Sunday, March 7, 2010

Foreign Service Badass (FSBA)

Yeah, that's what I call my hubby these days and I'm pretty sure he likes it. Here's the story of how he got this lovely moniker.

Back in September of 2008 Paul (he was still known just by his first name back then) took the Foreign Service Officer Test (FSOT). A month or so later we learned that he had passed it. We were happy but not surprised because he had passed the test several times before. He's smart that way.

In case you are wondering, the FSOT is a pretty comprehensive test and few people pass it. I attempted to take it a few years ago and failed miserably. Now, I know there are people out there in the Foreign Service blogosphere that find the test easy. But lets face it, if I didn't pass it on the first attempt, then it must be hard, right? I know all the other people, those who try to pass it but don't, will wholeheartedly agree with me. The test includes way too many questions on a variety of topics such as US history, government, politics, society and culture, world history and geography, communication, basic computer knowledge, math and statistics, economics, management, English expression, biographic info and at least one timed essay. Whew!

Some people just walk around knowing all that stuff. Yeah, they are among us. Hell, my own husband is one of those freaks amazing specimens. Me, not so much.

You see, I was born and spent the first 25 years of my life in Bulgaria of all places and the Americana of the test kills me (though I now kick serious butt on English expression). It's just way too American and they really oughta tone that down.

However, I have decided that I am not going to let that stop me and plan to take the test again in June of 2010. How foolish brave am I? But this time I will prepare. I didn't last time because Paul never prepared and I thought I could get away with it too. Boy was I wrong. You'd think that stuff would rub off on me or something after living with Paul all these years. Apparently not.

Another annoying great thing about Paul is that he's really good at multiple choice tests. They are not something I was exposed to when I was growing up and have only taken a couple of them in my life. The few times that I have taken them, I didn't exactly blow the fish out of the water, if you know what I mean. So, I will have to seriously hit the books before the test. But I digress...

So, a few months after passing the test, Paul had to submit a personal narrative (essay) convincing the Qualifications Evaluation Panel of his Foreign Service Badassery (yes, it's a real word, technical term actually, though we didn't know it at the time). And he nailed it.

In June of 2009 he took the Foreign Service Oral Assessment (FSOA). This is where we were not sure how things were going to go. He had gotten to the FSOA a couple of times before but couldn't crack it. The FSOA is an all-day affair that includes a group exercise, a structured interview, and a case management writing exercise. The candidates are evaluated on 13 dimensions essential to Foreign Service work. I never made it to this point but the description makes it sound very similar to what some US companies do when they are looking for badasses ('cause the US Gov is not the only one in dire need of badasses).

Johnson & Johnson is one of those companies and a few years ago, when I was finishing my MBA (wink, wink - see, I am not a total loser!), I had the pleasure of being subjected to one of those shindigs, which J&J affectionately calls Global Invitationals. And no, I did not become a J&J Badass, although I was excruciatingly close. But I got a fabulous weekend in Lisbon on J&J's dime out of it (shameless, I know). Did I digress again - you betcha!

Back to the FSOA. That's where Paul's Foreign Service Badassery really came through and he passed with flying colors. They tell you at the end of the day whether you have made it or not. As far as we are concerned, that's the point that separates the badasses from regular folks. Because everything that followed was pretty much beyond our control.

On to the language tests. If you know a foreign language, you can take a phone test and if you do well, you get extra points. Paul tested with his Bulgarian and got the maximum number of points. Oh, yeah!

It does make sense to test with the language that you know best. Only, here is the catch: if you test well in any of the critical or super critical languages, that means you will be posted where that language is spoken at least twice in your Foreign Service career - once during your first two tours and then again later. Also super critical and critical languages bring you more points. Bulgarian (surprise, surprise) is not critical.

Next, came the Medical Clearance. All three of us had to get it to be cleared to go to any country in the world. We all aced that one. Yey for health!

The Top Secret security clearance process came after that. That took at least six months even though Paul already had a Secret security clearance. The Top Secret one seemed a lot more involved. You fill out this really long form and give them the name of every person you have ever known, every place you've ever lived or even set your foot in ... and your firstborn. I kid about the firstborn but everything else is pretty much spot on.

The dude that worked on Paul's Top Secret clearance so wanted Paul to be right out of college or at least to have stayed at the same address and job since college. With all his moves, living overseas and different jobs/consulting assignments, Paul was a real disappointment for him. The escapade to rogue Cuba in the 1990s and his marriage to a foreign national (moi) were the icing on the cake. But, after interviewing all of our friends, coworkers and neighbors and asking them some very impertinent questions, Paul made it through unscathed.

Which made him a Top Secret Foreign Service Badass and landed him on The Register (aka The Badass List). That's the list of people who have made it this far in the process. That's the list the Foreign Service hires from. Everyone on the list has a score, indicating how well they've done on all the previous steps. The better you do on those steps, the higher you are on the list and the higher the likelihood that you are going to get called. But there are no guarantees. As a matter of fact you may never get called because you can be on The Badass List for 18 months and if you don't get called in that 18-month period, you have to start from scratch. That's right, all the way back to filling out the application and taking the FSOT. Some people just don't have the stomach for that. We weren't sure if we did but thankfully, we didn't have to find out.

In late January 2010 Paul finally got The Email. Yes, it's an email even though everyone calls it The Call. It was an invitation for him to join the 152nd Class of Foreign Service Officer Training (aka A-100) starting on March 29, 2010.

I remember that night vividly. Paul walked over to the bedroom where I was reading and told me that he got The Email. I knew exactly what he meant but we just stood there for a while staring at each other very calmly and quietly, which is very unusual, especially for me. We both obviously really, really wanted this. We had talked and dreamed about what it would be like for years but up until then it was just that: a dream. The enormity of it never hit us until that dream became a reality. That realization made us both pause. Because the Foreign Service is not just a job, it's a lifestyle that is completely different from what we were used to. Very much desired but completely different nonetheless. It was thrilling and scary and a whole bunch of other things all at the same time.

He accepted, of course, even though he had to take a substantial pay cut. Then the big snow storms in DC happened and it took a couple of weeks to get his official offer letter with the salary and all that jazz. We had to pinch each other often during those two weeks and look at that email again and again to make sure we weren't still dreaming. But it all eventually came together and around the middle of February we gave our notice at Jacobs. In case you didn't know, for the last year or so, we were both working for the same company. We even had the same job title, Assistant Editor, but for two different magazines - mine has to do with Europe, because I am Eurotrash, and Paul's - with Africa because...well, just because.

Which brings us to the present. We now have one week left at Jacobs. Our last day there is Friday, 3/12. The movers are coming to pack us on 3/17, which is St. Patty's Day. I just hope the movers don't internalize the holiday too much before they pack us because they may send our stuff to Timbuktu instead of DC. We may end up in Timbuktu eventually but not before the Foreign Service imbues us with a little more Foreign Service Badassery during A-100.

What have we done so far to make this dream of ours happen?
  • We have secured an apartment in Falls Church, VA. When we told Nia, her response was, "What??? We are going to live in a church?"
  • We have found a school for Nia in Falls Church.
  • We have retained a realtor, hoping she'll do the impossible and sell our house in a jiffy. In case you are curious, you can view the listing here.
  • We are slowly selling all of our worldly belongings, with a little help from craigslist (love that guy and his list). But we haven't sold everything yet, so if you are in need of incredibly stylish worldly belongings, give me a holler.

Still awake? If yes, you get a pat on the back. If not, run for the hills when you wake up.

If you haven't had enough of my rambling and the word badass, stay tuned. There's more where the above came from.


  1. Dude. The music on your house listing startled me. I hardly ever have the sound on, but of course, of all times, I have it on while I'm sitting here on the laptop in bed at five a.m. while a sick Bria sleeps. Duhh.

    Anyway, congrats to you guys. :D I hope you'll write all about your escapades here; it'll be nice to follow along with two of the smartest and least annoying people I've met. (Well, you're not annoying. Paul is because he wants to be. Maybe he'll want to be less so soon. ;))

  2. Apparently, I can't type. I *did* just get one of those silicon keyboard protectors yesterday. Haven't quite gotten used to it, or I wouldn't have called Brian Bria.

  3. Oh, I thought that was your nickname for him;-)


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