Monday, May 30, 2011

Working my way down the list of Smithsonians

As any good Washingtonian, I've seen my fair share of the sights, especially when showing them to visitors from out of town. But I have yet to make it to many of the out-of-the-way museums, even the free ones - so I've been slowly making the rounds.

On Monday I checked out the Renwick Gallery (on 17th and Pennsylvania, really close to the White House and the World Bank/IMF. It is my 10th Smithsonian(out of 13). I give it two stars (out of 4). One for being mildly interesting, and one for having very few, mostly adult, visitors. However, it lost two points for creepiness. Let me demonstrate:

First, a haunted feast table.

Actually kind of nice by itself, but right across from it were these sharp (pun intended) utensils. Does anyone else notice how the knife on the bottom bears an eerie resemblence to an exacto knife?

In the same room is this ... piece. I'm generally not comfortable with things not found in nature, so this one didn't sit well with me.
(How do they breathe like that? Aren't they uncomfortable?)

I actually really liked this fish, except for the doll's arm sticking out.

Close up of the fish:

The truly creepiest stuff was actually a set of stained glass windows downstairs, but I couldn't really bring myself to photograph them, so just use your imagination.

*Yes I had permission to take these pictures, and no I didn't bother to get the names of any of the artists, so you'll just have to trek out to the Renwick to check them out yourselves.

How to get your (full) scores after the OA

As you may know, the Freedom of Information Act allows you to receive a detailed score breakdown from your oral assessment, but only if you specifically file a request.

I had heard that this request takes months to process, so I sent out my request within several days of my test. I received word back about a month and a half later, stating that I hadn't provided enough information. It turns out they wanted my birthdate and birthplace, which is funny, because the sample letter that State provides doesn't include either of those fun facts. Instead you need to consult their 26 page guide, available here where it turns out that for a score request, because it is considered personal data, you need to provide a bit more information.

I know this is a boring post, but if you're planning on taking the OA, it's worth remembering. On test day all you will receive is a number (your overall score, say 4.2, 3.8, 5.1, etc) and a check next to the segments of the exam that you passed (Group Exercise, Structured Interview, and Case Management). But if you write for your scores, you can get a bit more - such as your actual score on each section. I can't confirm what other information you get until I've received mine back, but in the past people have posted fairly detailed breakdowns on the FSOA yahoo group. I'm hopeful that mine will provide a little extra insight, and really, I'm mostly just curious to see it.

I'll try to post a copy of my request once I know that it actually was accepted, and if any reader happens to have more information, feel free to set the record straight!

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Dessert for one

So what did you have for dessert tonight? Was it cake in a mug (post mug) with homemade buttercream frosting? Yeah, I didn't think so.

Feel free to get jealous of me and my glamourous life now.

The cake-in-a-mug was actually really terrible, which is why I made the frosting - to make it edible. The frosting, however, was great.

Here's the recipe for buttercream frosting. It's really easy. To make enough for one mini cake I scaled down the recipe to replace 8 cups with 2 tablespoons and so on. Just keep the proportions the same and use a drop or two of vanilla.

And in case you're interested, strawberries are 3 for 5 dollars at Safeway. They also have the first substantial batch of peaches. Is the season already started? I hope so, because they smell amazing and they're perfect for topping cheerios in the morning. .... Not that I still eat Cheerios for breakfast or anything.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

The perks of being a fellow

While the whole paying-for-grad-school and joining-the-foreign-service thing seems to get front billing when people talk about Pickering, the internship program is worth a few blog posts of its own. (Especially now that I'm living the dream myself.) Just to clear up any confusion,internships at state are mostly the same for all students who work at State, whether they are SCEP, STEP, Pickering, Rangel, undergrad, grad, or any of the other variations on the theme. We all choose the bureaus we want to apply to, we all go through the same main orientation, we all do the same types of work, depending on our bureau. But for the fellows there a few extra benefits.

Benefit number one is of course the priority placement. The Pickerings I know are more likely to have recieved either their first or second choice bureau for the domestic internship.

Number two - fellows start their security clearance paperwork in the late spring, a full year before their internships start - other interns have less time. This means that fellows are some of the only interns who make it into the high clearance bureaus (the ones requiring Top Secret). It also means that, unlike other interns, fellows don't have to worry about missing out on their internships because they don't receive clearance in time. I've met half a dozen people who were accepted for internships but didn't get clearance in time to complete them, so this is actually a huge deal.

The third benefit is that our program comes with extra support designed to help us transition smoothly into the FS. There are seminars on writing for the FS, preparing for the OA, choosing the overseas internship, and all the ins and outs of the program itself. (Basically, they're covering all the information I spent the past year pestering them about.) And, best of all, we get to meet the other fellows and alums (why do I feel compelled to write alums and not alumni?). Who knows? Maybe they'll be able to tell me how to break into the illusive academic year paid internships. Right now my strategy involves baking for my coworkers, followed by groveling, we'll see.

(Actually, there's a fourth benefit. Whenever people hear you are a fellow they say, "Oh! You're a Pickering Fellow!" and then they introduce you as "So-and-so, he/she is our new Pickering Fellow!" I'm not sure yet if this is considered a bonus or more of a warning, a la 'Watch out, there's a putz in the office!' I'll have to work extra hard to make sure its the former.)

*The Student Programs page of the DoS website features these sample interns. We're really a very attractive bunch, aren't we? Though I have to say that I haven't met the interns who get to wear a t-shirt and cargo pants to work. If you want to join this prestigious and well-heeled group, check out the student programs website.

Monday, May 23, 2011

Intern Orientation

Today was my orientation and it was great. I met a ton of really interesting students from all over the country (and representing a pretty wide section of the bureaus at state). I also got to meet a few of my fellow Pickerings, though not many. It was good to have a chance to compare experiences and I hope we get more opportunities to talk later.

As I mentioned before, I got my first choice for the internship this summer. The other Pickerings I talked to got their first or second choices as well, though I did hear of one didn't get either internship she applied for. I'm not sure what the deciding factor is, though I think it helps to apply to bureaus where you have an applicable skill set or some in-country experience.

I would really, really love to go into detail about the orientation and security briefing process, because I found it fascinating, but if there was one thing they drilled into us today, it was discretion. So sorry to disappoint, but I'd rather be safe than sorry. What I can tell you is that I'm very excited for tomorrow, when I actually get to start working.

I'll post my tips about the internship once I've got a bit more experience, though today we got plenty of good advice from the civil service and foreign service people who administer the program. Basically, they advised us to make the most of our time at State - to learn, make friends, and expand our fields of interest - something I definitely intend to do.


Thursday, May 19, 2011

It's time to work (finally!)

I start my internship at state on Monday and I am excited. In fact, on the scale of 'excited-ness' I think I might have actually hit 'Splurge on an expensive coffee' and, well, it doesn't get much more exciting than that. (Really, coffee is way too expensive.) The problem of course is that the internship starts at a rather ungodly hour in my book. Apparently it takes a long time to orient student workers.

I've also been hard at work with the language and area studies that I'm doing (independently). I finished Bury Me Standing, and found a great site - Study Stack - to help me practice my vocab from Sumrak. (see this post)

Also exciting? I got a call from one of 'my' kids in Serbia last week. Only she wasn't in Serbia, she was in America! Thanks to the consular officer who gave her a visa. (Next year that will be me!) I hope the US blew her mind and I really wish I could have been there to hang out with her again. That's the problem with making friends when you travel - it is so rare that I actually get the chance to see people again once I've left. I can't wait until I have the cash to buy myself a ticket back to some of these places.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

The Bridges of Madison County

(take 2 *Blogger seems to have lost the first version of this, so I'm practicing my "patience" skills and rewriting it. Note that patience is not one of the 13 dimensions of a FSO. I guess they figure it could go either way.)

As I mentioned in the last post, I just got back from a daytrip to THE Madison County to take pictures of their covered bridges. This was not because I am such a big fan of the movie - in fact, I only watched the movie today to cap off the visit - but because I have been feeling guilty about giving my home state such short shrift. Usually wherever I go I make it a point to delve into the local culture, sample the delicacies, read the famous authors, visit the sites, and just generally be an obnoxious tourist. But I've never done all that for my own home. Now that I'm staring down the barrel at several more years (at least) of international travel I decided it was now or never, so I set out with my dad's trusty (and clean) car and hit the highway.

I saw all six remaining bridges - out of an original total of 16 - and some miscellaneous pretty things. If anyone is ever in the area, unlikely as that would be, I recommend it as a fun day trip.

First stop was Cedar Bridge, the only one you can still drive across. It's actually a replica since the original was burned down in 2002.

Next I saw the unfortunately named Hogsback Bridge and the nearby Stone Schoolhouse.

Third was Roseman Bridge, which was the one where Meryl Streep and Clint Eastwood's characters both wanted their ashes scattered in the movie. It was nice, but eerily similar to the first two...

I stopped in Winterset (the county seat) to visit the birthplace of John Wayne. I skipped the tour because I was running a little late, but it was still interesting to imagine anyone being born in that postage stamp of a house in the middle of the rural midwest and going on to become so famous.

Also in town they have a great city park, with the fourth bridge (Cutler-Donohoe Bridge) a stone bridge (also in the movie) and a stone watchtower. If I'd had more time I would have stopped there for a picnic. I have an unreasonable fascination with woods and parks.

On the way out of town I stopped at Holliwell Bridge, the only one with any other tourists, which is a major benefit of playing tourist in the midwest - the last time I went anywhere touristy in DC I practically had to climb over mountains of other tourists to see anything good. (National Archives, I'm looking at you.)

Finally, outside the tiny and rather shabby town of St. Charles was Imes Bridge, which is the oldest.

All in all it was a good day. I'll have to retroactively add the Bridges to my life list so that I can cross them off, and I feel like I can represent my home state with just a bit more energy now.

Friday, May 13, 2011

Video of the Week (3)

Thought this would be fitting to kick of everyone's summer.
You have to wait a minute or two to get to the Ella Fitzgerald part, but really, it's Louis Armstrong, so it's not a bad wait.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011


As long as I'm back in the exotic land of the mid-west, I thought it was about time for me to actually see our sights, considering that I've traveled to the other side of the planet to see other people's sights.

So I've been checking a few 'must-sees' off my list this trip.

*I saw the Field of Dreams.
*I visited the Bridges of Madison County.
*This weekend I'm going to see the American Gothic House.

I admit the list is a bit short. It's just that there aren't that many sights in my area. But I'm open to suggestions. (Hint, hint.)

I'd also like to go mushroom hunting, which is a big deal here, if the weather cooperates. And maybe I can bake something and sell it at the farmer's market. That's pretty midwestern, right?

What I'm reading May 10th

Now that I'm on vacation I can finally start on the long list of books I've been wanting to read all year (the ones I had to keep on the shelf in favor of reading for classes). The first on the list? Bury Me Standing: The Gypsies and Their Journey, by Isabel Fonseca.

I happen to have several Roma (gypsy) friends from the year I spent in Bosnia and Serbia, and they are a fascinating group. I've been writing papers about them for years, about civil registration, education and so on, but this book approaches the Roma from a historical background, so it fills a gap in my knowledge. It also is part of the pre-reading I'm doing for the summer internship. Since many countries that I will be focusing on have a large Roma minority I thought it would be a good idea to develop my 'specialty' a bit more.

I've also been brushing up my Serbian, but it's been kind of depressing. Who knew I could forget so much in only 2 years?

But the best thing about all this reading is that I can do it by the pool, with a fudge-sicle in one hand and a glass of iced tea. :)

Here's the cover in case you're interested. Sadly I've got the rather jarring yellow version...

Thursday, May 5, 2011

Blast from the Past

I'm back visiting my parents right now in the midwest - always a surreal experience. The first few times I came back, during college especially, I found myself looking at everything like an outsider.

One example? I noticed for the first time when I came home from freshman year that the toilet was pink. Now, I'm not an observant person apparently, but I think it is safe to chalk that 'revelation' up to the way we tend to overlook and accept whatever is familiar. Now of course I know the drill and I expect it. It's even kind of fun to play the 'what changed while I was away' game.

But it still makes me a little uncomfortable when they change things back home. I usually love new and different, hence my love of travel, but I like knowing that when I return things will be familiar. Of course, most of the changes lately have been for the better; a new high school, a mexican restaurant, tennis courts at the park. Still...

Even more jarring than the physical differences are the changes in people back home. My mother pointed me to the website of a little girl I used to babysit for. She is now a professional photographer. (Which is funny, because I thought she was 8 years old still...) My 'little' cousins are all grown up too, two of them have joined the military. Even weirder is that my friends have started getting married. (And some have even started having babies!)

So wish me luck as I reacquaint myself with my old life, and of course, enjoy a little down time.

Sunday, May 1, 2011

Video of the Week

I totally forgot to post a video this Friday, but better late than never!

Tomorrow I turn in my final project for this semester. Then I will be officially halfway done with grad school. And only a year away from being in the FS. I'm taking a few weeks and going back to visit my family and friends.

Now that my semester is essentially over I find myself totally confused about how to spend my time. There's only so much food you can bake and so many ridiculous videos to watch on the web...

I do have big plans, however, to accomplish a lot before my internship starts in 3 weeks. So far on the list?
*refresh my Serbian for the internship
*finish the French stuff I started
*read everything I didn't have time for this year ;)
*squeeze in some practice for the OA
*hang out with the entire extended family
*whip my dog into shape
*visit all the tourist sites in my area that I never bothered to see before
*go mushroom hunting! (I'm excited about this.)
*hm... maybe I should stop there. That's a lot for 3 weeks.