Where I’m at: Brazzaville (out-of-Congo vacation possible at the end of the month??)
What I’m doing: savoring another great cafeteria lunch (only slightly sarcastic)
Why I’m posting: to share what my work life is like
For those readers who are State employees, you may not know that when we start with the department, we go through a 5-6 week orientation class, colloquially known as “A-100.” Each A-100 class is numbered and the people in it tend to stay friends and colleagues for many years. With the advent of newer and better technology (from email to texting to facebook etc), it’s easier to stay in touch with these friends. My class – the Legendary 152nd, as we’re apt to call ourselves – has an ongoing project where we post what a “day in the life” is for us to our google group. I haven’t posted mine yet, but I thought it might be interesting for you to know what it is I do…do. So here it goes. Please bear in mind that, of course, no two days are ever alike. So mom, don’t go telling people that I only/always do the following! Consider this an “example day in the life”:
6:30-6:50am: wake up, shower, dress, out the door at 7:00 to walk to work
7:15-7:30am: arrive at work, say hi to about 20 locally-hired guards with whom I play basketball on Tuesdays and Thursdays. Make small talk with them, but still have to show my badge and go through about 20 differently-locked/securitized doors to reach my office.
7:30-8:00am: read my emails from the night before and try to spend at least 10 minutes doing personal stuff (e.g. banking, checking sports scores) since we don’t have internet at home.
8:00-8:30am: read breaking Congo news, respond to emails, discern what I’ll need to do with the pile of information/invitations/action notices set on my desk from yesterday (usually from the Ambassador or sent from government ministries or NGOs).
8:30-9:00am: prep for morning meetings. This requires drafting agenda items, reading cables (official communications), checking my notes, calling/meeting with my staff, etc. Each daily meeting is for a different purpose, so this needs to be tailored depending on the day. Some days this meeting begins a half hour before or after, so the schedule moves around a bit.
9:00-10:00am: staff meetings. This is probably the most important part of the day because it’s the planning session for all our work. Depending on whether this meeting involved local staff or not, I’ll hold a 10-30 min meeting with my staff afterwards to divvying up tasks. These morning meetings are our chances to communicate with other staff, incl. the Ambassador, what we’re doing, what we’ve done, and what we’ll need to do. They always involve tasking people with stuff. Some of them are kind of funny though because we’ll go around the table, with one person talking about holding a press conference, the next about training generals, the next about meetings on food aid programs, the next about generator parts, the next about hosting investors, etc. I always take copious notes because I want to know what’s going on, but I couldn’t imagine being the Ambassador and having not only to remember what amounts to about 30 2-minute briefings, but actually caring about all of them!
a) 10:00am-1:00pm: consular coverage. On Mondays and Thursdays, I may need to serve as the post’s consular officer. I’m one of 3 back-up officers and we’re all splitting time covering until the full-time officer arrives, hopefully by the end of May. Inevitably, however, we’re all spending significant parts of our days in the consular section covering one emergency or another. There have been days when I’m not scheduled to work in the consular section that I’ve spent all day there. Gotta roll with the punches.
b) 10:00am-12:30pm: contact meetings/briefings. On those days when I’m lucky enough to dodge the consular duties, there are inevitably myriad meetings, events, briefings, etc. to attend somewhere in the city (or if we’re hosting, here in the padlocked emerald city). These meetings might be with ministers, NGOs, judges, good contacts, international organizations, etc. It’s kind of nice that the country has sort of de facto made 10am and 1pm as the meeting times for everyone.
c) 10:00am-12:30pm: on the exceedingly rare occasion that either (a) or (b) isn’t happening, I can actually use this time to do other work! That usually includes reading some unnecessarily lengthy report, or catching up on a week’s worth of news here and abroad that I might have missed, or working on drafting letters/cables/reports that I haven’t otherwise had time to do.
12:30pm-1:00pm: lunch! About 85% of the time, that’s at our embassy’s cafeteria, where your choices range from something that’s supposed to be swimming in oil (i.e. a “local” dish) or something that just is. Not very heart healthy food and not a ton of variety, but I’m getting by alright. Plus, a fairly typical lunch that might include a sandwich, fries, drink, and basket of bread costs about $3. I really enjoy lunch because there’s a TV where we watch CNN and we all are there together, laughing and exhaling for a minute. Literally. Then we start talking about work again. Still, it’s nice.
1:00-3:00pm: Round 2 of meetings. For some reason, we tend to have our meetings outside of the embassy in the morning and then at the embassy in the afternoon. Whether intentional or not, this is huge because by about noon, it’s way too hot and humid to step out of the artic tundra that we’ve fostered in the embassy. On the occasions where I have been out to other meetings at that time, I’m inevitably drenched in sweat by the time I get wherever I’m going. And since Congolese ministries, etc. are filled with Congolese people, A/C is not too common. Thus, there’s no sense of relief upon finally getting there since it’s usually hotter inside. Looking back on my calendar just now, I’ve had a meeting of some kind at this time every day that the embassy has been open for over a month.
3:00-5:00pm: scramble to get everything done that requires the help of our local staff. For folks that don’t know, many – if not most – embassies are comprised of a relatively few number of American officers compared to local staff. The local staff are absolutely essential to our work. They have the institutional knowledge. They carry the contacts over from officer to officer. They talk to people in the country on a level we can’t mirror. Sometimes their language skills are essential. And yes, sometimes they screw up, sometimes they get paid to spy on us by the host government, and sometimes supervising seems to take more time than we have, but it’s definitely worth it. Anyway, more directly, during this period, we’re often drafting/editing/translating letters or diplomatic notes, making calls to set meetings, etc.
5:00-7:00pm: The embassy is officially closed and only the necessary guards and the Americans who are staying late remain. For the record, that’s all Americans (at least all of them not on temporary duty assignments). For entry-level officers like myself, this isn’t a big deal because at least we earn comp time. For the mid-level and senior-level officers, that’s just part of the job. But this time is probably the most productive all day. While we’ll often use some of the time for personal stuff, it’s also quiet enough that we can catch up on emails/cables/letters/report reading or drafting/grant writing/case adjudications/etc. Plus, we can all sense the end of the day coming, and it’s just more relaxed and people are happier. That said, it’s also the time when the folks in Washington are heating up for the day, so we start getting inundated with emails tasking us with stuff or asking questions or informing us, etc. The large part of our job requires knowing information and having it at the ready for when it’s appropriate. We have lots and lots to remember, so sometimes it’s hard to push ourselves to seek out new information because we already have so much to absorb. That’s why this quiet time is so nice.
7:00-9:00pm: representational events, etc. It’s a common practice for diplomats to have to attend dinners or other representational events. Fortunately, most of the ones that an entry-level officer – even one that is the head of his section (by virtue of being the entire section) like myself – have to attend are during the day. The high-level folks like the Ambassador are the ones often attending the dinners. Then again, our entry-level public affairs officer is often the one organizing these dinners or speeches or whatever, so this time is different for her than me. As for me, most of the time, I’m using this time to hold “representational court” by going to the tennis club or playing poker, all with people that are working contacts, but who are also friends, fortunately. It does feel a bit draining, but at least this is usually fun.
9:00-midnight: make/eat dinner with Colleen; play with our new puppy, Whiskey Peat (see her blog for pics!); watch TV; hang out with friends; fix up the house; get bit by thousands of mosquitos; etc. until it’s time to go to bed. Then we start again tomorrow!
Who said it: Edna St. Vincent Millay, American dramatist and poet
Why it’s relevant: because April was National Poetry Month and I didn’t post a single poem! What is wrong with me!? I guess it just took a little longer to get to Africa.
The quote: “My candle burns at both ends; It will not last the night; But ah, my foes, and oh, my friends, It gives a lovely light!”