will try to find someone to do something. I trekked up the street in utter irritation only to find that if the cars curved to the right onto the grass, it might be possible to avoid the ice. In true Bulgarian form, our friend C then gunned his SUV and actually made it all the way.

That did not solve the problem, however, that we could not find the house itself. It was 10 pm, the darkness blinding and my cell phone light could only go so far. It did not help that I decided that I saw a bear move in the woods. Finally, after a lot of brave loitering about, I stumbled on the path to the damned house and soon we were all in, bringing in massive quantities of food, enough to last us a week, and a bunch of hyper kids. By 12 am, we managed to send the broods to bed and opened up a bottle of bubbly. The rest of the weekend was filled with snow tubing, constant eating, drinking, yelling at the kids to stop yelling, more eating and drinking, games of Taboo (to the constant protests of the men) and testy phonecalls to the landlady to ask just why exactly the heating does not work on the first floor of the house and one could actually domesticate a penguin there should the desire befell. The landlady told us that there are some vents on the ceiling, and we should get our ass on a chair to go open them. Um, wow, you did not just say that. After we did climb and fiddle with them, and still nothing happened, we called again. Landlady got seriously pissed and proceeded to chide my friend for calling her too many times which she found to be rude. Awesome. Thankfully, otherwise the house was great and the company wonderful, the kids ran non-stop for 24 hours, yelling from the top of their lungs, falling, scraping, hitting, injuring and laughing themselves to their hearts’ content. And I got to drink tea from the CIA mug!

My precious belonging just got packed by two feisty Salvadorean ladies. It was a bit of an embarrassing experience as we kept forgetting stuff in closets and entire rooms. Oh well. Glad to be done! This Sunday we begin a month-long home leave. Yeah, that paid MANDATORY vacation that the State Department makes us take after each post. Man, I LOVE this job.


  1. Interesting post and congrats! Your suggestions for FSI's language liquidation would be, I suspect, rather popular among our colleagues. On the subject: did you bother to test in Bulgarian when you entered, and if so, were you properly handled as a native speaker? Native and heritage speakers are often the most disparaging of the FSI system.

  2. Hadi, yes, I tested in Bulgarian and thought it was just fine. I did get 5/5. I honestly think that a lot of the "native speakers" have in fact grown up in the US and spoken the language mostly at home, and have not read serious literature in the language or received formal education in it. People call this "kitchen language" and so often you think you are fluent, but in fact the fluency is mostly regular, everyday spoken language, rather than the level they are looking for at 5/5. I have lived in Bulgaria for 20 years, so perhaps that helped me.

  3. Oh my goodness, you are so funny! I hope to meet you and/or your husband at FSI (or elsewhere :) some day.

  4. I hope you guys are enjoying Carnival! If you don't mind me asking, did you get 3/3 in Portuguese? Even that in a short amount of time is no small feat.

    So they are looking for very formal language at the 5/5 level? Was there any mesóclise on the test?

  5. Yes, I did, believe it or not. Yes, 5/5 is considered highly intelligent/learned native speaker. In other words, even if you are a native speaker, but have not really read books in the language or spoken it on a higher level, you will probably grade up to 4/4+ or something like that.

  6. Congats on passing! (I'd say something celebratory in Portuguese here but 1- You passed! You don't need that kind of pressure now. 2- I don't know any Portuguese.)

  7. I just happened upon your blog and you are incredibly helpful to potential FSOs, I truly wish these resources had been available when my family was in the foreign service, especially information on how it affects children, it's truly a life changing experience. Also, congrats on your new posting, I was stationed in Brasilia for a number of years and I can tell you that working in Rio is excellent, plus, the american school there is excellent.