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.