Houston, TX: Washington, DC: Addis Ababa, Ethiopia:

Sunday, June 26, 2016

This is Summer?


The rainy season has begun, right on schedule. This was not a surprise, and I thought I was ready. After all, I've seen rainy seasons before. I've got my wellies and my giant umbrellas for sudden downpours. My car has a nice high clearance, and growing up in Houston I'm good at driving in flood conditions. The surprising part? It's COLD. The air is cold. The rain is cold. The rainy season was "cold" in Guinea too, but that meant it got down to the '80s. Here it gets actually legitimately chilly at night, and there's no insulation or heat in my house except for a little space heater, which I accidentally blew up a power strip with the other day. Oops. 

So I'm getting out my flannels and my winter duvet, making pot pies and hot whiskies, lighting fires in my fireplace and wrapping up in the woolly blankets I bought in Ireland (and didn't think I'd use again until I went back to DC). In fact, come to think of it, it's not too terribly different from summers in Ireland, except that the rain comes down much, much harder. Only 2.5 more months. 


Friday, June 17, 2016

Coffee Break

Get comfortable, it's coffee time
Ethiopia is the birthplace of coffee. According to legend, the great discovery came about when a goat herder named Kaldi noticed that the bright red berries made his flock extra frisky and brought a sample to the local elders for investigation. They thought the berries might be evil and threw them into the fire; a delightful toasty smell arose from the flames and a worldwide caffeine craze was born. While countries as far afield as Vietnam and Brazil have since eclipsed Ethiopia's coffee production, the drink remains as important as ever in Ethiopian culture.

Ethiopian coffee isn't just a beverage - it's a ritual. It starts with green coffee, which has been separated from the cherry and dried. In some parts of Ethiopia this may have been collected from wild coffee trees and dried on big sheets in the sun, as Ethiopians have been doing for millennia. Your coffee preparer then roasts the beans right there on a charcoal stove, stirring and shaking the husks away, while the smell of roasting beans mingles with the scent of burning incense. She then grinds the beans by hand with a mortar and pestle and brews the coffee with water in the traditional clay pot. After being strained through a filter, the coffee is ready! Ethiopians drink their coffee with lots of sugar but no milk, and it's usually accompanied by savory snacks such as popcorn or toasted barley. Three rounds of coffee is traditional, so I hope you're not in a hurry.

The traditional coffee ceremony is still popular, but it's not the only way to get your fix these days. The Italians introduced Ethiopia to fancy new methods of making coffee during their attempts to colonize the country in the early 20th century. Espresso and macchiato (like pizza and pasta) proved much more popular here than Mussolini did, so today you can get quality espresso all over Addis and in most of the regional centers as well. More recent coffee innovations have also started to trickle in, so if you believe Chemex pour-over is the only coffee worth drinking, I know just the place.


Wednesday, June 8, 2016

Mo Money Mo Problems

tl;dr: personal finance is HARD, especially in the Foreign Service.

One of the 13 Dimensions on which one is evaluated during the Foreign Service Exam is Quantitative Analysis: to identify, compile, analyze, and draw correct conclusions from pertinent data; to recognize patterns or trends in numerical data; to perform simple mathematical operations.  It really is an essential skill, not only for tasks related to the actual job but for figuring out how to manage your own finances while overseas.

Personal finance is complicated for everyone. I was lucky enough to be raised in a household where money management was discussed from an early age, and I had an amazing high school economics teacher (thank you Ms. Franklin!) who covered this stuff, so I consider myself to be on the higher end of the general-public financial literacy scale. I'm pretty solid on compound interest and budgeting and lifecycle funds and all that jazz. But. FS life adds its own special wrinkles to financial planning.

The first challenge is just figuring out how much money you make. It should be simple right? It's on your paycheck! Yeah, but hardship differentials, danger pay, and cost-of-living adjustments mean that your income changes every time you go to a new post. Since it takes a while for these things to kick in you may be several months into your new post before your paycheck properly reflects your new income, and trying to work it out ahead of time is a headache. And it can change without warning once you get to post too: Embassy Addis lost its cost-of-living allowance a few months ago, which meant I suddenly saw a cut to my take-home pay of several hundred dollars a month. Ouch. I had plans for that.

Next is working out how much money you spend. Prices on basics such as food, gas, internet, and other goods and services procured locally vary widely from country to country. Visiting my sister in Dubai I discovered that a tank of gas there is cheaper than a glass of wine, which speaks to both the low price of gas and the high price of alcohol relative to the United States. Prices and availability of essentials can also change suddenly and dramatically. (See: Venezuela.) And don't forget to factor saving up for home leave into your budget; having time in the States between tours is wonderful but it can be very expensive, especially if you're buying a car or consumables for your next post, and/or don't have friends or family you can crash with for free for a couple of weeks.

The way you pay for things also makes a difference. For example, Ethiopia is a mainly cash economy, so to have money on hand I cash big checks one or twice a month, which may not actually be deducted from my account until a couple of weeks later. My internet bills often don't turn up until months later. This is a lot harder to keep track of than having everything posted immediately from your debit card. Emergencies can also be very cash-intensive: when I had some health issues a few months ago I had to pay for for everything up front, and I'm still waiting for my insurance to reimburse me.

And then, once you have a handle on your current money situation, there's planning for the future. Oh. My. God. I'm thinking about going back to DC after Addis and buying a condo, so I spent HOURS doing research and putting together a spreadsheet trying to figure out how much money I'll be making, how much I can afford to spend given my expected income and down payment, and whether it's financially more advantageous to buy in DC, VA, or MD given the different income and property tax regimes. There were multivariable equations involved. Later I found out I screwed it up, mostly because there are lots of nitty gritty things I don't know about mortgage payments and the tax implications thereof.

One thing I've learned from this little exercise is that it may be time to outsource to a professional. I would hope my quantitative analysis skills are solid enough to recognize when someone else has comparative advantage.

Wednesday, June 1, 2016

A la Recherche du Temps Perdu

In the course of my duties this morning I stumbled upon the State Department's Office of the Historian, which someone probably mentioned once in the torrent of new information that was A-100, and it completely failed to sink in. That was probably for the best, productivity-wise, as I have now lost most of my afternoon in only-tangentially-work-related trawling through old documents, hilariously inaccurate historical maps, and an interesting comparative piece on the legacy of French colonization on West Africa. Most of the stuff is publicly available, either in the form of links to non-USG resources or as documents on the Office of the Historian's public-facing website.

The public website is not terribly intuitive, being based on the Foreign Relations of the United States book series the office has been churning out for decades now, but for some quick history fun you can check out their Twitter feed (where I learned that the State Department was briefly housed in the DC Orphan Asylum building, which seems somehow appropriate) and Tumblr (sadly not often updated, but interesting nonetheless). They also have summaries of the history of U.S. diplomatic relations with every country we've ever engaged with, including the Central American Federation, Lew Chewthe Papal States, and Texas. You can learn that the first foreign leader to visit the United States didn't do so until 1874, and that was King Kalakaua of Hawaii. (He went to Omaha, for some reason?? Twice!) And as part of the ongoing WWI centennial commemorations, there's a fascinating and colorful look at the lives of diplomats and their families at the U.S. Embassy in Paris during the war.

And now that I have succeeded in destroying your afternoon's productivity as well, I should probably get back to my email and try to make up for lost time!

Saturday, May 28, 2016

Vicarious Tourism: Marrakech

Marrakech was actually a work trip, and it's a pretty amazing destination as work trips go. I was accompanying the Ambassador to the Africa Think Tank Conference to get a sense of how thought leaders across the continent are looking at a variety of economic issues. I learned a lot. And before and after and between conference events I had some time to experience the city, which I had been wanting to visit for ages and ages and ages but had never quite managed to make it happen.

There's a lot to like about Marrakech. History, great food, lots of charming twisty alleyways to wander around in. Gorgeous palaces, vibrant markets, hidden art galleries, beautiful walled gardens. Many many cups of mint tea. And shopping of course. leather, metalwork, wood inlay, clothes, shoes, jewelry, baskets, rugs, whatever your heart desires.

But all in all I can't say I had the greatest time. In fact, the longer I stayed the less I liked it. All the wonderful parts coexist with a million tiny little hassles: getting lost when trying to find someplace specific; constantly being hollered at to visit shops and having restaurant menus shoved in your face when you're walking around minding your own business; bargaining for everything, which takes so much time and always makes me feel like I'm overpaying (I'm a terrible haggler); blatant scamming attempts; and, as a single woman, the endless catcalls and occasional groping. None of this was unexpected and no single incident was a big deal in itself, but the accumulation really wears on you after a while to the point where the fun stuff isn't fun enough to make up for it. A wretched airport security experience on the way out was the last straw; as my flight took off I was hating Morocco and swore I'd never go back.

After a little time and distance I have moderated that opinion somewhat. I am glad I went, on the whole, and there are still a lot of things I want to see and do in other parts of the country. But I definitely won't go alone again, and I will plan more down time to make up for the unusually high annoyance factor. Clearly I needed it.


Tuesday, May 17, 2016

Vicarious Tourism: Italy and the Balkans

Last month was the 10-year anniversary of my year in grad school at SAIS Bologna, and the class of 2006 descended en masse to our old stomping grounds in La Dotta, La Grassa, La Rossa to eat, drink, and hang out together in piazzas indulging in a little dolce far niente. It was amazing - much like being in grad school was, except with fewer books and exams, and this time we have money! But if I'm going to buy a ticket and fly all the way to Italy I'm not going just for a weekend, so I took two weeks off and made a vacation of it.

I have a friend working in Macedonia now, so I dropped in on him in Skopje, and then we took a quick little road trip through the Balkans with stops in Albania, Montenegro, and Croatia. We drove through a little corner of Bosnia and Herzegovina on the way, so I actually managed to set foot in four countries in the space of a single day, which is not something one can really do in Africa. I met up with another friend in Split and we headed to Rome for a few days before the big Bologna reunion. Way too much happened to put it all in one little blog post, but there were castles and walled cities, mountains and beaches. There were ruins and cats, which are especially nice together. The Adriatic was still a bit chilly but after months in oceanless Addis I did not care and revelled in a chance to swim. Much delicious wine was drunk and I ate ALL THE THINGS, including gelato at least once a day in Italy. Sometimes twice, including one time for breakfast (#adulting). It was a wonderful trip.

Thursday, April 28, 2016

Torre Argentina Cat Sanctuary

I just got back from a great vacation which I hope to blog about soon, but here's a quick post on one of my favorite things from the trip:


Although the ancient Romans were apparently not as devoted to cats as the Egyptians, in the present day Rome is home to hands-down the classiest cat rescue I have ever seen: the Torre Argentina Cat Sanctuary. It has all the usual amenities for its 150 feline guests - food, comfy beds, health care, shiny things on strings - but it also features an entire complex of Roman ruins reserved exclusively for the cats. And not just any ruins: the site of Julius Caesar's murder. How's that for pedigree? You can wander by anytime and see the kitties sunning themselves on the ruins of ancient columns or snoozing in the shade of the temple walls.


The cats moved in just after the complex was excavated in 1929 and were fed informally by generations of cat ladies until the cat sanctuary was officially established in the 1990s. They have grown since then thanks to increased funding and volunteers but are still technically squatting in the temple site. In 2012 the cat-haters at the National Archaeological Department tried to have them evicted, but 30,000 signatures on a petition in support of the kitties saved them. (It's not like there aren't any other ruins in Rome. Surely the cats can have just one.)


You can stop by during open hours to snuggle some of the residents, buy some merch, or even adopt a cat if the spirit moves you. It may be my favorite place in Rome, and with all the wonders that city has to offer, that's saying something.



Friday, April 8, 2016

Swimming at 8000 Feet

Embassy Addis is by far the biggest post I've worked at so far, by a factor of ten. Sometimes I miss the small-post mentality - the bureaucracy seems to be easier to navigate when everyone knows everyone else - but the big-post amenities are hard to beat.

The most obvious perk is the commissary, which is like our own private 7-11 right here in Ethiopia. If you need Oreos or Cheerios or andouille sausage or cheddar cheese or most kinds of edible Americana, they've got it. (No Slurpees though.) They also do dry-cleaning and take reservations for the lakeside campsite a few hours out of town. A tailor, barber, framer, and masseuse stop by weekly to take commissions.

And then there's the fitness infrastructure. We have a walking/jogging track, tennis and basketball courts, and a well-equipped gym. You can take yoga, pilates, and zumba classes on your lunch break, and the Marines put fitness masochists through an hour of productive pain once a week. It's all quite impressive, though perhaps not the fanciest in town: I hear the Brits have horses and a private golf course. But for me the best thing is the lap-length swimming pool, not too heavy on the chlorine and usually deserted so I can have the whole place to myself. Not to mention the perfect sunny 80 degree afternoons to swim in.

It's been probably ten years since I swam regularly, and getting back into the habit has been rough. The first time back, dragging myself slowly, awkwardly, through a mere 1000 yards was deeply humbling. It must have taken me an hour and my entire body ached the next day. It's been a couple months now and things are getting better, but it's still slow going. And the altitude does not help. After almost six months in Addis I'm acclimated to the thinner air in normal walking-around life (more or less - I think I'll always be more at home at sea level), but as soon as I get in the pool and start breathing on a pattern instead of as needed I'm gasping for air again. I'm sure I'll get the hang of it, but until I do I'm breaking up my swim sets with lots of kicking.

High-altitude training is the latest greatest thing for elite swimmers, which is why the U.S. Olympic team trains not in Florida or Hawaii but in Colorado Springs. The Australian swim team even had a fancy system installed to mimic high-altitude conditions to train for the London Olympics. And here I have this peak conditioning environment right outside my office! An elite athlete is something I will never ever be, but at least this gives me an excuse to pretend.

Wednesday, March 16, 2016

The Ants and I

Did you ever play SimAnt? The youths will not remember this, but back in the early '90s it came bundled with the original SimCity and SimLife. You play an ant, or rather a whole colony of ants that you can control one ant at a time in your quest to collect food, dig your nests, reproduce, defend the colony from predators, and defeat your ultimate enemies: the evil red ants, and those pesky humans. (You can find versions online that work with modern hardware and software if you want to (re)live the experience.) I never really warmed up to the game that much but I did learn some things about how ants work - communicating with chemical trails and the like. Enough to know that if the ants in my yard were pursuing the victory condition I would long ago have been forced to flee.

I have a large and lush yard, which I love, and which I share with a humongous supercolony of ants. Or rather, they share it with me. Not fire ants or anything, just little black ones, not terribly threatening, but they are EVERYWHERE. A vast empire of ants constantly scurrying from one nest to another along an expansive network of chemically-signposted superhighways across the entire property. Sometimes you can see them carrying pupae or bits of food or construction materials back and forth along with them but mostly they just seem to be going, to where and for what purpose I cannot say.

Mostly we ignore each other, the ants and I. Sometimes I like to sit and watch them, indulging my inner nature documentarian, or make up silly anthropomorphic stories about their journeys on the insect Silk Road, trading seeds for tiny bits of overripe fruit from the exotic East. Sometimes we work together: all the butterscotch candy dust and tiny broken shards of Jolly Rancher from my Texas Independence Day piƱata were completely cleaned up within a week. Well done ants! And you're welcome. It's only when they start to move into the house with me that I begin to get annoyed.

In their quest for lebensraum the ants now seem to be trying to colonize my kitchen plumbing, despite the significant inconvenience of several daily floodings. At any rate there now seems to be a trail on the network, if only a meandering farm road, leading to my kitchen sink overflow drain. And every time I turn the faucet on a couple of ants come pouring out too. It's kind of gross. There also seems to be a nest at ceiling level in the master bedroom that sends out occasional scouts to wake me up in the morning by crawling over my arm. I set up traps, but whatever American ants like to eat has no attraction whatsoever to the local variety. I've been patient, but I think it's time to get out the big guns. Get ready ants - cohabitation only goes so far, and the sprayers are coming for you!

Thursday, March 10, 2016

Ethiopian Food 101


Dig in!
It occurs to me, more than six months after arriving at post, that I haven't really talked about the food here. This is perhaps because I had eaten it a few times before coming here so it wasn't particularly new to me. However, I have now recalled that, back in the mists of time when I went to an Ethiopian restaurant for the first time, I was astonished to hear that there even WAS such a thing as an Ethiopian restaurant, having only heard about food in Ethiopia in the context of the lack thereof during the 1980's famine. But in fact Ethiopia has unique, rich, and varied food traditions, so here's a quick primer.

The most essential part of any Ethiopian meal is injera, a large spongy pancake made from fermented teff, a local grain. It's lining the platter and rolled up on the sides there in the picture above. Injera is the main carbohydrate, the plate, and the utensils all at once: you eat all the other things on the platter by tearing off a little piece of injera (with your right hand) and using it to scoop up a mouthful of whatever you want. Usually your entire party eats off one platter, and if you're still hungry when all the little dishes are gone you can tear up the injera on the bottom and eat that too. If you don't like injera - and some people don't, it can be kind of tangy - you don't like Ethiopian food.

And what are all those things on the plate? A little bit of this, a little bit of that. Here are a few key terms to know on a menu:

Tibs: little pieces of fried meat, usually cooked with onions and/or peppers. May be served with or without sauce.
Wot: a spicy meat stew (not mouth-on-fire, but definitely flavorful) made with berbere, a local spice mix.
Kitfo: Kind of a steak tartare of finely minced raw beef in spices and warm butter.
Gored Gored: cubes of raw beef (a delicacy)
Beyaynetu: a combination plate of vegetarian dishes. There are an endless number of these, including collard greens, beets, green beans, cabbage, and a variety of stews and pastes made from beans, lentils, and chickpeas.

Come to think of it, one thing that did surprise me on arrival was the variety and availability of vegetarian options, since the Ethiopian restaurants I had eaten in elsewhere had mostly focused on the meat. It makes a lot of sense though, for two reasons. First, meat is expensive here, and not something most families can afford to eat every day. Second, the Ethiopian Orthodox Church sets an extraordinary number of fasting days, which entail eating just once a day and abstaining from all animal products. This includes 55 days for Lent, 45 days before Christmas, every single Wednesday and Friday, and some others that escape me. That's a lot of meatlessness, so of course the veggie options would be varied and tasty. I have a vegan friend here who loves eating out in Addis; at any restaurant she can just say one magic word - "fasting" - and there will be something meat, egg, and dairy-free for her enjoyment.

So know you know something new (hopefully) about Ethiopian food and are ready to taste it for yourself, It can be a little tricky to find, but if you live in Washington DC you have absolutely no excuse not to give it a try.