Sunday, December 29, 2013

Olympic Truce

I've made no secret of the fact that I support using sports diplomacy to promote democracy and other political principles. So is it hypocritical of me to disapprove of the President and Vice President's decision not to attend the Olympics in Russia? I don't see it as a snub to Putin and Russia's policies against gays. Rather, I see it as a snub to the American athletes who trained hard to get there and deserve to see an American leader cheering them on.

Let's not politicize the Olympics.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013


I once heard that the majority of Foreign Service Officers are strong Js. For those not familiar with Myers Briggs vernacular, that translates to hardcore planners. And yet, the foreign service lifestyle requires us to live with ambiguity. Ever since I received that letter from the State Department almost 9 years ago telling me to drop what I was doing and report to Washington 6 weeks later (this after more than a year of silence since passing the oral exam), I have grudgingly eased my compulsive need to control my fate.

I wonder why Js are drawn to this career, or why the Department seems to go after Js. We get new leadership every few years. Priorities change at the drop of a hat. There's a new strategic plan every year. Perhaps Js bring a necessary balance to a line of work that shifts gears every 5 minutes. If the foreign service replaced all the list-making Js with go-with-the-flow Ps, would chaos ensue or would the the Department actually thrive? 

Sunday, November 3, 2013

Theater of the Absurd

I thought politics in Afghanistan were ridiculous, but now that I'm in DC, I have a mezzanine seat in the theater of the absurd. Congress has an all-time low approval rating. Media coverage of the so-called shutdown* seemed more like a mockumentary of a fictional country directed by Christopher Guest. Are we really in a position to lecture the Afghans about the virtues of democracy when the clowns we've democratically elected demonstrate an abysmal lack of leadership?

The inner workings of the State Department are also disheartening. It wasn't so bad when I was watching from the bleacher seats overseas. But up close… Is this really how it works? In the interest of full disclosure, I should mention that I was passed over for promotion last month and am still a little bitter about it. Regardless, I think it would be easy to find promoted FSOs who would agree that the manner in which decisions are made and priorities set is not always sensible.

So I keep my head down and focus on the work. Amid the cuckoos, there are some really smart people working at the State Department and I just need to latch myself to them and learn as much as I can.

*Let's be honest, the government didn't actually shutdown. A lot of people were furloughed, true, but flights continued, our borders were patrolled, foreign visitors were cleared through customs, federal entitlements were paid out, even the mail was delivered. That's not a true shutdown.

Saturday, October 12, 2013

Grumpy People's Judean Front

I've settled in to D.C. There have been many personal adjustments, not the least of which is having to pay for things again (i.e. food, rent, and when did cable TV get so outrageously expensive?). But the upsides outweigh the frequent deductions from my bank account (figuratively, not literally). I can walk to work, I have a full kitchen at my disposal, and I can eat sushi whenever I feel like it.

There have been some adjustments at work, too. This is my first assignment at Main State and I'm still learning how the building works (and why corridors seem to end without warning). Part of my job is to keep track of certain naughty organizations. This is not as easy as you might think, especially when these groups are about as stable as the Judean People's Front from Monty Python's "Life of Brian." Or is it the People's Judean Front? Judean Silly People's Front?

Maybe it's because I've just gone through the State Department PCS voucher silliness, but I have an idea to disable all insurgencies and terrorist groups - let's export USG-style bureaucracy. If the illogical standard forms and opaque performance evaluation procedures don't cripple them, then we go one step further and impose our 2-party bicameral form of government on them. That will stop them in their tracks.

Monday, August 19, 2013


I've left Kabul and am enjoying several weeks of Home Leave before starting my new job in DC. There are several layers of transitions I'm working through. Strange as it may seem, it was a bit difficult leaving Kabul behind. Ok, not really leaving Kabul behind, but leaving behind good people and unfinished work. I suppose there's a little guilt as well. Anne Smedinghoff came home in a box and I came home in business class. How is that fair?

Transitioning to the real world is not as traumatic as some might expect (I've done this before, so I was ready to face the abundance of choices available in the real world instead of selecting from two brands of men's deodorant available at the ISAF PX). It only took me a few days to get used to having to pay for things. I've been enjoying the Home Leave version of real life - doing household projects, preparing my own meals with fresh ingredients, and catching up on the latest American TV shows I've never seen (and a few classic reruns as well).

My next transition will be moving to DC. In the 8 years that I've been in the Foreign Service, all but 2 years were spent overseas and those 2 years were in Arlington for training. This will be my first time working and living in DC. Do I need to buy pantyhose, or can I get by at Main State with bare legs in the summer? How do I find an apartment and where's the best place to live? Will I be able to find a good Zumba class nearby?

Is there a Washington DC area studies class at FSI that I can sign up for?

Thursday, July 18, 2013

Smart, But Cranky, Traveler

I am a cranky traveler. I admit it. But I'm also a smart traveler. Traveling as frequently as I do, I've learned the steps to take to avoid unnecessary hassles.

I know what needs to be easily accessible in my appropriately-sized carry on bag. I know exactly when to board the plane so that I'm not sitting in the economy section longer than necessary. I calculate in advance when the meal will be served and bring my own snack to tide me over. I know just when to visit the bathroom one last time before the plane begins its descent. And I spent $100 for the Global Entry Trusted Traveler program to avoid the long lines at passport control in U.S. airports. I put a lot of thought and planning into making my travel as hassle-free as possible. So I resent hassles that are artificially imposed upon me by less thoughtful travelers.

I have no patience for someone who waits in the security line for 15 minutes only to scramble to find her cell phone in an oversized purse when it's finally her turn.*  I crankily decline whenever I'm asked to give up my pre-selected aisle seat for a middle seat so a honeymooning couple can sit together. I can't count how many times I've been whacked in the head by some idiot who insists on shoving an oversized suitcase into the overhead bin.

Perhaps if I didn't travel so often, I'd be nicer. But I do, so I'm not.

* Why don't airports put the x-ray machine bins at the beginning of the line so people can use the time they're waiting in line to put their belts, cell phones, lap tops, and watches in the bin? Why wait until the last second to give them a bin?

Sunday, July 7, 2013

Telecommuting in Kabul

Until recently, I was able to get out quite a bit and visit my grantees and their project sites. Not anymore. The start of the summer fighting season, new embassy procedures (whereby Secretary Kerry himself needs to approve my attendance at a ribbon cutting ceremony at a school), and an understandably - but still frustratingly - skittish leadership have made getting out of the embassy much more difficult these days.

This makes me feel like I am not expected (or allowed) to do my job well. As long as the paperwork is in order. So why am I telecommuting in Kabul when I could be telecommuting from DC?

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

The Digital Runaround

Actual auto-replies that I received today (May 15). Names have been removed for my protection.

Auto-reply email #1 from Person X:

My last day in the office is April 4. Person Y will take over this position on April 8.

Auto-replay email #2 from Person Y:

I am out of the office until Tuesday, May 28. For questions on Afghanistan, please contact Person X.

Sunday, April 28, 2013

A (Temporarily) Reformed Control Freak

Living in a compound environment does something to an independent woman like myself. Day after day of someone else deciding what I should eat means I've lost the ability to make a decision, culinary or otherwise. If a light bulb goes out, I call GSO instead of changing it myself. The motor pool drivers take me where I need to go so I haven't been behind the wheel since I left California last summer. In short, I started questioning my ability to function in the real world.

As a result, my vacations, which used to be Himalayan treks and African safaris, now consist of the most menial activities. Most recently I was in Istanbul and while I enjoyed touring the Hagia Sofia and the basilica cistern, the highlights for me were having a picnic in Gulhane Park and sipping wine while reading my iPad at an outdoor cafe. Things that resemble life in the real world. When I was in Singapore a few months ago, I was practically giddy with delight taking the subway and getting to my destination all by myself!

Here in Kabul so much of what I do (or don't do) depends on factors I don't control. I've had to tone down my need to control my environment and learn to accept a lot of things that would ordinarily drive me nuts. That's not to say I'm as well-adjusted as I'm making myself sound. I'm just hoping that when I get back to the real world, I won't have a breakdown in the grocery store when faced with choosing between 26 different kinds of peanut butter.

Monday, April 8, 2013

Another Foreign Service Loss

How could something so extraordinarily tragic happen during such an ordinary task? Anne Smedinghoff was delivering books to a school, something public diplomacy officers everywhere do all the time. But she was killed for doing it. How are you supposed to deal with that?

At first you embrace the shock. Because it's easier to function when you're numb. But then the shock wears off. So you switch to robot mode. How else do you get through the day? How else do you offer support to people who knew Anne better than you did? How else do you work on the Crisis Coordination Team (CCT) and read the 30 emails per hour, many describing gruesome medical details about people you work with?

But despite your best efforts to maintain robot mode, some things manage to poke through. The phrase "Anne's remains" catches you off guard as you read CCT emails. While dutifully reviewing early press reports you come across a touching message from her parents. You lose your train of thought as a stray memory of Anne creeps through your mind.

I worked with Anne and admired her ability and positive attitude. But I didn't know her well outside of work. It feels inappropriate for me to try to claim a reaction to her death that is disproportionate to my relationship with her. If this post seems restrained or even a little cold, I guess that's why. The best way I can think of to honor Anne's sacrifice is to stay busy, be useful, keep a stiff upper lip and all that.

This whole thing is tragic and unfair. To Anne, her family and friends, to the others who were killed and wounded. That's the part that hits me the hardest.

Friday, March 15, 2013

My Whole Life is an Unaccompanied Tour

Lately I've been a source of information to prospective Foreign Service Officers who have found me at this blog or through other social media. One of the questions I get, particularly from the young women, is, "What's it like as a single female FSO?" The short, sweet answer is, "It's not for everyone."

There's a joke in the Foreign Service that goes something like this: If you want to know where a male FSO's first overseas post was, look at his wife, if you want to know where a female FSO's first overseas post was, look at her furniture. 

I know enough female FSOs who have found husbands abroad to dispel that myth. But I think the foreign service lifestyle is harder for single women than for single men. And "single issues" are not just about dating. I cannot tell you how many post reports I've read where "great post for singles" meant "great post for single guys to pick up local girls in bars." 

I'd be curious to know how many FSOs are single and compare that against the resources offered specifically for them. I took the "Single in the FS" seminar at FSI before heading out on my first overseas tour; the only thing I remember is that we were told we had to report our romantic relationships to the RSO. As if the dating scene is the only concern singles have overseas. They don't teach you how to expand your circle of friends outside of the embassy. They don't train CLOs on the special needs of singles (most CLOs are spouses and therefore organize events that appeal to other spouses and families). And they don't teach you how to handle the tough times alone. I think there are a number of single FSOs who self-medicate when they don't have anyone to talk to.

One of the nice things about serving in Kabul, and previously in Baghdad, is that everyone here is temporarily single and living the unaccompanied life. For a single FSO who usually has to plan social activities around her friends' kids' schedule, it's great! In Kabul, the babysitter doesn't cancel at the last minute, visiting in-laws don't disrupt your regular girls night out, and people are always up for a drink after work. 

This career is - mostly - fulfilling and has given me a lot of experiences I would not otherwise have had.  I'm grateful for that. But it's also a demanding lifestyle and doing it by myself can be tiring sometimes. There have been times when I wished I had a trailing spouse (or wished I WAS a trailing spouse) instead of being the one on whose shoulders everything falls.

I wonder what would happen if single FSOs organized themselves.

Sunday, February 17, 2013

What Would Socrates Do?

Life at Embassy Kabul is so bizarre that it's best not to try to make it seem normal. Except I'm still trying. I recently bought two small pieces of furniture at the mini-bazaar held on the compound once a week: a small end table and a footstool. Both are nice pieces and do a lot to make my hooch feel less like a storage container. But it is still a storage container.

I'm in a constant philosophical struggle between resignation and delusion. Should I resign myself to the fact that I live in a storage container and that life here is what it is; or should I delude myself into thinking I can make my storage container, ergo my life here, better than it is.

I usually end up resigning myself to reality, but somewhat comforted by the fact that this job is teaching me things I wouldn't have learned anywhere else. Ooh! That's a good line, I should remember to put that in my EER.

Friday, January 11, 2013

Culinary Diplomacy Afghan Style

Recently the State Department launched a new culinary diplomacy initiative. Embassy Kabul launched its own version of culinary diplomacy this week when embassy employees participated in the Afghan version of Iron Chef. Our brave amateur chefs went head to head with a professional Afghan chef using the secret ingredient - turnip!

The American chefs working hard while the camera crew does its best to distract them.
 Note the product placement items in the foreground.

Both teams had to create a soup, a main dish, and a dessert within 60 minutes using the secret ingredient. The American team did very well and demonstrated some of the creativity of American cooking. When it came time to taste the dishes, I think the Afghan judges were a little puzzled by some unfamiliar food presented to them. But the American team's pancake dessert with a sweet caramel topping rocked!

Getting ready to present the dishes to the judges.

One of the judges was an FSO from the embassy. He gave his comments in Pashto, which impressed a lot of Afghans sitting around me in the audience (could this be the inspiration for a new FSI language test format?). In the end, the Afghan team had the advantage and won the title of "Golden Chef." Even though the American team lost, I think it was a public diplomacy victory. And I went home with a Golden Chef mug, so it was a good day all around.