Saturday, August 20, 2022

Happy Anniversary to Us!

M and I just celebrated our wedding anniversary (and our first anniversary as parents)! We went on the first real date we've taken in about six months, thanks to my wonderful friend N offering to watch baby S while we went out.

Originally, we were planning to go to a French restaurant in the Gangnam neighborhood of Seoul. But the day before our anniversary, the city had record rainfall and we saw tons of photos and videos of Gangnam absolutely flooded. Afraid of getting stranded on the other side of town, we changed our reservation to somewhere closer to us (and farther from the Han River) with parking so we could drive and get back home quickly if we needed to.

Thankfully, the rain was much lighter on our actual anniversary. I was still glad we adjusted our plans if for no other reason than the peace of mind it gave me. It's hard enough going out for the first time and leaving a baby behind; I did not need to add any stress on top of that. So we went to Boccalino, an Italian restaurant in Seoul's Four Seasons Hotel.

The service was outstanding. We started our meal off with an amuse bouche of watermelon, pistachio, and ricotta as well as a strawberry and pink peppercorn soda, anchovy bread, and various dips. For appetizers, we ordered a fennel, lobster, and orange salad (which was okay) and a burrata and tomato salad with balsamic pearls (which was fantastic).

Our main courses were pan-fried codfish for me and fusilli bolognese for M, both of which were delicious. When we go out to eat, M tends to play it safe and order things he knows he likes. For me, I like ordering things that are tasty but that I don't cook at home either because the cooking process is difficult or unfamiliar or because the ingredients are hard to find or because M doesn't eat it. Fish usually isn't M's favorite (with salmon being the exception), so I love getting it at restaurants.

We finished off the meal with two ordered desserts (chocolate ice cream and profiteroles for me and mango sorbet for M), but since we mentioned it was our anniversary they gave us an additional scoop of vanilla bean ice cream with a candle and happy anniversary sign board. It was so sweet in every sense of the word. (Longtime readers of the blog also know that ice cream is basically our favorite dessert.)

After dinner we were feeling adventurous and decided to scope out the hotel's speakeasy cocktail bar that our friends are always raving about: Charles H. It took us a while, but eventually we found the hidden door. It is difficult to describe in words how cool this place is. You go through the hidden door down a black staircase to a sleek front desk, and then a bouncer opens up another door into the bar itself. Entering Charles H, the atmosphere hits you from the moment you cross the threshold. The decor is classy, the lighting is just the right level of dim, and the swinging jazz music had me hooked from the get-go.

There's always a question of how accommodating a place designed for drinking alcohol will be for teetotalers like us, especially when we haven't come with a group of drinkers. In this case, there was a cover charge, but it was very manageable (less than $10 per person). A server seated us and brought over welcome drinks of champagne. He was confused when I refused the drinks, but eventually he understood my explanation that we don't drink alcohol. To my surprise and delight, he came back in a few minutes with freshly squeezed orange juice welcome drinks for us instead. (Very often in situations like that, non-drinkers just don't get a welcome drink. So I was already impressed with the service.)

As we nibbled the free chips and olives on our table, M and I ordered some non-alcoholic mocktails. His was a tropical one from Brazil that tasted strongly of creamy banana. Mine was a citrusy, sugary lemongrass drink with a unqiue lemongrass straw. It was nice to know they had some options that were okay even for my religious prohibition against drinking alcohol or coffee or tea.

After a fun night of chatting and reminiscing about our many years together, M and I headed home and found S happy and safe in N's care. Even though we had to change up our itinerary last minute, I think it's safe to say our anniversary date was a success. Going out with M is one of my favorite things to do, and I'm glad we got to have a date, just the two of us, one more time before we leave South Korea.

Friday, August 12, 2022

Informational Interview Green Flags

Since I previously wrote about my informational interview red flags as I go through the bidding process (i.e., process of applying for my next job), I thought I'd also talk about some of the "green flags" on a more positive note. Green flags are those signals to me that a job would be a good fit or that the post will meet my and my family's goals and needs. In no particular order, here are some of the green flags I've experienced during my time bidding in the Foreign Service so far:

  • When there appears to be diversity among the leadership and the staff. I'm always pleasantly surprised to hear people detail an office's structure and reveal that there's relatively even representation between men and women, for example. If the leadership of a post has diversity, such as racially diverse representation in Country Team (i.e., the senior-most staff at an Embassy), that's even more impressive given the fact that diversity drops off with each increasing rank in the Foreign Service.
  • When they're excited to explain the portfolio or priority issues to you and do so clearly and concisely. You can really tell when someone is excited about their work, and I like to see that passion especially from an incumbent. That means the job is enjoyable for them. It also means that they're generous and adept enough to share information about it with others who aren't experts but who are interested without being condescending or rambling.
  • When there are robust employee support organizations and associations. This matters more to me for large posts than small posts (because small posts may not have the human capital to spare), but I love to hear when embassies have an active Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, and Accessibility Council and glifaa (i.e., LGBTQI+ association) representative and U.S. Embassy Association (i.e., a group devoted to the U.S. Embassy community) and more. That tells me people there care about building up each other and the institution and not just doing the minimum required work to scrape by each day.
  • When they mention a few honest cons and not just the pros about where I'm bidding. I find someone who is willing to admit the unglamorous parts of a job or life at a post much more credible. I give more weight to the positive things they say because they're willing to tell me about some of the negative things, too.
  • When they mention work/life balance as an important part of the culture at post. Most decisionmakers know how difficult it is for someone applying to the job to ask about work/life balance. Many hiring managers will consider people who ask such a question as lazy or unserious or entitled, so it's difficult to obtain information about it even if having that information is crucial to finding out whether you want to bid or highly rank or accept a job. As a result, I appreciate it when they bring it up so I as the candidate don't have to - it shows me they're thinking about how to attract the best candidates and that it's a priority for them. I've also heard some horror stories (and experienced instances myself) when non-urgent tasks are treated like emergencies, demanding 24/7 attention and interfering with every aspect of life outside of work. (I strongly disagree with that approach. In my opinion, it gives nowhere for a team to ramp up to in the case of an actual crisis. The best examples of leadership on this issue I've seen are bosses who assign off-hours duty if needed, mandate compensation for overtime work, push back on unnecessary assignments, and refuse to respond to routine email after hours or let their subordinates do so. Given our work culture, though, that's extremely rare. I hope someday it's much more common.)
  • When the incumbent and hiring managers are responsive. A quick and thoughtful pattern of responses indicate to me that the office is well-organized and takes recruitment for the position seriously. If they put that kind of attention and time management to hiring, I think it's more likely that they'll put the same effort into setting me up for success on the job through mentoring, onboarding, and collaborating as a team.

These are just a few of the things that stand out to me as green flags for bidding. They may not apply to everyone, but I've been known to warm up to a post, solidify my desire to bid on a job, or move the position higher up on my own ranked list based on these green flags. I hope everyone bidding this year has lots of great opportunities on their list with plenty of their own encouraging green flags. Good luck!

Saturday, August 6, 2022

Savoring Korea's Cafe Culture

One thing I'm going to miss terribly about our time in South Korea is the wonderful cafe culture. There are regular cafes, themed cafes, dessert cafes, Instagram cafes, animal cafes, and the list goes on. In this post, I'll share a few of my favorite cafes in Itaewon, a neighborhood in Seoul walking distance from our house.

A dessert place I thankfully discovered early on in my tour and patronized regularly is La Vie en Coco (라비앙코코), a chocolate cafe. Anyone who knows me well knows how much I love chocolate. But I'll admit I can be a little picky about the type and quality of chocolate. So believe me when I say La Vie en Coco is the real deal!

It's a very small cafe with only a handful of seats and a tiny menu. They're most well-known for their drinking chocolate and it does not disappoint. The rich, creamy drinking chocolate transports me to Europe every time I order it. You can get it hot or cold, perfect for the frigid Korean winter or blazing, humid summer.

They also sell boxes of chocolate with flavors that change based on what's available. On my most recent visit, I bought a box of chocolate truffles that were half for me and half for M. (It was a bit embarrassing, because I confidently attempted to order the box in Korean but realized only after a few minutes of confusion that I was using the wrong Korean word for the number nine as I was trying to order. In the Korean language, there are two sets of numbers: one known as native Korean numbers and one called Sino-Korean numbers. Crucially, they are not interchangeable. You generally need to use the correct one for each specific context. So I repeated the Sino-Korean word for the number nine over and over again while the poor cashier stared at me blankly until we figured out I picked the wrong number set and should have used the native Korean number. Oops!) Anyway, La Vie en Coco boxes make beautiful gifts for any chocolate lovers, and M has gotten their chocolates for me for occasions in the past.

The next cafe is actually a bagel shop that my friend N recommended called Local Villa Bagel (로컬빌라베이글). These are the best bagels I've ever had in my life. (I know I'm a traitor to my fellow University of Virginia alumni for saying this, but it even beats Bodo's Bagels for me!) They were so buttery and soft with an amazing texture that defies the dry, dense bagel stereotype. The cream cheeses were extraordinary, as well.

My avocado lox bagel with arugula made for an outstanding and filling meal, and I ended up taking a bag of assorted bagels and cream cheese to go. The free water was infused with mint, and the whole cafe was so bright and airy that it created an open and mood-boosting atmosphere. I think it tends to attract a younger audience, too... Most of the other patrons were clearly Gen Z.

The last cafe I'll mention is a study cafe called Nolsoop (놀숲). This study cafe was billed as a "Cartoon & Book Cafe" and seems like it might be a chain. It was so fun, I wish I'd learned about it much sooner.

When you arrive, you place your shoes in a shoe locker and put on slippers. Then, you can order food and drink at the counter and get a time card. When you leave the cafe, you pay for whatever food and drink you ordered and for the hours you spent at the cafe. It's very inexpensive; I stayed an hour and ordered a cherry soda, and my total was about $5.)

On the entrance floor there were board games and places to play them. Downstairs and upstairs, there were a variety of nooks to study, rest, and read. There was also an impressive collection of manga/manhwa(만화)/comic books that you could read while you were there and simply return before you left. There was also a terrace where you could sit outside, though the day I went was much too hot for that option.

Instead, I grabbed a comfortable, padded, private spot to stretch out, read, write, and enjoy my cherry soda. I love the idea of a study cafe, and the whole vibe reminded me of my college days. There were plenty of groups of students there reading or studying, but even as an adult well out of school I'd go back. It was the perfect setting for being productive.

This is just a small snapshot that might give readers a taste of Korea's cafe culture. If you ever visit South Korea, make sure to check out some cafes while you're here. There's truly something for everyone!