Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Sundown at the Palace

December 31 was the last day the U.S. occupied the Republican Palace, where the Embassy has operated for the last several years. There was a nice ceremony to lower the American flag for the last time. On January 1, the Iraqis will have a flag-raising ceremony at the Palace. (Watch for a battle between the Prime Minister and the President to see who gets the Palace.)

The Marines lowered the flag and presented it to Ambassador Crocker. There had been some lively debate about whether to use the grimey flag that had been flying for a while ("it has character") or to use a new one ("it photographs better"). Grimey won.

The Ambassador gave a nice speech about the transition and the evolving relationship with Iraq. Then he presented the flag to a surprised General Perkins, who, years earlier as Colonel Perkins, played an important role in the first weeks of the war.

We'll officially dedicate the new U.S. Embassy soon.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

In the Wings

The recently signed agreement between the United States and the Government of Iraq has taken up a lot of the Embassy’s attention for many months now. What is commonly referred to as the Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA), actually evolved into 2 documents – the Security Agreement, which covers primarily military issues, and the Strategic Framework Agreement, which focuses on political and economic projects.

The lead negotiator for the U.S. was Ambassador David Satterfield. Whenever he would come to Baghdad, the only place in the front office where we could put him was at a small desk next to the scanner, which happened to be right next to me. I got to hear some fascinating conversations and at times got an almost insider look at how the negotiations were going. It was like watching a great play from stage left.

It was amusing to see this side of things and also to see what the press would report. There would be days when Ambassador Satterfield was clearly frustrated, either with the Iraqis or with the Americans. Then there would be days when he was very pleased with the day’s progress. I remember one day when he spent much of the time talking with his Iraqi counterpart on the phone and was very happy with how things were progressing. The next day I read U.S. press reports predicting the catastrophic failure of the agreement and that the negotiations were on the brink of collapse.

To be fair, some Iraqi politicians manipulated the press terribly for their own reasons. But it seemed like the press was a willing victim, happy to report as fact any crumb of information they could get without bothering to challenge the motivation of the person who provided it. I’m not trying to sound like a Pollyanna, there were some tough moments, but I think at some point everyone realized that not signing an agreement would be a disaster.

A lot of sweat went into these negotiations and I think my colleagues who worked so hard on it were proud of what they accomplished. Certainly this is the first agreement of this scope the U.S. has ever done. Too bad all the hard work was so quickly overshadowed by one childish act involving shoes. While many people will want to hail the journalist who insulted the President of the United States (like him or not, he is OUR president), his actions, unfortunately, reflected badly on Iraq. President Bush spent the rest of the evening trying to persuade Prime Minister Maliki not to commit hari kari out of embarrassment and to not expel all the journalists associated with that Egyptian newspaper. Take a moment to consider what the Arab reaction would be if an American journalist threw his shoes at PM Maliki during a speech in Washington D.C.

I don’t normally get into policy, but I thought this unique experience was worth bending my own rule. The agreement was passed by the Iraqi Parliament and signed, Ambassador Satterfield went home, and the work goes on.

Saturday, November 1, 2008

Tea with the Mujahedeen e Khalq

One of the sections in my portfolio is the Political-Military section, which covers subjects that have political and military (security) implications. All the cables and memos from the Pol-Mil section to the front office go through me, so I read a lot of stuff that I know very little about. Recently I was lucky enough to get a first-hand education about one of the more controversial topics Pol-Mil covers - the Mujahedeen e Khalq (aka People's Mujahadeen of Iran).

The MeK (or PMI) is a group of Iranians who left Iran about 20 years ago and established military-style training camps in Iraq (and other places) with the stated purpose of overthrowing the current Iranian regime. (See Wikipedia if you're interested in MeK and its history.) The U.S. and EU have designated the MeK a terrorist organization. Saddam Hussein was supportive of the MeK, but now the organization faces a dilemma in the new Iraq. The MeK turned over their weapons and signed a deal with the U.S. several years ago and have been living without incident at Camp Ashraf, where Coalition Forces provide security for the roughly 3000 MeK members.

A team from the Embassy flew to Camp Ashraf, joined by our military colleagues, to talk to the MeK about their status and their future after 2008, when the U.S. military will no longer have the authority to provide security. It's a very complicated situation and it was a fascinating meeting. (Understand that I spend most of my time chained to my desk, so a 3 hour meeting with a terrorist organization is exciting for me.)

The commander of the MeK is a woman. In fact, much of the leadership is female. I was the only woman on the U.S. side of the table. Like devout Muslims, the MeK men don't shake hands with unrelated women, so the MeK men didn't shake my hand. I had learned about this custom during my training in D.C., so I didn't embarass myself by sticking out my hand, but put my hand over my heart instead. As I was leaving, the commander made an effort to come over to me and shake my hand; perhaps she observed that none of the men shook my hand and didn't want me to feel left out.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Art Appreciation Day

All of my complaining about never getting to leave the embassy finally paid off. A friend in the Cultural Affairs section invited me to an exhibit of female artists at the home of a member of parliment. It was my second excursion outside the International Zone and my first by car. I've never before arrived at an art show in armored vehicles with a full contingent of security agents (I think there were more of them than there were of us) while wearing body armor.

The parliamentarian who hosted the event greeted us warmly and guided us to the exhibit. Her yard had been transformed into an outdoor showcase of paintings, sculptures and ceramics. I was a bit surprised by the enthusiastic press coverage and kept futzing with my hair while studiously examing the artwork with approving nods.

There was one artist whose work I particularly admired. She said she had been painting since she was five years old and was currently studying art at school. I think she was pleased with my lavish praise of her work.

The organization that sponsored the event, the Women Artists Association, is only a few months old and this was their first exhibition. I was quite impressed with the quality and diversity of the art. It's nice to know that even in these tough times, art and creativity is encouraged and appreciated.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Mental Health, Baghdad Style

There is another female staff assistant in the front office named Mary. I am fortunate that we get along very well and we think alike in a lot of ways. In fact, we will often email or IM each other the identical message at the same time, our thoughts crossing each other in cyberspace. Even though we only sit a few feet away from each other, we keep an Instant Message window open on our desktops to maintain a running commentary on the day's events.

Another favorite mental health activity is to find a table outside at the end of the day and have a venting session. The range of topics varies widely. This activity usually involves wine.

There is no other person in the world who better understands what I'm experiencing because our situations and outlook are similar. We have gotten each through some low points. I can't recall a time when my mental health was so dependent on another person.

Mary is currently on R&R in the States.

My mental health is suffering.

My descent into madness is mitigated somewhat by email and Facebook. Yesterday we even managed to have a chat session. It was almost like Mary was sitting just a few feet away from me.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Random Musings

Armored vehicles, T-walls, checkpoints, helicopters flying overhead, and occasional duck & cover alarms don't even phase me after 2 months.

VIP visits barely register a blip among most of the embassy staff. Since I've been here, we've had 2 secretaries, some deputy and assistant secretaries, numerous congressional delegations, and more visits are planned. In a normal embassy, these kinds of visits would shut down normal operations. Here, it's just another day in the IZ.

Simple pleasures are appreciated. A homemade banner to celebrate someone's birthday, a fresh egg, eating dinner outside now that it drops below 90 at night. Anything that breaks up the monotony.

I'm continuously amazed by the caliber of people here. Sure, there are a few stinkers. But there are some really smart people doing really good work. When all of this is over, nobody can say we didn't try.

Friday, September 12, 2008

The Petraeus Show

In less than a week, General Petraeus will turn over control of the multi-national forces in Iraq to General Odierno. A colleague suggested that, before General Petraeus departs, I should attend one of his battlefield update assessments. The update is a daily meeting that covers everything from casualties and status of operations, to electricty output and media coverage.

Standing unobtrusively off to the side of the operations room where embassy personnel connect via video teleconference screens to the base camp where GEN Petraeus runs the meeting, I watched as each person briefed the general. Occasionally he would ask a question, offer a comment or congratulate them for a job well done. Even though I read the battlefield update materials every day, it was fascinating to see it in person. It was a great education of what our military is achieving every single day. I was also impressed with the precision and conciseness with which the meeting was run. Not like a typical State Department meeting!

On another topic, an embassy employee passed along a message he received from a young Iraqi:

One thing more, please thank on behalf of me and many young Iraqis for the sacrifices that you Americans have done for us. A lot of people in Iraq are afraid to say it in public but deep in our hearts we well never forget the brave men and women's who wanted to build a new free and democratic Iraq. God bless America :)

That was nice to read.

Friday, September 5, 2008

Blurry Days of Baghdad

The Arab work week is Sunday through Thursday. That leaves Friday and Saturday for the weekend. To confuse things further, we celebrate Monday holidays on Sunday. So last weekend was Labor Day and, theoretically, the embassy was closed for business on Sunday. But I still had to go in to the office (holiday pay!). The point of all this is that people here never know what day of the week it is.

The job of staff assistant is interesting in a lot of ways, but it can also be frustrating. Everything that happens in the embassy at some point goes through the front office. And just about everything that goes through the front office goes through the staff assistants. It's a great education about what's going on. The downside is that it's hard to predict how each day will go. Most of what we do is unscheduled. So we never know when the end of the work day will be until the work is done.

Working long hours isn't so bad because there really isn't that much else to do. There's the gym. There's reading. And, finally, there's AFN - the television programming the military provides. I've been here just over a month now and I'm starting to meet people and get out a bit more.

I finally had some good news this week when the complications surrounding the assignment of my next post were settled. I accepted a handshake offer to be the Information Officer in Kathmandu, Nepal. When I leave Baghdad next summer, I'll have a year of training in D.C. (including 10 months of Nepali language training) and will arrive in Nepal the summer of 2010. Apart from my dad's frustration at my inability to work in a country that has a decent golf course, I'm very pleased with this assignment. The Information Officer handles press relations, the ambassador's media events, writing remarks/press releases, etc.

In the meantime, the blurry days of Baghdad continue to fly by and sometimes it's hard to tell one day from the other. I'm sure I'll be very excited to take my first R&R break in November.

Friday, August 22, 2008

Field Trip!

Mom Alert!!! – Mom and Marilyn will probably want to skip this blog entry. Click here instead to revisit a nice post from the past.

This week I got to benefit from one of the perks of working in the front office. One of Ambassador Crocker’s Special Advisors had an open seat in a helicopter he was taking to visit a port of entry on the Iraqi border with Iran. He asked if I would be interested in tagging along. Um, yeah.

So I donned my PPE (personal protective equipment) and we headed out to catch our ride on a Blackhawk helicopter. There were 2 Blackhawks, the first one carried the “important” principals, the second one carried me and another traveler. Flying above Iraq in a Blackhawk surrounded by 5 well-formed, well-armed soldiers… at the risk of sounding like Paris Hilton, that’s hot!

In the background is the Blackhawk, right behind me is the Hummer-tank vehicle.

From the landing zone, we traveled to the border crossing in a vehicle that I can only describe as a cross between a Hummer and a tank. Once we reached the port of entry, we were allowed to take off our PPE and we took a tour of the facility. There’s a lot of activity there. Some 200-300 people cross every day, mostly Iranian religious pilgrims visiting holy sites in Iraq. There are also dozens of trucks and oil tankers that pass through every day. The American and Iraqi soldiers do a great job managing so much in-processing and out-processing of people and vehicles.

At one point, we were standing at the small gate that divides Iraq and Iran. I never imagined myself standing at a border crossing into Iran. The atmosphere wasn’t as tense as you would think. The soldiers tell us that their relationship with the Iranian soldiers is cordial. We didn’t have any interactions with the Iranian soldiers, though.

The covered areas are the pedestrian in and out-processing lines;

the oil tankers are waiting to go through; beyond is the Iraqi desert.

It was an interesting trip and quite an adventure.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

It's Like Wonderland, But With Guns

It’s surprising how quickly one can adjust to a surreal environment. Perhaps it’s the surrealness (I just created that word) that actually makes it easier to adjust. If the environment is so far beyond “normal,” then your mind won’t even try to recognize it as normal. Your brain tells you, “You’re in Wonderland, so just deal with it.”

The embassy in Baghdad is unlike any other mission in the world. As one person described it – it’s the largest, most complicated inter-agency beast ever devised by mankind. It’s difficult to describe the experience in a way that can be grasped by someone who isn’t here. Let’s start with the Palace. Yes, the embassy currently resides in one of Saddam’s former palaces. It takes me anywhere from 5-10 minutes to walk from one end to the other. I’ve only gotten lost once.

Security here is unlike at any other mission. Not only do we have a huge staff of Foreign Service security agents, there is a large number of contactors. I would estimate that half of the people under “chief of mission” authority are security folks. Add to that the large number of uniformed military wandering the Palace and the surrounding compound. To put it simply, there are a lot of people with guns.

The hours are long, but not insane. This is not really a bad thing because I’m still learning what people do when they’re not working. I bounce back and forth between the compound (where we live and will eventually work) and the Palace. This weekend I may wander across the street to a local market and also accompany a colleague to the rug store. I may also go over to one of the pools. The food is… decent. I won’t starve here, but I won’t get much culinary delight either. We have kitchens in our apartments, but there’s no place to buy groceries (hence my trip across the street to the local market).

The apartments are comfortable. To accommodate a larger-than-planned number of residents, they converted one-bedroom apartments into two-bedroom apartments by turning the living room into a second bedroom. So we have our own bedroom and share a kitchen & bathroom. There’s a gym at the compound that I go to whenever I can. Overall, the daily routine is fairly monotonous. The movie “Groundhog Day” is a common reference among employees.

Working in the front office will be a great learning experience. I can already tell that this is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity and I don’t regret for a second my decision to come here. My portfolio includes the Political-Military section, the Public Affairs section, Hostage Affairs and a whole lot of acronyms I couldn’t begin to explain. That probably sounds more impressive than it is. I move paper back and forth. But I get to read a lot of interesting things.

With all the hoopla last year about the State Department possibly “forcing” diplomats to serve here, it’s surprising how many people here have either extended their tours or have returned for a second tour. Even with all the frustrations, inconveniences and dangers, there are a lot of people who love what they do and are very committed. I’m proud to be counted among them.

Monday, August 4, 2008

Finally in the International Zone

Well the journey from D.C. to the International Zone (aka "Green Zone") took longer than expected, but I arrived safely Thursday evening. I had an overnight flight from D.C. to Paris, then arrived in Amman, Jordan the following night... without my luggage, which decided to stay in Paris for a while. The next day, I gathered with a bunch of other diplomat types at the Amman airport, only to learn that a sandstorm in Baghdad cancelled the military flight that day, forcing a 4-day delay in Amman. I did a little sightseeing in Amman, namely the Dead Sea and the baptism site at the Jordan River. But mostly I tried to take it easy and enjoy the beautiful Amman weather.

The military flight from Amman to Baghdad Airport was on a C17 or was it a C130? I don't know the difference. A big cargo plane. Very smooth and uneventful. There aren't any windows so you can't see anything. As I walked down the ramp after we landed, the blast of hot air almost knocked me over. I think it was at least 115 degrees when we arrived. I picked up my flak jacket and helmet. The precise weight of the jacket, according to informed security sources, is "over 20 pounds." Wearing the flak jacket and the helmet that's one size too big made carrying my baggage (it caught up with me in Amman) in the heat a struggle (but probably quite entertaining for onlookers). I had a brief wait at the Baghdad airport before a few of us crammed into a helicopter for a quick ride to the International Zone. Thus was my arrival to the IZ - hot, covered in dust and sweat, hair all over the place, wearing 20+ pounds of bullet-proof gear and carrying a duffle bag and backpack. A diplomat's life is very glamorous!

I'm still figuring out how things operate here. There's a lot of in-processing paperwork and procedures I still haven't finished. But I'm adjusting quickly to life here. I can even stand the heat if I don't have to be walking around outside for more than 15 minutes at a time. My biggest accomplishment is finding my way from the shuttle stop to my desk at the complete opposite side of the Palace without getting lost (the embassy offices are still in the Palace until we move into the new compound). This is unlike any other embassy in the world. Just the number of people here is astounding - most of them carry weapons. Lots of military and security.
I feel quite safe so far. Some colleagues took me on a driving tour of Baghdad the other day and I learned what are safe areas and what areas to avoid. The DCM staff (that's what I am) has access to 2 cars, which I didn't know. So I can actually drive somewhere in the IZ if I need to. I have a feeling I'll use the motorpool and their driver instead. It's strange to see the reaction to the Duck & Cover alarm here as opposed to in Bucharest. People take alarms very seriously here, if you're not under hard cover when it sounds, you drop what you're doing and run like crazy to the nearest bunker. Don't bother asking me specifics about the alarms or incoming fire, I can't answer. Like I said, I feel quite safe so far.

I'll write more about my job and daily life at a later date. Up until today, most of my time has been spent on administrative stuff and just getting acquainted with the sections I'll be working with. But I can tell you already that the hours are long!

It feels great to finally be here. I know it will be an exciting adventure. Stay tuned!

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Not Another PowerPoint Presentation!!!

I have been in training now for almost 2 months. With the exception of Crash & Bang (see previous post), all of the classes have been intensely jam-packed full of information. That means they cram a lot into a short period. The fact that 2 of my courses were shortened because of holidays didn’t make things easier. A week to learn everything about Iraq, 2 weeks to learn about Political/Economics tradecraft, 2 weeks to study the Near East & North Africa region, and this week I’m learning all about the PRTs in Iraq (provincial reconstruction teams). Next week I study Islam in Iraq.

I can’t prove it, but I suspect that Congress must have passed a law that all government-sponsored training must include PowerPoint presentations. Boring, text-heavy PowerPoint presentations. If I ever have trouble falling asleep in Baghdad, I’ll simply open the PPT file on funding sources for USAID development programs. Zzz.

The other common theme through all of the training is the absurd number of acronyms I’m expected to know. Learning all the State Department acronyms is bad enough, but going to Baghdad means I have to learn the acronyms of several other departments and agencies. And those military folks, bless their hearts, have a cult-like obsession with their acronyms. We received an acronym glossary in class today, it was 4 pages long… double-sided!

Sunday, June 29, 2008

Crash Bang Boom

All foreign service officers who go to a high-risk post are required to take a week-long class affectionately known as "Crash & Bang." The course includes fairly extensive medical training and learning how to detect surveillance (bad guys watching us). But the most popular parts of the course are the firearms training, evasive driving training, and explosives training.

The firearms instructors are mostly former Marines who know a lot about guns. We learned how to operate 2 kinds of pistols and 2 kinds of rifles. These guns were not designed for my tiny girly hands. If I'm ever in a situation where I have to quickly pull back the slidey thingamabob in order to shoot a pistol, I'm in trouble. My aim, however, is fantastic!

The evasive driving training was a lot of fun. I must admit that it took a couple laps around the course to get rid of my "driving to the mall" mentality and let my inner speed demon take over. We learned how to break while turning, how to control a spinout, how to go backwards fast (not my strongest skill) and turn around, how to drive from the passenger seat, and how to ram another car (both forwards and backwards!). All of this training culminates in simulations meant to test our abilities if confronted with blockades, gun-wielding terrorists, or roadside bombs. I can proudly say that I did not flinch when the instructors set off the big boom at the last curve.

Finally, we learned a little bit about explosives. Did you know that some detonation cord is so wickedly flammable, that if you laid it out from L.A. to N.Y. it would take only 10 minutes for the ignition to travel across the country? The instructors demonstrated different kinds of explosives, although I'm not entirely sure what I'm supposed to do with this knowledge.

The training definitely brought home the sobering reality that I'm going to a war zone. A few weeks ago I was describing the Crash & Bang class to my mother, who asked why I, who was not permitted to have a car or drive in Iraq, would need to take a driving class. This was one of those moments where I knew she wouldn't like the answer. Chances are I'll never have to use any of this training, but they teach us these things in case the worse happens.

Sunday, June 22, 2008

80s Music Observations

Forgive the digression to a completely random topic. Last night I went to see an 80s music cover band with some friends. The place was packed and I hadn't seen such obscene hairstyles in 20 years. Unfortunately, all of my legwarmers and headbands are in storage, so I was sans costume. In addition to the live music, they also showed videos on a giant screen on stage. It was a lot of fun and this morning, as I wait for my hearing to return and my feet to stop aching, some observations about 80s music started to form in my head.

1. 80s music was not this fun the first time around. Maybe nostalgia enhances the experience because I don't remember getting so excited about "Walk Like an Egyptian."

2. 80s music videos don't make any sense.

3. When the video for Wham!'s "Wake Me Up" first came out, how did we not know that George Michael is gay?

4. 80s music is the best dance music, period. 80s dance moves, however, don't stand the test of time quite as well.

5. Many 80s music lyrics are unintelligible. Can anyone recite any of the lyrics (not counting the chorus) of "Come on Eileen"? But it's a fun song nonetheless.

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Who's Lecturing Who?

I've noticed an annoying trend in too many of my classes recently. Guest speakers will give presentations on their areas of expertise, but the bulk of the lecture will consist of the speaker asking us questions. This bugs me. A lot. A presenter on public speaking opened her remarks by asking, "How important do you think public speaking will be in your foreign service career?" Duh. Another speaker began a lecture on a new Internet tool by asking us, "What is a cable?"

Perhaps a new class of FSI speakers have been taught that in order to reach the iPod generation, they have to engage us rather than inform us. And so they ask us stupid questions and try to coax the correct answer out of us. "What are some of the ways you will be able to use this new Internet site?" Bueller? Bueller? I wanted to raise my hand and say, "We were hoping you could tell us."

I know there are many people who despise being lectured at as much as I despise being asked asinine questions. But a speaker is asked to speak on a certain topic presumably because that person knows more about it than we do. If he doesn't, he shouldn't be standing in the front of the room.

That's the end of my lecture. Class dismissed.

Saturday, May 31, 2008

Week 1 - Information Overload

I'm back in D.C. and just finished my first week of training. My first course was an Iraq Area Studies class, which covered everything from an overview of Iraqi history and current events, Iraqi language and culture, life at the embassy, administrative tasks unique to serving in Baghdad, and security. The information we learned was very broad and not very deep. In other words, I learned just enough to realize I don't know anything. That's not to say that this week wasn't interesting and helpful. But, trying to cover the complexities of Sunni-Shi'a conflict, Shi'a-Shi'a conflict, Iraqi Kurds vs. Iranian Kurds, tribal relationships, not to mention Iran, in the space of a few hours is tough.

The diverse reading materials included sections on "Building Cultural Competency," "Factions in Iraq," "Counterinsurgency Doctrine," "Managing Stress in High Threat Environments," and "Ambush Awareness." It was an intense crash course in understanding Iraq.

Strangely, the most stressful part was not the information overload on current events in Iraq or even the security issues we're facing, but the administrative stuff. There is an overwhelming amount of checklists and guidelines and requirements that need to be fulfilled before you ever get on the plane. A lot of this is normal stuff anyone does to prepare for an overseas assignment - arranging your pack-out and flight, making sure your medical clearance is up to date, etc. But serving in Iraq adds another page to a person's To Do list - arranging the military flight into Baghdad, getting the CAC badge from the Pentagon, making sure my medical insurance covers me in a war zone...

Next week I start the Political/Economic Tradecraft class, which should be less taxing.

Monday, April 21, 2008

Homeless on Home Leave

I've been on home leave for a week now. But I still can't seem to relax and unwind. What does that say about me? Maybe my subconscious mind is desperately trying to make lists of things to do. But what is there to do when you're on home leave? Eat sushi. Check. Go to the mall. Check (twice). Read. Check. Attend nephew's little league baseball game. Check. Practice Arabic. Check. Catch up on new episodes of Lost. Check. Make plans with friends. Check.

I think part of the mental confusion has to do with being homeless. The innocent question, "where are you from?" leaves me tongue-tied. "I'm formerly from the Bay Area." "My family lives in Los Angeles." "I spent the last 2 years living in Bucharest." Any of these responses is accurate, but none adequately describes my unusual situation. I'm a homebody without a home.

Don't get me wrong, I'm very happy to be back in America (and to be able to eat an In-n-Out cheeseburger whenever the urge strikes). But along with the excitement I feel of being back in the States, there's an odd, indefinable sensation. It's almost like I'm not even a guest in my hometown, but I'm merely an observer.

Perhaps I'm being too philosophical about this. The "odd sensation" is probably indigestion and will pass just as soon as my body gets used to the suburban Los Angeles tap water.

Friday, April 11, 2008

Down Time

My apartment is empty. Seriously, I can hear the echo of the "clickity click" while I'm typing this. The term "pack out" sends chills through the soul of many foreign service officers; the only thing that frightens us more is "check out."

The packers came Tuesday and I have to say it was the smoothest packing experience I've had in the FS (I know this is only my first post, but I've had more than the average number of moves for a junior officer). The toughest part was choosing which clothes to take with me on the plane to California, which stuff to send in UAB (that's unaccompanied air baggage for the uninformed) to meet me in D.C., and which stuff to put into storage until God-knows-when.

Then there was check out. I think they should include a "check out" exercise as part of the Foreign Service oral exam. This would weed out the weak. Give each examinee the adminsitrave check out check list and see if they can successfully obtain all the required signatures in order to receive their plane ticket from the Management Officer. Examinees who break into tears at the feet of the GSO are automatically disqualified. Check out is just like a scavenger hunt, only not as fun.

But in the end (literally, 5:00 on Friday afternoon) I got my plane ticket. So now I'm sitting in my empty apartment, killing time. I'm living out of the lovely Welcome Kit (the t.v. they gave me doesn't work) counting the hours until I get on my flight. See you on the flip side!

Friday, April 4, 2008

Post-Summit Reflections

The NATO Summit in Bucharest ended yesterday. Last night is the first good night's sleep I've had in over a week. My role was site officer at the airport in Constanta where President Bush met Romanian President Basescu at his seaside villa in Neptun (no, that's not a code name, it's the actual name of the resort town where the presidential compound is located). The presidents would arrive at the airport separately by plane, and after a welcome ceremony they would get into their respective motorcades and drive to the villa. There, they would have a bilateral meeting with staff, a working lunch, then the two presidents would take a short stroll before holding a press conference. Both motorcades would return to the airport, the presidents would pose with Romanian and American troops stationed there, then depart to Bucharest. Sounds relatively simple, doesn't it?

President Bush would be in Constanta/Neptun for roughly 4 hours. But the preparations for this brief trip began over a week in advance. Without going in to details, White House advance teams had to coordinate every single step with our Secret Service, Romanian protective services, and President Basescu's protocol people. There were numerous walk-thrus at the villa and at the airport. (Above, setting up the press conference site at the villa the day before the event, it was cold and rainy!)

Part of my job was to help coordinate the welcome ceremony at the airport. Upon arrival of Air Force One, I also had to escort staff and support personnel to the correct vehicles in the motorcade. These folks know the drill, so that happended quickly. So I had enough time to position myself at the end of the red carpet and watch the welcome ceremony proceed pretty much according to plan.

After the 2 motorcades departed the airport for the villa, I handed out gifts to the offical greeters. The prefect of Constanta was so excited about his White House cufflinks. I saw him on the news later that night showing them off to a reporter.

With a couple of hours to kill, I hung out at the airport (note: standing on a cement tarmac in heels for several hours will *destroy* your feet). A friend of mine who is the Air Force attache at the embassy called me and hooked me up with the co-pilot of Air Force One, who gave me a private tour! Very, very cool. The various areas of the plane are very comfortable and spatious (for an airplane), but not luxurious. It's not like traveling on the QE2. With presidential M&Ms and Air Force One matchbooks in hand, it was time to grab some lunch and get ready for the president's return from the villa and departure to Bucharest.

The departure plan was simplier than the arrival ceremony. All I had to do was position the honor guard along the red carpet and arrange the Romanian and American troops alongside the plane for the photo with the 2 presidents. Who knew that my high school job as a photographer at JC Penney's portrait studio would be helpful in my foreign service career! The presidents posed with the troops, chatted a bit, then boarded their respective planes and left. Piece of cake.

At times it seemed silly that so many people were spending so much time and energy to prepare for such a brief visit. Embassy staff, White House advance teams, communication technicians, and secret service agents all started arriving in Neptun a week in advance. But the reality is that the president needs to be able to run the country from wherever he is at any given moment. And his every move and the movements of those around him (i.e. the press) also need to be carefully choreographed and staged. It was an eye-opening experience. We were fortunate that the teams we worked with were very professional and competent. It was a good group of people.

Back in Bucharest the following day, I had foolishly agreed to work the night shift in the Control Room at the Marriott Hotel (where the U.S. delegation was staying). It was a little surprising how much activity there was at 2:30 in the morning. But things died down after 3:00. That morning was the embassy "meet-n-greet," where the president and Secretaries Rice & Gates were introduced to the embassy staff and took a few pictures. Having boldly claimed a spot up front, I got to shake their hands and say hello.

Overall, it was quite an experience. And a great way to end my assignment in Bucharest. Now that the Summit is over, I can focus on packing and checking out. My departure date is April 14 and I cannot wait to get home!

Thursday, March 13, 2008

NATO Summit Prep

How many people does it take to prepare for a visit by the President, the First Lady, and the Secretaries of State & Defense? Apparently, a trillion. And to do this while avoiding the toes of the other 50 countries who have delegations coming to the NATO Summit in Bucharest the first week of April requires a great deal of diplomacy.

Fortunately for me, I have been given a fairly small task as site officer for one piece of the visit. Forgive the vagueness, I promise to write a more interesting and detailed post when the Summit is over. For now, I'm learning all kinds of fascinating information related to a presidential visit, including a whole new batch of tedious acronyms. And I learned that the different kinds of podiums that travel with the president (I've discovered 3 so far) each have their own code name. The standard podium is nicknamed "Blue Goose."

I've also learned how much the media love to speculate and how wrong they can be. It's amusing to read about all the "alleged" unofficial activities that President Bush will undertake while in Bucharest.

Over the next few weeks we'll welcome a gazillion Secret Service and Diplomatic Security agents, White House advance teams, military personnel, and young interns eager to demonstrate their importance. I'll attend a lot of meetings and spend a good deal of time living out of a suitcase. Thousands of man-hours go into a visit of this magnitude, not to mention millions of dollars. I hope it's worth it. Or, at least, I hope I can get a tour of Air Force One.

Thursday, February 28, 2008

Cocktail Diplomacy

Diplomats have long lived with the image of doing nothing but going to cocktail parties and living the high life. I'll concede that this reputation is somewhat deserved, but I'll also say that a lot of interesting things can happen at cocktail parties. You can learn a lot just by observing who's there and who isn't, who is talking to whom, and what this person is saying about that person. It's kinda like a junior high school dance.

I attended the Kuwait National Day and the Bulgaria National Day celebrations this week. Lots of people in military uniforms or national costumes (I wonder if I should wear a cowboy hat to the next reception). An acquaintance from a more liberal Arab country was trying to sample some Bulgarian wine while hiding from the diplomats from stricter Muslim countries who kept strolling nearby. It was interesting to listen to a diplomat from the United Arab Emirates comment on his perception of human rights in Romania. But the most tantalizing tidbit was watching a high-ranking diplomat from an EU country firmly, but politely, express his displeasure to the Serbian ambassador about the inadequate security provided to Western embassies in Belgrade during the recent Kosovo riots.

So you see, important diplomacy can take place over stuffed mushrooms and brie.

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Would you like fries with your visa?

After a 4 month hiatus doing immigrant visas, I am back in the non-immigrant visa (NIV) saddle. The best part of doing immigrant visas is the slower pace. The emphasis with NIVs is on volume and speed. Get 'em in, get 'em out, kinda like a fast food restaurant. In Bucharest, this means each officer does at least 80 interviews by lunchtime (1:00). Compared to some other consulates, that may not sound like a lot. But visa mills tend to have more slam dunk cases - either clearly issuable or clearly not. In Bucharest, the vast majority of our cases aren't black and white and require some digging. The fast pace of NIV work has a few consequences. One, by the time I get to the cafeteria, I'm incapable of making another decision (the girl who works at the register usually ends up deciding what I will have for lunch). Two, it is mentally draining. Doing hundreds of interviews every week for 2 years turns your brain to mush. Three, I have to wonder if making important decisions in a matter of seconds will rub off on other areas of my life. Will I start making significant life-changing decisions based solely on a gut feeling or a perceived micro-expression on the face of friend?

The slower pace of IVs is not the only thing I enjoyed. In most cases, you issue the visa. Which means you make people happy. Sure, there are the stinker cases that you don't want to issue, but you just hold your nose and do it. I particularly enjoyed giving an immigrant visa to a young man whose entire family had immigrated to the United States, but because he was over 21 at the time, he was too old to be considered a dependent. So after waiting patiently for 7 years he was finally able to join his family in America. He was such a nice guy and had no bitterness at all about being separated from his family. I wished I could have made the moment special for him, like dropping balloons from the ceiling or hiring a marching band to play the national anthem. Instead, he just smiled, thanked me, and off he went.

Sunday, February 3, 2008

Arabic is Hard

When I first received notification that my next assignment is Baghdad, I immediately started reading as much as I could about the embassy, the job, the country, etc. Although I'm not required to learn Arabic, I enrolled in a distance learning course so I could study the languge during my free time. I worried a little that learning a foreign language while still in Bucharest might interfere with my Romanian language abilities. Ha! After reviewing the Arabic alphabet for the last 2 weeks, there is no danger of my brain suddenly swelling with Arabic proficiency at the expense of my Romanian skills. Arabic is hard. If it was just a matter of learning a different script, I think I could handle that with a lot of studying; although, having 4 variations of a character depending on where in the word the character is located does seem like overkill. But the real challenge is the pronounciation. Some of these sounds just cannot be made by a mouth that was born and raised in suburban America.

Besides taking Arabic lessons, I've also started making other preparations for my departure. Being the plan-ahead perfectionist that I am (two terrible qualities to have as a foreign service officer), I have taken the initiative to start organizing my departure from Bucharest and my training schedule in Washington D.C. To be precise, I have taken the initiative several times now, because the training program for Iraq-bound officers keeps changing. Almost hourly. You would think that after 2+ years in the Foreign Service I would remember that planning ahead is futile and will only get me in trouble. A good friend recently expressed her frustration about planning her departure from Post as "barely contained rage yoked to an apparently misplaced desire for reasonableness."

But it will all work out in the end. And I have a big bottle of Migraine Strength Exedrin to get me through. AlHamdu lillh!

Sunday, January 13, 2008

A Serious Case of Foreign Service Senioritis

There's a common phenomenon among foreign service officers serving overseas. It's akin to what you might remember from high school - the senioritis that sets in the last few weeks before graduation. You know that each day brings you closer to your departure. And in the case of the foreign service, each day brings you closer to your next assignment.

For me, knowing that I have less than 4 months left in Bucharest has made it difficult to get really invested in my work. That's not to say that I'm slacking, it's just hard to get motivated. I've already started preparing for my next assignment in Baghdad. After reading Iraq-related cables and studying the Arabic alphabet in my spare time, visa interviews just don't hold much excitement. Maybe the NATO Summit that will take place in Bucharest in April will spice things up a bit.

Another contributing factor is the harsh winter we're having in Bucharest. I've never been overly impressed with Bucharest in the first place, but the cold weather and snow just adds to the general boredom I feel. My only salvation is that I joined a gym that's only a 5 minute walk from my apartment, but even that can require a great deal of motivation to bundle up and walk out the door.

So, even though I still have nearly 4 months left here, I'm already looking forward to getting back to the States. Of course I'm excited to go home to California in May for home leave, but I'm surprised at how excited I am to go back to D.C. I haven't quite figured out why. Maybe because many of my A100 friends are starting to trickle back to D.C. and it will be fun to hang out with them again (after 2 years of being scattered around the world). Maybe it's because life is a lot more "normal" and simple when I'm in training.

Wednesday, January 2, 2008

Hooray for the USA

I’ve lived in Romania for almost two years now. During that time I’ve realized what I really miss about America. So here’s a list of I appreciate most about life in America.

Breakfast. I’m sorry, but a slice of ham, a piece of cheese and a tomato is NOT breakfast, it’s a sandwich. The next phase of American Cultural Imperialism should include the exportation of IHOP restaurants.

Variety. Whatever your particular taste is, you can find it in America. Whether it’s music, t.v. shows, clothes, furniture, food, etc. There are a ton of choices.

Convenience. It’s so easy to do things in America. Going to the grocery store, buying stamps online, paying your taxes through the mail. These are things I used to take for granted, but now I realize how unique a convenient lifestyle is.

Good service. Anyone who’s ever been to a restaurant in Eastern Europe will understand this one.

Shopping. As good as I’ve gotten at online shopping, it’s not the same thing. I love to walk into a big, clean, pretty mall and spend an afternoon wandering in stores, looking at stuff I don’t really need and trying on clothes. Don’t discount the power of retail therapy.

American television. Okay, I used to be a critic of the crap that’s broadcasted in the U.S. But after two years of watching the slim pickings of exported U.S. television shows, I miss watching Friends and Seinfeld reruns while eating dinner.

Softball. I miss the weekly games, even on the really cold nights. And hanging out at Moylan’s afterwards.

Needless to say, I’m really looking forward to home leave in May and training in D.C. in the summer.