Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Dangers In The Work We Do

There have been a number of interesting stories in the news lately (and by lately, I mean last month, because I have sucked as a blogger lately) about the risks of being a diplomat. The articles stem from the deaths of journalists and other Westerners held hostage by ISIS, though I wonder whether some of this is also related to the new show Madam Secretary (which no, I will not review here. A lot of my colleagues hate it, much as my friends in construction hate HGTV, but I am enjoying it and figure anything that shines a positive light on the work we do is a good thing, even if it is not terribly accurate).

I meant to share these sooner, but I don't yet have a desk in my office in our new home and that makes blogging challenging. But hopefully my new desk will arrive tomorrow and I can organize my office so that work up here will be possible.

So for now, I will just share some links with you.

From Federal News Radio: It happened to me: Diplomats recount stories of crisis and survival

From the Center for American Progress: Attacks Against American Diplomats.

From the Washington Post: Reporters’ deaths point to dangers Foreign Service officers also face abroad

Monday, October 13, 2014

A Whole New World

SC Statehouse
Photo by
SC Equality
My wife and I were driving down the GW Parkway to FSI last Monday when we first heard the news: the Supreme Court had declined to hear the cases on marriage equality.

My initial response was confusion and disappointment. We had really hoped the court would finally weigh in and give some clarity to the issue. How could they not weigh in when five separate appellate courts had ruled that the ban on marriage equality was unconstitutional? And what would this mean in those cases? More lives on hold?

But clarity was soon in coming and change swept through like wildfire.

Their non-decision, while not deciding on the issue for the whole country, is having close to the same effect and was apparently the right one: there was no need to weigh in on an issue upon which all of the lower courts had agreed. So in Virginia, Utah, Oklahoma, Indiana and Wisconsin, the lower court ruling would stand and marriage equality would be the law of the land.

The non-decision would likely expand marriage equality to the other states covered by those federal appeals courts: meaning marriage equality was also coming to Colorado, Wyoming, Kansas, West Virginia, North Carolina and South Carolina.

South Carolina, y'all!

Virginia immediately accepted the ruling, and as of 1 p.m. on the 6th, couples began to get married and suddenly we were married both at home and at work!).

A few other states fought and then surrendered, including North Carolina, where GOP leaders went back to the court with the argument that the federal court didn't have jurisdiction (really guys? 'cause I think we fought a war over that one...).

Others are still fighting it, including South Carolina (of course), although the probate judges in Richland, Charleston, and Colleton counties have begun accepting applications. The SC Supreme Court ordered them to stop, but the judge in Richland County refused. She is the same probate judge who handled my grandmother's estate...I thought she and her staff were awesome then. Now she is my hero.

In the week since SCOTUS' non-decision, even more states have joined the right side of history, including Alaska (one Facebook meme noted that a certain politician from that state could now see marriage equality from her back yard!).

In fact, on Wednesday, Estonia passed a gender-neutral civil partnership law that will grants LGBT people there many of the rights and responsibilities of marriage. They are the first country formerly occupied by the Soviet Union to do so! Told you I loved that place!

I don't even know for sure what the count of states is now with marriage equality because so many places are in flux. It is somewhere between 30-35, up from 19 before the non-decision. More than half of the country lives in a marriage equality state. Here is the latest map from wikipedia (it is edited by Joe Jervis of the LGBT blog Joe.My.God., and he noted that he had to change it some eight times in a week, including twice in one day).

Here is the current map (as of this morning):

Here is what that means:

Dark blue: Same-sex marriage legal
Dark silver: Same-sex marriage performed elsewhere recognized
Light blue: Same-sex marriage legalization pending, but not yet in effect
Light Silver: No prohibition or recognition of same-sex marriage in territory law
Gold: Judicial ruling(s) overturning the same-sex marriage ban stayed indefinitely pending appeal
Yellow: Judicial ruling(s) overturning the ban on recognizing same-sex marriage performed elsewhere stayed indefinitely pending appeal
Red: Same-sex marriage ban runs contrary to federal appellate court precedent (includes SC, of course)
Garnet: Same-sex marriage banned

This is a historic moment. Love is winning.

And our potential retirement locations are increasing! Thanks to Asheville for being so welcoming...you are currently that the top of the list!

Asheville, NC City Hall.
Photo courtesy of WLOS ABC 13

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Catching Up

We are finally settling in.

We started Albanian language training on Tuesday, a week later than our other classmates thanks to our TDY back to Tallinn.

Being back at FSI (the Foreign Service Institute) is like old home week. You are constantly running into people you haven't seen in years. It is a lot of fun. Less fun is the cafeteria, or as folks there are calling it, the "halfeteria." It is mostly not functional owing to construction to expand it. Of course, I have never been a big fan of the food there, so it isn't much of a loss.

Albanian is a hard language, and not one that is related closely to any other language. But thankfully, having learned Estonian, I feel pretty confident in my ability to get to the required score.

The teachers seem good and I like them. Plus, we have a neighbor from Albania who also used to teach Albanian. She said she would be happy to practice with us.

Our schedule has left a bit to be desired. Overcrowding at FSI has meant them needing to have two time blocks for students. We were originally scheduled to be in Block A, 7:40 am to 2:30 pm. But while we were in Tallinn, that got moved around because basically no one wants Block B, 10:40-5:30, and we weren't there to state our case.

Block B is objectively worse. Even as a confirmed non-morning person, the extra sleep offered by block B is not enough to make me prefer it. It means that our 30 minute commute turns into an hour or more on the way home. If you are in block A, you can make doctor's appointments for the afternoons. This is a big bonus when you have been overseas for a while. The few hours in the morning aren't long enough for that when you have a commute of any sort.

We are trying to get it changed, but I am not optimistic. So I am trying to use the time in the morning to make progress unpacking. Good grief we have too much crap! And too many clothes! We lack the drawer or closet space for most of our clothes, so our bedroom is one place where I have made less progress unpacking than I had hoped. But at least we have functional (of still cluttered) kitchen and living rooms. Both offices are progressing, and the spare bedroom will be visit ready as soon as we figure out what to do with all those books!!

Outside the house, we have installed a new patio and ordered a table to put on it. So soon we can have guests. And I have assembled a porch swing and just need to find someone to hang it. I also took down the crappy house numbers (a piece of white wood with stickers of the house numbers) and replaced it with a nice house sign I ordered.

Of course, my fear is we will get everything situated just in time to pack out again in July...

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Getting the Rest of Our Stuff

If you could come up with anything to do after you have just worked an exhausting week preparing for a POTUS visit, just traveled back across the globe and are still suffering through jet lag, what would you do?

Have your HHE delivered, of course!

Because I am a masochist, clearly.

We flew back from Tallinn on the 5th, a Friday, and had our Household Effects from Tallinn delivered Monday. Because I am nuts. But mostly because I wanted our bed.

Our stuff filled four and a half crates! Clearly I need to spend this year decluttering.

Sunday, September 07, 2014

The Travel Day Was Worth It

I could also title this post "the day I met the President...again."

I met President Obama once before, when I was in Jerusalem. Of course, at that time, he wasn't President Obama, he was Senator Obama. But I knew he was going to be president one day, so I got my picture taken with him.

On September 3rd, I got my picture taken with him again, this time when he was actually president. If you are my Facebook friend, you have seen it. If not, you'll have to take my word for it, since this blog is "anonymous."

I knew that we wouldn't get more than a split second with him, and I wanted to make it count.

So we got there early so we'd get a good place to stand. Turns out we got one of the best places...the embassy photographer was right near us and not allowed to move, so we got one of the only good pictures that day. And when he was talking, before he came around to shake everyone's hands, I was about 10 feet from him.

When he shook my hand, I looked at him and said, "Thank you for supporting marriage equality." He touched my shoulder and said "of course."

The rest of the visit was...a visit. I handled his speech at Nordea Concert Hall. I was maybe 20 feet from the stage, my reward for having worked all week through constant headaches and changes and headaches that came from the changes. Let's just say when you are trying to invite people to a limited seating event that everyone wants their favorites to attend, it gets a little nuts. But it was worth it...the speech was great and ended up being important from a foreign policy perspective.

You can read the speech here or watch it below:

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

A Travel Day From Hell in Facebook Posts

Here I am, back in Tallinn. I wasn't sure I was going to make it.

My uncertainty started a few days before. My dog got stuck on the nose by one of the myriad of insects in the DC area, and apparently had an allergic reaction. So we went from an itchy lump on her nose to some mild barfing to explosive poopies.

Just what you look for two days before you are planning to leave the country and leave your baby in the hands of pet sitters (who are awesome, but who are not you).

But one trip to the emergency vet and a few hundred dollars later, she was fine. And I was back on track to come to Tallinn for my TDY.

My shuttle arrived about 10 minutes later than scheduled but I didn't worry, since it was scheduled for an hour before I felt like I needed to leave. We made it to the airport in plenty of time. Then I get to the ticket counter and...

Digger Diplomat
August 23 6:34 pm
So apparently American cancelled my ticket. WTF???

So I spent more than an hour working with British Airways people and the government person at the agency we are required to use to make our reservations. They said they hadn't received my orders, so they canceled by ticket. I consider turning around and going home, but remember that I really like my old boss and want to help her out. Plus I really don't want to spend two weeks apart from my wife, especially since our anniversary is during that two weeks. So I had the travel agent rebook everything. I also had her put in my known traveler number so I would be able to speed through security and make my flight. So we should all be good now, right?

Not so much. 

Digger Diplomat
August 23 7:44 pm 
Finally got my tickets. Too expensive to upgrade to economy plus. And the travel company didn't put in my known traveller number even though I gave it to them twice. And I got stuck behind the people in the security line with tons of crap and no clue how to go through. Sigh.I better get a pic with the President out of this!

Finally got my tickets as in only one hour before my 8:55 flight! AND the company got to charge the Department for having to deal with this over the phone...even though it was their error. And that upgrade to economy plus would have cost me nearly $400! 

Digger Diplomat
August 23 8:02 pm
Back on the flight. [Redacted travel company] STILL doesn't know they have to abide by the Open Skies treaty, hence they routed me on American carriers only....DC to London to Copenhagen to Tallinn...

This is actually a problem. The Open Skies Treaty we signed means that if a flight originates, terminates or transits the EU, we can't insist on only American carriers. EU carriers also need to be considered. Bet I could have gotten a better flight if they had considered say Lufthansa or Scandinavian Airlines... Regardless, given that this nasty routing was my original itinerary, I had a suit in my backpack. You know, just in case my suitcase doesn't make all those connections.  So I wasn't too worried about the number of stops. 
Then, at the gate, my name is called. Please come to the counter immediately. Really? Now what? I wonder if it is too late to go home. No no, my wife is already there.
Oh good...they just moved me back one row because a family had been separated. But it wasn't my last seat movement.

Digger Diplomat
August 23 :8:40 pm
Finally on board. A passenger asked me to switch with him, so now I am on an exit row with lots of leg room. Not that I need it

Oh, well that is good, right? Much less claustrophobic. No seatback pouch though...I spy the barf bag in the pouch across the aisle from me and mentally note that if I feel airsick, I bet I can grab that guy's back before he does! But I should be fine, right? I have taken my dramamine an hour beforehand, and it lasts for four hours. I should be fine. 

Digger Diplomat
August 23 9:03 pm
Sitting in the tarmac. They have too many bags on board and have to turn around, causing a "significant delay." Awesome.

So we were already away from the gate when they discovered that one of the bags on board had been mistagged for the people behind me. It didn't belong to anyone on the plane. For security reasons, it needed to be taken off before we could fly. Wonder if this will happen in time for me to make my connection in London to Amsterdam? I only have an hour and a half layover. 

Digger Diplomat
August 23 9:58 pm 
Still waiting on the tarmac. over an hour now.

Not feeling optimistic about my connection.

Digger Diplomat
August 23 10:08 pm
This is taking so long they are reshowing the safety video 

It also took so long they had to top off the fuel!
The pilot says they have been routed a faster route. Any bets on my making my connection?

Digger Diplomat
August 24 5:49 am [10:49 am London time]
Travel day from hell continues. Missed my flight to Copenhagen. The next one leaves in two hours. Then a five hour layover...and there is no Estonian Air rep here to make sure I can get on thay flight

Digger Diplomat
August 24 12:02 pm London time
BA gave me a five pound voucher...that neither covered my lunch nor adequately compensated me for my inconvenience.

I should turn around and go home. At this point, wanting to help my boss has fallen from my motivational list. Only my wife remains...

Digger Diplomat
August 24 5:04 pm Copenhagen time
Made it to Copenhagen. Took some doing to find my ticket to Tallinn. When the agent finally found it, she said I was in business class (which differs from regular class on Estonia Air only by seat location and free alcohol....and I don't drink.) I asked if that meant I could use the business class lounge and she told me to go try. The agent at the lounge, however, said that while I might have a seat IN business class, it isn't coded business class. So she sent me away...now I just have to sit in the hall and wait for four hours.#willthisdayneverend?

More than a tad embarrassing. Seriously? I should turn around and go home. At this point, wanting to help my boss has fallen from my motivational list. Only seeing my wife remains..

Digger Diplomat
August 24 6:07 pm Copenhagen time 
Just spent $20 for a sandwich, chips and a diet coke...and it was the cheapest thing I could find!

Digger Diplomat
August 24 8:15 pm Copenhagen time 
There have been multiple points today where if it hadn't meant spending two weeks apart from wife (including our anniversary), I'd have said screw it and gone home. And it isn't over yet!
Oh, had I mentioned this before? It is because I thought about it. A Lot.

Digger Diplomat
August 24 11:27 pm Tallinn time 
Made it to Tallinn. Wonder if my bag did. 
The good news is that my bag made it as the same time I did. I was in the hotel and in bed...a mere 24 hours after my journey began. And nearly twice as long as it has ever taken me to get here.

But at least I will spend my wedding anniversary with my wife....hopefully.

Thursday, August 21, 2014

We Interrupt This Home Leave...

Did you hear?

President Obama is going to Tallinn.

Naturally that had to happen after we left...except...

They asked us to come back to help (there will be more advance people there prepping for this that all of Americans at the embassy...by twice).

So we are cutting home leave short to head back.

It is going to cost us a bit to do it. Despite getting per diem and having our travel paid for, we will still need to get a pet sitter for a couple weeks. And we will miss a women's festival we have already paid to attend.

Still, I am happy to be going back, happy to be able to help, and happy they think enough of us to want us back when it would be easier and cheaper to get regional help.

Besides, in case you haven't gathered. I love Estonia.

So, we are heading back!