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!