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Monday, April 25, 2016

Это правда?

I speak Russian.

At least that was the determination of the examiners at my end-of-training Russian exam last Thursday. While I didn't feel that I did all that badly during the two hour-long test (thanks to the extra coaching I'd been receiving during the week leading up to the exam), at the same time I was sure that I hadn't reached the required threshold for passing, especially in the reading portion. So it came as quite a surprise to learn late Thursday evening that I had, in fact, been given the 2/2 score (on a scale from one to five) in speaking and reading, respectively, that was specified as a passing grade for a beginning student in Russian. There are only two possible conclusions to be drawn from the unexpected result:

1.) The criteria for receiving a 2/2 was much lower than I'd thought, or
2.) The Russian department at the Foreign Service Institute wanted to get rid of me as quickly as possible.

I'm leaning toward the latter interpretation.
So now thirty-two weeks of Russian language training is over, and we are due to leave Falls Church, Virginia for Vilnius, Lithuania is less than a fortnight. There's a lot to do in the limited time we have left here, and, frankly speaking, my passing the language test has caught me off guard. After a disastrous progress evaluation back in late February, my training time was actually extended by an additional eight weeks, as the powers-that-be determined at that time that I wasn't going to pass the final exam penciled in for April 21. I wasn't upset by the extension that would've kept us in the D.C. area until the middle of June, because it would've meant my daughter could've finished the school year here. However, the original test date wasn't rescheduled, and now I'm officially supposedly proficient enough at Russian to do my job when I get to Vilnius.

I'm not so sure about that. Despite more than seven months of intensive study in speaking Russian and reading Cyrillic, I'm actually very weak at the language skills that I'll need to use when I'm on the job in Vilnius, namely interviewing applicants from Belarus and Russia seeking visas to travel to the United States (by contrast, most Lithuanian citizens are eligible to participate in the Visa Waiver Program). It's highly unlikely that I'll ever be called upon to give a presentation in Russian to an audience in Lithuania on education or health care in the U.S., yet this "skill" is an important component of language training at FSI. The fault lies not with the instructors, who are very good at their jobs, but with the content of the curricula and the structure of the all-important end-of-training exam. Giving vent to my frustrations and criticisms with the way languages are taught in the State Department would require a long and separate blog post (in probable conjunction with a letter of resignation), so I'll leave all that for the feedback I'm expected to provide now that my training is finished. In the meantime, I feel spectacularly unprepared for the real world that awaits me when we arrive in Vilnius early next month.

Russian misgivings aside, I'm looking forward to Lithuania. Everything I've heard about both the country and the embassy there has been nothing but positive, and I've been getting good vibrations from the various emails between myself and some of the people I'm going to be working with. My wife is also excited about the move (although not knowing the situation regarding the existence of Asian grocery stores in Vilnius is making it difficult for her to determine what comfort foods need to be shipped from Falls Church). Even my daughter doesn't seem to mind having to finish the fourth grade at a new school in a new country. The next week-and-a-half will be busy for us, but we're eager to get a start on our second posting.

The paucity of blog posts during the last three weeks has been mainly due to my having to prepare for the final language exam, but we did do a few things aside from the usual routines (Pamela and Amber take zither and Mandarin lessons, respectively, every weekend at a Chinese school in Falls Church). My daughter, for example, was one of the winners in her division at the Cherry Blossom Go Tournament, held at George Mason University earlier this month:

We also took advantage of the warming spring weather one weekend to visit the historic mill town of Occoquan, in Virginia's Prince William County:  

The compact downtown district has around sixty residential buildings and non-residential structures that have been preserved for visitors:

These days in America you can find any number of "historic towns", just as you would come across an ever-increasing number of "old streets" in Taiwan. But while the latter mostly consist of food stands and the resulting hordes of snacking visitors (at least on weekends and national holidays), the preservation of the former has taken the form of antique shops, art galleries and restaurants offering al fresco dining. And, of course, shops selling fudge and ice cream:

Our time here is winding down, and there's a lot to do in preparation for the move. If I can find the time, I'd like to do a hike before we go, and perhaps see an Orioles game at Camden Yards (though the weather forecast for next weekend doesn't look promising). Despite the stress that comes with having to learn first Mandarin, and then Russian, the FSI way, we like living in Falls Church - it's a nice area, the schools are good and Washington, D.C. isn't far away. Hopefully we'll be back in a couple of years.

Springtime in the local cemetery

Full moon over Falls Church. Unfortunately, my tripod is in storage somewhere in Europe, otherwise this would've been a pretty atmospheric photo...right? 
Amber going solo with crab legs for the first time...sort of. Mom still had to crack open some of the legs for her.
Sunset over Leesburg Pike. It looked more impressive in real life. For some strange reason, shooting through the front windshield didn't yield the desired result. Go figure...

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