Thursday, June 30, 2011

First World/Third World Problems

In moving from DC to my new expat life in Guinea my standard of living has both risen and fallen at the same time. On the one hand, I now have a house with a yard and a car and a place to park it. I will have a housekeeper and maybe a cook once I get around to finding them. In my DC life these were unimaginable luxuries I never could have afforded. On the other hand, basic things I took for granted in DC cannot be gotten for love or money in Guinea, such as reliable electricity and internet service that doesn't remind me of 1998.

This means I now have more First World Problems, a term I love because it allows me to simultaneously complain and acknowledge how lucky I am. For example, last week I was sorely vexed because Pottery Barn was sold out of the patio chair cushions I want for my conservatory. Yes, my conservatory. That sure as hell is a problem I never had in Washington. In addition, I am getting new experience with Third World Problems, such as waking up on Monday morning with no electricity in my house.

But I have also discoved a hitherto unknown category of First World/Third World problems, when the two worlds collide. My haircut is supremely First World - it requires two separate electrical appliances to beat it into submission - so when that Third World no-power problem rears its ugly head I have no choice but to rear mine. It's irksome to not have lights in the morning, but even more so when it means one will have to represent the United States of America on television with one's best no-electricity-at-my-house-this-morning hairdo. Let me tell you, it was not pretty.

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Things I've Liked on the Internet Recently

Always wanted a superpower? You could have geomagnetic sight
Snowclones: to click, or not to click?
Bored? Four unsolved codes and ciphers. Go.
Help liguistic research: be part of a dialect map.
Göbekli Tepe: like Stonehenge, but older and more impressive
Spycats and The Cats of War

Another 4 minutes of your '90s childhood:

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Money Matters

So far the most difficult adjustment to my new life in Guinea has been learning to deal with the money. In the States I used my credit card for everything. It was easy and convenient and earned me frequent flyer miles. It also makes it really easy to track my spending. I remember in high school being embarrassed to put something $5 or less on a card, but I got over that a long time ago. Cash was just more trouble than it was worth.

In Guinea cash is the only game in town. There are a few places in Conakry where you can use a card, but doing so effectively gives your waiter or hotel desk clerk carte blanche to use your card too. Checks are worthless, except at banks. I get paid via direct deposit and then write checks to cash at the embassy bank. On Friday I forgot to do a bank run so I was broke all weekend. Oops.

So you have to have cash, and a lot of it. The Guinean franc is currently running at about 6,700 to the dollar at the official exchange rate (the black market rate is higher). While Guinea is a very poor country, doing things that expats do - eating out, shopping at grocery stores, buying gas - is not cheap. I have concluded that normal running-around money is probably about a half million francs, more if planning a grocery run.

Guinea's largest bill is the 10,000-franc note, which means that the aforementioned normal running-around money is at minimum 50 pieces of paper. I'm glad I never got around to buying a new wallet before I left DC because it would have been a total waste. I'm considering getting a pencil case or something to carry my bricks of bills around in. A larger denomination note might help with the cartage, but if ever a country needed mobile banking, it's Guinea.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Stepping Up

By the third day of work I'm mostly done with the check-in paperwork, so I got to do some actual diplomacy for a change. The embassy got a last-minute invitation to a ceremony in a protected forest for World Environment Day, which seemed like an ideal first outing for a wet-behind-the-ears econ officer.

I expected a nice little event where I would listen to some speeches, clap appreciatively, shake hands with the minister and be done, no problem. I traipsed off into the forest in my kitten heels (must find some office-worthy flats, pronto!)and was more-or-less comfortably seated in the diplomat section when the presidential security forces started showing up. Apparently this was a bigger event than we had anticipated.

I did listen to some speeches. I did clap appreciatively. I did shake hands with the minister. I shook hands with a bunch of ministers. I also shook hands with the prime minister and the president. And after the speeches President Conde, the prime minister, and all the various ambassadors in attendance planted trees. And since I was the closest thing to an ambassador the U.S. had on the scene I planted a tree too. I hope the picture came out okay.

So I survived my first representational event, though I'm afraid my shoes will never be the same.

Monday, June 13, 2011


So I have safely arrived in Africa. Contrary to expectations, the soundtrack to The Lion King does not play in the background on a continuous loop. In the three days I have been here the following things have happened:

1. My compound lost power once.
2. I consumed unexpectedly delicious food twice.
3. I was temporarily evicted from my house for several hours while a neighboring radio tower was dismantled after being damaged during a demonstration of used construction machinery.
4. I went to a great party thrown by some people from ICRC and the EU embassy.
5. Jabberwocky slew his first cockroach.

I'm still getting used to the house, which is large and sparsely furnished and sometimes echoes in a very lonely way. Must buy more rugs. It's also full of peculiar appliances that require wrangling with, including six dehumidifiers, a whole bunch of power converters, and a particularly intransigent iron that has prevented the dewrinkling of my work wardrobe. I also made and consumed the saddest bowl of pasta I have ever produced, having not thought to purchase garlic, red wine, parmesan cheese, salt, or pepper at the grocery store. I'm just so used to having these things all the time.

A period of adjustment is only to be expected, but despite some minor domestic inconveniences so far I'm having a fun time.

For Clay:

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

I Heart NY

As I am heading out to a consular position, my training includes two days of consultations with the fine folks of DHS in New York on all matters immigrationy. This means I get an excuse to squeeze some New York things in between my consultations, which has not been difficult. Outside of work time I have besported myself like a Park Avenue princess, because I'm only here for a couple of days and why not enjoy it? My indulgences have included extravagant dining at Craft and Ça Va, a ticket to Wicked (which I have been meaning to see for YEARS now but never gotten around to), and the most expensive haircut of my life, which looks super-cute, especially with my new geek-chic black plastic-rimmed glasses. I took taxis. I NEVER take taxis.

I still have tomorrow morning to live it up NYC-style before the cat and I and my two giant suitcases head out to JFK for more DHS meetings and a long overnight flight to Paris, where I also intend to have a lovely time for a day before finally getting to Conakry.

My life is so hard.

Friday, June 3, 2011


The State Department gives you up to five days to use however you see fit to prepare to move to post. I was excited for mine, during which I planned to get some important things accomplished but also to visit some museums I'd never gotten around to seeing and maybe spend some time by the pool. Ha. Ha. Ha.

Instead I spent my admin days in a tornado of activity: going to the dentist, taking the cat to the groomer, having the vet come check him out, driving all the way to fucking Annapolis to get a stamp on a piece of paper attesting to the good health of my cat, picking up my visa, and shopping, shopping, shopping. Just for consumables I went to six different stores, some of them several times because I forgot something or an item I expected to be at one store actually was not. I have no idea how much money I spent - yesterday I quit counting after $1,500. Thank god for real grownup credit cards with real grownup credit limits. And then I had to lug it all up to my apartment one armload at a time, a Sisyphean task that felt all the more ridiculous because I knew all the stuff I was working so hard to move up to my place would just be coming back down again the next day.

I may have gone slightly overboard. Would my quality of life really have been so diminished if I didn't have any green curry paste or fig balsamic vinegar or gourmet jellybeans? Perhaps not, but this way I won't ever have to find out. In the event that Guinea turns out to be strange and different beyond my ability to cope, at least I know that I will have marshmallows and dried porcinis to turn to for solace (though probably not together).

This time next week I'll be in Conakry. It's starting to get real.