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

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)

Thursday, December 3, 2015

The New Nemesis

Do not let this deceptively peaceful photo fool you; he's a rabble-rouser.
This is the Artful Dodger, a neighborhood cat who likes to slide under my gate from time to time and hang out in my yard, napping in sunny patches and hunting the birds who flock to my rare patch of grass and trees. When I took this picture he was clearly fresh from devouring some small animal and did not care in the slightest that I was standing right next to him as he indulged in a little well-earned food coma time.

When I first saw him I knew immediately he was going to be trouble. Any cat trespassing so flagrantly, so nonchalantly, on Jabberwocky's turf was bound to provoke his wrath. And yet for the first couple of months Jabbers seemed perfectly happy to stay indoors, much to my relief. We negotiated outdoor privileges for him in Dublin, but only because I knew that when (not if) he got in a fight I could rush him to the 24/7 kitty emergency room and he wouldn't even need a rabies shot because they don't have rabies there. When he eventually, inevitably, did get in a fight that's exactly what happened. Here in Addis the vet care is somewhat less thorough, and god only knows what kinds of diseases the Dodger and the rest of his ilk are carrying.

But the Dodger must have been teasing the Jabberwock pretty mercilessly while I was gone for Thanksgiving, because as soon as I returned my precious boy bolted outside all puffed up and ready to defend his territory, come what may! Until what came was me with a broom to beat him out of the bushes, whereupon he decided that discretion was the better part of valor and beat a hasty retreat. But now that Jabbers has fixed his mind on going outside again I know that this is only the beginning of a long and bitter war of wills, albeit one with frequent intermittent snuggle sessions. Better keep that broom handy. 

Friday, November 6, 2015

DiploSkills: Do You Speak Multilateral?

Mental Floss had a good article not too long ago on the quirks of "EU English", a variant of English with some unusual grammar and vocabulary which comes from speakers of dozens of languages in the European Union all trying to get together to make decisions. Some of the examples were new to me but many I had seen before, including at my new job at the African Union. "Planification" is a classic, sure to come up when dealing with native French speakers.

But there are other things not on the Mental Floss list that also seem to exist only in the language of multilateralism. My favorite example shows up at the end of almost every declaration by an international organization when the body announces its intention to "remain seized of" an issue. Every time I read this I can't help but imagine an entire council chamber of people simultaneously collapsing on the floor in spasms. In fact it just means "continue to pay attention to" whatever it is they're talking about. Here's William Safire on the phrase. I also like "domesticate", which in multilateralspeak has nothing to do with animals but means "adopt and implement an internationally-agreed policy in one's home country."

Some of these quirky usages make my inner grammar nazi want to scream, but then my inner second-language learner smothers said grammar nazi with a pillow. Operating professionally in a non-native language is incredibly difficult, as I am inevitably reminded every single time I want to say something reasonably intelligent in French. Also, international organizations deal with issues that don't often come up in other venues, so if inventing a word like "actorness" helps get the job done, by all means let's have it! 

Sunday, November 1, 2015

Grocery Run

All last week I was in Johannesburg for an energy seminar. I learned a lot, met some great people, and explored the city. But mostly I ate. I haven't been away from the miraculous foodscape of the first world for long enough to feel really deprived, but I knew I had to take advantage of what I had while I had it. I ate meltingly tender steak and sushi and microgreen salads. I had ostrich and shrimp and peri-peri chicken. I had an amazing 10-course tasting menu at Cube with dishes called things like "Alien vs. Predator" and "#chefslife". And thanks to the weak rand (currently 13 to the dollar) I ate like a queen and couldn't believe how cheap it all was.

The Haul
And then it was time to go home, but not before I did some grocery shopping. Just a tiny little bit. Okay, I pretty much looted the produce section and the cheese aisle. It's late spring in South Africa so there were all kinds of delicious fruits and vegetables ripe and in season. The cheese situation in Addis is pretty dire. (One point for Conakry - former French colonies can always be counted on for good bread and cheese.)  And then at the airport I scooped up a few more bottles of wine at the duty-free and a dozen beef filets (2 for $10!) and some biltong because I was in South Africa and that's just what one buys there. The zebraskin rugs were also pretty tempting, but my arms were starting to hurt by that point. One of my favorite diplomatic perks is that customs officials aren't allowed to go through our suitcases, which makes it way easier to do international food runs.

With my loot safely home, I spent pretty much all afternoon yesterday blanching mushrooms and trimming asparagus and slicing peaches, placing it all tenderly, reverently, into a ridiculous number of plastic bags, which I will guard in my freezer like a hoard of priceless jewels. I know that, someday in the not-too-distant future, I will really want some raspberries or some broccolini, and on that day I will pull the appropriate packet triumphantly from the freezer and HAVE SOME, and it will be sweet. I get excited about food pretty much all the time, but there's nothing like scarcity to make me really appreciate simple things like gouda or salad greens.

Friday, October 16, 2015

Foreign Service Christmas

I love Christmas. All of them. There's the Christmas you normally think of; there's Ethiopian Christmas, which I will discuss in detail at the appropriate time (January); and then there's Foreign Service Christmas, which I am celebrating now.

Foreign Service Christmas is the day your personal effects finally get delivered to your house at your new post. You get to open dozens and dozens of boxes all at the same time - big ones - and it doesn't matter that all of the contents are things you previously owned because you haven't seen them in months (or in the case of long-term language training or a PSP tour, years) so it still kind of feels like a surprise. Also, you're pretty much guaranteed to like everything you get because you picked it all out. At any rate, if you do open a box to find an ugly ill-fitting sweater there's no one but yourself to blame.

It's all for me!
I am especially delighted by this Foreign Service Christmas because I've been getting by from suitcases and the welcome kit for six weeks now, which is a personal record. Everything so far has arrived undamaged and in one piece, even my piñata! I am only slightly disappointed that the delivery I thought was my UAB (air shipment) and my HHE (general personal effects) turned out to be my UAB and my consumables shipment instead. That means that most of my stuff remains firmly in the clutches of Ethiopian customs for an undetermined period of time. But it's okay, because tonight I can celebrate with a frosty Purple Haze and sleep in my very own sheets, and tomorrow morning I don't have to get up early and feed the cat because his autofeeder will do it for me. This is much, much better than my situation this morning. I am happy.

Monday, October 12, 2015

Wenchi Crater Lake

My first trip outside Addis was an embassy-organized excursion to Wenchi Crater Lake, about 4 hours' drive from the city. The caldera of an extinct volcano now has a lake in the middle with waterfalls and hot and cold springs, and the views are lovely. Almost 30 of us went on a 5-hour tour down from the rim of the caldera, around through a lush spring-fed valley, across the lake to an island in the middle with a monastery on it, over to the other side of the lake for lunch, and back up top to head home.

There were horses available for most of the way (except a tricky section where the road was washed out) but I walked the 10 km down to the lake. If a six-year-old could do it, so could I, and it's tough to take good pictures from horseback. Up was a different story: at this point in my altitude adjustment I can handle one flight of stairs without falling apart but two is still a challenge, so I was not about to try a 1.5-hour upward climb. Not that my unathletic self would have tried it at sea level either. Yay for knowing my limitations!

The scenery was lovely, dramatic and green from the end of the rainy season. I learned some things about the local area too. The springs there are the source for Ambo, a popular water brand named for the nearest town. Over 2000 people live in and around the crater growing barley and ensete on the steep slopes. A great trip!

Friday, October 2, 2015


Sunday was Meskel, a big Christian holiday which celebrates the finding of the True Cross by Saint Helen. This is not a story I learned in my Presbyterian Sunday school, so here's the tale as told mostly by Wikipedia:

Helen, or Eleni as she is known locally, was the mother of Emperor Constantine, of Constantinople fame. While on pilgrimage to Jerusalem she dreamt that building a bonfire would reveal the location of the crosses Jesus and the two theives had been crucified on, which had been buried and lost. This she duly did, and the column of smoke from the fire curved down and touched the ground at the place the crosses were buried. In order to figure out which of the three was the True Cross, a deathly ill woman touched each in turn until she was miraculously healed. After that the True Cross was apparently hacked to bits by religious souvenir hunters as there are pieces of it kept as relics in churches all over the place, including Ethiopia.

The celebration of Meskel is a big deal here in Addis. There's a big religious procession in Meskel Square, in the center of town. I didn't make it out there this year but I was lucky enough to get to see the practice session a few days before. Here's a short clip:

Untitled from Meredith Cheerfulstoic on Vimeo

Another key part of the festivities is the building and lighting of bonfires, called demera. There's a big one in Meskel square but also smaller ones all over the place set up by families or neighborhoods for their own celebrations. They are traditionally decorated with small yellow daisies known as Meskel flowers and set alight as part of a feast with music and dancing. I went to one with some friends and it was a lot of fun. I sampled some homemade tej, or honey wine, attempted some Ethiopian dances (much to the amusement of the assembled guests), and carried a torch to help light the fire. I love holidays!

Demera before

Demera after

Thursday, September 17, 2015

New Kid on the Block


Confused yet? Me too. I'm mostly through with the check-in paperwork and getting started with actual work, or at least orientation to actual work. Meeting people, background reading, trying to figure out who's who and what's what, what's important and what it all means. What I'm going to be doing with my time for the next two or three years. 

I hate this part, the feeling like an idiot part. It's one of the drawbacks of the Foreign Service life, starting over from zero every couple of years. But it's normal, and it's temporary. I just have to read the reports and talk to the experts and push on through until the day when it all starts to come together. And to have faith that, eventually, it will.