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 4:59...in the morning. Matt and I munched on leftovers, played two rounds of Simpsons Monopoly, then listlessly wandered around the house with an air of "....now 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.