Friday, December 25, 2009


For Thanksgiving a small group of us rented a farmhouse in Umbria and cooked a feast for nine people in an oven not much bigger than a ten pound turkey. Everyone brought a dish to contribute to the meal and, while the kitchen was the size of an inadequate closet, the turf battles for stove, oven and sink were often surprisingly civil. I was responsible for the turkeys (two ten pounders in anticipation of the smaller European ovens) and assumed that I'd have some sort of priority in the line for the oven. I quickly discovered that my priority number was just behind four of the women in the group who managed to elbow me out of the way with such skill, finesse and charm that I didn't even mind the bruises on my ribs. "But I have the turkeys," I whined. Their replies were shockingly direct and impressively descriptive and I retreated to the table to have a glass of Prosecco and reflect upon the evolution of diplomatic language.

When it was safe, I popped the first turkey into the oven and began to fight for one of the four burners on the stove. This time I was adamant and no amount of abuse could chase me away. I was able to commandeer a pot of just the right size and I put the giblets with water, broth and spices into it and began to simmer them for the gravy. Because chivalry is not dead, I then surrendered the field to the ladies and retreated to the porch to have a cigar with a couple of the men. When the cigars were finished I decided to go back in and check on the stock I'd left simmering on the stove. All four burners were occupied by pots filling the room with the wonderful smells of Thanksgiving, not one of which was my gravy stock. Where did my pot go? "Oh," said one of the women with an angelic smile, "I put it in the sink for safekeeping." Make a note, this is the exact moment when chivalry died.

Don't let the pretty smiles fool you, they'd eat their young before they'd give up their places at the stove.

After a brief argument over when it was appropriate to begin playing Christmas music (I still maintain that it is appropriate as soon as the turkey goes into the oven), 'regular' music played, wine bottles were opened, the table was set and Thanksgiving dinner was served. The food was amazing and there was so much of it that we were able to have a complete second dinner the next day. I ate enough to shame a wolf and still outreached the woman seated next to me for the last piece of sweet potato pie. Although everyone had had their fill, there was enough turkey left over to have sandwiches on Sunday. Time not spent cooking or eating was spent hiking, watching movies, reading and just sitting around talking. By any measure, our Umbrian Thanksgiving was a huge success and I'm hoping it will be repeated next year and, if so, that I'll be invited along again.

I opened an Italian bank account because the automatic withdrawal option makes it easier to pay my bills here. Without a local bank account you pay your bills at the post office every month and that entails standing in long lines and then being advised that you have been on the wrong line and must now stand on another even longer line. Along with my bank account I received a debit card which I was told could be used on the highways to pay the tolls. This might not sound like such a big deal but at every tollbooth there are three marked lanes; one with no line at all for cars using Telepass, one with very short lines for cars using bank cards and one with a line stretching all the way back to your original entrance to the highway for cars using cash. On my way up to Umbria, as I exited the highway, I pulled into the bank card lane and saw several slots that looked as if they would be where I should put my card, but I wasn't sure which one to use. Fortunately, there was an attendant in the booth and I asked him if I could use my bank card to pay and I explained that I'd never paid a toll with it and wasn't sure how to do so. He smiled and said, "Certamente!" then came out of the booth, took my card, turned his back to me and, blocking my view, paid the toll in one or another of the slots. Grazie!

"You Blocks, you stones, you worse than senseless things: O you hard hearts, you cruel men of Rome..."

Shakespeare almost certainly had motorini riders in mind when he penned that phrase in the opening scene of "Julius Caesar".

Motorinis are a cultural thing. The humble motor scooter is used here as a form of mass transit and for 'mass' I use the Webster dictionary definition, "a coherent, typically large body of matter with no definite shape." Motorini is the word Italians use when referring to the motor scooter riders who zip in, out, around and through the traffic on the streets of Rome. It is already plurale and only Americans add the 's' when there are more than a single motor scooter. In the 1953 movie, "Roman Holiday", Audrey Hepburn takes Gregory Peck on a wild ride through bizarrely empty streets in Rome on, apparently, the only motor scooter in town. This little machine would have been called a motorino, but since 1953 the singolare of the word has been restricted to phrases such as, "Vincenzo hit a motorino today on his way to church. Grazie Dio, our car received only a small dent!" or "Look, Isabella, those boys on the motorino have your purse." Apart from that, it is impossible to spot a single motorino and they are always motorini, or if you're an American, motorinis.

If you grew up in Italy, I suppose that motorini traffic isn't all that unusual. It, much like famine, pestilence and death, is just there. Always has been (post-1953 anyway) and always will be. There don't seem to be any actual rules of the road for motorinis apart from "if there is a space you must occupy it." At every traffic light you must weave and wend your way to the front of the line of cars, even if that means temporarily trespassing into the oncoming traffic lane and, in anticipation of the light turning green, blast away in a pack during the last micro-seconds of the red light. Sidewalks, center dividers and every single square meter of roadway are all fair game for motorini. Yet, these zipping buzzing impediments to sanity and safety don't seem to annoy Italians and surprisingly few drivers bother to make a rude gesture or two or loudly question the riders ancestry. I watched a motorino run a red light in front of a police car the other day and no one was more shocked than the rider when he was pulled over. A pedestrian alongside me in the crosswalk said, "Beh, don't they have better things to do, it must be a very slow day today for the police." This from a man who had almost been knocked down by that motorino.

There is a piece of legislation sitting, largely ignored, in Parliament that would require all bloggers in Italy to apply for permits to continue to publish their thoughts online or risk being fined as 'unlicensed journalists'. While it is unlikely that this legislation will ever be passed or survive the inevitable judicial review if it were, it is almost certainly aimed at Beppe Grillo. Grillo is a political activist who supports freedom of the internet, opposes political corruption and uses satire and ridicule to lampoon Italian power structures and the government. I stand foursquare with him. I too support freedom of speech and oppose corruption, I too am willing to risk fines and imprisonment for civil disobedience or rather I would be if I weren't quite certain that I'm protected by diplomatic immunity.

The Christmas holidays are upon us and it's time for this unlicensed journalist to wish everyone a very Merry Christmas and a safe and Happy New Year. May your feasts be plentiful, may you always find the short lines and may the motorinis miss you in the crosswalks in 2010!

Saturday, November 14, 2009

From the Halls of Montezuma... the Palazzo Brancaccio, the United States Marines put on an excellent show! An annual event at our embassies worldwide is the celebration hosted by the Marine Security Guards to commemorate the founding of the Corps. The Marine Ball is a formal affair, held on a weekend around November 10th, that offers a perfect opportunity to break out your tux and dancing shoes. Our Marines in Rome arranged to use the Palazzo Brancaccio ( for their Ball and I have to admit that I felt a little like James Bond that night. Ok, I felt a lot like James Bond. An older, less sophisticated, fatter James Bond, but James Bond nonetheless.

A small group of us, comprised of the founding membership of the Rome Rooftop Whiskey Drinking & Cigar Smoking Society and our friends, arrived together, spent the evening drinking Prosecco (Italian champagne), applauding our Marine hosts, eating a tolerably decent meal, taking an album full of pictures, smoking cigars by the fountains, dancing and, finally, falling into the limousine for the ride home. Our Marines threw a great party and were the inspiration for the Rome Rooftop Whiskey Drinking & Cigar Smoking Society to incorporate a dress code into our bylaws. Henceforth, all irregularly scheduled meetings of the Society will require the membership to wear black tie.

Founding members of the Rome Rooftop Whiskey Drinking & Cigar Smoking Society

My friend Allyson petitioning for membership!

The Marine Security Guards are a very special group of men and women charged with protecting the classified materials in our embassies. It is their responsibility to ensure that all classified materials are properly secured each evening or, in the event of an attack, thoroughly and completely destroyed. After hours they inspect the secure areas of the Embassy to ensure that all classified material has been properly stored away. Each of us bears sole responsibility for properly securing the classified material we handle every day and a failure to do so bears consequences. A first minor infraction, such as leaving classified material on your desk even in a locked office, will result in a written security warning. A second infraction can result in the loss of your security rating. If you lose your security rating you can still do many things but you can no longer be a Foreign Service Officer. So if, hypothetically speaking, one should awaken from a deep sleep at, oh say, two-thirty in the morning and happen to remember that he not only left classified materials on his desk but actually highlighted the bits that were marked 'secret', one is best advised to run not walk, even if, hypothetically, a cold black rain is pounding down outside, back to the Embassy to secure said classified material in a very non-hypothetical manner. This purely by way of illustration, of course.

In Rome I am an Economic Officer. Economic Officers and Political Officers are known as 'reporting' officers and that pretty much describes the job we do. We each have assigned areas of responsibility that we study, research and then report on back to Washington. These areas are called our portfolios and we are expected to become the local experts on the various topics in them. We are also required to interact with our appropriate counterparts in the Italian government on these topics. Therefore, a big part of the job is developing our contacts in the various Italian ministries. I, for example, now have contacts in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Ministry of Economics & Finance and the Ministry for Economic Development. Diplomacy, it turns out, is both hierarchical and rank observant which goes a long way towards explaining why Prime Minister Berlusconi hasn't returned my calls requesting a status update on Italy's aid to developing nations program.

Of course you realize that I never actually placed a call to Berlusconi; unfortunately however, I did attempt to establish Franco Frattini as one of my contacts. This would have been akin to having the guy who mows the lawn at the Italian Embassy in Washington establish Hillary Clinton as his contact on the proper use of Spring fertilizer. As my boss put it when he discovered that I was looking for Frattini's number, "You're kidding, right? You're kidding, right? No, really, you're kidding, right!" Umhhh, yeah, I was just kidding. Diplomacy is not actually saying the word "idiot" but having all parties involved fully understand that it was said. In my defense, Frattini is Italy's Foreign Minister and he is responsible for Italy's aid program so it seemed to me that he'd have the most up to date information.

My workload evolves something like this: someone in Washington becomes interested, curious or concerned about some aspect of Italian policy on a topic in my portfolio and 'tasks' me with either getting information from or delivering a message to an appropriate contact. Often I am called upon to request the Government of Italy to support a position we've taken or intend to take in our own foreign policy. Official communications of this nature between governments are known as demarches and I've done a ton of them. For example, we are encouraging our European allies to increase their aid to Somalia and because Italy's aid to developing nations is part of my portfolio, I am tasked with bringing our request to rank appropriate contacts in the Ministries of Foreign Affairs and Economic Development. After a few days have passed, I go back to my contacts for their response, reaction or reply to our request. Then I draft a cable with that response and send it to Washington. Washington sends me a brief note of thanks and then arranges a dinner in my honor for having helped save Somalia.

Okay, so the whole 'dinner in my honor' thing is an exaggeration, as is the 'brief note of thanks' and, in fact, as is the 'send it to Washington' bit too. The literal truth part ends at 'draft a cable'. Then my cable goes into the clearance process, followed by the re-writing process, followed by additional clearance processes repeated as required, followed by the approval process and then, finally, by the sending to Washington process. We call this 'feeding the beast' and ever since George Keenan wrote his Long Telegram in 1946, our reporting cables have been held to an unachievably high standard. Strangely enough they must be factual, concise and accurate. Paradoxically, they must also be intelligent and informative. I tend to ramble, offer mutually exclusive explanations, digress into cul de sacs of misinterpretation and summarize by missing the point entirely. Cable writing, State Department style, is an art form I'm struggling to master.

I mentioned to a young woman who works in our commissary that I was going to dinner on Saturday with some friends to a restaurant in her neighborhood. "Oh, wow," she said, "you're going clubbing!" No, Emma, I did not go 'clubbing', unless going to a restaurant that didn't open until 10:00pm with bouncers the size of small glaciers admitting only a select few past the ropes, with hundreds of very energetic young Italians dancing to music loud enough to compress your eardrums so fully as to cause your eyes to move slightly forward in your skull, with a bartender who mixed tequila slammers directly into your mouth and effected the loss of three of your five senses could be construed as clubbing. Then, yes, it seems I went clubbing on Saturday.

My Italian is improving slowly, but improving nonetheless thanks to the excellent language program offered by the Embassy. I managed to carry on a full conversation with the barber who cut my hair this weekend. He's been cutting hair in the same location for forty-eight years and I'll attempt to incorporate some of his views on Italian aid to developing nations in my next cable draft. Something along the lines of, "we should give more money to old barbers and not worry so much about people in countries I've never heard of." I have found one of the very best gelaterias in Rome and, thankfully, it's far enough away from both my apartment and the Embassy to require making a special trip whenever I have the time. If it were closer, I'd have to have my tux altered. Little by little, I'm exploring the city and seeing the famous sights. However, I really just enjoy wandering through the streets and soaking up as much of Rome as I can get in an afternoon. Friends of mine have begun taking cooking lessons at a restaurant in Trastevere and invited me to join them for their next lesson. It sounds like an excellent way to enjoy just another part of living here. For Thanksgiving a group of us have rented a farm in Umbria and we're bringing turkeys and all the fixings to cook our feast together. Umbria is just across the road from Tuscany in the rolling Italian hill country. It should be an excellent time.

I'd like to say a little more about my adventure in clubbing, but the phone is ringing and it might be Berlusconi finally returning my call. If he plays his cards right, I know a great restaurant where we can discuss Italy's aid program over tequila slammers. Semper fidelis!

You can drink the water from any fountain in Rome. It's a fact!

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Embassy Rome

This photo was actually taken in Florence. It's only an hour and a half by train from Rome.

When in Rome, they say, do as the Romans do. All roads lead to Rome and, if I remember correctly, it wasn't built in a day. The whole "Rome wasn't built in a day" thing clearly defines the prevailing attitude towards installing an internet connection in private apartments!

After finishing my Italian classes, HR informed me that I was required to take ten days of Home Leave before I could depart for Rome. Home Leave is mandated time off that must be taken in the States after overseas postings and it is given to us in addition to our accumulated annual leave. So, on August 8th I left Washington DC and flew up to the beach house in Maine to join my family for ten days of reunion and relaxation. Then I flew down to NYC for two days of consultations with DHS before finally boarding a plane for Rome. I arrived in Rome on August 19th, was met at Leonardo da Vinci Airport by a colleague from the Embassy and taken directly to my apartment. On the 20th, I went in to the Embassy to begin the 'check-in' process.

In this day and age, virtually the first thing everyone does is set up an internet connection at home. Unfortunately for me, I arrived here in August and Rome is closed in August. I use 'closed' in the sense of the word that means 'not open', 'shut', 'unavailable' or 'gone fishing'. This includes the various internet providers. So, I began the process of acquiring the internet right after Labor Day and signed my contract with Fastweb on Sept. 8th. On Sept. 17th I received a call from Fastweb informing me that they would come to my apartment the next morning at 9:00am to install my connection. Bene! The next morning I received a call around 7:30am from the technician letting me know that he was on his way. Bene! At 3:00pm I gave up on waiting for him and went to work. Not so Bene.

No one at Fastweb could tell me why the technician hadn't shown up, but they made another appointment for me and assured me that the guy would be there at 9:00am on Sept. 22nd. Sure enough, he showed up promptly at 9:00am, pulled several covers off of various electrical junction boxes, cut my phone lines, shook his head in despair and left. Now I had no internet and no home phone, but I had seen an actual technician so I felt that I was making progress. The good people at Fastweb had a very long and involved explanation for me that boiled down to "something seems to be wrong and we'll take care of it".

I twisted the wires back together for my phone and waited. And waited. And waited. On Oct. 16th another technician showed up, listened to my dial tone, fiddled around a bit, nodded his head with a very self-satisfied look on his face, called his office and left. This time Fastweb disconnected my phone somewhere at the source and, once again, I had no internet and no phone. However, because they hadn't actually destroyed anything on this visit, I once again felt that I was making progress. They called me at my office that afternoon to say they'd be at my apartment bright and early the next day, Saturday, to hook up my phone and internet connection.

Then, surprisingly, on a Saturday, the original technician arrived, slightly early, connected a modem and a wireless router and, just like that, a mere eight weeks after I arrived, I was back online. My phone even works. Tutto Bene!!

Housing assignments at our embassies are second only to bid lists for onward tours in terms of personal interest to Foreign Service Officers. All housing tends to be magnificent but, sadly, some housing is more magnificent than others and this can, inevitably, lead to 'housing envy'. In a remarkably futile attempt to forestall complaints the Dept. of State has created written regulations to help determine the housing assignments. Housing is assigned based upon rank, family size, job requirements and, to some degree, personal preferences. Embassies have Housing Sections in the GSO (General Services Office) and it is the responsibility of the Housing Section to maintain the post housing pool by leasing or purchasing suitable properties for the post. As bid lists are completed and onward tours decided, the Housing Section is notified of new arrivals and they send housing questionnaires to those folks asking for their input before any housing is assigned. A typical questionnaire will ask for the number of people traveling on your orders, their ages, whether you have pets with you or not, whether you will have a personal vehicle with you or not, if you have a preference for an unfurnished or a furnished home, if you have a preference for a large or a small yard, whether you or a member of your household has a problem with stairs, etc. Many officers, and I use 'many' in the sense of the word that means every single living and breathing one, believe that the housing questionnaire is a firm guarantee, a contract if you will, that actually determines the direction their housing assignment will take.

No. It is used by the Housing Section to try to suggest an appropriate housing assignment for each arriving officer, one that will satisfy the officer, if possible, and the rest of the post staff as a community. Then the Housing Section makes up a slate of all their suggestions and that slate goes to the Housing Board which makes the final formal assignment. Post Housing Boards are generally composed of representative members of the various agencies and sections in the Embassy and the Board has the final word on which particular house or apartment you get. In most cases, the Board approves the slate suggested by the Housing Section, but there are instances where the Board will require the Housing Section to reassign an incoming officer for one reason or another. If, upon arrival at post, you are dissatisfied with your housing, you must make an appeal directly to the Housing Board. Appeals are granted very rarely and, typically, only for reasons of security or safety.

In Rome, we have a wide variety of housing. We have furnished apartments and unfurnished apartments, houses with yards, places in every neighborhood in the city and some in the surrounding suburbs and each has unique benefits and drawbacks. If you want to live in the Centro or Trastevere, you'll get an unfurnished apartment that might be smaller and older but with great views in the liveliest part of town. If you prefer a house because you have kids and pets, you might end up with a small villa in one of the suburbs but have a two hour commute to work. There are tradeoffs for every type of housing but the pool is so varied that nearly everyone can be given something that will make them happy.

Unfortunately, it is the nature of the beast to complain. Mark Twain once said, "Man is the only animal that blushes...or needs to!" and I'm embarrassed to admit that I joined the whiners upon arrival in Rome. In my defense, before I even left Washington I was led to dislike my housing assignment by the unfortunate remarks of one of the Locally Employed Staff in the Housing Section. My housing assignment complete with photos and a floor plan was sent to me while I was still at FSI and, after looking it over for a few days, I emailed the Housing Section with two questions. Did my apartment have a terrace and, if so, was it large enough for me to put out a table and chairs and a grill? Was the third bedroom furnished as a bedroom or could I convert it into an office?

I had asked for and been assigned to a furnished apartment within walking distance of the Embassy. My apartment was newly renovated, had secure parking for my car, brand new carpets, appliances and furniture and was a twenty minute walk to work. Perfect! I was delighted. Then I received the reply to my two questions. First, I was on the ground floor (one floor up in Europe) and the terrace was completely enclosed by a heavy wire cage and was inaccessible except in an emergency. I was assured that I would never want to go out onto it. Second, the third room on the floor plan was "small, dark and damp like a cave with only one electrical outlet that blows out the electricity for the whole apartment every time it is used so it probably cannot be an office. Sorry".

Now my newly renovated, beautiful, large apartment in one of the best neighborhoods in Rome had just become "small and dark, like a cave" and I was preparing to file my appeal upon arrival. The volume of my whining would have drowned out a small jet and I hadn't even seen the place yet. I was going to be paid to live in Rome for two years and, at any other time in my life, I'd have been happy to live in a tent to have that opportunity but now I was fully ready to moan and complain my way into more 'suitable' quarters than the furnished three bedroom apartment to which I'd been assigned. Don't they know who I am? I actually wrote back to the Housing Section asking for a reassignment before I even left the States. Mark Twain obviously had me in mind.

One of the parks right around the corner from my apartment.

Fortunately for me, reassignment was never an option. I arrived and discovered that my apartment is absolutely great. The room described as "like a cave" is perfect as an office and the single electrical outlet works just fine with one computer plugged into it. It's true that I don't have a terrace and, therefore, will never feel pressured to put a bunch of plants in pots and watch them die, but I have access to the rooftop terrace and a few of us have established the 'Rome Rooftop Whiskey Drinking and Cigar Smoking Society' up there. The Embassy is a twenty to twenty-five minute walk from home or a ten minute drive. I have a secure parking spot for my car and two of Rome's nicer parks are just five minutes away. In the end, I'm living in an apartment I couldn't afford to pay the rent on and it's in Rome. Life is sweet!

This place serves excellent gelato!

All roads may very well lead to Rome, but not all streets, it turns out, lead from my apartment to the Embassy. The first few days I walked to and from the Embassy with colleagues who live in my building and they led the way. Finally, came the day when, due to schedule conflicts, I had to go solo. The beauty of Rome is that there are many different ways to walk between any two points and we had gone, on different days, through the park, down a very heavily travelled city street with many different stores and shops, along a less travelled route and, finally, on a road that went past the local Ferrari dealership. So, on a bright midweek morning I struck out, confidently, on my own and walked along admiring the architecture and morning bustle of Rome. People hurrying along to work, people sitting at sidewalk cafes having coffee, vendors opening stalls and shops and kids running to school. It took me about an hour and a half to realize that a) I was totally lost and b) I had left my map and phone back in my apartment.

Fortunately, thanks to my 'fluency' in Italian I was able to ask several passersby for directions to the U.S. Embassy. Unfortunately, there is a tendency among Romans to give you very specific and detailed directions even when they don't have the slightest clue themselves about how to get to your destination. So, I spent a very pleasant morning wandering and chatting and wandering some more until I happened, just by chance, upon the Via Veneto and from there even I could find the Embassy.

Friends of mine who have the good sense to always bring their maps along.

My work is very interesting but I'll save a description of it for another time. Today I intend to walk down to the Pantheon and have lunch in Trastevere. I'll take my time and I won't bring a map. When the mood strikes me I'll stop at a 'bar' for a coffee and talk to whomever is standing next to me. Now I'm in Rome and it's what the Romans do.

Monday, August 03, 2009

3/3 In Italian!

Camden Yards, Orioles vs Twins

If you speak three languages you are tri-lingual, if you speak two languages you are bi-lingual and if you only speak one language, you are an American. So goes the old joke. I am now, apparently, fluent in Italian! After managing to not learn Bulgarian for the two years I lived there and then avoiding the burden of knowing Urdu for the year I worked in Islamabad, I have acquired the ability to deny a visa, order an espresso and claim diplomatic immunity in nearly understandable Italian.

I began language training last February and finished today. Tonight will be the first night since the course began that I won't study Italian in one way or another. Our class is scheduled to continue to meet for the rest of this week and these last few classes should be a lot of fun. Actually, the entire course has been a lot of fun. Except, of course, for the whole 'learn Italian or lose your job' thing. In the Foreign Service you are required by law to master at least one language other than English within your first five years in order to be eligible for tenure.

Because Italian is a "world" language we are expected to acquire the ability to understand, speak and read it at a 3/3 level with 24 weeks of intensive training. My days at FSI followed a routine. I would arrive early to check my State email account and then review anything I had prepared for the morning class. Over the course of the 24 weeks the composition of my class changed several times, as did the hours, but the routine never varied. After reviewing and preparing I would report to our room and receive a two hour lesson. We were asked to read the Italian newspapers online every night and the first thing we would do in the morning was to report on our selected "notizia del giorno". This accomplished three things, first it gave us a great deal of practice in reading, second it gave us an uninterrupted ten to fifteen minutes every morning to speak and third it gave us a constant insight into Italian culture, politics, economics and gossip. After the 'news of the day', we would be given some grammar point or an exercise to do in class or any other thing that the teacher had readied for us. At the end of the two hours, we had a two hour self-study/lunch break and we usually received an assignment to complete during that time. If we didn't have an assignment, we were free to use the language lab, the library or grab lunch. I found a desk in the lower floor of the library where I could sit in privacy and weep quietly to myself over my total lack of comprehension. Then we reported back to our room and sat patiently while one or another of the teachers attempted to cram ten pounds of Italian into our four pound capacity brains.

The Italian section is located on the back corridor of the third floor. There's a lounge area on the front corridor by the French classrooms. The lounge has four or five computers and a padded bench of seats under the window. It also has one old faded green easy chair and a table. I would frequently use that easy chair to catch a quick nap. I discovered that I have the ability to fall sound asleep while surrounded by people talking on phones, using the computers, eating lunch or doing any of the many other things people tend to do in lounges. Once I fell so soundly asleep that I was snoring, not softly or gently, but raucously and loudly. In fact, I was snoring so loudly that I woke myself up. There were a dozen or so people in the lounge and, without exception, they were all staring at me. The only think I could think of to say was, "How's a man supposed to sleep with all this racket going on?" and I got up and walked slowly back to my classroom. Dignity, it's all about dignity and being able to discreetly wipe the drool off your chin without anyone noticing!

We had three regular full-time teachers and two or three teachers who came in as needed and they were all excellent. Each had a different style but they all followed the same course plan and they switched around between the three groups of students every four weeks or so. This gave us an opportunity to experience different voices, cadences, accents and speaking speeds. In Italian, speaking speeds vary from machine-gun rapidity to something that almost resembles speech but is actually indecipherable to the human ear. We also had a class on hand gestures, because it is impossible to speak Italian without making the accompanying and appropriate gestures. Two hours of class in the morning, a two hour self-study period and two hours of class in the afternoon every day except alternate Wednesdays, that was our job for twenty-four weeks. On alternate Wednesdays we were given the afternoon session off so we could meet with our colleagues at State, arrange for packers and movers, get our visas or attend to any of the hundreds of other details required to allow us to depart for post.

After the second classroom session I would head back to my apartment and begin to work on the homework. As I said, every night we were expected to read through several Italian newspapers and magazines and to select one article to discuss in class the following day. In addition to the news of the day, we were given assignments from the textbook and its accompanying workbook and, often, were asked to prepare a five to ten minute presentation for the following day on some topic of interest such as immigration, the environment, or the reasons for anti-Americanism in the world today. Sometimes the teacher would give us a topic to debate during class and we'd be expected to take a position and argue it against our classmates, or she would give us seven minutes to prepare a ten minute extemporaneous presentation or would challenge each of us to speak for two minutes without pause on a word she would throw at us off the top of her head. Frequently, we'd be given articles to read that the teachers had found and these, invariably, were much more difficult than the softballs we chose for ourselves. Every Friday afternoon we'd watch an Italian movie with English subtitles and by the end of the course most of us found ourselves understanding more and more of the spoken dialog.

So for 24 weeks that's been the routine, a very intensive program designed to take us from 0/0 to 3/3 with all the language resources of the Department of State at our disposal. And then they test us.

The test is a very formal structured event. FSI has a suite of rooms specifically designed to host the tests. You sit in one of those rooms with two testers for the six part exam that takes approximately two hours to complete. During the exam, one of the testers will only speak the foreign language and the other will only speak English. The first part of the exam is called the 'conversation' and you and the native speaker are expected to talk about anything at all. This is a warm-up and you can lead the conversation or let the tester take the lead. After the testers are satisfied that they've heard a fair sample of your ability, you move on to the second part of the spoken test, 'speaking at length'. The testers give you half a dozen or so topics and you pick one to speak on for no less than five minutes and no more than ten. They leave the room and give you five minutes to prepare your thoughts, then they come back in and you start talking. The third part of the test is the 'interview'. Again, you're given a list of topics to choose from and you select one. Then you interview the native speaker on that topic and translate his replies for the English speaker. For the fourth part of the exam you are given a sheet of paper with six short written pieces on it and you have six minutes to read them and then tell the testers what each of the six was about. The reading selections are written in the foreign language but you explain them to the tester in English. The six pieces will vary in difficulty and length and you're only expected to know what they are about, for example an advertisement for a boat, a recipe for clam sauce, a political announcement or a short newspaper article on a country fair. The fifth part of the test is a long written piece that you select from a stack of pieces. You're given seven minutes to read it and then report on it to the testers. This time, however, you have to be able to talk about it in some detail and demonstrate that you understand the tone of the article and any messages that are implicit but not stated. The sixth part of the exam is exactly like the fifth except that the testers select an article for you to read. Then you're done. I am still uncertain as to how your use of appropriate or inappropriate hand gestures factors into your final results but never let it be said that I was timid in my use of flailing, waving and gesturing meaningfully during my exam (even the reading parts!). You leave the room and they come to an agreement between them on your score. The tests are recorded so you have an opportunity to challenge the score if you're not satisfied.

As you might imagine, the tests are fairly stressful no matter how high your level of self-confidence might be. I went into mine with a strategy that required perfecting the phrase "I'm having a small heart attack now" in a blatant attempt for that sympathy point or two and "the envelope I'm sliding under the table has several hundred dollars in it" in an attempt to influence the testers in a more time-honored manner. In the end, neither faking a medical emergency nor bribing the testers was necessary and I managed to achieve the required 3/3.

I don't want to give anyone the impression that all I did was study for 24 weeks. I also went to two ballgames. I saw the Orioles play the Twins up in Baltimore and I saw the Nationals play the Phillies in DC. I went to an opera, saw three movies and a parade and I drove out to a farm for a barbecue.

Camden Yards is a great ballpark.

Thanks to my classmate Terrie and her husband Willie, I got to sit in the CNN suite for the Nationals Phillies game at the new stadium in DC.

My car is on its way to Rome and the packers will be here on Thursday to pick up my stuff. I'm running around saying goodbye to my friends and completing the FSI checkout sheet. There's always last minute paperwork to finish and last minute consultations to attend, then I'll be off to Rome. I've been assigned an apartment up by the Villa Borghese and, they tell me, I can walk to the Embassy from there in about twenty minutes. Although I assume I'll have to actually work while I'm in Rome, I don't intend to let that inconvenience prevent me from fulfilling my self-appointed mission to find the best gelateria in the city.

This morning before my test I sat in that old green easy chair in the lounge to go over my notes one last time. Now I'm concerned that I might be sound asleep in that chair just dreaming that I've passed the exam. If you happen to be near the lounge on the third floor of FSI and see a man snoring peacefully in the chair, please don't wake me up because I'm having a great dream!

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Italian Continues

Great Falls National Park

When I'd finished my two years in Bulgaria as a Peace Corps volunteer, I was relatively pleased with my ability to read, speak and understand Bulgarian. I could carry on lengthy conversations, speak to people on the phone, work my way through the daily newspaper with some semblance of understanding and travel the country without a phrasebook. As I was wrapping things up at work, upon completion of my tour, I was having a quiet coffee with one of the women in the office and I mentioned that one of the things of which I was most proud was that I had actually learned a 'foreign' language.

She choked so violently that coffee blew out of her nose. She very carefully put her half empty cup onto her saucer and looked at me earnestly as if to determine whether or not I was serious.

"I'm sorry," I said, "but I thought that my Bulgarian was pretty good."

"Larry," she said very slowly, "my dog understands more Bulgarian than you can speak." Then she reached over and put her hand on my shoulder. I'll never forget the look of sympathy in her eyes as she continued, "And he isn't an especially bright dog."

In Urdu I mastered the language to the extent that I could say, with complete and total confidence, "Hello", "Greetings", "What is your name?", "Is that weapon loaded?" and "Thank You". By the time I left Pakistan I was reduced, through lack of use, to "Hello" and "Is that weapon loaded?". So, I think I've demonstrated pretty convincingly that my language learning ability can be compared, unfavorably, to that of an intellectually challenged canine.

That having been said, I think I'm doing pretty well in Italian. If nothing else, I'm really waving my hands around a lot and speaking in highly excited tones! In class, we are now trying the patience of our fourth teacher and, because one of our original class members was scheduled to take only eight weeks and he finished up a week ago, there are only four of us left. It is FSI's practice, wherever possible, to rotate the teachers so that the students are exposed to different voices, accents, speaking speeds and teaching styles. All the teachers work off of the same curriculum so there is no disruption in progress each time a new teacher picks up the reins.

We started with Silvana who will be fondly remembered as the only teacher who ever spoke English to us. She introduced us to the rudiments of Italian with a 'take no prisoners' attitude that marched us through the first seven chapters of our textbook in just under four weeks. She gave the appearance of being extremely distracted and flustered but prepared us, by the second week, to begin using nothing but Italian in class. Her lesson plans were always clear, concise and well organized. I would have been quite happy to have had Silvana teach me right through to the end, but after four weeks it was Agata's turn.

Agata is from Sicily and is desperately trying to set the Guinness World Record for 'Most Homework Assigned to Braindead Language Students'. She gave the appearance of being stern, severe and determined to teach us Italian by any means necessary, including having 'Uncle' Guido make us an offer we couldn't refuse. She proved to be an excellent teacher with a great sense of humor and an ability to make difficult grammar points clear to us while explaining them completely in Italian.

A fairly typical experience during FSI language training is the 'meltdown'. All of us, and this applies across the board to students of all languages, have good days and days where we just don't get it. There are those days when it seems that you're the only one in the class who just can't seem to understand what's going on and it can be extremely frustrating. Usually, you struggle along and work a bit harder and, eventually, you catch on and catch up. Sometimes, however, the struggle goes on for just an hour, or a session, or a day too long and you just lose it. The teachers know the pattern better than we do and they deal with it with empathy and understanding. In my case, Agata threw me out of the room. Actually, she suggested that I take what has come to be known as 'Larry's walk of shame' and return when I'd cooled off. She dealt with Terri's meltdown by taking her into the office and serving her a nice cup of tea while they chatted. Hey, I like tea! I would have been quite happy to have had Agata teach me right through to the end, but after only three weeks it was Francesca's turn.

Before Francesca started, we were given our first Progress Test. As I've mentioned, we have to score a 3/3 on the FSI language test by the end of the course and we are given a couple of Progress Tests modeled on the final evaluation to give us practice in taking the test as well as to tell us if we're on track or not. After six weeks, I tested at a 1/1+ level and seemed to be on track. The test was administered by Silvana and Fabio and I was quite thankful that Fabio wasn't in the rotation to teach us because he speaks with machine gun rapidity and is extremely difficult to understand.

Francesca only worked with us for two full weeks. She was a substitute brought in from the Language Institute in DC to teach us while one of the regular staff took some scheduled time off. Although she was only with us for a couple of weeks, she was thoroughly professional and kept us working hard every day. Our homework load was lighter than it had been under Agata, but Attila the Hun wouldn't have assigned as much homework as Agata. Of course, just as we were getting used to the cadence, rhythm and style of Francesca's speech our new teacher took over. I would also have been quite happy to have had Francesca teach us right through to the end.

Somehow, the teacher rotation was changed and Fabio is now our teacher, machine gun speech speed and all. He's only worked with us for a very brief time, but I already like his approach and his style. I even find that I can pick out a word or two from time to time, when he's teaching, that I understand! He appears to subscribe to the Agata school of homework assignment but in spite of that, I think this is going to work out and he announced today that he'll be working with us right through to the end.

Some of the aircraft on view at the Udvar-Hazy Center for the National Air & Space Museum

My folks came down for a visit last weekend and we went out the Udvar-Hazy Center for the National Air & Space Museum located near Dulles Airport. They have an amazing collection of old aircraft out there and we spent a very enjoyable four hours looking them over. On Sunday we drove up to the Great Falls National Park to see the falls. The Park was quite crowded but we managed to find a parking spot and decided to walk along the trail by the river. It was sunny and hot so I put my sunglasses on and dropped my glasses onto the seat of the car. Instinctively I knew that this was a bad idea because I'd be certain to sit on them when I came back to the car. So, I put the hard protective case on the seat next to them so that I'd see it and not sit down. After all, that's what hard protective cases are for.

As you've probably guessed, when I returned to the car I promptly sat down on my glasses, but I was only aware that I'd done so because I felt the hard protective case under my butt. So it did serve a purpose. The glasses were bent out of any usable shape but I'd been planning to have my eyes checked and get a new pair of glasses before I go to Rome anyway so this wasn't an enormous tragedy.

Lenscrafters was offering $100 off any pair of glasses which should have been a clue that the glasses were going to cost me significantly more than $100 but I don't pick up on clues all that well. I chose a pair of frames for regular glasses and another pair for sunglasses and with my new prescription they came to just over $1,000, with the discount of course. The regular lenses will take a week to produce so I asked the young woman who was helping me if she could straighten my old bent glasses up a bit. She took them and in three minutes had straightened them, replaced a loose screw and tightened the arms perfectly. They're like new! I still need the new glasses but I'll keep these as a spare pair.

I hope the new glasses come with those hard protective cases. When you sit on them it's really the only way to tell that you've just destroyed your glasses!

Friday, March 06, 2009

Io Sto Studiando La Lingua d'Italiano

I Am Studying The Language of Italy

This is my 1995 Mustang convertible in what I like to think of as 'mint' condition.

On February 23rd, the new tranche of language classes began. Approximately 70 languages are being taught at FSI at any given time and all the classes begin together at regularly scheduled intervals. So, on February 23rd the largest new language group in the history of FSI trooped into the auditorium to begin orientation. In fact, the group was so large that the Spanish language students were seated in another room and attended orientation via teleconferencing because they couldn't all fit into the auditorium. The first several rows of the auditorium were reserved for the relatively large numbers of students learning Arabic, Russian and French. The rest of the languages filled the remaining rows and there wasn't an empty seat in the house. Gujarati, Hungarian, Serbian, Urdu, Tamil and Hindi language students all crowded in, cheek by jowl, with folks set to learn German, Dutch, Norwegian, Italian and a couple of dozen other languages.

After an hour or so of administration (attendance policies, payroll, instructor introductions, etc.), pep rally ("you really can learn a foreign language, no kidding, you really can!") and reminders ("This is your job for the next several months, take it seriously"), we were sorted into specific language groups and sent off to meet our instructors. However, all groups are not created equal and we had to sit and wait in the auditorium until the Spanish horde cleared the hallway. Then we were turned over to our instructors one language at a time and the last language called down from the seats was Italian. I felt like the slow fat kid who gets chosen last in the pick-up baseball game; it's a scar that will take a long time to heal. Living in Italy will, of course, go a long way towards easing the healing process.

This building is the language school at FSI.

Classroom space is at a premium at FSI and it's in everyone's interest to keep class sizes small, so any language with more than five or six students splits the group into shifts. There were enough of us beginning Italian to form two groups. We were arbitrarily assigned to the first shift (0800 to 1400) or the second shift (1000 to 1600). Then we were allowed to swap shifts with anyone who wanted to change. I was assigned to the second shift and agreed to swap with someone who didn't want the early shift. I actually preferred the early start so it worked out well for both of us. Then we were taken to the language lab and shown all those resources. In addition to our scheduled class instruction hours, we are given lab assignments and homework. We are also expected to spend several hours each week in the lab in 'self study'.

The Department of State makes Rosetta Stone available to us if we want to begin learning a language on our own. I decided, based on my previous experiences with Bulgarian and Urdu, to take advantage of this resource as soon as I received my onward assignment to Rome. So, for several months I patiently worked my way through the nineteen Rosetta Stone chapters with varying degrees of understanding and success. As of today, we've had nine days of class and we're already beyond the Rosetta Stone course. The pace is 'challenging' in a "faster than a speeding bullet" way and it's our responsibility to keep up. For the first couple of weeks now I've had to put in three to four hours each day after class in order to do so, but I doubt very much that I'll be able to continue to slack off that way in the weeks to come.

There is no magic formula for learning a foreign language (so the money I paid that fellow in the yellow plaid pants for a bottle of Dr. Silvertongue's Remarkable Language Elixir is most probably ill spent). FSI does a great job of providing the resources we need, instructors, materials and time, but we each still have to put our own dedicated efforts into the task. Our Italian teacher, for example, has marched us through the first three chapters of our textbook in just under two weeks. She also warned us on day one that by the end of the second week she wouldn't be speaking any English in class. That's most unfortunate for me because I actually understand English. Some undefined period of grace also seems to have passed because now when we make a small grammatical error, Silvana yells, "NO!", rather than gently correcting us as she did in the beginning. She shouts this out as though we're breaking her heart by not learning our lessons perfectly. Silvana is an Italian grandmother and has the whole guilt thing down to perfection. She brings a very high level of energy and enthusiasm to the class and challenges us to keep up.

This is one of the lounges at FSI.

My job in Rome is a 'language designated' position, which means that I must test at a predetermined level before I can go to Post. The predetermined level for Italian is 3/3 or "having a functional fluency" in both speaking and reading the language. In the more difficult languages the required level might only be a 2/2, or even a 2/1 in super hard languages like Chinese. The test itself is quite an interesting experience in much the same way that a root canal is an interesting experience; I tested in Bulgarian just after joining the Foreign Service. I had just returned from two years in Bulgaria as a Peace Corps volunteer and was fairly confident in my ability to get a 2/2, which would have satisfied my language requirement for tenure. I tested out at a 1/1 but gained valuable experience in the 'testing process' and an insight into my own shortcomings in the 'language acquisition process'. My primary shortcoming, of course, is that all foreign languages sound very different, to me, from English and I have trouble understanding them.

So, my task is pretty clear for the next six months, I will learn to understand, speak and read Italian. I will take full advantage of the resources that are made available to me and I will put in whatever time is required after class to ensure that I don't fall behind. We have access to Italian newspapers, tv broadcasts, movies and magazines and individual tutoring is available if we begin to struggle. Italian has a multitude of cognates, a grammatical structure very similar to English and, unlike Urdu or Bulgarian, a familiar alphabet. By August I'm quite certain that I'll be ready.

Is it hard to find a place to park on the Via Veneto?

In 1995 I bought a bright red Mustang convertible with wide tires and a beefed up sound system. On the first of November every year I put it under a cover in the garage and didn't take it out again until after the first of April. It has windshield wipers, but I can say with pride that I don't know if they even work because it's never been driven in the rain. It has the last of the big old five liter engines that Ford discontinued in 1996 in favor of the much more efficient 4.6 liter high performance engine. Sitting at a stoplight the engine in my Mustang sounds like it wants to eat up the road, high performance engines sound very similar to weedwackers. The State Department will ship one car to Post for me free of charge and I debated long and hard about shipping the Mustang to Islamabad. I finally accepted that a bright red convertible would not exactly be low profile from a security point of view and left it in the garage in Maine. Next month I intend to drive up to Maine and bring it back to Washington. I'll drive it around here from April until August and then ship it to Rome. It'll be fifteen years old next year and it's time for me to get some use out of it. I just hope it doesn't rain while I'm in Rome because I'm not sure if the wipers work.

But that's later on and right now I'm enjoying my time back in school. FSI is a truly unique environment in which you wander up and down the halls hearing conversations taking place in every imaginable language. Turn a corner and you interrupt two people speaking Russian, around the next corner a small group of Nepali speakers nods a "Good Morning" as you pass, down the hall you hear Thai, Japanese, Vietnamese and Laotian coming from separate doorways. Although you don't understand the words, the meaning of each and every conversation is quite clear, "Hey, I just bought a bottle of this 'Remarkable Language Elixir' stuff from a guy in yellow plaid pants, and it's guaranteed to get me a 3/3. You better hurry up and get some, he said it's going fast!".

Sunday, January 25, 2009

Obamarama Day

The Inauguration is finally over and the 1.8 million strangers who spent four days here stepping on my toes have all gone home! The city is settling back into its normal levels of insanity and I have a new boss. Granted there are several hundred people on the org chart between me and the Secretary of State but I'm definitely down there at the bottom somewhere. From her first meeting with State Department employees, SecState Hillary Clinton, apparently, believes that diplomacy should be conducted by the country's diplomats and not by its Armed Forces. She's even talking about giving us the resources to do our jobs. What can the woman possibly be thinking? Insanity indeed!

It all began on Sunday with a concert (by assorted celebrities) and speech (by Obama) at the Lincoln Memorial. The closest I could get to the event was the WWII Memorial and I never did find the friends I was supposed to meet. Although my cell phone wouldn't work, everyone else's seemed to and I was surrounded by people shouting into phones, "I'm by the fountain!", "I'm wearing a black coat!", I'm right next to the woman waving her hat!" This proved to be only marginally useful because there were several hundred thousand people by the fountain, two thirds of them wearing black coats and every woman in DC was waving her hat! The cell phone shouters, bless their souls, continued to bellow and gesture wildly in the hopes that their black coat and hat waving woman were somehow distinguishable from all the others. A mating orgy of a million geese would have shown more decorum.

The 500,000 people in my immediate area and I were watching everything on a Jumbotron and it occurred to me that a) I would see and hear everything much better by sitting on my couch watching my tv and b) all these people were going to leave the Mall at the same time as soon as the concert ended. So I bolted and caught the speech on tv while enjoying a cigar and a cold drink. But I was there, at least for the start of the concert.

Half a Million or so of my new best friends!

On Monday night I put on my tux, snapped the red silk suspenders into place and went to the Illinois Inaugural Ball with some friends from Islamabad. The Ball was held at the Renaissance Hotel and to get in we stood in line to get into a line to get to the line going into the hotel. At one point we made it into a tent where, six across, we shuffled back and forth in a snaking line to the door. Once we actually got into the hotel, we were shunted into a line for the mandatory coat check and then into a line to the escalators going down to the first of three floors hosting the Ball. Obama and Oprah were both there, but we couldn't get to the floor they were on. So my fear of having to stand around making small talk with Obama was for nothing. Still, we had a lot of fun just being there. There were open bars everywhere and plates of finger food appeared here and there. Although we could get to the bars, the food trays disappeared like grain under a cloud of locusts. The tickets to the Ball were $300 and, once in, the drinks were free so my friend Aidan Liddle and I made it our goal to drink that sum in brandy. I finally admitted defeat and went home but I'm pretty sure Aidan accomplished his mission. I got home about 2:00am, caught a few hours sleep and then headed back to the Mall for the Inauguration.

I got to the Metro station across the street from my apartment at about 7:00am to give myself plenty of time to get downtown. At the station, I discovered that the only way to get onto a train to DC was to board one heading west (away from DC), go to the end of the line and get on an eastbound train there. Even then, I was standing and jammed up against everyone else. At one point we were so packed in that I thought I was going to have to "do the right thing" by the unfortunate woman standing right in front of me. Fortunately for her, the doors opened just as I was about to offer to marry her and 250,000 people got out of our car which gave us room to separate slightly. I needed to get to the Federal Center station but we were informed that they had shut down that station and the two before it because there were so many people on the street that people in the stations couldn't exit and there was no more room on the platforms for any additional arrivals. I hopped off about a mile from the spot where I was to meet a friend and began to work my way towards that area on foot.

I had two tickets in the reserved section and even though they were for the farthest back reserved section they got us into this tiny exclusive area. Enough people to populate a small midwestern state also had tickets for this 'exclusive' area so, once again, we made many many new friends. My friend and I connected outside the gate, against all odds, and we shuffled forward inches at a time until we found places to stand that had a fairly decent view of the Jumbotron. The hard part was over and all we had to do was stand perfectly still in our six square inches of turf for about three hours in the freezing cold until the ceremony began. My friend had hand and foot warmers while I resorted to shivering uncontrollably to keep warm.

Hand and foot warmers functioning perfectly!

There's Obama! See, he's in a black coat standing right beside a woman waving her hat!!

Being there was worth all the hassle and discomfort. It was quite an amazing experience to be in the crowd watching this Inauguration. There were 1.76 million people on the Mall (I arrived at this figure by counting their feet and dividing by two) and people were for the most part courteous and pleasant to each other. The crowd cheered Obama into office and then began the six inch shuffle towards the exits. At one point we were standing in the middle of an intersection unable to move in any direction for about fifteen minutes. People were amazingly civil through all this crush and frustration. I skipped the Metro and walked home. The roads and bridges had all been closed to traffic so the walk home was actually very pleasant once I got out of the main press of humanity. I made it home in time to catch the parade on tv and it was a somewhat strange experience to have my couch all to myself.

The Jumbotron Inaugural Speech.

The Inauguration was pure magic. I'm really happy that I was able to be here to see it live (by that I mean, of course, on the Jumbotron)! Expectations are incredibly high for Obama but I'll be content if he can manage to get us back onto a positive track in the next four years. I'm not asking for miracles. Of course, if we begin to use diplomacy instead of guns we run a very real risk of having peace break out.

Thursday, January 01, 2009

Back At FSI (Foreign Service Institute)

So now I'm a 'veteran' junior entry level Foreign Service Officer. I've got a tour under my belt and I'm being readied for my second foray into the world of international diplomacy. There are five career tracks called 'cones' in the Foreign Service, Political, Economic, Public Diplomacy, Management and Consular. I, for example, am Management coned and my tour as a GSO in Islamabad was 'within cone'. However, it is perfectly acceptable to work 'out of cone' and for every entry-level officer not Consular coned it is mandatory at least once because within our first two tours we must serve at least one year as a Consular Officer. I bid on a two year tour in Rome that will allow me to serve as an Economics Officer for the first year and a Consular Officer for the second.

As an Economics Officer, I'll be gathering information on specific sectors of the Italian economy, analyzing that information and drafting carefully considered and well thought out cables meant to convey that information back to the Department of State. So they tell me. I hope to do much of this 'information gathering' in the cafes that line the Via Veneto and I intend to filter a lot of the information through a nice glass or two of chianti. I just completed a three week course on "How To Be An Economics Officer", so I'm ready. Talk to people, write cables; talk to more people, write more cables. The talking to people part is undoubtedly where the chianti comes into play.

During my year as a Consular Officer, I'll be working in one of three areas; Immigrant Visas, Non-Immigrant Visas or American Citizen Services. People intending to come to the US to live permanently need an immigrant visa; visitors, tourists, students, business people or anyone coming on a temporary basis need a non-immigrant visa; and, Americans requiring any sort of assistance become the responsibility of the ACS unit. The Consular training course is six weeks long, covers all three areas and is extremely detail oriented. I won't actually begin consular work in Rome until the end of 2010 so there is a very slight possibility that I'll have forgotten one or two of the less important details by then. Fortunately, I have friends in the course who are actually taking notes and they can expect a call from me in 2010.

Over the Christmas/New Year's holiday, we had some 'no progress' days at FSI. These are, as the name suggests, days when no classes are scheduled but which must be accounted for in one way or another. Our options were to use accrued annual leave, report to FSI at 9:00am and 2:00pm every day to sign in and then leave or find gainful employment within the Department of State for those days. Because my status at FSI is 'Post to Post' I am given per diem allowances to help defray the cost of my temporary stay in Washington. Under State rules, I lose those per diems for any day I take annual leave. If the days of leave bracket a weekend, then I lose the per diems for the weekend too. So taking annual leave to cover my 'no progress' days would have been financially painful. Reporting to FSI at 9:00 and 2:00 to sign a register seemed bureaucratically absurd and a waste of time. So I found gainful employment elsewhere at State.

For four consecutive days I was the Italy Desk Officer. Desk Officers are responsible for channeling information to and from their assigned countries and some countries are more information intense than others. Italy, for example, was fairly quiet over Christmas while Israel was hopping (in this case 'hopping' is a euphemism for bombing the Gaza strip). I was given an opportunity to sit in for the real Desk Officer who was on leave and it sounded like more fun than reporting to FSI every day at 9:00 and 2:00. So, on each of the four 'no progress' days I put on a suit and tie and went to work at the Harry S. Truman Department of State offices in Washington, by God, DC, just like the big kids. It was an interesting and valuable experience because as an Economics Officer in Rome, I'll be interacting with the Desk on a daily basis. The cafeteria at the HST bulding is also much better than the one at FSI.

The most interesting thing to happen while I was on the Desk was a demonstration outside the building by Palestinian sympathizers who were trying to bring attention to the situation in Gaza. They were gathered directly below our windows and were well organized and quite peaceful. I spent some time trying to think of a sign I could hold up in the window that might incite them to violence but became distracted by actual work and then it was time to go home and my experience as the Italy Desk Officer was over. Now I'm back at FSI, in what we don't seem to refer to as 'progress days', and will finish the Consular training program in February.

Right after Consular training, I'll begin taking Italian lessons full time. All Foreign Service Officers are required by law to be fluent in one or more foreign languages in order to attain tenure. Therefore, it's critical for me to pass Italian at a fluent (3/3) level in order to get off of language probation and qualify for tenure. Although this does add some stress and pressure to the situation, I'm really looking forward to learning Italian and have expressed my willingness to serve my third tour (the one after Rome) in any country that speaks Italian. That opens the door to Italy, San Marino and the Vatican. I'm flexible.

I have a ticket to the Illinois Inaugural Ball on October 19th. I have a proper tuxedo and cummerbund (but am lacking suspenders at the moment) and my shoes are polished and ready. I'm told that, of the many Balls that night, the Illinois Ball is the one to attend because the President-Elect will certainly make an appearance there. A group of us will be going together so I don't have to worry about standing around by myself and being forced to make small talk with the Prez-to-be.

This picture was taken at the British High Commission's Monsoon Ball in Islamabad. The same tux and friends will be going with me to the Illinois Inaugural Ball.

Shades of Bulgaria. Today when I got home from FSI, the elevators in my building were in the decidedly non-functioning mode. This happened regularly in Stara Zagora but now there are two minor differences. First, in Stara Zagora I lived on the eighth floor while in Arlington I have to hike up to the sixteenth floor and, second, the rent here is approximately ten times higher than it was in Bulgaria. If the elevators aren't repaired soon I fully expect to have a team of sherpas available to carry me up. As a result of climbing sixteen flights of stairs, I have come to realize how badly out of shape I am and I've made a resolution to do something about it.

In the corner of my living room, behind a very nice folding screen and tucked away beside the tv is a treadmill. It's in the upright 'stowed away' position and my plan is to lower it into the 'ready to use' position in the next day or so. Because these machines are quite complicated and can be very dangerous if used by the uninitiated, I plan to read the manual until I've mastered all the controls, say for the next week or so. Eventually, I'll take to standing on it from time to time when it isn't running. I think of this as the acclimation stage. Sooner or later I'll fire it up and begin exercising. This is the self-inflicted pain stage. I figure that by March or so I'll be running like the wind on the damn thing. Hopefully, by then the elevators will be fixed!

By August, I plan to be in shape again, know the vagaries of consular law and economics and speak perfect Italian. Of course, I can always call my buddy Barack if I need to apply for a waiver on the whole perfect Italian thing. Sure, we're tight, we socialize, small talk, small talk, small talk, the man won't leave me alone.