Sunday, August 28, 2016

Say Cheese!

Living overseas, especially in a less developed country where it's harder to come by the comforts of home, people start to get creative about making things themselves. Particularly food things. Some people pickle and home brew; yours truly has previously tried her hand at making bagels and growing mushrooms, both otherwise unavailable back in Conakry. Addis has better food availability in general, but there are still things lacking, gaps to try to fill. And one of those is cheese.

It's not that there isn't any cheese at all. There is a crumbly local cheese often served on injera with the rest of the traditional meal, but I tend to find it a bit redolent of sweaty gym socks for my personal taste. There is also Planet Cheese, a truly marvelous little shop not too far from my house that stocks some fresh cheeses and a variety of imports, though many come in frozen and lose a little in the texture department thereby. But there is one specific class of cheese that I have been 0 for 3 at posts so far: Mexican cheeses, the ideal taco toppers. So, when I found a kit that would teach me how to make my very own queso blanco (and several other types of fresh cheeses as well) I knew I had to have it.

Making fresh cheese is startlingly simple in concept; it's just adding acid to hot milk. However, getting the exact flavor and consistency of cheese you're looking for takes a little more nuance, some careful measuring, and close attention to the thermometer. I took a stab at queso blanco for my Texas Independence Day party and my first attempt came out, well, okay I guess. It tasted pretty good but was a little stickier and less crumbly than I had hoped. Subsequent tries have come out a little better, but still not quite scratching that itch. What I really want is cotija, that perfect salty creamy snack that squeaks on your teeth, but that's a more complicated project I'll have to work up to. Or, you know, buy some when I'm next in Texas.

Saturday, August 13, 2016

How to Win Friends and Influence People

For me, the hardest thing for me about the Foreign Service isn't the moving or the culture shock; it's having to build a new social group from scratch every 2-3 years. Making new friends as an adult is hard for a lot of people, not just FSOs, though we do it more often than most. This American Life had a great segment recently where two men who recently moved to a new city went on a friend blind date; it was kind of awkward, but ultimately effective. And because this is the 21st century, there's an app for that. Making friends is especially challenging for me, because I'm the kind of person who thinks reading a good book in my PJs with the cat is an amazing Friday night. But I still want to have friends, so I have to go out and find them somehow.

Over the years I have developed a strategy for building a social life that works pretty well for me. I have followed it with varying rigor at different times, but I try to be strict about it particularly in the first couple of months of a new tour when I don't know anybody at all, and around summer rotation season when I find a lot of my friends have left. It's pretty simple; there are only two rules:

RULE 1: Accept all social invitations unless you have a Really Good Reason not to. This is self-explanatory, except for the Really Good Reason part. Here you have to be strict with yourself. Really Good Reasons include previous engagements, being out of town, actual illness, and for-realz emergencies. Just not feeling like going out is not a Really Good Reason. Does this mean sometimes I go out when I don't feel like it and have a lousy time? Yes, but rarely. Mostly I end up having fun, and getting over that initial hurdle of leaving the house is completely worth it.

RULE 2: Once a week, invite someone to do something social.  A meal, a drink, a movie, a joint workout, a cultural event of some kind. Anything at all. They don't even have to say yes. The important thing is that you make the effort; the response is out of your control. Of course, when they do say yes, you are not allowed to bail unless you have a Really Good Reason (see Rule 1), so pick something you'll enjoy. A side benefit of this is that, knowing you have to invite someone to something every week, you are more likely to actively look for fun things to do in your town instead of just surrendering to Netflix and Chill.

The beauty of this system is that it's self-reinforcing: the people you invite to things under Rule 2 are more likely to invite you to things, which you accept under Rule 1, and where you may meet new nice people to invite to things under Rule 2, and so on and so forth. Is it foolproof? No. Maybe you're at a tiny post with security restrictions that make it hard to go places, do things, and meet people. In that case I'll give you some book recommendations. But after three moves in the FS and a whole bunch before that, I have learned that the single most important factor in making new friends is to TRY. Make an effort. Most of the time it pays off. You're good enough, you're smart enough, and doggone it, people like you!

And for those times when you need a little bit more encouragement, here is your anthem:

Monday, August 1, 2016

Elections, the Foreign Service, and Me

As you may have noticed, there's a U.S. Presidential election going on right now. And not just any old election, but a tight race with controversial candidates. For at least a year now the election has been inescapable on the news and on social media, and coverage will only get more and more intensive in the coming months as Election Day draws near.

As an FSO, I, like all federal employees, am restricted in political participation and expression by the Hatch Act of 1939. The purpose of the Act is to prevent the considerable power and resources of the federal government from being used to influence elections, a goal I wholeheartedly agree with as essential to safeguarding American democracy. In addition to banning such obvious no-nos as intimidating voters, bribing them with jobs or money, and using federal funds for political campaigns, it also includes a long and detailed list of things federal employees may not do in terms of political activity, designed to prevent the inappropriate influence, or appearance thereof, of federal workers on electoral processes. Let's just get one of those out of the way right now:

"A covered employee may not post a comment to a blog or a social media site that advocates for or against a partisan political party, candidate for partisan political office, or partisan political group."

All those "may nots" don't mean we're not allowed to have opinions, and to talk about them; it's right there in the long and detailed list of things we are permitted to do, but with quite a caveat:

"A covered employee may express opinions about candidates and issues. If the expression is political activity, however — i.e., activity directed at the success or failure of a political party, candidate for partisan political office, or partisan political group — then the expression is not permitted while the employee is on duty, in any federal room or building, while wearing a uniform or official insignia, or using any federally owned or leased vehicle."

And there's the rub. As an FSO, I am essentially on duty 24/7. I work in a federal building, and the federal government leases the house I live in. The things I say and do reflect on the U.S. Government, whether or not it's during working hours or I'm wearing my friendship pin. And this is an election with international interest; at every meeting, every official representation event, every casual get-together, people want to talk about it. There was one single day this summer when I thought the subject might not come up, but then one of the candidates made some controversial remarks, and we talked about it anyway.

So what I'm getting at here is that it's hard to avoid getting swept up in all the excitement. Especially when a solid half of my Facebook feed is election-related, it's tough to hold back. It's hard to be careful at meetings and cocktail parties (though most of these questions are looking for wider analysis rather than just my opinion). But the Hatch Act is important, and minding what you say is an important part of being a diplomat, so I'm doing my best. However, I can't say I'm not looking forward to the day this is all over and we can move on to different topics of conversation. 100 days and counting.

In the meantime, there is one thing I can say about the election that is entirely, unambiguously, in keeping with my role as a USG representative: VOTE! Make sure you're registered. If you're overseas, request your absentee ballot. Do it right now, before you get caught up in something else. It's important.

Sunday, July 24, 2016

Hotel-Office-Hotel Rwanda

All last weekend I was in Kigali providing support to the U.S. delegation in town on the margins of the African Union Summit. Observers, such as the United States, were not invited to the summer Summit this year, but the recent resurgence of violence in Juba meant that some senior State Department people had some urgent messages to deliver to various African leaders. So I came in, bringing my previous Summit experience, to help facilitate that.

It was a long weekend of long days, trying to organize meetings on iffy phone lines, manage the schedule, get notetakers to the right place at the right time, and other administrative things. There were long periods of waiting around punctuated with sudden rushes of activity. But one way or another things worked out. Thanks in part to me but mostly to the incredible efforts of Embassy Kigali, the United States got a lot of really important diplomacy done in a few short days.

With a hectic and unpredictable schedule I had no time for tourism. In fact, I did not get to see much of Kigali at all besides my hotel room, the embassy, and the road between them. I did not see the Rwandan Genocide Memorial or the Hotel Milles Collines, where the (mostly) real events of the film Hotel Rwanda took place. And I didn't get to see the famous mountain gorillas in the north of the country. That all just means I'll have to find some time to go back to Rwanda and see things properly, without a huge work event getting in the way.

At least I did get to see some pretty flowers and sunshine, a nice break from the rainy season going on in Addis right now.

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 (always a 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 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.