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!