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

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 piñata 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.

Wednesday, March 2, 2016

That's Right, You're Not From Texas, But Texas Wants You Anyway

Today, March 2, is Texas Independence Day, the anniversary of the signing of the declaration announcing Texas' independence from Mexico in 1836 and establishing a new country, the Republic of Texas. There was a quick war about it, culminating in the defeat of the Mexican forces at the Battle of San Jacinto the following April. Texas was only a country for ten years before being (voluntarily) annexed by the United States, but by god we'll never forget it.

Everyone loves piñatas
I have taken to throwing a Texas Independence Day party at least in my first year at post - after that the procurement of necessary supplies gets a little more complicated. I had this year's party on Sunday, and I think it's safe to say it was a huge success.

There was music - a custom playlist made exclusively of songs about Texas and/or by artists from Texas. There was beer - cases of Lone Star, Shiner, and St. Arnold's. The Shiner Prickly Pear was especially popular. There was a piñata, brought all the way from Texas in a giant mass of bubble wrap, stuffed not only with the traditional candy but with Texas pins and little airline bottles of tequila. (Those were popular too.) And of course there was food. I made beef fajitas and carnitas with all the trimmings. I made chili and cornbread and jambalaya and veggie enchiladas and guacamole. I made pecan pie and tres leches cake. Other people provided 7-layer dip and blueberry cobbler. I had hoped to smoke a brisket but the logistics on that turned out to be tricky. Maybe next time.

This is a logistically-challenging event to pull off. I started planning last July to get all the beer and the piñata + stuffing and the Texas napkins and such shipped with my consumables. I brought home the fajita meat frozen in my suitcase when I was back in the States for Christmas. The pork shoulder for the carnitas was shipped in from Kenya. And I cooked for weeks to have all the food ready - even the tortillas I made by hand. But everyone had a great time and said nice things about my cooking, so it all paid off. And hopefully they learned a little bit about Texas.

Tuesday, February 16, 2016

Vicarious Tourism: the Historic Circuit

This past week my parents were visiting, and I took some well-earned vacation time after the AU Summit to take them on a tour of the historic highlights in the north of of Ethiopia. My dad and stepmom are pretty intrepid travellers; they even visited me in Guinea, which no one - and I mean NO ONE - does. In comparison to putting together a tourist itinerary in Guinea, making arrangements in Ethiopia is a piece of cake. Just pick a tour company and they'll plug you in to one of the usual tours. Simple.

We started our tour in Bahir Dar, a quiet town on the shores of Lake Tana, the third-largest lake in Africa. Aside from just being able to look at a body of water so large you can't see the opposite shore, the main attractions are the dozens of monasteries dotting the shores of the lake and their associated art and treasures. It would take weeks to see them all, but most people take in a handful on a quick day tour. We saw one. But we REALLY saw it. Our tour guide was from a priest family and told us absolutely everything there was to know about the place, including the symbolism implicit in the numbers of columns and stairs in the building, and the stories behind every single fresco in the church. There were the classic tales from Sunday School, but also some new ones like the martyrdom of Saint George, Ethiopia's patron saint, and the story of Saint Mary and the cannibal.

The next stop was Gondar, seat of Ethiopia's kings from the 16th to 19th centuries. We toured their castles and heard more great stories. My favorite was the tale of Empress Mentewab, who concealed her husband's death from the court, saying he had gone on one of his periodic incognito wanderers through the kingdom, just long enough for the court to agree that she should take over as regent in the event that he were not to return. When the local priests spread a rumor that she was having a liaison with visiting explorer James Bruce, she decided to prove them all idiots by devising a puzzle none of them could solve: how to get a calabash out of a deep hole without a rope or ladder. One of her loyal advisors solved it by filling the hole with water and floating the gourd to the top. There's also a church in Gondar famous for its ceiling painted with concerned and disappointed angels who really wish you would just work a little bit harder on your immortal soul.

From my perspective, the real highlight of the trip was Lalibela, home to a dozen churches handcarved out of the mountains, the outsides top to bottom and then the insides in from the doors and windows. According to legend the project was inspired by a dream King Lalibela had in which God asked him to build a new Jerusalem, and the whole complex was completed in only 23 years thanks to a small army of stonemasons working all day and a crew of angels taking over at night. The results are undeniably impressive, featuring vaulted ceilings, intricately carved archways, and cruciform columns. But the most impressive thing about the churches is what's not there: tons and tons of volcanic stone chiselled out by hand. No wonder they named the town after the king who built them. I also liked that they are still working churches, and you could tell that for the Ethiopian tourists it was a big deal for them to be there. This place should really be much more famous than it is, but I guess being located in a dusty mountain town in a little-visited country counts against it.

Our last stop, Axum, was a bit of a letdown in comparison. There are still cool things though, most notably the obelisks erected by the kings of Axum to display their awesome power. Axum was a big deal from the 3rd century BCE, a Red Sea trade hub minting its own currency and trading with the Roman Empire until the rise of Islam eventually snuffed it out. Axum is also home to the Ark of the Covenant, the real one, which according to Ethiopia's founding myth was brought there by Menelik I, son of King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba. You can't actually see it, of course. It's in a chapel, surrounded by a fence, which unclean and unholy females like myself aren't allowed within a hundred yards of. Only one monk, the designated keeper, is ever allowed to look at it. The Smithsonian has a great article on it if you're interested. It's a powerful story, central both to the identity of the Ethiopian state and the Ethiopian Orthodox church, but not much to look at.

It was a relatively quick trip but a very enjoyable one, especially since I hadn't had much of a chance to get out of Addis before this. Ethiopia really has incredible historical and cultural wealth, and I would never have had any idea any of this stuff existed if I hadn't taken a job here. This amazing opportunity to get to know the world we all live in is still one of my favorite things about the Foreign Service.

Saturday, January 30, 2016

Schedule Tetris

If you want to get into the proper mood for this post, here's the theme song (but it's probably playing in your head already):

The AU Summit - my first - is going on now. As observer members we are not invited to a lot of the official events, but that doesn't stop the State Department from sending a bunch of high-level people into town to take advantage of having so many African Heads of State and Ministers together all at once by organizing a ton of bilateral meetings on the side.

I have been designated as the lead scheduler, which means churning out dozens of dipnotes and making endless phone calls to maximize the amount of productive diplomacy that can be squeezed into these few short days. There's lots of twisting and turning and shifting back and forth trying to make our delegation's meeting schedule fit with the meeting schedules of more than twenty other delegations, all of which are constantly in flux. And then, when you finally get something settled, an official session runs long, and  you start all over again as everyone scrambles to reschedule the meetings they missed.

I have spreadsheets. SO MANY spreadsheets. Priority spreadsheets and communication status spreadsheets and actual meeting time spreadsheets, and I am moving things around like crazy on all of these spreadsheets and the master schedule just trying to keep up with the new information coming in on two phones, on email, and in texts. And then I have to call/text/email other people to pass that new information on to where it needs to be. And just like the game, the pace keeps getting quicker and quicker.

I clutch my phone with both hands, frantically banging away with my thumbs like back in the old Game Boy days, but I'm texting the latest updates rather than moving colored blocks around. And yes, sometimes I hum the Tetris theme song to myself while I do it.

Thursday, January 14, 2016

DiploSkills: Show the Flag, Know the Flags

The friendship flag pin is a classic piece of standard diplomatic kit. American embassies always have a stock of the pins, the U.S. flag crossed with the flag of the host country. Or, in my current job, the flag of the African Union. I keep a stash in my bag to have on my lapel for meetings and official events so people can tell at a glance who, and what, I represent.

Other countries do flag pins too. There are flags on ambassadorial cars, on business cards, on embassy signs, everywhere. Especially here in Addis, seat of the African Union and one of the biggest diplomatic capitals in the world, where embassies are key navigational landmarks, there are a LOT of flags. But they're only helpful if you know what they mean. I've blogged before about how much geography - especially African geography - I've learned since I joined the Foreign Service. I've pretty much got the African countries and capital cities now, but the flags are proving challenging. So many of them are so alike! There's a reason for this.

When African countries started gaining independence in the mid-20th century many of them took their flag inspirations either from the red, black, and green Pan-African flag, or the red, gold, and green flag of Ethiopia, the continent's longest-standing independent country. The red/gold/green ones are especially tricky, often distinguished only by the order of the stripes and/or the presence or absence of stars. Here's an African flag quiz if you want to get a sample of what I'm dealing with here.

Flags and flags and flags and flags and...
But it's worse than that really because there are over 100 diplomatic missions in Addis, not just the African Union member states. This is is where it becomes relevant that the flags of India and Niger are hard to distinguish from a distance, and that Cote d'Ivoire's flag is the same as Ireland's, but backwards. Some of the North African countries' flags use the Pan-Arab colors, which makes them easy to confuse with the flags of various Middle Eastern countries who also have embassies here. Chad's flag is IDENTICAL to Romania's except for a slightly different shade of blue, and yes, they both have embassies here.

This is going to take some work. 

Saturday, December 19, 2015

High Culture in Cleveland

Mid-century modern design
I'm in Cleveland this week for a family event. Cleveland is of course one of America's great tourist destinations, a true cultural landmark, as shown succinctly by this pair of tourism videos. And while we're in town we have sought out the very best of Cleveland, the height of its cultural offerings. Sure, there are museums. There's a symphony. But why see those when you can go see the house where A Christmas Story was filmed 

I feel like this is a good time to mention that I, a red-blooded American, have somehow managed to reach my early 30s without ever having seen A Christmas StoryBut I've seen enough TV ads to get the gist - sad kid in a pink bunny suit, you'll shoot an eye out, kid gets his tongue stuck to the flagpole, the leg lamp. You know, the highlights. And I'm pretty okay with that state of affairs.

The house has been restored to its movie-set state and carefully furnished and stocked to represent the set as closely as possible. I liked the 1940s-era kitchen with the wringer-washer and the icebox. And it's interactive, so one can take pictures posing by the Christmas tree with the BB gun, pulling the leg out of the crate, or moping on the stairs in any of a number of pink bunny suits and matching slippers in a variety of sizes thoughtfully provided for you. People even bite the Lifebuoy soap and lick the flagpole. (I declined.) There's also a museum with costumes and other memorabilia from the movie, including the prize of the collection, one of the actual BB guns used on set, enshrined in a special glass case. 

Kitsch for the whole family
And of course a gift shop, lavishly provisioned with all kinds of relevant kitsch. They have pink bunny suits, and sexy pink bunny suits. They have Red Ryder BB guns. There are aviator caps and bars of Lifebuoy soap. There are models of every building and scene from the movie so you can build a little Christmas Story village. And there are leg lamps everywhere. On mugs, on T-shirts, on blankets. You can buy working full-sized leg lamps, leg lamp nightlights, strings of tiny leg lamps for your Christmas tree. Things I would never have imagined anyone could possibly want except that I could see with my own eyes the happy consumers queuing up at the cash registers. 

For me the best part of the whole experience was the background story. The whole complex is essentially a monument to superfandom. The owner, not an especially wealthy guy, bought and redid the house, extremely dilapidated at the time, basically because he just really loved the movie. The man had a dream, and he made it come true. Good for him. It almost makes me willing to forgive that his plans for "improving the neighborhood" include knocking down 100-year-old houses to build a parking lot. Almost. 

So Cleveland! Keeping it classy. 

(Photo credit baby sister Laura)