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.