Friday, December 30, 2005

The Inevitable Timeline

There's a legend of a 19th century British lord, who, when visiting his daughter, exclaimed with dismay that his toothbrush wasn't "foaming properly". It turns out that his valet had been placing toothpaste on the brush for him for so long that he no longer knew how to do it for himself.

There are some interesting parallels to being a Foreign Service spouse. I can do many things I would have never tried three years ago. I can buy beer in three languages, I can bargain in outdoor markets, I can navigate any international airport in thirty minutes or less.

There's also the wimpy, whiny dark side that you almost never hear about. Our apartments are assigned before our arrival by an inter-agency board, someone else sets up our license plates, we have a special passport agency, an Embassy maintenance guy comes over to change the light bulbs, and we receive financial allowances for virtually anything that may be construed as a hassle. Mama State takes care of it. It's like crawling back into the womb. Some spouses are able to keep a hold on themselves, some become accustomed to being taken care of and lose themselves a bit along the way, others become spoiled brats.

I don't really know which camp I fall into. Luckily I lived on my own for long enough that I don't take Mama State for granted. I'm sure most of my girlfriends felt the same way, but there seems to be an inevitable timeline for us. For a while it's a refreshing break, then it becomes routine, then it becomes an entitlement. Then our brains inevitably dissolve into a puddinglike goo, we become "ladies who lunch", we manhandle the pool boy, and then we bemoan the lack of a Christian Dior boutique in Mogadishu.

OK, I'm exaggerating for effect. The infantilization of spouses is an entrenched, and unfortunate, State Department trait. On most forms I am listed as Matt's "dependent" or "trailing spouse". I haven't been anyone's "dependent" since I left for college, and "trailing spouse" implies that Matt is dragging me around the world in a little red wagon. Sometimes I'm called an "eligible family member" which is a lovely effort to avoid offending anyone by being completely vague. I have friends who try to list their cats as "eligible family members." So excuse me if I don't find the term flattering.

Until the 1970s, wives were considered "unpaid employees" of the State Department and were included on employee evaluations. I don't mention the husbands of diplomats, because there weren't any. Female diplomats who married were forced out of their jobs.

Frankly, things haven't gotten much better. For example, Matt has to sign a Power of Attorney so I can use the Embassy Cashier. It's a joint account, it's my money too, but I need hubby's permission to talk to the nice bank teller lady. It's enough to drive you crazy.

Of course, there are government programs to fix all these things. For example, if I DO indeed go crazy, Mama State will send me on a lovely all expenses paid two-week vacation to Sibley Hospital.

Now call me crazy (and ship me off to Sibley) but couldn't a lot of this be fixed by NOT calling us dependents, NOT making us get our husbands' approval to cash a damn check, and by trying to make us fend for ourselves a bit?

Thursday, December 22, 2005

The Travelogue Monologue Suckalogue

The Ambassador and the RV

This story ran in Sunday's Washington Post Travel Section. The German Ambassador in DC and his wife decided to spend their summer vacation in an RV. Wacky hijinks ensue, and the wife writes an article about their experiences. This could have been really fun, great stuff.

However, I found her article annoying, poorly written, and lacking in any sort of emotional resonance. She's been in our country for four years, and has nothing to say about America that hasn't been said a hundred million times already. Guess what? We're all really fat and we like to throw stuff away instead of fixing it.

It's amazing, but in one article she managed to hit every last one of my Top 10 Travelogue Pet Peeves. Some quotes:

1. "But the real America, we felt, was happening somewhere else. Clearly without us."

It always drives me crazy when Washington is described as some sort of alternate universe "fake America." I'm sorry, I left my "real America" Bible, giant belt buckle, and dog named Rusty at home. I’m sorry I can’t provide that authentic American experience for you.

What a twit. It annoys me to no end when people feel like they have to drive all the way out to the middle of nowhere to “really experience” a place.

2. "It's not something I'm particularly keen on experiencing myself." "Nothing is as I had hoped....I keep these thoughts to myself."

Nothing is better for a vacation than sulking! So, why are you exploring the "real America" if you don't want to? She spends the entire article moaning about how she doesn't want to be on this trip. Let me tell you, nothing is more exciting than paragraph after paragraph of sheer whining.

3. "Karl teaches political science at Harvard; Debbie inherited the 250-year-old antiques-filled farmhouse from her parents."...."Peter Schleifenbaum, with whom I played ring-around-the-rosie in a German kindergarten many years ago, is a professor of forestry and rules over 60,000 acres of land, including more than 50 lakes."…“The success of such a trip clearly depends on one essential: to be equipped with a long list of friends.”… “We've rented a house there [Martha’s Vineyard], and at dinner parties we share our vacation stories with British aristocrats, football team owners, Washington power brokers and writers who live on the island year-round. They all stare at us in disbelief.”

We get it. You have really important, glamorous friends. You’re the most popular kids in school. Now stop reading your Christmas card list to me.

4. "Looks like a mix between Lake Starnberg in Bavaria and Lago di Como in Italy," Wolfgang says."… “It's like the Norwegian fiords and England's Cornwall all in one.”

You're well traveled and sophisticated. We get it, already. Talk about the trip you’re actually taking, please.

5. "Milky twilight is settling in."

Eeeeeeesh. Did she get that from Dial-a-Cliche? Let's not even discuss the "alluring blue water" she discovers.

6. "Next to us is a party of 10. Grandpa and Grandma, each weighing more than 250 pounds, enjoy their first cigarettes of the day in camp chairs."

Yes, because Lord knows that Germany has no fat people. Germans never touch anything like sausages, beer or sweets. It bugs me when writers, especially European ones, imply that Americans are the world's only overweight slobs.

7. "At Cornwall, we cross the St. Lawrence River back to the United States. Nobody checks the vehicle to see if we are hiding any terrorists."

Holders of diplomatic passports aren't usually searched, you nitwit. Remember that little thing called ‘diplomatic immunity’? I hate it when someone with special privileges implies that they are just another traveler.

8. "Everything on Route 2 is about cars: car dealers, new cars, used cars, auto body shops, repair places, wrecked cars under sun umbrellas, garages, scrap merchants. It all seems to symbolize a mobile, throwaway society."

Or, you’re in the auto repair section of town.

“Here you start something, give it up and go somewhere else. Buy, sell, tear down the old, build up the new. Are we in Europe too attached to the past?”

Are we in Europe too attached to asking ourselves lame pseudo-philosophical questions? Both of these quotes bother me for the same reason: trying to bodily force symbolism out of the mundane does NOT make you deep.

9. "You did what?" one gentleman bursts out. "All alone, no help, with the baby? Thank God you did not bring the vehicle on the island!"

I absolutely love this. I adore the idea that driving around in an RV, which pensioners do on a routine basis, is some sort of grand adventure. It's not like she was in 'Nam, people. She slept in an RV for a few nights. The horror! The horror!

10. “Let's face it: Between professional socializing, embassy functions and fundraisers, how else could we have ever felt so cut loose, so independent and so mobile -- so American?”

I don’t know…could you maybe try getting out of the RV for once? Or try talking to actual Americans? At no point in the trip does she have a conversation with, or meet any of these “real Americans” she was so damn eager to see at the beginning of the trip. She and her husband just putter around, visiting one upper-crust friend after another. How very enlightening. I truly hate it when a travel writer makes no effort whatsoever to talk to any locals.

I guess what burns me most of all is that this self-serving dreck was on the front page of the Washington Post’s Travel Section, while I still toil away in Blogland. There truly is no justice in this world.

Wednesday, December 14, 2005

Nordstrom is Porn

Ironically, nothing makes you feel quite so American as living abroad. And if you really and truly want to feel American, move to a formerly socialist nation with a depressed economy.

Forget the language barrier, the shattered buildings, and the fact that people still drive around in Yugo hatchbacks. The hardest part is the complete lack of shopping. There is very little to buy here, and there’s no one around who can afford to buy it. For the average American, consumerism is a way of life. For the average American in Sarajevo, consumerism is a grand lost art, like pyramid-building. Consumer nostalgia runs high.

I was a shopping addict under the best of circumstances. However, the forced withdrawal has warped me a little. I cruise Nordstrom’s website like it’s porn. I even close the browser whenever someone enters the room, so no one can catch me at my dirty little habit.

I can absorb every detail of a catalog, whether or not it’s a store where I would actually shop. I swipe misdirected catalogs from the mailroom to feed my habit. I even read those home decor catalogs with the corny seasonal decorations (who doesn’t need a foam scarecrow and assorted reusable easy-clean plastic pumpkins for their front yard in the fall? It’s festive!). Sadly, as there is no comparison shopping, I find myself wanting everything I see. Ugly sweaters? Votive sets? Day-Glo orange DVD cabinets? My sense of style has completely vanished.

I’m not alone. Every time the mailroom gets a shipment, the entire embassy community gathers around the door, hoping for a package. In fact, as I write this, there’s a group waiting outside in sub-freezing temperatures. A friend stopped by my office today to say how excited she was to go home for Christmas. Seeing her family was all well and good, but she was truly thrilled to go to Rite Aid. Only in Bosnia would Rite Aid be considered an exciting day out. Entire lunchroom conversations revolve around Target. Coupon codes are spoken of with awe.

Being homesick for shopping is completely normal. I promise. Now, if you’ll excuse me, Nordstrom might be having a sale.

Postscript: Special congratulations go out to Mike West and Erin Shannon, who got engaged this past weekend. Hooray!

Thursday, December 01, 2005

Hodgepodge of Procrastination

It's been over a month since my last, I mean blog post. I'm sorry guys, things have been super crazy lately. I'll just give the highlights:

I'm famous!

The Associates of the American Foreign Service Worldwide (they were the Foreign Service Wives or something like that in the Dark Ages) has posted this blog on their list of Foreign Service family websites. Check it out:

Shot for a Shot, On the Clock

Lord knows how I got official approval to do this, but a few weeks ago I organized a Shot for a Shot happy hour with the Health Unit. If you got your flu shot, you got a ticket for one free Jell-O shot at the next Embassy happy hour. It was gloriously tacky, and 75 more people got flu shots this year than last year.

The Marine Ball: It's Kind of Like the Prom, But This Time Around I Had a Date and Actually Showed Up

The next day, Matt and I attended the Marine Ball, which celebrates the birthday of the United States Marine Corps. We got all gussied up in formalwear and went down to the Holiday Inn (sadly, Sarajevo's poshest hotel is a Holiday Inn). We brought the leftover Jell-O shots with us, so our table was festive indeed. Our table also got much, much noisier as the evening progressed. By midnight, a bunch of normally very official Americans were swilling cocktails and dancing (very badly) to hip hop. Some hardier souls attempted a Rockettes line, which didn't last very long.


Merrill and Anne came to see us for Thanksgiving, and we had a raucous good time. Between all of the standard tourist stuff, we consumed 9 bottles of wine in one day, then sang karaoke. Skye sent a Playstation game called Karaoke Revolution, and all of you have to go out and buy it right now. My character was a pudgy white-boy rapper I dubbed "Hot Bitch." We also attended a fashion show, complete with catwalk, pretentious fashions, and male models in their underwear. Anne and I liked the last part the best.

Other Stuff

I have to admit my job is wearing on me a little. I'm supposed to be responsible for the Embassy's morale, but what do you do about people who just don't want to be happy? It can be emotionally draining to deal with all the pettiness and gossip of Embassy life. My latest solution has been to ignore everyone who doesn't completely kiss my butt. Hey, if it works for the President, why can't it work for me? I'm looking forward to when my coworker comes back from maternity leave and I can go back to 20 hours a week. In the meantime, I've learned that bake sales really do matter.

Tuesday, October 18, 2005

Oh, Meet Me For a Drink on Sh**ty Street

As part of my Community Liaison duties, I booked a group tour of the local beer factory for Saturday. To recruit participants, I sent out an email to the whole Embassy community asking them to sign up, and told them the bar was on "15 Sranjevacka Street."

Within seconds, my phone lit up like a Christmas tree (is there an equivalent in a Muslim country? "My phone lit up like a Ramadan cookie?" No?) It turns out the brewery isn't on Sranjevacka Street. It's on Franjevacka Street.

Moreover, "Sranjevacka" means "sh**ty" in Bosnian. Have you ever sent an email to more than 300 people asking them to meet you at the brewery on Sh**ty Street? I may be the only person in the world to ever do this.

I received countless emails and phone calls from the Bosnians on staff, ranging from the cheerfully helpful ("Do you know how to recall an email? You might want to do that!") to maniacal laughter, followed by a click and a dialtone. This was, without a doubt, the best day ever for the Bosnian employees. They had a field day. They laughed until they cried. I daresay a few fell out of their chairs and spilled coffee all over themselves.

Afterwards, oddly enough, some of the Bosnians on staff who had never talked to me before came by my office to say hello. Besides some good-natured ribbing, nobody really tried to make me feel bad about inviting everyone to the Brewery on Sh**ty Street. It's like in some way, a ridiculously embarassing typo has made me likable.

The worst part of all? I got the address from an old flyer, meaning my office has been sending people to the Brewery on Sh**ty Street for years.

Tuesday, October 11, 2005

Of Rubik's Cubes and Racism

I'm going to be serious this week, so if you'd like something more frivolous you're welcome to dig through the archives and re-experience the joy of jury duty or the oddness of European appliances.

I had really, really wanted to fall in love with Herzegovina. Herzegovina, the southern half of Bosnia and Herzegovina, is a beautiful place. It's full of white hillsides, blue-green rivers, Turkish villages, Roman ruins, and vineyards.

Matt and I had gone for a three-day group excursion hoping to sample wines and see some scenery. Things started off well, with a visit to the town of Medjugorje. In the early 1980s, six local teenagers claimed to have seen an apparition of the Virgin Mary. While the event has never been officially recognized by the Roman Catholic Church, Medjugorje is now the second-biggest Catholic pilgrimage site in the world. Every hour of every day of the year, tour buses roll in and the pilgrims pour out.

Let me tell you, if you aren't Catholic, Medjugorje is a hoot. As Matt says, it's like the Virgin Mary's Graceland. Tacky souvenir shops line the streets, selling everything from rosary beads to Virgin Mary Rubik's cubes. We also liked the enormous posters of the original six teenagers, complete with pimples and big greasy 1980s hair. It was like the Virgin Mary had chosen to appear at a Whitesnake concert.

However, our mood took a turn for the worse at breakfast. Our waiter, a Croat, asked us where we were from. We told him we were Americans living in Sarajevo. His response (and I am not making this up) is that we shouldn't live in Sarajevo, because that is where the terrorist Muslims like Osama bin Laden live. While it's always charming to hear racial hatred just a mile from a major religious site, we decided to shrug it off and go enjoy the rest of our day.

We visited a gorgeous monastery, ate at a local restaurant, then toured Roman ruins. A good time was had by all until our guide told some of us that America should stop giving visas to Mexicans and start giving them to Bosnian Muslims instead, because "Mexicans steal and Bosniaks are very honest." Mind you, this guide had charged us $15/person (about $120 total) to basically sit on his butt all day long. He hadn't had a scrap of useful information all day, and his translation skills were atrocious. Besides, we were paying him to show us around, not to lecture us about politics. I think our guide was an incredible hypocrite - he had complained about thieves, but at the same time taken our money and given us nothing in return.

Price gouging was another unfortunate side to Herzegovina. At every restaurant we visited, waiters would refuse to show any of our group a menu or tell us their prices, then bring us the most expensive platter they had and expect us to simply fork over the money. Lunch was $25/person (a typical lunch in Sarajevo is $5-10/person). Our "wine tasting" dinner only offered a skimpy four bottles of wine (shared among 12 people) and a light meal. For this privilege, we had to pay $40 a head. Overall, the weekend cost Matt and me $500. That is simply ridiculous considering we were less than 100 miles from home and were staying in a glorified youth hostel.

To cap off a crappy weekend, on the way home a Roma squegee man spat on our car after we refused his services. I suppose we could always use the DNA to make a squegee man of our very own, but somehow the idea doesn't appeal to me.

It's such a shame. Right now the economy of Bosnia and Herzegovina hovers near collapse. Unemployment is about 30-40%, there are no major industries besides logging, and the infrastructure is falling apart. The country is counting on tourism to stay alive, but can't even muster the common sense not to spout racist nonsense at visitors or stop gouging them. Charging Paris prices to visit the Balkans will never take off.

I think my trip to Herzegovina brought out a number of issues for me. I had really wanted to fall in love with this country, but sometimes living here depresses the hell out of me. I know there was a terrible war, and the country is still suffering from the fallout. I know I've had a relatively easy life, for which I'm grateful. I simply have no idea what these people experienced or how those experiences affected them. I'm aware that I'm an ignorant, pampered American.

But I just don't see how this country is going to stay afloat, and I don't really know what's been accomplished in the last ten years. Even though the war is over, I don't see that much in the way of hope.

Tuesday, September 27, 2005

The Bogotification of Dulles

I always thought Bogota’s Eldorado Airport was horrible. Long lines, funny smells, chaos and suitcases dropped onto my feet. However, there’s something even worse than the chaos…it’s the contagion. Last time I flew out of Dulles, it was Bogota all over again. We’ve been infected! Here is a rundown of my festival of fun at Dulles last Sunday.

Flight Time: 5:45 pm

2:45 pm: Arrive at airport (three hours early!)
2:50 pm: Drag luggage to United counter, look desperately for airline employee so I know what line to stand in.
2:55 pm: Locate employee. Notice that employee is trying desperately to blend into the crowd as to avoid my questions. Discover that my destination is “Line 6”.
3:10 pm: Locate Line 6. Join a merry band of 433 new best friends, waiting for assistance from 3 ticket agents.
3:10 pm-4:30 pm: Stand in Line 6. Glance at watch. Move forward six inches. Glance at watch. Worry. Glance at watch. Sweat.
4:30 pm: United employee pulls everyone going to Munich out of Line 6…and moves us to an even longer line. Place head on suitcase. Weep.
4:45 pm: Finally check in. Discover my bag is 12 pounds over the weight limit. Gate agent requests $315 in fees for overweight bag. I remove precisely 12 pounds of stuff from Target from my bag (I’ve always wanted construction paper, hair dye, and glue sticks in my carryon!).
4:55 pm: Drop off bags with TSA agent, who tells me to “go to the left, no wait.”
5:00 pm: Go to left. Wait.
5:05 pm: Reach beginning of security line. Ask agent, “Will I make my plane, or am I kidding myself?” Response cannot be printed on family website.
5:10 pm: Befriend man in line behind me, who is also traveling to Munich. We compare incompetent United employee tales.
5:30 pm: My new friend and I finally get screened. My new friend walks up, and promptly removes his artificial foot and tosses it in a bin with a clatter. Awesome.
5:35 pm: We’re now very concerned about catching our flight, so my friend decides there isn’t sufficient time to fully strap on his foot. We half-run, half-hobble to the people movers. Meanwhile, Velcro foot-straps and my Target art supplies stream behind us.
5:37 pm-5:42 pm: Run, hobble, run. Reach gate. Realize my ticket does not have a seat assignment. Picture myself being pulled behind the plane in a little red wagon.
5:43 pm: Receive seat assignment (“Seat #1896A”)
5:44 pm: Board plane. Watch door shut behind me.
7:15 pm: Plane takes off. They’d discovered the luggage had been loaded improperly, so we had to wait for the entire plane to be reloaded. (I’m picturing all the weight on one side of the plane, forcing us to fly in circles.)

I haven’t even discussed the rowdy teenage basketball team, the batty Italian who wanted 8 different people to move to accommodate her boyfriend, the bouncing lasagna (I have the charming habit of testing airplane food to see if it bounces – which it often does!), or the fact that United seats are so cramped that I spent the entire flight with my knees jammed under my chin (I’m only 5’2”!). I bet business schools all over the world are studying how United sucks all the fun out of travel.

Tuesday, September 20, 2005

Power Point to the Rescue!

I just got back from a ten-day government training course, which licenses me to, among other things: 1. Start home-based Internet businesses 2. Inform people whether or not they may bring their pets in an evacuation 3. Distinguish between the varying types of Power Point presentations.

If anything, this conference cemented my hatred of Power Point. Why prepare a coherent, intelligent speech when you can play with ClipArt and bullet points? I spent way too much time being read to off a Power Point. In fact, here are my (progressively less coherent) notes from one particular guest session speaker:
  • Why do all cartoon people on slides look angry?
  • Buy bread crumbs.
  • I'm sweating like a pig. Maybe it's hot flashes. We've been sitting here for 20 years, and now I'm going through menopause. Jesus. Hot flashes at 28.
  • Am I the only person not learning anything? Oh, wait, the person next to me is drawing an enormous spiral doodle.
  • If it were physically possible to die of boredom, I would have done so twice already.
  • If fluency in English is a requirement of my job, why am I being read to?

I have to admit the training wasn't all bad. In fact, much of it was very good. I met people with the same job as me from all over the world. If I ever drop by Laos or Turkmenistan, I have friends to look up. I even got a certificate on high-quality paper.

I went out every single night, saw friends, ate untold amounts of Thai food, bought a year's supply of long-sleeve t-shirts, stocked up on Altoids and liquid soap, drank Starbucks coffee every day, and shook off some of the dreariness of Sarajevo. And that's worth a few Power Points.

PS- Sarajevo's airport had reopened by the time I returned yesterday. I didn't, unfortunately, notice any Velcro on the runway.

Tuesday, August 16, 2005

A Festival of Random

Long Live Yugoland!

This article tells you everything you ever needed to know about the Balkans.

But it did get me thinking. Every retro nation should be an amusement park! Wouldn't you visit Upper Volta Land, or Ottoman Empire World? Ceylonville? Siamtown? Soviet Unionville?

Sarajevo has its own low-rent international amusement park. We go there to shop. The military base just outside of town has a small PX (or commissary) from different NATO countries. The American PX (AmericaWorld) is the largest and tackiest, and sells Tommy Hilfiger clothing, convenience foods, and Burger King. NorwayLand sells outdoor equipment at outrageous prices. Franceland has wine, cheese and silk scarves. Italyland has pasta. GermanyWorld is the most disturbing: it's full of beer and fetish porn.

Maybe boiling a country down to its most basic aspects is a bad idea. After all, Yugoland has been described as "some dirt and a hill." And I'm sure Germany has made more contributions to society than fetish porn and beer. Sometimes a little complexity goes a long way.

However, I still want to pay $3 and become a citizen of Yugoland. Maybe they would even give me a passport. It would totally nuke my security clearance, but the reaction would almost be worth it.

Me: "Well, I'm a tri-national...US, Australia....and Yugoland!"
Investigator: "Yes, Mrs. Johnson." (backs away slowly)

Budapest Notes

Ever road tripped in Europe? Matt and I drove to Budapest over the long weekend. With a decent map and good driving, you can get there in 8 or 9 hours (it took us more than 12).

Budapest was lovely. It offered everything we needed to see: museums, cathedrals, castles, and commerce. After living in a country with a 40% unemployment rate, it was nice to be somewhere with actual stores...that had actual things to buy! And people buying stuff!

It also offered the best eavesdropping ever. It being August, Budapest was overrun with backpackers and tourists. This was an unusual experience after Bogota and Sarajevo, which receive a combined 17 or so tourists a year. I especially enjoyed the following backpacker exchange:

British Backpack Dude: "I must say Budapest is more cosmopolitan than Praaaague."
American Backpack Kid: "I've heard Tallinn is really cool. It's in, like, Estonia."
British Backpack Dude: "The beaches in Tanzania are really awesome, but there's just too many Americans there."

I just love the fact that nothing they said had any relation to what the other person said. It was just a game of "I'll see you Prague, and raise you Estonia!" "Yeah, well, Estonia sucks. Tanzania, dammit!" Sigh. Silly backpackers. The Middle American Jet Set, Gap Year and all those 19-year-olds with $5,000 limit credit cards will be the death of us all. It's a great privilege to travel, and should count for more than bragging rights.

Finally, remember how I couldn't figure out my washer settings (Celsius Cauliflower, Santa Hat, and so forth)? Well, I think those same artists create international road signs. Matt and I even made a game of trying to guess what all the road signs were. Exploding Schools Ahead, Beware of Amish, 2000 Deer Ahead, No Gay Cars Allowed, Thar Be Giants, and Passengers Must Shovel Roadway. Some were disturbing: Flat Top Breasts Ahead, and Penis Caught in Door come to mind.

One Man With a Dream, a Trowel and a Bucket Can Change the World

I'm scheduled to leave Sarajevo on September 2 and fly to DC for a work conference. However, I just heard today that Sarajevo's airport will be closed September 2-9. I haven't heard why yet. Maybe repairs. Eggroll and I decided that one guy with a bucket and a trowel will be repaving the runway. He'll also be taking frequent coffee breaks.

The upshot of all this is that I might have to leave Sarajevo on September 1. My other option is slightly less appealing: a six-hour bus ride to Tuzla. Because nothing is better than a long bus ride in August, with creaky seats and bumpy roads.

So, as it stands now, I'm in DC from September 2-18, but that will probably change at least once.

Tuesday, August 09, 2005

Par-Tay in the Year-Round Winter Wonderland

After nearly three months at post, Matt and I have finally unpacked and sorted out the apartment. We employed a trick well known to Foreign Service families: as soon as all the boxes and clutter started taking on an air of permanence, we invited everyone we knew to come over for Sunday afternoon cocktails. Nothing forces you to clear the cobwebs like having 20 of your colleagues stop by for punch and cookies.

Even a minor fest is a major effort in Bosnia. First, we had to devise a menu. So much for basic crudites and dip...the only crunchy vegetables on the market were red peppers. Then we had to find the one market in all of Sarajevo that had raspberries for the punch (everything is in season here for one or two weeks at a time, then they're gone forever). The worst part was buying ice. I cannot think of another country in the world where bags of ice would be so difficult to find. On Sunday morning, Matt had to go from cafe to cafe with a cooler on his shoulders, buying ice from waiters. (Our other option had been the 30-minute drive to the American PX in Butmir. There are only two large grocery stores in Sarajevo, and neither carries ice.)

However, the party went swimmingly well. We'd scheduled it from 2-5 pm, and the last guests left at precisely 4:59. This was a big change from our Bogota parties, where the last guests were forcibly shoved out the door at the morning. Matt and I munched on leftovers, played two rounds of Simpsons Monopoly, then listlessly wandered around the house with an air of " what?"

I will say that Sunday afternoon parties are awesome if you need to restock your bar. Everyone still brings a bottle of wine, but sips iced tea instead. We now have enough booze to last the rest of our tour.

In other news, I've been doing ferocious battle with Sarajevo's weather. It's unpredictable and harsh, and we're just finishing up a summer cold snap. Yes, you heard me right. A cold snap. In summer. I wore a sweater, scarf and peacoat to work on Friday. It rained for four days straight. No one seems to have noticed the fact that it's August. Not October. Not March. It's freakin' August. According to the locals, it has snowed in August before (and, in fact, it snowed at higher altitudes back in June).

Every morning for the last week I have woken Matt up with a poke in the ribs and a peevish, "What the hell kind of country is this? Why did you bring me here? Couldn't we have gotten posted somewhere more pleasant, like Siberia? I'm not going to work today. I'm not going to work tomorrow. It's winter. In August. And the only place that's an OK statement is Australia. Where's the coffee?" Matt's response has been subdued and pleasant, but if the cold lasts much longer he'll probably chuck me out the window. (By the way, doesn't this last bit make every last one of you wish you were married to me? Among my many charms is my sunny disposition in the morning.)

So that's about it for this week. Day after tomorrow Matt and I drive to Budapest for a long weekend (for those of you who watch the Amazing Race, that's Budapest....HUNGARY!) Then I've got a whole bunch of work stuff to do, as my co-CLO is going on maternity leave at the end of the month and I leave on September 2 for DC. I'll be in DC until Sunday, September 18 for a training conference. So if I start flaking out on blog entries, at least you'll know it's nothing personal.

Tuesday, August 02, 2005

How Security Makes Me Stupid

Part of an Occasional Series: The Things I Do for Love

Right now I am being investigated for a Top Secret security clearance. No, this does not mean that I know if there are any space people, or who killed JFK, or anything of the sort. You’ll practically die of boredom when I tell you why I need this clearance: to sit in on a few meetings at work. Right now I have a preliminary clearance, but a full investigation has to be done to make it permanent.

It’s a long process. You really can’t be too careful these days. And, truth be told, it’s been pretty painless so far. I had to fill out a form listing everywhere I’ve lived and worked in the last decade, who my friends and associates are, if I have any offshore business holdings, and whether I am a member of any militia or radical groups (answer: no). Then a bunch of investigators fanned out across the United States and began interviewing my friends, my in-laws' friends, former employers, etc. Today was my interview. I sat down with a very nice investigator, and answered one question after another for 30 minutes. And what was that like?

It was like going to the most confusing job interview of your life. The investigator’s job is to cover any aspect of my personal history that may cause embarrassment to the U.S. government, or render me unfit for my job. They aren’t digging up dirt just to be mean. It all starts pretty tamely, with us going over the form I originally turned in. Then the questions start. They went a little, but not exactly, like this:

Have I ever been critical of the US government? Yes, I’m a Democrat.
Do you have any gambling debt? No.
Have you ever been arrested? No.

Then the questions get a little repetitive. Maybe that catches people in a lie, or wears you down until you can’t lie.

Have you ever been arrested?
Have you ever been arrested for….(interminable list of sins)?
Have you ever been arrested for an illegal sex act?
Have you ever had an addiction to sex?
Are you an alcoholic?
Have you ever had a romantic relationship with a foreign national?
If so, what nationality?
Did he pick up the check at dinner or did you go Dutch?
Have any of your friends or associates been arrested?
Have any of your friends or associates done things for which they could have been arrested?
Have you done illegal drugs?
Have you done illegal drugs while driving?
Have you been arrested for doing illegal drugs while driving?
Have you while driving arrested anyone for doing illegal drugs?
Have you while doing illegal drugs arrested anyone for driving?

At this point, truthfully, you’re a little confused. I might have made up the last few questions. In fact, I probably made them all up. I had to stop the interview in a couple places and say, “Hey, didn’t you just ask me that?” Then the questions become much longer and more drawn out. By the time you get to the end of the question, you’ve forgotten what the beginning was all about.

Do you have any offshore business holdings or financial investments in other countries which should have been taxed in the United States but you haven’t paid because you’re a very, very bad boy or girl who is loyal to other countries and perhaps student radical groups?

By the end of the interview, I didn’t even know who I was anymore. I was a blob of quivery, slimy human Jell-O. It was kind of hilarious. But simply being asked about my nonexistent illegal sex activities and offshore holdings made me want to crawl under my desk. Afterwards, I wondered if I had squandered my youth by working and paying taxes, rather than developing offshore corporations and romancing a string of foreign nationals.

But I guess that’s the point. If I really was an anarchist, slimeball, sex freak, or embezzler, I probably wouldn’t have been able to keep my “story” straight. So, I’ll end this on an up note: hooray for America! USA! USA!

ClipArt crusade update: I am ClipArt, hear me roar! I just tried to find some business ClipArt, and there were 12 sharp, successful looking ClipArt businessmen. Briefcases tucked under the arm, sleek suits, ready to climb the corporate ladder (corporate ladder can be found in separate folder). Meanwhile, there was only one forlorn businesswoman. Frizzy hair, frumpy suit, sad expression. So I guess the message there is, don’t get a career girls, or the boys won’t ask you out! Sigh.

Tuesday, July 26, 2005

The ClipArt Menace, or Texlahoma Lives

I don't have anything deep to say. Let's get weird.

I'm famous for my little crusades. My enemies list is broad and unique. At last check, it included: the cart guy at Ikea, the online ordering department at Sears, IHOP, the airport in Vienna, the Euro, Cafe Odeon in Dupont Circle, tequila, New Big Wong in Chinatown, Continental Airlines, and a few gypsy cabs. Unfortunately, Sarajevo doesn't have much in the way of consumer culture or pugnacity, so I don't really have much to assault. Instead, I've decided to focus my efforts on the evils of ClipArt.

In my office, we have a massive book and 16-disc set of Clip Art called Art Explosion. While it's fairly recent software, it has very 1950s notions of the world. Today, I was trying to find a health-oriented picture for a newsletter article I was working on. All of the doctors were male (except for one, a gynecologist no less). All of the nurses were female, and wore those quaint uniforms with the tricornered hats. So, out of curiousity ( to how much I can get away with while being paid by the hour), I flipped back to the Index. The listings for women include Woman and Baby, Woman Cooking, Woman Teaching, and Woman Shopping. And then, these are the index listings for men: Man on Raft, Man on Motorcycle, Man on Construction Site, Man Driving, Man Traveling...I could go on and on. In the world of ClipArt midgets, the menfolk conquer the world while the womenfolk stand in front of chalkboards and ovens.

But Art Explosion is afraid of more than just progress. These ClipArt cartoon people live in a horrifically bleak, menacing world. It looks like one of those post-apocalyptic action films I've had to watch with at least half a dozen former boyfriends. All of the Health and Medical photos feature crutches, giant syringes, bruises, blue-green tongues, astoundingly large thermometers (which go you-know-where), pallid pregnant women, and wounded children with head bandages. I count six ClipArts of forceps alone. There are four ClipArts of cartoon men being chased by giant, menacing syringes. Worst of all, there is a ClipArt of a man encased in a giant condom. Lord knows spermicide inhalation would be a long, horrible death. There are no ClipArts depicting healthy lifestyles or positive health professionals of any kind.

The Art Explosion terror spreads to every facet of life. There is an entire folder devoted to cartoon car accidents. ClipArt people are stranded in airports, their wallets are stolen, their barbecues explode, and their hands are ripped apart by fireworks. The guy who chews tobacco sports a mullet. Motorcycle guys cruise around without helmets. Slackjawed children gape at their math homework. It's like the ClipArt universe resides somewhere in Texlahoma (in Douglas Coupland's novel Generation X, characters tell stories about Texlahoma, an asteroid orbiting the earth where it is perpetually 1974 and everyone keeps getting fired from the Woolworth's perfume counter).

So how do I battle the ClipArt menace? Write nasty letters? Irate phone calls? Suggestions are welcome.

Tuesday, July 19, 2005

Two for the Price of One

I felt so guilty about not updating for a while that I decided to give you two essays for the price of one.

Your Sin Dollars At Work

I just wanted to report that Indian gambling is the greatest thing to come out in the last fifty years. (Runners-up include the expressions “baby momma” and “baby daddy”, hair texturizer, and the “under $30 sale” section on Nordstrom’s webpage.)

My dad started having chest pains while visiting his brother in Cherokee. He moved forthwith to a hospital, got a four-way bypass, and is now recuperating in Asheville. Amazingly, heart surgery has improved so much in the last 11 years that he was in the hospital for less than a week (last time around, when I was in high school, was a completely different story). Today he moves to an elder care center in Cherokee, and then afterwards will live in a small house on the reservation. The best part? The Eastern Cherokees are paying for all of this with casino proceeds. Thanks to the legions of fat, baseball-capped tourists who drive all the way to the mountains to play video poker and eat lukewarm buffet lasagna, I can continue to be one of those horrid selfish children that does not have any elderly parents living with her.

Instead, Dad can hang with the assortment of wacky relatives we have in the area. For the record, if you ever hear about a guy in western North Carolina waving a shotgun out of the window and saying, “You’ll never take me alive!”… it’s probably my Uncle Joe. There’s also a wide assortment of cousins – this being the mountains, everyone is related to everyone else – and plenty of people to visit.

So, keep on dropping your rent money into the slot machines, America! This semi-Cherokee thanks you for your financial irresponsibility.

Bureaucrat, Diplomat…What’s the Difference?

I’ve found the strangest thing about my new life isn’t the constant moving or the culture shock. It’s the assumption that I have “married rich.” Four people said this to me at my high school reunion in the first hour alone. I’m a little fed up with being indirectly called a gold digger – if that had been my intention, hell, I’m cute enough to marry some actual money.

Speculating on someone else’s finances is natural, but usually the speculation is dead wrong. Sorry, guys, but diplomats are still bureaucrats, and we’re as a rule not very wealthy. My clothes come from H&M and Old Navy, and maybe a few clearance items from Ann Taylor. We took nice holidays in Colombia because nobody visits Colombia, and all the tourist attractions are therefore dirt cheap. I have the luxury of working part time because housing is free while we are abroad.

I guess it’s so weird to me because I’ve never thought of myself as financially well-off. Mainly because I’ve always been so damn broke. Most people think diplomacy and envision nice houses, long black cars, and immaculately uniformed maids. Nobody sees the long-distance coach class flights, the hideous State Department-issued furniture, and the trip to four different grocers to find green peppers. I haven’t been to a fancy cocktail party in a year, and in fact find them excruciating.

So, no, I didn’t “marry rich,” I “married well” in a non-financial sense. And that’s much more interesting than fancy parties and chauffeurs.

Monday, July 11, 2005

A Decade Late and a Dollar Short

I just wanted to ask everyone to take a moment and remember Srebrenica, as today is the ten-year anniversary of the massacre there. Matt is there today, herding various American functionaries on and off helicopters and making sure everyone has their Evian water and foot lotion. (Much like Ashlee Simpson, traveling diplomats have detailed riders listing their needs when they travel.)

I've been living here two months and don't understand what happened at Srebrenica. I don't understand on an emotional level, and even the facts themselves are pretty murky. Bear in mind this is a country with a three-member rotating presidency, a semiautonomous Serb republic, and multiple competing police forces. You could be a Bosniak (Bosnian Muslim), Bosnian Croat (a Bosnian of Croatian ancestry) or a Bosnian Serb (a Bosnian of Serb ancestry), or a Croat, or a Serb. There is not a single aspect to the region that does not give me a headache. Some days I feel like I need a master's degree in political science just to hail a cab.

Maybe Srebrenica can't really be explained, anyway. The short version is that Serb elite troops, called the Scorpions, invaded the region, which was supposed to be a UN "safe area"...but only protected by a handful of severely overmatched Dutch peacekeepers who had been instructed to fire only in self-defense. This is much like keeping a toy poodle as a guard dog, and being astounded when all your stereo equipment disappears out the back window. The Dutch begged for help, but none ever came (part of a larger problem: as far as I can tell, the international community spent much of the war tripping over itself). The Scorpions tossed the peacekeepers aside, then systematically murdered 8,000 Muslim men and boys and chucked their bodies into mass graves.

Until last month, a majority of Serbs did not believe the massacre had actually occurred. Everyone received asylum in the US, they said. Or they ran into the hills. It's just more slander to heap upon the Serbs, who have suffered enough already. Then the videotape came to light, and it's been airing nonstop all around the world. Several Scorpions videotaped themselves murdering six Muslim men, and made copies for souvenirs (some facts are too ghoulish to wonder about...souvenirs?) The tape, which I've seen parts of, is gruesome and leaves no doubt about what happened. The tape had been dug up by a Serb activist, and she's been getting death threats ever since.

Today, Srebrenica is a part of the Republika Srpska, a semiautonomous, mostly Bosnian Serb region. Technically, it's part of Bosnia-Herzegovina. However, the RS is notoriously fractious: this is where the war criminals hide, the signs are in Cyrillic (Sarajevo uses the Latin alphabet), the police have different uniforms, and no one is quite sure what country they belong to. Again, even a basic understanding of this region requires years of practice.

So, even if you don't understand Srebrenica, please try to. We're a decade late, a dollar short, and hopelessly ignorant. It's the least we can do.

Friday, May 27, 2005

Oodles of Woodles

It was the Woodles that did me in.

English is widely spoken in Sarajevo. However, most native English speakers in the area are involved in diplomacy, aid organizations, or the consumption of cheap Heinekens and meat pies. This leaves the locals to translate restaurant menus into English, with occasionally hilarious results.

At our local café, Cappuccino’s, the menu can make me giggle for hours. Local dishes are listed under a section called “Offer of National Cooking.” Entrée translations are often a little odd, but the all-time winner had to be Woodles with Tunny. I assume it’s Noodles with Tuna, but I wasn’t daring enough to find out. All I do know is that I collapsed into hysterics right there at the table, to the bemusement of the locals and the perplexed concern of my husband. I think that moment was when I finally realized that I am very, very far from home.

Culture shock is a lot like a whirlwind romance. For the first few weeks, you’re madly in love with your new home. It’s handsome, fascinating, and every quirk is adorable. They really do drive Yugo hatchbacks here! After a couple of weeks, every quirk becomes maddening. Maybe your new city pees with the door open, or answers his cell phone in upscale restaurants. (In case any of you wondered, Bogotá never could learn to chew with his mouth closed.) Sarajevo has choppy sidewalks, and I’ve never been so sick of watching teenagers devour one another’s tonsils on park benches.

Culture shock is a process, and it’s a tricky one. Matt seems to be doing much better adjusting than I am, but he’s always done better with change. I lived in the same apartment for years on end, not necessarily because I liked it, but because it was home.

That apartment has been out of my hands for almost two years. Instead I have a new home where everything is unfamiliar. The appliances are European and scaled more for Oompa-Loompas than actual human beings. You can fit four cups, two plates, and a colander in the dishwasher. The washer and dryer don’t have normal settings; instead everything is done by pictures. However, Gorenje needs to hire some new artists. As far as I can tell, my washer settings are Leaf, T-Shirt, T-Shirt with Squiggles, Capricorn, Celsius Cauliflower, and Circle E. The dryer settings include Sunshine, Half Sunshine, One Teardrop, Two Teardrops, and Three Teardrops. So far, we’ve had the most luck with the Leaf and Half-Sunshine settings.

Like everything else in Sarajevo, the appliances were adorable until yesterday. Now I want giant American energy sucking, environment-destroying mega-gadgets, and I’m done with this hippie European crap. I want big cars, smooth sidewalks and the Gap.

But as I know from my time in Bogotá, this time soon comes to an end. Next time you hear about me, I’ll be thrilled with cheap organic vegetables, the endless generosity of the Bosnians, and the shrapnel holes in the balcony. Real change doesn’t come cheap, and neither does happiness.

Monday, April 18, 2005

You Can Go Home Again…But It’ll Cost You a $4 Convenience Fee

So my 10-year high school reunion is in two weeks. For those of you doing the math, I graduated in 1994 and am just now getting to my 10-year reunion. And, yes, that’s really slack. What makes it even worse is that we’re having a co-reunion with the class of ’93, who are even slacker than we are.

However, what’s eating at me is the $100 ticket price. According to Great Reunions, Inc, official nostalgia management firm, that’s $96 per ticket plus a $4 “convenience fee” for using a credit card to buy my ticket from their website. Why is there a fee for using a credit card, when that’s how absolutely everyone purchases things on the Internet? And why am I being charged for convenience? Isn’t that by nature inconvenient?

According to the nostalgia management trust, the other $96 pays for a name tag with my high school yearbook photo, because I desperately want to relive my hot roller and dark lipstick days. It also pays for a “bio book”, or a collection of the biographies of people who actually had the time to submit all of their information plus photo more than a month in advance. In other words, a bio book full of the unemployed and/or deeply bored. Extra copies for kindling will set me back $21 apiece.

As for the event itself, my 96 bucks will purchase “food stations” (can I change the channel?), a sit-down meal, an elegant evening of music and dancing at the Hilton Arlington, and a non-hosted bar. For those of you that were never in the hospitality business, “non-hosted bar” means I’ll have to pony up $5 for every Heineken I swill.

So why am I attending? I want to see who got fat, that’s why. Plus Chrissy and I are going together, and we’ll sneak in a flask of bourbon. I’ve been looking forward to it. Plus, something about going to a reunion makes me very curious. Who’s still a pain in the ass? Who’s still really shy? And, better yet, who’s changed? Who’s funnier, smarter, cuter, happier, better than they were in high school?

I just wish the party was something we could all afford. A hundred bucks is a day’s wages for many people, and compared to rent or daycare, it’s a frivolous expense. We’ve created a reunion for the rich. (For the record, last year I did email the reunion committee to offer my help, and wasn’t asked to pitch in on a single thing. So I’m not just sitting around whining.)

Lastly, I wish we could all work together to stop the Eventification of America. Why does a high school reunion have to be held as a sit-down dinner in a hotel ballroom? Couldn’t we have just have had a potluck or a picnic, so that everyone could attend? Why do eighth-graders have proms and graduations? Finishing middle school isn’t the end of an academic career, it’s much closer to the beginning. Why do I see $400 prom dresses everywhere I go? Why is the average wedding cost creeping closer and closer to $30,000? All anyone wants to do is have a drink and wish the couple well. In my wedding attending and hosting career, I haven’t heard a single guest say, “Boy, they should have had lobster and Dom Perignon.” All I ever hear is that the service was lovely and the couple looks so happy. Why are funeral costs so extravagant? Do the dead really need luxury coffins with satin lining? Why does every event in our lives have to be an Event? Do we need a ticker tape parade for every rite of passage?

I don’t know. I think maybe as we get older, our lives get more complicated. And as our lives get complicated, we want every event to be an achievement. We’re like precocious cocker spaniels, wanting all of our finer moments recognized and rewarded. And if it’s an achievement, then it has to be extra special, with food stations and hotel ballrooms. And that desire to be the belle of the ball has crept further and further back, from death to marriage, back to high school, and further back to eighth grade. Let’s get back to just living our lives. I’m sick of jumping from one milestone to the next. There’s a lot of great stuff in between, and I don’t want to miss it.

Name Britney’s Baby

The results are in!

Robert Anderson:
1. Christina Aguilera/Christian (depending on girl or boy)...that way Kevin can ask 'Who's your daddy?' to two of the biggest trash queens of pop music.
2. Chuck N. Spears
3. Pear (like Gwyneth's Apple)

Worth Anderson:
The child will be named Pickles Spears, for evident reasons.

Jerome Hohman
Great contest. I think I'm sticking with the Kabala/Gwyneth Paltrow-themed name. How 'bout Gilda Pear Federline Spears. (Shannon’s note: Two votes for “Pear”…interesting. Prophetic?)

Josh Miller:
If a boy: "Justin," just so poor Kevin can be constantly reminded of his second choice status...

If a girl: "Kori"; that is the name of Kevin's daughter, and that way _both_ she and he will be constantly reminded of their second choice status...

Chrissy Uertz
Atraeyou (named after the child warrior off the film Neverending Story). Not sure if it's spelled that way, but you know how people change the spellings of names to look cool anyways.

Dave Walker:
Navel (oddly Buddhist and reflective of pre-pregnancy attire).

Mike West:
Tyffhanni. Spelled exactly that way, although they may put an E on the end (Tyffhannie). But then, they won't want the Spears name out of the family, so Tyffhanni(e) Spears Federline. Why? Well, duh. Tiffany is THE quintessential bimbo name (even more than Tami), but this is the Britneys so they'll have to trash it up a notch or three. Really, this is a gimme.

Boy's name: Jock. Rationale: Britney will want to name her son after Madonna's son, Rocco, but it will sound too gay for Kevin, who wants something very manly like "Steele." Jock will be the compromise.

And the winner is….

I have to say “Pickles Spears Federline”, submitted by Worth Anderson. Pickles! Awesome. Plus, pickles are crunchy and fun but have no substance whatsoever, much like Britney herself. Worth, your prize is a Dial-a-Blog. That’s right, you can submit a topic and I will write an essay about it. Please let me know your topic by the end of the week.

Until next time,


Wednesday, April 13, 2005

Name Britney's Baby

Dig yourself a bomb shelter, the Apocalypse is upon us. Trash queen Britney Spears (who knew that the naughty schoolgirl outfit from her first album would be her classiest moment ever?) is preggers. The father, I can only assume, is arm-candy husband Kevin Federline. Though if he's arm candy, he's one of those candies that even kids refuse to eat, like Mary Janes, black licorice or Payday bars. I mean, Britney's gotten a little odd-looking herself, but Kevin looks like he should be a middle school janitor.

But let's talk about that poor, poor child. Aside from being awarded with a primordial soup of mullet and half-shirt DNA, what else can possibly go wrong? A name, that's what! Considering the recent trend of stupid celebrity names, the Britbaby is sure to be saddled with something horrendous. Kevney? Britelin?

To that end, I'm having a Name Britney's Baby contest. Please send your suggestions and rationale to by Friday at 4 pm. I'll post all the entries next week, and the winner gets bragging rights (I'd give out prizes, but this is a no-budget production).

While we're talking about Britney, I'm actually a little disappointed that I'll be in Sarajevo when her reality series airs. You know, the one that Kevin Federline called a "documentation of our love", which sort of sounds like a tech manual to me. With all the home movies and narration, this is sure to be a thrill. Now, I like home movies as much as the next person (that is, not at all), but isn't this odd? And how is it a reality show if she's picking and choosing what airs?

Britney, pose for Playboy already. You know you want to. The rest of you, send me your best baby names.