Friday, January 29, 2010

The Holy Land

Before starting my A-100 class, my sister and I decided to take a vacation.  We debated between various places to go, but eventually settled on Israel.  For those who don't know, my sister is a flight attendant, so we got to fly cheaply and make last minute decisions.  We met in Philadelphia on Sunday and got to fly the ten hours in first class.  We spent most of our time in Jerusalem and below are some of the highlights of the trip.

The Old City
Most of the tourist sites in Jerusalem are located within the walls of the Old City.  Up until around the 1800s, the Old City was the entire city.  The city is a labyrinth of narrow stone streets running up and down the hills of the city.    The city is divided into four quarters, named after the inhabitants - The Christian Quarter, the Jewish Quarter, the Muslim Quarter and the Armenian Quarter.  (Armenian quarter?  Really?  Yep, the Armenians were one of the first nations to embrace Christianity in the third century and they have lived in the city ever since).

Getting lost is a pre-requisite in Jerusalem.  The streets are all narrow with high walls.  Many of the streets are full of stalls selling crosses, spices, food, menorahs, Nativity scenes, and other assorted crap.  It is hard, if not impossible, to distinguish one street from the next.  A few quick turns and the only clue about direction is whether you are headed up hill or down hill.

We took a tour of the Old City, which helped us discover the city.  For me, the highlight of this tour was the view from the roofs in the Armenian quarter

The Western Wall and Temple Mount

The two most famous sites in Jerusalem are the Temple Mount and the Western (Wailing) Wall.  When we first went to the area (the Wall is part of the foundation of the grounds of the Temple Mount), we saw a line of people and naturally got in line.  This was the security to go to the top of the Temple Mount.  We got to see the landscaped grounds and the gorgeous mosaics on the Dome of the Rock.  Besides the Dome, there is also the al-Aqsa Mosque.  The Temple Mount also provides a great view of the Mount of Olives.  The grounds were fairly deserted.  It was basically, us and three or four tour groups in the huge area.  As it turns out, the Temple Mount is rarely open to non-Muslims.  Only from 8-1030 and 1-2 Monday through Thursday.  So, we happened to go up there during its rare opening hours.

For centuries, the Western Wall has been the closest that Jews have been allowed to go to the Temple Mount.  Their anguish has given the Wall its other name of the "Wailing Wall."  We stopped at the Wall to place the traditional prayer in the cracks of the Wall.

Walking in the footsteps of Christ

While Jerusalem is the home to three major religions, I grew up Catholic and the Christian aspects were the most meaningful to me.  On Thursday, we took an Arab bus from East Jerusalem to Bethlehem in the West Bank.  The Church of the Nativity was not a beautiful church.  Inside the main part of the Church, it looked like a barn (which I guess is appropriate).  Down below the alter is the location where Jesus was born.
Also in Bethlehem, we visited the milk grotto where Joseph, Mary and Jesus stayed after Jesus was born.  There, a drop of Mary's milk hit the floor giving the cave its milky white color and its name.  Also, Joseph had the dream that told him to flee to Egypt because Herod was going to kill all the male babies.

On Wednesday, we took a tour of the Mount of Olives.  At the top of the hill to the east of the Old City, there are several churches which mark the spot of Christ's ascension to heaven (the various Christian denominations believe it to be different spots).  Further down the hill is a grotto where Jesus taught his disciples.  At the bottom of the mountain is the Garden of Gethsemane.  This olive garden is where Jesus stayed the night he was arrested.  The Church marking the Agony of Christ was really amazing.  And some of the olive trees were over 500 years old.

After we finished the tour on the Mount of Olives, we decided to walk the Stations of the Cross (also known as the Via Doloroso).  We started climbing from the valley to the Lion's Gate.  We had purchased a couple of crucifixes earlier that day, so these crosses have literally followed the stations of the cross.  The stations begin in the Muslim quarter and it was dark out.  It was pretty sketchy and Shelley was freaking out, but it was still really awesome.

The last five stations are in the Church of the Holy Seplechre.  The Church is a fairly massive structure which is actually pretty worn down.  Apparently, this is because all of the various sects fight over everything, so nothing ever gets fixed.  That being said, the three main shrines are all amazing.  When you first walk in, there is slab of stone which is said to be where Jesus was anointed before he was buried.  Up a small set of stairs to the right is Golgatha (or Calgary).  The hill where Jesus was crucified is built into the church.  This part of the Church is run by the Greek Orthodox Church and it shows.

The last important part of the Church is the tomb of Jesus.  When you first enter the tomb, you enter into a small anteroom.  In the center of the room is a stone - about the size of a very large dictionary - which is the last remaining part of the stone that covered the opening into the tomb.  Straight ahead is a short door (about 4 1/2 feet tall).  The threshold is about 3 times as long as a normal door.  Once inside, you are in a small room with a high ceiling.  Half the room is taken up with the tomb.  The other half fits about 5 people very tightly.  I have been around lots of religious sites and relics.  The skeptic in me always questions the authenticity of such relics.  I don't so much question the miracle, but rather the modern relic.  I really believed the tomb.  I felt the presence of God in the tomb.

Meeting Yael
One of my friends from when I worked in Rome is Israeli.  She was studying in Jerusalem, so we got to meet up.  It was great to see her again after five years.

Holocaust Museum
The Holocaust Museum was pretty amazing, but the best part was the Children's Memorial.  As you enter a dim room, the faces of young children lost in the Holocaust stare at you from old black and white photos blown up to life size.  Down a ramp into a hall with no light.  The darkness envelops you.  A solemn female voice calls out the names, ages and countries of children lost.  The darkness presses upon you like weight.  As you stumble along, you realize that you've forgotten to keep breathing.  As your eyes adjust, you see a very distant flickering light.  The light is so far away that it cannot possible be in the same room as you.  As you move forward, the sparkling light multiples in the distance.  The pathway forks and you are now surrounded by the dim light of millions of candles.  Some are near - almost within your grasp - while others are distant - beyond the invisible horizon.  The millions of flames flicker in every direction.  They sparkle in front and behind, above your head and below your feet, left and right, in every direction and as far as you can see.  Each flame represents one of the millions of children murdered by the Nazis and their never-born descendants.

Words and numbers cannot do justice for the power of this memorial and horror that it represents.

Memorable Me
As with most Middle Eastern countries, many of the merchants were very aggressive in their sales techniques. On our first day, we walked into Jaffa Gate and this guy wanted to give us a tour.  He kept following us like three blocks until I finally told him, "Maybe later."  Later we stopped at a souvenir stand and got away from the guy by saying, "Maybe later."  When we were going back, we got lost and only figured out where we were because the souvenir guy recognized me and asked me if I was ready to buy.  Then, once we got back to Jaffa Gate the tour guy asked me if we were ready now.  The next day, when we went to the Church another guy tried to give us a tour.  We had to fight him off several times.  When we came back to the Church later that day he yelled across the square asking us if we came back for a tour.  So, apparently fat white guys stick out in Jerusalem.

View the rest of my photos

Friday, January 22, 2010

How I got here

In a little over three weeks, I will start my new career as a Foreign Service Officer when I begin the A-100 class.  A-100 is the unofficial name for the five week training course that all foreign service officers undertake.  During this course, I will learn about the State Department, how to write memos, meet my fellow classmates and most importantly, learn where I will be spending the next two years of my life.

But, how did I get to this place.  I first learned about the Foreign Service when I was a senior in college.  I signed up and took the Foreign Service Written Exam back when you had to take the exam on paper in a room with everyone else.  I failed the exam.  I took the exam two more times (now on the computer) and failed both of those exams.  Meanwhile, I worked as a tour guide in Rome, went to law school, passed the bar exam (easier than the FSWE), and got a job with the Coast Guard as a Presidential Management Fellow.

Then, in September of 2008, I signed up to take the exam once again.  I wrote the essays and sent my resume, but without high expectations.  In the day before the 2008 election, I took the exam and quickly forgot about it.  In December 2008, I found out that I had passed the exam.  I was ecstatic to say the least.

The next step is called the QEP and is the most confusing part of the process.  Basically, they review your resume, read some essays, and decide if you have the qualifications to become a Foreign Service Officer.  I'm not sure exactly what they look at.  No one really knows.  By the time February rolled around, I was working in my first week on a rotation as a prosecutor in DC.  In one day - February 18, 2009 - I had my first trial (I won); my Mom went into the hospital (she's okay); I learned I was getting a new roommate; and I found out I passed the QEP and could take the Oral Assessment.

The Oral Assessment is its own unique process.  Essentially, it is a day-long interview that consists of three parts - the group exercise, the structured interview and the case management.  Without some preparation, it would be very difficult to pass the FSOA. I had a few months to prepare and met with a study group every Monday for a few months.  I met some good friends in the study group and this really helped me when it came time to take the Oral Assessment.  For a more detailed recap, click here.

I passed the oral assessment with a score of 5.4.  The score is important because it determines your ranking on the register.  The lowest passing score is a 5.3.  After I passed the FSOA, I had to get my medical clearance (took about a month) and my top secret security clearance (took over 4 months).  I finally got all my clearances and made it on the register in early October.  Unfortunately, this was too late to make it into the October 2009 A-100 class.

Around the time I made it onto the register, my lease was ending.  Under State Department rules, people who live more than 50 miles from DC get per diem during training.  The government pays for housing, utilities, and food.  For people who are assigned to DC for a post, they get 'locality' pay (which is a 23% raise).  For local hires during training, they don't get either of these things.  Since I had to move anyway, I decided to move to Fredericksburg, VA and commute to DC for work each day (I was back working at the Coast Guard).  It would likely only be for a few months, so I moved to Fredericksburg in November.

Unfortunately for me, there was a longer than normal gap between A-100 classes after I got on the register.  This coincided with many other people getting their clearances as well.  So, though I started out ranked 28/35, I quickly dropped down 45 or lower.  I did not get invited to the January class and I began to worry I would be stuck in Fredericksburg forever.  Then, on December 16, 2009, I got invited to join the February 16 A-100 class.  I immediately accepted.

So, now I am preparing to move back to DC (Chrystal City to be exact) in a few weeks.  I have to inventory everything I own (only 6 pages), separate it into three piles - stuff they store til I go overseas, stuff they ship for me (250 lbs limit), and stuff I will move in my car.

I hope to use this blog to document my time in the Foreign Service.  I will limit this blog to stuff about the foreign service and/or traveling.  You can expect posts about once a week or so, or when anything interesting happens.  For more generic blogging, you can view my stuff on the III Degree.