“This is your chance to pay back your Uncle Sam for all the wonderful freedoms you’ve enjoyed.” – Arthur Gibbons, xXx (2001)
Uncle Sam has been a generous fella to me over the years. He gave me gruel and shelter in childhood, citizenship papers and scholarship dollars during my student years, and has been graciously sending checks so I can pay for my rent, borsch, and vodka. Well, two out of three. I’m passionately indifferent on borsch. Perhaps it is time I start making returns on Uncle Sam’s investment in me. With that in mind, I signed up for the Foreign Service Officer Test (FSOT) during the February window and I convinced my Fulbright sister Marina and rap duo counterpart MC Krim Shady (Zach) to accompany me to the testathalon in The Thunderdome. Good fortune was bestowed upon us. The test was given during the same weekend as the spring Fulbright orientation for new arrivals. The rest of us were invited to attend the exhilarating, heart-pounding Fulbright orientation action a second time. Jokes aside, a free train trip to Kyiv to hang out with friends that are flung all across the country was exactly what the doctor ordered. Even the weather in Kyiv was good i.e. above zero centigrade. Good fortune indeed.
Marina and I got the trip going with another successful champagne campaign on the train. We were accompanied in our compartment by a pious, teetotatling pro-Belarussian dictatorship Ph.D candidate in economics from Kyiv-Mohyla. Only in Ukraine. It is technically illegal to drink on a train in Ukraine, but you wouldn’t know that aside from the ironic crossed-out bottle symbols. Honestly, what else are you going to do on a 15-hour train trip. Luckily, I’m fond of Ukrainian trains. I’ve already slept about a dozen nights on them.
It is practically impossible to prepare for the FSOT. It tests job competency knowledge across thirteen realms deemed crucial to the work of a FSO Generalist during the last State Department internal review. The categories run the gamut from U.S. history, politics, and economics to management and computers (and everything in-between.) The FSOs I’ve met joke around that “no one passes the test the first time around.” After extensively preparing for the exam on wikipedia, Zach and I joined the local ex-pats for drinks where I turned out to be public enemy #1 for unilaterally insisting that we change drinking establishments at a split second’s notice without time or opportunity for debating the said executive order. Back story: The ex-pats though it would be peachy to sandwich their cultural outing between trips to two different ex-pat Irish pubs. I couldn’t stomach the $15 burgers on the menu literally and the upside-down Italian flag pretending to be an Irish flag figuratively so I put on my prickly Decider hat. We promptly moved to Trolleybus, a quaint place frequented by locals and featuring reasonable prices and decent bar food. Mission Accomplished.
The aftermath has been a PR nightmare. I’ve been forced to defend my actions from witch-hunting accusers. As readers of this blog, you know who you are. My character and patriotism have been questioned, but I’ve decided to adopt a full Bosnian inat (entrenchment) policy despite a surge of interest to abandon my position without clear benchmarks or an argument winding-down exit strategy.
Anyway, that was Friday. We took the test on Saturday afternoon and probably failed. Conclusive analysis of our failure will be noted in three to five weeks. Hopefully, with pie charts and Venn diagrams. I confused facts about Lake Baikal and the Caspian Sea on one question and was asked about the location of the “page setup” tab on Windows computers on another. Lame. The irrationality of the test was cured with a bottle of vodka, a rather appropriate pre-gaming transition to our evening reception with academicians.
We were invited to a catered dinner at the Fulbright program director’s apartment. Normally, this is a boring affair where current and future Ph.Ds discuss important controversies in their fields unknown to anyone living outside the Ivory Tower while eating cheese cubes and exchanging business cards. I decided to introduce a little flair to this gathering by parading around as my newest alter ego – Phillipe, an effete Frenchman fond of pink scarves, inappropriate humor, and baguettes. Pictures of Phillipe entertaining the guests are forthcoming.
I helped myself to three plates of food and enough wine and beer to enter the zone, the happy place that makes me enjoy drinking in the first place. The party continued at Andy Bar, a new gay club on Khreshatyk. In case you’re wondering, yes, there are gay clubs in Kyiv. There are at least three and I’ve been to two of them. And, no, I’m straight but I’m not sure about Phillipe. The skeptical ex-pat guys were persuasively convinced that gay bars are great places to meet women, nice girls who like to dance without constantly being hit on by straight men. I don’t wish to take credit for creating this illusion, but I’m not going to disassociate myself from the rumor, either. Congratulations to those who found girls to dance with despite the rough terrain. Anyway, my Fulbright peeps and I tore the club up, fo sho…until the moment when two weightlifting pretty boys took the stage in speedos. I don’t remember if that came before or after the drag queen told the American girls to step off stage. I haven’t had this much fun clubbing since the private party at the Hyundai Hotel during BIP, my study abroad trip to Korea this past summer. I don’t go to clubs often, but maybe I should.
Sunday was reserved for the actual orientation briefings, the primary purpose of our gathering. I promptly arrived an hour late. After lunch, we were led on a Kyiv city tour by a Fulbright scholar who did the same during the first orientation. He has learned much more about the city in the intervening time and was thus able to give us a more comprehensive tour of the Kyiv that tourists don’t normally see. We ate dinner at a restaurant combining pre-civilization caveman village/nature themes with a health food bent. The evening ended with a small get together and an impromptu birthday party for Raphi, our Fulbright colleague working on his Ph.D dissertation in migration. We took a good ten minutes to open a bottle of champagne, reinforcing my earlier point about Fulbright grants being awarded to current and future Ivory Tower academicians. It turns out that basic life skills are merely recommended and not required to be a Fulbrighter.
I spent Monday at the Embassy where I finally got some good, though still incomplete advice about my visa and registration. Ukrainian laws are notoriously vague and open to multiple interpretations. It is in the gray of the law where bribes grease the cogs of the underground black market. On a side note, I spilled juice on my crotch during the coffee break so the need for dry cleaning my suit has shifted from orange to red on the “unprofessional look” level.
I made it to the train headed back to Simferopol with three full minutes to spare. I took the trip back to Crimea with Steve, a scholar in political science re-joining the Fulbright contingent in Simferopol on a grant renewal. My final destination was my new apartment (Marina’s old apartment). I had moved the last of my belongings on Thursday before getting on the train to Kyiv. Now it was time to actually start living in the place.