Sunday, August 28, 2011

Things I've Liked on the Internet Lately

Curvy: a pretty simple game I can't stop playing.
Me, as seen by my cat.
My Body Gallery: mostly-anonymous photos of women tagged by height, weight, and clothes sizes. Maybe I'm not quite as hideous as I think I am, though that's no reason not to hit the gym.
Embassy Kabul torn apart over the fate of its cats.
Robots are now learning to think for themselves. I, for one, welcome our new robot overlords.
Want an environmentally-friendly burial method? Try being eaten by mushrooms.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

I'm on a Boat, Bitch

Or more accurately, the USCGC Forward, a Coast Guard cutter that's in town to train the local navy on counter-narcotics and such. The captain and the ambassador co-hosted a cocktail reception on the flight deck last night. I had a good time. It was nice to lay eyes on Americans I don't already know (some of whom were quite good-looking). It was nice to speak English at a work-related social event without feeling guilty about it.

But the unrivaled highlight of the evening was without doubt the catering. Ships' provisions are not generally thought of as haute cuisine, but I must say the cooks did themselves proud. And they had one very special thing that made my night: beef. Prime rib, roasted so tender and juicy you could cut it with a fork. With a PLASTIC fork. Oh my god. I had three helpings, to store it up like a camel until the next time a piece of meat that good comes my way. Which will be in December, when I go back to Texas for Christmas and gorge myself on steak and brisket and fajitas. Sigh. Maybe we can line up a few more ship visits between now and then.

Monday, August 22, 2011

In Praise of Modern Industrial Agriculture

When I used to buy sweet corn at the farmers' market, or at Whole Foods, or even, god forbid, at Safeway, it usually looked a little something like this:

This didn't strike me as remarkable in any way. That's what corn looks like.

Well, now that I have been removed from the comfortable embrace of the world's most advanced agricultural system I am seeing things in a whole new way. They grow corn here too, but it's a little bit different. For starters Guinean corn has about twice as much husk as its all-American counterpart and the ears are perhaps two-thirds the size. The kernels are smaller and less closely packed on the ear. They take longer to cook and are less sweet and toothsomely tender. The ears also occasionally contain caterpillars. When I buy corn in Guinea it looks a little something like this:

Now take that difference and multiply it by pretty much everything you eat. Onions are more the size of billiard balls than softballs and frequently have to have the outside layer or two peeled off because they're soft and mushy. Carrots are better cooked than raw because they're too rubbery to get that nice crisp crack. Eggs are smaller and need to have the dirt and straw and chicken poop washed off them before you crack them open individually over a clean bowl in case they turn out to be rotten. Happened to me twice last week. Even the mangoes, while huge and pretty tasty, lack the melting succulent sweetness of the ones I used to get imported from Mexico.

And yet, despite these challenges, I'm still somehow managing to eat pretty well. A little cardamom molten chocolate cake with homemade ice cream and candied ginger goes a long way.

Saturday, August 20, 2011

Communication Trepidation

NoDoubleStandards at Muttering Behind the Hardline has closed his digital doors. The fact that such a major proponent and supporter of Foreign Service blogging has decided to close up shop sends shivers down my spine.

I have so far found FS blogging to be an overwhelmingly positive experience. It's helped me keep track of friends and make new ones. And as NDS said, "The Man" has been cool with it. I had a less positive experience in a previous job; after an entirely innocuous post that happened to mention the name of my employer I was summoned to a meeting with HR, where I was told - with clear intention to intimidate, though no actual basis for doing so - that although I hadn't actually done anything wrong, they *knew* about my blog and *were watching me*. Dun dun dun. In the FS I had heard stories about social-media-paranoid posts and didn't want to run afoul of any rules, written or otherwise, so I brought it up at my inbrief on the first day. The RSO and I agreed on a policy of "don't be stupid," which seems fair.

But the thing about the internet is that nothing ever really goes away, and I may not actually know when I say something stupid until it comes back and bites me in the ass a decade down the road. And when people read that stupid thing for the first time it has all the freshness and immediacy as if I had just said it - unlike memory, the text doesn't degrade over time. Thanks to the wonders of the information age, the fate of the presidential candidate being pilloried for something he once said on the record as a junior congressman can now belong to us all, at one level or another.

But there's really no 100% effective way to guard against this. To interact with other human beings is to risk rubbing them the wrong way. The miracle of communication that is the internet can amplify this effect but it also amplifies the benefits of human interaction in a million ways, which is why we all keep blogging and tweeting and obsessively checking our Facebook pages.

Godspeed NDS. We'll miss you.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

You've Got Mail

For the most part I am madly in love with my job. But as with all jobs, there are parts of it I just don't want to do. Probably the biggest one of those parts is delivering demarches.

For those of you who just said "...whaaaa?" a demarche is the fancy diplospeak term for an official message from one government to another. Demarches can be on anything but they seem to come in four main flavors: Do This; Don't Do That; What Do You Know About X?; and What's Your Opinion on Y?. We generally get a couple of these a week, with larger flurries around big international conferences and such. Delivering demarches is probably one of the most diplomatish things I do, but it can also be a tremendous time-suck.

Here's how it works. I show up to work one morning to find a cable from Washington instructing all posts to find out, for an example, whether their host governments think puppies or kittens are more adorable. It generally includes pre-written background and talking points. Those points go to the protocol office, where they are translated into flowery formal diplospeak, which looks something like this:

The Embassy of the United States of America presents its compliments to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Guinea and wishes to know whether the Government of Guinea feels that puppies or kittens are more adorable. The Embassy of the United States of America avails itself of this opportunity to renew to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Guinea the assurance of its highest consideration.

Then it goes to be translated into French, and comes out looking something like this:

L'ambassade des Etats-Unis d'Amérique present ses compliments au Ministère des Affaires Etrangères de la République de Guinée et voudrait savoir si le Gouvernement de Guinée est de l'opinion que les chiots ou les chatons sont plus adorables. L'ambassade des Etats-Unis d'Amérique saisit cette occasion pour renouveler au Ministère des Affaires Etrangères de la République de Guinée l'assurance de sa très haute considération.

I print up the original English and the French translation on pretty formal letterhead and put it into a folder. The folder and I then drive an hour downtown to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, where I wait until someone is available to see me. I give them the folder and tell them what I'm here about this time. And they say, "Well, I can't really give you an official position on the comparative cuteness of puppies and kittens right now, but I'll pass this along to the Minister and we'll get back to you." I then drive an hour back to the embassy and send word back to Washington that I delivered the demarche as requested and they'll let us know.

And in all likelihood that's the last I'll ever hear of it, because when the MFA says "we'll get back to you" they don't mean *me*, they mean The United States of America. Their embassy in Washington will follow a similar procedure to inform the appropriate office in the State Department that:

The Embassy of the Republic of Guinea presents its compliments to the U.S. Department of State and has the pleasure to inform the Department that kittens are way cuter than puppies, duh. The Embassy of the Republic of Guinea avails itself of this opportunity to renew to the U.S. Department of State the assurance of its highest consideration.

Yes, believe it or not diplomacy still actually works this way. Every time I do this I feel like I should be a man in tux and tails with a top hat and a silk cravat and a vast and luxurious mustache. And maybe a monocle for good measure. One might think, in the 21st century, that we could just email our official messages to, and they could reply back to I've heard that in more time-focused and communications-infrastructure-endowed countries it is possible to get a demarche done digitally, though one still has to pretty up the language and figure out whom to send it to. But in Guinea the government doesn't have the resources and know-how (and reliable electricity) to maintain an email server, so we still do it the old-fashioned, time-consuming way. And when I have a whole list of other things that need doing (which I usually do) it can be tremendously frustrating.

(tl;dr: Diplomacy needs to get with the times. Kittens are adorable.)

Tuesday, August 16, 2011


Well, it seems the old blog has come down with a nasty rash of spambots. Either that or I am the hot new thing in the coveted UK-users-who-read-blogs-through-a-variety-of-shady-looking-Russian-sites demographic. So far Blogger's been doing a pretty good job keeping the barrage from turning into actual spam comments but it's wreaking havoc with my precious statistics. I am therefore switching over to moderated comments mode. It may take me some time to approve your comments (especially when my home internet is out, as is often the case) but I'll get around to it eventually. Besides, it's not like I get that many comments anyway (sniff sniff).

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Alice Waters Can Bite Me

I haven't been nearly as excited about food and cooking since I moved to Conakry. Maybe this is because I've been working more so I haven't had as much time to cook. Maybe it's because the good grocery store is an hour away. Maybe it's because all of my favorite recipes seem to contain at least one ingredient that's simply unavailable here. Maybe it's because my shiny new 220V stand mixer tried to electrocute me last weekend. In any case, I took the opportunity afforded by a rainy internetless Saturday to reacquaint myself with my cookbook collection in the hopes of reigniting the Joy of Cooking. Figuratively.

The first one I picked up was Alice Waters' The Art of Simple Food. I figured a back-to-basics approach might be a good way to cope with my new culinary terrain. This turned out to be a mistake. Surveying the anemic zucchini currently occupying my crisper drawer I was in no mood to be subjected to Alice waxing rhapsodic on the amazing produce available at her farmers' market in California or to be chided for attempting to cook with ultra-pasturized milk. Yes Alice, I know it "performs poorly in the kitchen" but it's all I've got, so lay off.

I was more heartened by a perusal of More Spies, Black Ties, and Mango Pies, a CIA family cookbook I picked up on my trip out to Langley last year. Many of the recipes would be easier to make in Southeast Asia or a former Soviet country than West Africa (go figure), but it was comforting to get stories from other people who were also trying to feed themselves in an alien environment, even if it does occasionally involve canned cream of mushroom soup. The salad section even contains a handy formula for oral rehydration solution, just in case. This is a little more my speed.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

I See White People

On Saturday I made the long drive downtown to the fancy expat supermarket, which was filled with delights. Cheese! Salami! Bacon bits! Not-too-terribly-bad-quality beef! Be still, my heart. It also contained another rarity in my new life: white people.

I see white people at the embassy every day but they aren't "white people", they're Ted and Jason and Lisa and so forth. But outside of the embassy and the occasional donors' meeting I've gotten used to being the only pale-face in the room/block/square mile. My sister Beth told me stories about going to tourist attractions in rural China and finding herself to be much more in demand for photos than the waterfall or whatever, because waterfalls were all over the place but white people were rare creatures. I'm not about to start snapping photos of my fellow Leader Price shoppers but I do kind of understand the impulse.

Sunday, August 7, 2011

Crowdsourcing Decorating Advice

Ladies and gentlemen, the library:

This is currently my favorite room in the house. It needs only two things for perfection: a nail to hang up my framed photo of the Shakespeare & Co. bookstore in Paris and something to put my feet on while I read. This second need is turning out to be tricky. Of all the ottomans (ottomen?) I have looked at the only ones that work with the chair color and do not cost way too much money are white/cream, which does not work with my cream rug.

So I found another rug, which I think might work with the chair, but the overall effect might be too color-busy. The other option is to get a slipcover for the chair and change the color scheme altogether, but slipcovering a wing chair presents its own problems. What do you think? Should I get the rug and risk having to pay the return shipping?

Decorating is hard.

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

All That Glitters

Today I do not love my job. Today my job was to look a very sweet man in the eye and tell him that in all likelihood his life savings were gone and never coming back, and there was really nothing we could do about it.

The gentleman in question had found himself ensnared in a gold scam, an all-too-common occurrence in Guinea. He came to the U.S. Embassy with a folder full of documents and a heart full of hope. He was sure the United States of America could make this right. And I wanted to. I wanted to so badly. I wanted to summon Captain America and send him downtown to punish the evildoers and get this nice man's money back in the name of truth, justice, and the American Way.

Unfortunately, in real life red-white-and-blue superheroes are a little thin on the ground. In real life when Americans find themselves in trouble in foreign countries their only recourse is whatever judicial and law enforcement system that country has to offer. We are not in charge here. Our laws and law enforcement do not apply. We cannot just call someone and make it all better. I wish we could. In real life pretty much all we can do is give you a list of local lawyers who can help you through the local legal system, if that's what you want to do. You're not in Kansas anymore.

So I told him this, although not quite in those words. He was perfectly polite about it, which made it even worse. The look of defeat in his eyes just about killed me. Short of telling someone about a death - which I may have to do next year in my consular capacity - this is about the toughest news I can think of to have to break. But it's my job, and I did it, as professionally and compassionately as I know how. At least he didn't argue when I told him his life is more important than the money; these things have turned violent before.

He went home disappointed, and I went home angry and swam laps until I couldn't swim anymore. I'm still angry, angry that bad things happen to good people and that I can't do anything about it. But I guess that's a bigger problem than just gold scams.

Monday, August 1, 2011

The Spice of Life

One of the nice things about being at a small post is the variety in the work. I have a friend in the political section in Paris, one of our larger embassies, and all she does for 40 hours a week is keep an eye on France's relations with the Balkans. It's like that stereotype of specializing until you know everything about nothing. Being the one and only economic officer in Conakry I get to know a little bit about everything. (Except that sometimes I feel like I should really know everything about everything, and even just everything about everything about Guinea is a LOT.)

Anyway. I bring this up because today, in my capacity as agricultural officer, I received a bull semen catalog in the mail. Now, I was previously aware that cattle DNA is big business. I am from Texas after all. I had just never before had the opportunity to leaf through a catalog and familiarize myself with the various available options.

It's a lot like online dating. Each page has a picture of the gentleman, polished to a high gloss to look his best. There are some basic numbers: age, height, weight, mature scrotal circumference. Then it gets into the bovine version of SAT scores: ranks and ratings on a host of factors like marbling, daughters' milk production, and value per pound. Last but not least, each bull has a couple of bullet points for those personal quirks that don't necessarily come through in the numbers. Some of my favorites:
  • A standout for calving ease and carcass - he helps get the bills paid!
  • Your heifers dream about bulls like Selective.
  • Phenotype like no other - if you desire style, width, and muscle, this it it!
  • A true customer satisfier, siring cattle that perform and look good doing it!
  • If there's one bull everyone is talking's Regis.
The catalog also comes with a handy gestation chart and an illustrated guide to insemination. Somehow I doubt Guinea's cattle ranchers have the wherewithal to afford the best bull semen America has to offer, but on the off chance that someone here needs help finding some quality sperm I am now better equipped to point them in the right direction.