Friday, November 19, 2010

PNG'd

I knew I should have copyrighted my name!


During orientation in the Foreign Service, among the many things you learn are dictionaries worth of acronyms. PNG'd, for example, is a bad thing. It means that you've been declared "Persona Non Grata" by the country in which you serve and you must leave. Diplomats can be asked to leave a country for violating its laws or in retaliation when host country diplomats are expelled from the U.S. or simply upon the whim of a dictatorial head of state. In either of the latter two instances there is a certain cachet in being PNG'd but in the first case, it is never thought to be career enhancing.

In my orientation class, we looked amongst ourselves and tried to guess who would be the first to become an ambassador and we reached an almost unanimous consensus on one candidate. He has not disappointed us and is well along the right track. When I suggested that we might also take a shot at forecasting who would be the first to be PNG'd, the opinions were more varied. However, I say with pride that I won the vote, if only by a narrow margin!

As of Monday last, I have been officially PNG'd. Fortunately for me, however, PNG is also an acronym for Papua New Guinea and that's where I'll be going next. I was offered and have accepted a handshake to be the next Management Officer in Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea. Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, just made her first trip to Port Moresby in what I can only imagine was a visit to prepare them for my arrival. It was thoughtful of her to do so.

The bidding process for my first mid-level job, which began on August 5th with the release of the summer bid-list, is over. My goal was to find a Management Officer's position at a smaller embassy or consulate and the position would have to be non-language designated because I didn't want to spend any more time at FSI learning another language. So, from the more than 2,000 positions available on the original bid-list, I had between twenty and twenty-five spots that met my criteria. These had to be narrowed down to fifteen because that's the maximum number of bids we are allowed to submit. I picked fifteen jobs, prioritized them according to my own personal preferences and began to lobby.

Between August 5th and the end of the bidding process I sent and received 276 bid related emails. In addition to these were the emails sent directly from posts and bureaus to my various references and the subsequent responses. I can't imagine that there were fewer than 30 reference related emails. In addition to the 300 or so emails sent and received, I made about twenty telephone calls and had four telephone interviews. Lobbying is a serious business.

Because the decision on who will be offered which job is a collaborative effort between the post and the respective bureau, a candidate has to lobby both ends of the pole. This is especially important for first time mid-level bidders because many, if not all, of the people who control the job won't know you yet. So you introduce yourself and attempt to convince a group of total strangers that you are a well qualified and serious candidate for their vacancy. It is a time consuming and frustrating process.

There is a date, in our case November 8th, before which no handshakes can be offered. This is to ensure that everyone has a fair and equal opportunity to present their strongest effort for the jobs they want. In reality, however, many posts/bureaus have already pre-selected the candidate of their choice and will let you know early on that you "haven't made our short list of candidates".  While it isn't pleasant to hear that, it is a reality and it allows you to focus your efforts on jobs that are still actually available.

Towards the end of the process I had a realistic shot at four positions. After doing some more research (which consisted of tracking down people from each of the posts and soliciting their frank opinions), I removed myself from consideration for two of the jobs and received offers of a handshake on the remaining two. Port Moresby was my top remaining choice and I accepted it. It was just a simple as that!

As the Management Officer, I'll have responsibility for the infrastructure, finances, human resources and all the other services the embassy provides to its employees. I'll have most of the embassy's locally hired staff and three or four American officers reporting to me. Oh, and I'll be responsible for the embassy yacht.

Embassy Port Moresby has a 42' motor yacht that serves as an Emergency & Evacuation vessel and can be used by Embassy staff on the weekends. The waters around the country are filled with tropical reefs and several World War II wreck sites. There are all the usual South Pacific pleasures to enjoy: scuba, fishing, sailing, drinking cleverly named beverages filled with fruit and little umbrellas, and watching spectacular sunsets. On the flip side, Papua New Guinea does get fairly negative reviews in the media due to a sky high rate of violent crime, astronomic unemployment figures, crushing poverty, cholera, cannibalism and a bit of headhunting. At least it won't be dull.

The native dress seems to consist of something called "a penis sheath made from a dried gourd" which, I assume, I will only be required to wear to formal State functions. I am uncertain as to how one goes about being fitted for his gourd. Does one size fit all or are they individually tailored? Is there a choice of linings or only whatever it is that is on the inside of a gourd? The only photo I could find online showed a gentleman wearing his with panache and a white tie. I have a white tie.

I have spoken to several colleagues who have served there and to a man, or in one case a woman, they have enjoyed the experience without reservation. The biggest drawback to being there is that it takes about 40 hours to get there from the U.S. However, there's a rumor making the rounds that Continental might begin a direct Port Moresby - Guam flight which will cut 10 hours off the journey. It just keeps getting better!

This is either the Coliseum or one of the better hotels in Papua New Guinea.

I am still working as a Consular Officer in Rome adjudicating non-immigrant visas. Things became slightly more interesting here this week when a young woman came to the security check point and put her bag on the x-ray belt. She was wearing red leather boots and a long black coat. Standard procedure in this case required her to open her coat for a quick visual inspection. When she did so, it was noted in the duty log that "she was wearing red leather boots and a bulky black coat, no other clothing .. at all". Madam, your visa is approved!

Taking the castle in Assisi by storm.

My friend Mary came down from Embassy London for a quick visit to Rome and we did all the usual tourist stuff; visited the Coliseum, drank Prosecco, toured the Vatican and ate chocolate. Much of what I've enjoyed about living in Rome is the willingness of my friends to come here to visit. We had a perfect day for a drive up to Assisi and found a great little osteria in which to have lunch. It was one of those places where you just ask the waiter to bring you whatever is good that day. The meal was incredible. After lunch I told Mary that the guest room in Port Moresby would be hers for the asking and she said, "40 hours, cholera, cannibals, and crime, are you crazy!"  Hey, I have a boat!

Mary tossing her coin in the fountain and wishing to come back to Rome. PNG... not so much!

Knowing myself as well as I do, I fear that I am already drifting into the "that's interesting, but what does it have to do with Port Moresby" mode. This seems to be a fairly common occurrence in our lifestyle because we usually find out where we're going next long before we've finished what we're doing now. I still have a lot of things to finish at work and there is still an awful lot of Italy that I haven't seen. I won't know for a while yet what my actual date of departure from Italy will be and it's dangerous to lose too much focus on the job I'm doing now because, although I have a handshake on the PNG job, I still have to be paneled for it. Paneling makes the offer final and official and it can take place any time up to two months after the handshakes are given. Situations can and do arise prior to paneling that cause handshakes to be broken so until you are paneled you don't pack your bags. After I'm paneled for the job, I can begin to work out my travel orders which will then determine when I'll leave Italy, where I'll go from here, how long I'll stay there, what training I will require and when I will finally arrive in PNG.

I'm not finished with Italy by any means, but I am beginning to imagine what life in the South Pacific will be like. I'll be there about this time next year and there's a lot of stuff that has to happen between now and then. I'll have to get ahold of a comfortable dried gourd for one thing. So, pack up your red leather boots and plan on coming down for a visit! Did I mention I'll have a yacht?

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Reflections From My Cage

Air kissed but not handshook.


The past month has been pretty interesting. Since the bid list came out on August 5th, I've been lobbying various Posts and Bureaus in an attempt to find my next job. Initially, all my lobbying was done by email and one of my good friends at post kept encouraging me to call the Posts in which I was interested. "You've got to set yourself apart," he said, "and let them get to know you a little more personally. You've got to let them know you're really interested. " 

"Look," I said, "I've bid fifteen jobs and my references are really strong. I've written a decent letter of introduction to each of the fifteen Posts and to each of the Post Management Officers at the responsible Bureaus. I've followed up with another letter explaining why I want that particular job and why I'd be a good match for it. I think I'll just wait to see what happens." My rationale was that, surely, out of fifteen jobs, I'd get one on the strength of my experience, my EERs and my references. 

What happened was that, in short order, I received notification from four of the more interesting Posts on my list to "direct your energies towards other positions because, due to the volume of interest we've received for our Management Officer vacancy, we will, unfortunately, not be able to further consider your bid." I even failed to make the short list for a Post that only had five bidders! The whole process seemed to be open, transparent and above-board in a closed, secretive and pre-determined sort of way.

There is an online bid list that we can access to see how many total bids there are for each job to date. The problem here is that our bids don't have to be submitted until October 12th and many people spend a lot of time lobbying prior to actually submitting their list. So, you may be looking at a job that only seems to have five people interested in it and feel you have a pretty good shot at it, but twenty other folks might be calling and writing to the Post expressing their interest prior to putting in their bids. Posts and Bureaus begin to cull their lists of candidates long before the bid lists are officially submitted. Although no jobs can be offered or accepted prior to the date stated in the bidding instructions (in this case it will be November 8th), in reality many decisions are made long before the bids close on Oct. 12th.

Since I wasn't being considered for jobs that were at my grade, I realized that the 'stretch' bids on my list were not going to even be a remote possibility. That took care of six more bids and, suddenly, I was down to five potential jobs out of the original fifteen. It was time for some drastic measures. It was time to follow good advice and begin making phone calls.

As I mentioned once before, the object of lobbying is to get a 'handshake' which is an official agreement between the Post, the Bureau and yourself that they'll offer you the job and you'll accept it. Handshakes can only be given after November 8th this year. How, you may well ask, does one begin to narrow the field down and focus on jobs that are actual possibilities? The easy ones are the Posts that let you off the hook early by telling you that you haven't made their short list. Then, much like at a high school prom, you begin the process of trying to figure out where you stand with the ones that are left. When I was in high school we sent our ambassadors out to find out if one girl or another would actually consider dancing with us before summoning up the nerve to go and ask her. In the Foreign Service we use phone calls, but it's the same concept.

I began calling Posts and Bureaus and soon learned which jobs were, in fact, positions that I would be competitive for and which weren't. In this phase of lobbying, both bidder and Post/Bureau try to determine where they rank on each others list. And, just like in high school, you don't want to be the guy who tells all the girls/Posts he loves them. Only one Post can be your top choice, it's a fact. At some point in the process you have to make that decision and then you let that Post know. Then, if all the stars are properly aligned and the gods smile down upon you, the Post let's you know that you are their top choice too. Then, my friend, you have just received an 'air kiss' otherwise known as a 'wink-wink, nudge-nudge, say no more' (the Foreign Service is eternally in Monty Python's debt).

Nothing is official yet, so you continue to lobby for other jobs but with the understanding that, should your top choice change, you will immediately let the first Post know and they will do the same for you. Closer to the handshake deadline, commitments become much firmer and Posts might actually tell you that they intend to offer you a handshake and they want to know if you're going to accept it. This is a 'hug'. Hugs really do make you feel warm and fuzzy, they're nice. Still, a hug is not an official offer either and all that those who have received them can say is, "A Post seems to be interested in me now but I'd better wait until handshakes are given before I say any more."

There are a couple of Posts that seem to be interested in me now. I am in a fortunate position because I don't have any strong preferences about where I live. I am much more interested in landing a job as a Management Officer than I am in trying to go to or avoid any particular country. There are one or two places in the world that most people do not want to go to, so I have a pretty good shot at a couple of those countries. One of them is so remote that Telecom Italia doesn't seem to be aware it even exists and doesn't have its country code in the system. Making that call was an interesting experience. I am, apparently, the first person ever to attempt to call from here to there.

If I don't get a handshake on one of the remaining positions on my list, I'll be asked to re-bid from what's left or I'll just be assigned somewhere, so I'm taking my air-kiss very seriously. 


Reservoir Dogs?

This photo was taken at Marica's wedding by one of her guests and she sent it to me with a note that said that it reminded her of that movie, "Pond Dogs". Before anyone begins to mistake the characters in the photo for Quentin Tarantino type tough guys, the guy on the left got lost in a tunnel on his way home from the reception. Admittedly, it isn't all that common for people to get lost in tunnels, but I managed to do it. I blame my GPS.

There is a tunnel in Rome, or rather on the outskirts of Rome, that leads, I am sure, to the River Styx and the gates of Hell. Virtually every tunnel I've ever driven through has been a pretty straightforward experience. You enter the tunnel, you drive a while, eventually you see the aptly named "light at the end of the tunnel" and you exit the tunnel. After leaving the wedding reception late in the evening, I followed my GPS's directions and drove into a tunnel I didn't remember driving through on my way to the reception. The tunnel was a long one and the road curved steadily to the left. Ten seconds after my GPS announced that it had lost satellite reception (because I was in a tunnel), I rounded a curve and saw that the road forked. Who puts options in a tunnel? And, if you're going to build in options, don't you think it would be polite to put up a sign or two? Whoever built this road didn't think it was necessary at all.

I randomly chose left and began an odyssey that lasted over half an hour because that wasn't the only fork in the road in the tunnel. None of the forks had signs and none of them led to an exit. It was about 2:00am and mine was the only car in the tunnel, so following someone else in the desperate hope that they knew how to get out of there wasn't a possibility. Eventually, after making a completely random series of rights and lefts, I wound up on a ramp leading out of the labyrinth and broke free into the dark night air. I was in a part of Rome that was totally unfamiliar to me. My GPS clicked back on and said, "Re-calculating. Make an immediate U-turn and drive 25 miles." Making a U-turn would have 'immediately' put me back into the tunnel so I opted to ignore the annoyingly insistent GPS, drove through the deserted streets of Rome for another hour before I saw a familiar road and finally got home. When I described my experience to my colleagues at work they said, "Oh yeah, well, when you go into that tunnel you just turn right, then left, then another left and then go straight a bit and make a hard right, then go past the sign that looks like it's warning you not to go that way but it isn't and you'll be fine." Simple when you know how.

If you peer through this window long enough, you can see the light at the end of the tunnel.

I'm being sent TDY to Naples next week for ten days. TDY stands for temporary duty and it means I'll be helping out at the Consulate there while one of their officers is away. I'll be doing much the same type of work I do in Rome and I'll get to experience life in Naples for a short while. It should be an interesting change of pace. I was up in Ravenna a couple of weeks ago with friends and saw their famous Byzantine mosaics (Ravenna's, not my friends'). Ravenna is also the burial place of Dante Alighieri or, more appropriately, the burial places of Dante Alighieri. He has a very ornate tomb with his name on it, an ivy covered mound with a sign stating that his bones were hidden beneath that dirt during the 40's and a crypt of some sort also claiming to have held some part of his mortal remains at some distant time in the past. Dead for over six hundred years and the man still has three places to sleep.

The perfectly perpendicular tower of Ravenna. 

I've spent some time relaxing on my 'terrace' lately. It's really the cage that OBO built to give me access to the fire escape, but I enjoy sitting there and smoking my cigar in the fresh air. The whole lobbying process seems somewhat inefficient to me but I'm not ready to begin suggesting improvements because I haven't really completed the whole process and I'm still learning some of the steps. Recently, due to a grave oversight on the part of the responsible authorities, I was given tenure and last Friday I was promoted. As I've always said, I'd rather be lucky than good! Now, if I can just get a handshake on that job in "wink-wink, nudge-nudge, say-no-more", I'll be the first to say that the prom was a success.

Monday, August 30, 2010

Two Weddings and a Baby

The bid list came out today and the smile simply means I don't really understand the process!


Bidding season is upon us.  It is the nature of the beast that every one, two or three years a Foreign Service Officer changes jobs and posts. Your first two assignments are 'directed', which means that you bid from a list of positions reserved for entry level officers. Your bids go to and are evaluated by a group of Career Development Officers who then assign you to one of the spots. Neither post nor the bureau really get too involved. Your first two jobs should set you up for tenure. By the end of your second tour you should be off language probation, have served as a Consular Officer for at least one year and have received at least two performance reviews or EERs. Then, with any luck at all, you are recommended for tenure and you bid mid-level positions for your third tour.

The 2010 Summer mid-level bid list came out on August 5th and there were 2,602 positions available to bid. Of these, 1,458 were overseas and the remainder were in Washington. Out of the 1,458 jobs overseas, 934 were at the 03 or 02 grades. Further narrowing down the list, there were 130 Management jobs among the 934 positions. Of these, only 30 were not language designated and 8 of those were 02s. You are required to enter at least six core bids. Your mandatory core bids must be "in cone/at grade". That means, in my case for example, that I have to enter at least six bids that are at the 03 grade and are in the Management cone. Out of 2,602 positions, 22 were potential core bids for me. The starting date for these core bids must be realistic with respect to the end of your current tour. If the position you are bidding requires a language course or any other training, you must factor that in. So, let's say your current job ends in August 2011 and you would like to bid on a job in Cambodia that begins in September 2011. If it's 'in cone/at grade' it would qualify as one of your six core bids. However, if it's language designated and you don't happen to speak fluent Cambodian and the full language course lasts for almost one year, then you can't realistically bid the job.

So, you sort and shuffle the bid list until you identify six positions that are 'in cone/at grade' and a) require a language in which you already have fluency, b) have a built in time frame for learning the new language or c) are not language designated. Fewer and fewer jobs are not language designated, but in the Management cone you can still find one or two. Once you've identified six core bids, you may select up to nine additional jobs to bid. These bids can be in cones other than your own and can be at a grade above yours, which is called a 'stretch'. If all this sounds confusing and time-consuming, it's only just begun.

I decided for many reasons, first among them being that I'm really really bad at it, to not learn another language. I'm fluent in Italian, unless someone who actually speaks Italian hears me, so I'm already off language probation and have checked that box. I've also decided, after a tour as a GSO, another as an Econ Officer and a third as a Consular Officer, that I want to return to the Management cone for my next assignment. It didn't take me very long to sort and shuffle the list to come up with my six core bids. Then I found nine other jobs that I am interested in. So, I now have fifteen positions on my bid list.

All fifteen are either GSO jobs at larger posts or Management Officer jobs at smaller posts. The locations range from 'right next door' Montenegro to 'other side of the world' Papua New Guinea. I've ranked the fifteen jobs in order of personal preference and, at the moment, Podgorica, Montenegro and Hanoi, Vietnam are tied for top choice. Ten of my fifteen are core bids and the other five are one-grade stretches. So, if I were bidding an entry level position, that would pretty much be it. I'd send my list in to my CDO with a well thought out justification for assigning me to my top choice and I'd sit back and wait a couple of weeks for the notification.

However, bidding mid-level is a pasta of a different flavor. The first difference is the timeframe. The bid list came out on August 5th but we don't have to submit our bids until October 12th. The posts we've bid will receive our formal bids on October 18th. No positions can be offered until November 1st. What, you are justified in asking, does one do between August 5th and October 12th? One lobbies. Lobbying is the major difference between entry and mid-level bidding.

You must do several things right away in order to be a viable candidate for any position you bid. Your resume and employee profile in Human Resources must be up to date. While you're doing that, you have to line up several potential references from people you've worked for, people you've worked with and people who have worked for you. Then you have to send 'Look at me, look at me' letters to the posts to let them know of your interest. On top of that, you have to send similar letters to the Bureaus at the State Dept. in Washington that are responsible for those posts. The posts and/or bureaus that are interested in your bid will then contact you and ask you to either give them the contact information for your references or to ask you to contact your references and have them send in their recommendations. This generates another round of emails between you and your references.

You must walk a fine line between showing sincere interest in a post and becoming a stalker. Posts want to know that you're interested in the position, but they don't want to be harassed by overeager applicants writing and calling them every other day. I've decided to send an initial letter of introduction and wait to see what happens. I am, however, fully prepared to go to phone calls, candygrams, and wired money transfers if it will help get me the job I want. There is no guarantee that I'll land any of the fifteen jobs on my list. If all those jobs go to other people, I have to replace them with a new set of bids from a markedly shorter list of 'leftover' positions.  If I can't land a position through lobbying, I will be assigned to any job anywhere including back at the State Department in Washington.

Since August 16th, when I sent out my first letters, I've sent and received over 140 bid related emails and there are still six weeks left before the bids close. Many of the responses I've received are basically form letters telling me where to send my references and how many to send, but the most personal response was from a post that let me know right away that I wasn't qualified. That crushing disappointment aside (by the way, when they described the job to me I agreed with them) I should know some time after November 1st where my guest room will be located come August 2011. My understanding of the process is that the dance becomes more intense as we get closer to the bidding deadline. Reference checks and telephone interviews will help posts make their final selections and job offers are given shortly after November 1st. A job offer with an acceptance is known as a 'handshake' and that's the goal.

Typical mid-level bidder prior to getting a handshake.

I still volunteer at the animal shelter on Sundays. It's located 31 kilometers north of my apartment and this morning I got stopped at a random check point by the police. They were checking documents and the insurance card in my glove box had expired a week ago. I explained that I had the new card on my table at home but forgot to put it in the car. They explained that it was against the law not to put it in the car. I explained that I am a diplomat and carry a card from the MFA that says I am not subject to arrest. They explained that I was still subject to a very hefty fine. They, of course, were, unfortunately, correct. While two of them went off to huddle and determine exactly how hefty the fine would be, I chatted with the third officer and mentioned that I was on my way to the animal shelter just up the road to spend the day cleaning kennels and feeding the dogs. Turns out that they knew of the kennel and like what we do there. I received a very polite warning, a request to put the new card in the car, no fine and a wave good-bye. Who knew that scooping dog poop would trump diplomatic immunity?

Someone tied a puppy to the gate yesterday so we have a new little guy to take care of. He's about four months old and is black with a white stripe on his back between his shoulders. He's built low to the ground, like a dachshund. Naming the dogs is a serious business so I suggested we call him Puzzola which means skunk in Italian. That didn't fly with my Italian co-volunteers so we ended up calling him Skunk which I have insisted is a very common name for really cute puppies.

Skunk, or as I like to think of him..Puzzola!

At the embassy, one of the women in the NIV section is getting married next Friday, another one is getting married in two weeks, a third is having a baby and the fourth is in the process of re-evaluating her current boyfriend with an eye towards upgrading. As you might imagine, we don't talk about baseball very much at work.  We adjudicate visa applications between discussions of wedding dresses (my position, when asked, is an unwavering "that looks nice"), wedding flowers ("those look nice"), wedding reception table decorations ("I like those, they are very nice"), baby clothes ("that's cute), baby names ("You don't hear the name Griselda much anymore. Old family name is it?"), and "He is taking me for granted!" (Uhhhhhh, huh. Hey did you see that the Yanks won last night?). The two weddings will be over by the middle of September, the baby will be born by the end of the year and the boyfriend will be voted off the show the next time he is "stupid", so I give him a week. The World Series won't be a big topic of conversation this year, but I have high hopes for the Super Bowl. Surprisingly, none of the women has the least bit of interest or sympathy when I start to whine about the bidding.

My car needed to have an oil change and friends at the embassy told me to go down to the Navy base in Naples to have it done because it is very expensive, at least 80 euros, in Rome. There is also the hassle of having to provide your own filter because none of the auto shops in Rome stock filters for 1995 Mustangs. So, I drove down to Naples on a Saturday morning and got my oil changed. The base is like an enormous Wal-Mart (are there any tiny Wal-Marts?) complete with movie theater, grocery store, food court and auto repair shop. They had the filter for my car in stock and changed the oil in about 30 minutes. The oil, filter and labor came to about $40, or close to what I'd pay in the States. The tolls down and back were around 30 euros. The gas, even with my discount ran close to 50 euros. You just don't get real good mileage in a 1995 Mustang with an old very fuel in-efficient engine. Then, the four tires they sold me on the spot rounded the whole package up to around $700. But, hey, at least I didn't pay 80 euros for an oil change in Rome.

Although I have some favorites on my bid list, I'll probably come running to the first post that gives me a come-hither look. Port Moresby ("very nice"), Nairobi ("it looks nice") or Reykjavik ("a nice place") are all in the running. All in all, it should be a very interesting couple of months and I have the phone number for those singing gorilla telegrams taped above my desk, just in case.


Tuesday, July 20, 2010

And Why Do You Want To Go To America?

Leaving the catacombs beneath Villa Taverna on my way to the Wine Tasting Event.

Italy is part of the visa waiver program which means that most Italians traveling to the US on vacation or brief business trips do not require a visa. However, there are several categories of visa for which even Italians must apply, such as student visas, religious worker visas, government official visas and my personal favorite, 'O' visas which have the annotation, "Person of Extraordinary Ability" printed right on them. I'd like one of those myself. Then there are third country nationals in Italy who require visas no matter what their reason is for travel. Our workload, therefore, on any given day is split roughly fifty-fifty between Italians requiring special categories of visa and third country nationals requiring visas of any type. My consular colleagues in the foreign service who work in some of the visa 'mills' (Mexico City, Manila or Mumbai for example) and interview 100 or more applicants each day would not be overly impressed by my workload. I typically interview between 25 and 30 applicants a day, four days each week. I process investor, government and diplomatic visas in the afternoons. On a particularly tough day I might refuse five visas. Like I say, folks who work in the trenches would consider this soft duty.

 It is, nonetheless, interesting duty and here's how it works in Rome. The Visa Chief, my immediate supervisor, determines how many reservation slots will be available on any given day. That number is passed along to a call center contracted to handle telephone inquiries and reservations. Visa applicants begin the process by going to the Rome visas website and filling in an online application form (DS-160). They then make a reservation with the call center for an appointment on a specific day. The call center charges their phone number 15 euros for that service. They are told how much the application for their category of visa will cost and they go to a local branch of the BNL bank, pay the fee and are given a receipt. The new fee is $140 for most visitor categories. That fee is non-refundable whether the application is approved or denied. Each family member must have a separate application form and pay the full fee.

On the appointed day, the applicants line up outside the consulate. They must have their passports, DS-160 forms, BNL receipts and any supporting documentation required for their category of visa. They may not have cell phones, other electronics, bags, backpacks, cartons, cases, or weapons. They may be on line for as long as two hours before they are passed through security into the NIV (Non-Immigrant Visa) Section. 

Once inside, they are met by one of our Italian staff members who will quickly check their documents and briefly explain the next few steps. She will then give them a number and ask them to wait until their number is called. Visa applicants are remarkably short on patience and will spend most of their 'waiting to be called' time wandering back to the staff member to ask if their number has been called yet. She remains calm and courteous at all times and resists the urge to slap them upside the head and say, "You have number 47, we have just called number 7. If you interrupt me again, I'm going to give you number 87!"

When their number is called, they go up to the first interview window where another Italian staff member enters all their information into our visa adjudication template. This staff member then takes their fingerprints and rechecks all of their documentation. When she's finished, she puts their application form with supporting documentation and payment receipt along with their passport into a bin and then directs them to the interview waiting area. She asks them to wait there until an officer calls them for an interview. I am one of those officers.

I pull the passport, DS-160 and receipt from the bin and call the applicant up for their interview. By the time they see me, they have experienced the frustrations of filling out a form online, dealing with a reservations system by phone, paying a fairly substantial amount of money to a bank clerk, standing in line outside the consulate for quite some time, passing through a rigorous security system, waiting to be checked in, waiting to be processed into the NIV system and then waiting again for their interview. I am behind bulletproof glass.

Our regulations state that all visa applicants are considered to be intending immigrants and that it is their responsibility to demonstrate to the satisfaction of the consular officer that they do not intend to immigrate to the US. They 'demonstrate' their intentions with their documentation and their interview. In short, they must convince us that they have greater reason to return to Italy than to remain in the US. Sadly, some intending immigrants are not entirely truthful when asked why they want to go to America. Rarely will a 20 year old Albanian hairdresser who has been in Italy for eight months and can barely pay her rent say anything but, "I've always wanted to spend two weeks at Disney World."

In Rome we have the luxury of time, which many of our colleagues at busier posts do not, to refuse visa applicants with apologies and explanations. I typically say, "I'm sorry but I cannot approve your application today because your ties to Italy are not strong enough at this time." I give them a pre-printed letter of explanation, sympathize with them for a moment and their interview is over. Fortunately, refusals are relatively rare in Rome and it's much more satisfying to approve visa applications than to deny them.

Although making the final decision on whether to approve or deny rests solely with the American consular officer, the entire adjudication process is most definitely a team exercise. We are most fortunate in Rome to have a terrific team of intelligent, hard working and very knowledgeable local staff. I didn't realize before starting in the consular section, how much teamwork is involved in this area. It's definitely a part of the job that has come as a very pleasant surprise.

I briefly checked one applicant's documentation for a visa to do some research in the US. Then I asked him a few questions about his work and when he claimed to be an astrophysicist on his way to MIT I cleverly asked, "Can you please explain dark matter to me in laymen's terms?" He stared at me for a minute and said, "If I could, I'd probably get a Nobel Prize." Enjoy your time in America, Sir.

The catacombs beneath Villa Taverna.



Most of our embassies have a CLO (Community Liaison Office) to help plan various social activities for us. Sightseeing trips, buses to the Commisary in Naples, special tours of Rome's museums and movies at Villa Taverna are all examples of the kinds of things the CLO puts together and offers to the embassy community. Once a year, the CLO holds an auction to raise money to support its budget. Various goods and services are donated and the auction takes place on a Saturday night in late Spring. It's a dress up affair with an open bar. The 'dress up' part isn't as important to the story as is the 'open bar' part.

I didn't attend the auction this year because I had a friend in town and we already had plans to do something else. On Monday, my friend Dave stopped by my office and said, "Didn't see you at the auction." I told him why I couldn't make it and he said, "Doesn't matter. By the way, you won the Wine Tasting Event." "Huh?" I replied.

He explained that he and our mutual friend Stacie had decided, after planning their strategy at the aforementioned 'open bar' for an hour or two before the bidding began, to outbid all comers for the Wine Tasting Event being donated by the Ambassador. Unfortunately, once the bidding  began, it became apparent that two different syndicates had been formed with exactly the same strategy in mind. Dave and Stacie, drinks in hand, never batted an eye and simply raised every bid by ten euros until they reached 1,000 euros. Here the syndicates both blinked and, sensing blood, Stacie jumped the bid to 1,200 euros. While the syndicates were both frantically calling their absent members on cellphones for approval to exceed previously agreed limits, the hammer fell three times and Dave and Stacie had just won the Wine Tasting Event. "Great," I said. "Count me in. How many of us are there?" He explained that, including me, there were already three of us. "But," he said, "this includes dinner too!" 400 euros to spit wine into a bucket and eat fingerfood was a deal I couldn't pass up.

 The wine tasting room in the catacombs beneath Villa Taverna.

Fortunately, by the night of the event we had gathered the maximum allowed ten participants. The Wine Tasting Event was held at the Ambassador's residence, Villa Taverna, in a wine cellar designed and built by his predecessor. To get to the small elegant wine tasting room, we walked through ancient Roman catacombs that were only discovered during the construction of the wine cellar. We were served four white wines and four red wines by a sommelier who had personally chosen them from Villa Taverna's 5,000 bottle collection. He explained what we might be experiencing with each vintage and asked us to tell him what we thought of each one. I thought that one eighty euro bottle of red was just fine, and said so.



After tasting the eight wines, we took a break up by the pool while the staff cleared the table for dinner.

Each of us was asked which of the eight wines we preferred to have during dinner and everyone was given his or her choice. "Gimme that 80 euro red," I said sophisticatedly. The food was every bit as good as the wine and I barely saved room for coffee and dessert. As we were departing late in the evening, the sommelier mentioned to us that we were the first people to use the wine tasting room. I'll be more than happy to join any future groups planning to take advantage of this opportunity and our bidding strategy will begin with an open bar.



CinqueTerre is a group of five small villages up on Italy's Ligurian Coast. They are connected to one another by a hiking trail, a railroad and a ferry, making it possible to move from one to the next in several different ways. The five towns have been designated a National Park by the Italian government and a 'must see' destination by most guidebooks. It shouldn't be a surprise, therefore, to learn that I was not completely alone in CinqueTerre. There couldn't have been more than 900,000 people, divided about equally into three main groups, wandering back and forth between the five villages while I was trying to enjoy the sights.

The town of Vernazza, seen from the hiking trail.

The first group was the American college students. A huge number of Americans attend college in Italy every year and most of them went to CinqueTerre the same weekend I chose to visit. They were, for the most part, clean cut and energetic. They moved up and down the hiking trail without apparent effort and spent their evenings in the many bars soaking up great quantities of beer, wine, grappa and limoncello. The second group was the Italian contingent. They seemed to travel in tour groups of thirty to fifty people invariably led by a loud woman with an umbrella or pennant held over her head. The majority of them appeared to be in their 30's and 40's. They positioned themselves on the train platforms to take advantage of their mass and charged the opening doors of the train with martial enthusiasm. The third group was the Germans. They were robust and hardy and never took the train or boat. They wore shorts and sturdy hiking boots with heavy socks. They all had backpacks, two lethal looking hiking poles and very determined expressions as they marched along the trail. They were all probably in their fifties and I always moved politely aside as they and their hiking poles came swinging by. I tried to represent a fourth group, the sophisticated, erudite man-of-the-world type of traveller but failed when I managed to get lost on a well-marked trail between two of the villages. Thankfully, a couple of German tourists pointed me in the right direction with their poles or I'd be wandering among the grapevines even still. So that's what this path with all the red and white signs is, it's the trail. Danke!

Corniglia is the only town without its own beach.

In search of a decent lunch in one of the picturesque little towns I made a fatal mistake and ate in a waterfront restaurant with menus printed in five languages. Chef Boyardee would have been ashamed of the spaghetti I was served and I can honestly claim it as the worst meal I've had in Italy. That night, however, I ate in a small place down an alley that had its menu written in Italian in chalk on a board and that meal of stuffed anchovies and calamari more than made up for lunch.


I stayed here in the first town in line, Riomaggiore.

The five towns are very special and well deserve their reputation for having some of the most beautiful scenery in Italy. A two-day pass for the hiking trail also allows you to hop on and off the train, but the boat requires a separate ticket. You'll come into intimate contact with hordes of strangers on either the boat or train. Success has probably spoiled CinqueTerre somewhat in the last few years but the scenery is still magnificent and well worth the visit.

However, just south of CinqueTerre, along the Bay of Poets, are three small towns that have not yet been overrun by tourists. San Terenzo, Lerici and Telaro are also very picturesque and beautiful and only seem to be visited by Italian families on vacation. The three small towns line the shores of the Bay of Poets (named for Percy Bysshe Shelley who seems to have drowned while boating right off shore from San Terenzo) and can be hiked from top to bottom in about an hour and a half. I had one of the very best meals I've eaten in Italy in San Terenzo and two of the most relaxing days. If you decide to go to CinqueTerre but can't get reservations in any of the hotels or BandB's, I'd recommend that you try San Terenzo or Lerici instead. However, if you're a poet I'd suggest you skip a sunset cruise on the bay.

Picturesque and quiet, San Terenzo!

I still want to get down to Puglia and see the towns of Otranto and Lecce. They're on the heel of the boot and are said to have some of the most beautiful sea views in Italy. Actually, I really need to explore the entire Italian coastline, down one side and up the other to be able to make an informed judgement. I only have a little more than a year to do it, so I'd better not waste too much time working!

I was walking home from work the other day when I saw an attractive young woman (a not uncommon sight on the streets of Rome) walking towards me arm-in-arm with her mother. When she was about five feet from me she stopped, pointed to me and said, "Ciao!" I said, "Hello?," but because it was pretty clear that I didn't know who she was she said, "You gave me a visa last week! Thank you soooo much!" Ooops, enjoy your stay at Disney World, miss, and avoid the restaurants with menus printed in five languages.

Wednesday, June 02, 2010

Rotating

On Sicily!

My tour in Rome is a rotational tour. That means it was designed so that I'd spend one year as an Economic Officer and the following year as a Vice Consul. On June 1st, therefore, I'll transition into my new area of responsibility and begin to work in the Non-Immigrant Visa section of the Consulate. For the next year, I'll be a Vice Consul, a title that always makes me think of a W. Somerset Maugham novel set in Southeast Asia with a grey-haired slightly unkempt man sitting on a shady veranda with a slow turning fan, wearing a white linen suit and sipping on a gin shandy while hoping to be recalled to the Home Office. Of course, that would have been a British Vice Consul but you get the idea.

In our Consular section in Rome, there are no shady verandas, no slow turning fans and only a smattering of white linen suits. No, here it's all business. And, it's a very detail oriented business at that. There are special computer programs to master along with laws, regulations and rules covering all of the many variables involved in issuing or denying someone a visa. It's a complex business and the Department of State, in recognition of that complexity, puts all Consular Officers through an extensive training course known as ConGen. Everyone takes ConGen because everyone is required to serve at least one Consular tour during his or her first two tours.

In ConGen you learn the nuts and bolts of the consular business. You learn about the many different types of visas that exist and the things people must prove in order to qualify for them. You learn about documentation and how to determine whether or not said documentation is honest and true or fraudulent. You learn all about the services that our Consular Officers offer to American citizens abroad and how to provide those services in a professional and caring manner. You learn how to mine the Consular Bureau's vast data banks for relevant information and how to operate some fairly detailed and specific computer programs. In addition to these subjects that are relatively factual and can be mastered by anyone with a good memory, you learn to interview visa applicants. Interviewing supplies an element of art to the science of visa adjudication and we are given several opportunities to practice during ConGen.

At the end of the six week course you are tested and if you don't achieve a score of 80% or higher, you are invited to repeat the course. The test gives you full access to all the reference materials and plenty of time to finish and it covers all 12,432 (I made that number up) of the details and facts presented during the ConGen course. With the facts from the course fresh in my mind and the reference materials close at hand, I managed to pass ConGen on the first go-round. Eighteen months ago!

On June 1st, I'll finally get to put all that hard earned knowledge to work and there is ever so slight a possibility that I might have forgotten a fact or two in the interim. Actually, I'm pretty sure I've forgotten 12,429 of them. From interviewing facts, I remember to "try to figure out if they're lying" and there was also something about "micro-expressions." I seem to remember that I can go to jail for trading visas for money, sex or favors and, although Hagen Daz wasn't specifically mentioned, I suppose it falls under the context of 'favors'. Everything else falls under the general heading of, "Stuff I've Forgotten." Right about now I wish I'd taken a few notes.

As I mentioned last time, EER season is upon us and while my colleagues struggled and sweated away on their reviews, I took a more leisurely approach because I am on a different schedule. Everyone else's review was due on May 25th, while mine was due either one year after I arrived at Post (August) or at the end of my tour in Econ (June) whichever came first. My start date in the Foreign Service missed the Spring Tenure Review Board by a few weeks so there was no urgency to complete my EER prior to June. This gave both me and my supervisors time to procrastinate. With very little effort, my June EER would be completed well in advance of the Fall Tenure Review Board. It was amusing to watch my colleagues wrestle with the intricacies of the new on-line system (ePerformance) recently introduced to 'simplify' the EER process and I drafted a few notes for my own when I had time but, mostly I just watched them do theirs.

Then, two days before I was scheduled to leave on a short vacation to Sicily, I received notice that I would be reviewed by the Summer Tenure Review Board and my EER had to be filed prior to my departure! Summer Tenure Review Board? I really didn't have too much time to reflect on why or how I managed to forget the season in between Spring and Fall because I had an EER to draft and shepherd through the somewhat daunting ePerformance process and only two days in which to do it. The sound of my colleagues' chuckling can still be heard echoing through the halls of Econ.

If you've ever seen any of the old silent films of the Keystone Kops, you'll be able to picture the scene in the Econ Section over those next two days as we drafted and revised and ran up and down the hall yelling, "OK. Push the button! Send it back to me! Push the button for crying out loud!" In ePerformance, only one person at a time can be actively working on the EER and you must keep sending it back and forth between rater, reviewer and yourself until it's done. My boss and his boss each put in a yeoman's effort. Exaggerations, embellishments and facts just this side of fabrications were drafted, polished and carved in stone,  and we sent it off to the HR review panel on Friday night. I left for Sicily on Saturday.

My plan was to take an overnight ferry from Naples to Palermo and then drive around the bottom of Sicily and then up the east coast. I wanted to take a hike up Mt. Etna and have a close-up look at that very active volcano. Then I'd try to get out to see Stromboli, Italy's most active volcano and, finally, I'd stop by Mt. Vesuvius on my drive back up to Rome.  Sort of a volcanic vacation.

In Naples I managed to avoid hitting any of the kamikaze motorino riders by closing my eyes and driving as fast as I could go. I used to think that they were crazy in Rome but now I know better. In Naples, pairs of young men ride around in circles in what I would describe as a Matador style of riding. They come as close as possible to four-wheeled vehicles without actually touching them. From the looks of a couple of their motorscooters, sometimes they get gored. Using a combination of my GPS and blind luck, I found the ferry before it left port and joined the line waiting to board.

The ferry was loaded in a very organized and efficient manner. I was directed to a particular spot and my car was carefully positioned to allow other vehicles to be placed alongside it. It took over an hour to complete the loading and I was really impressed by the level of expertise the loading crew demonstrated. In Palermo, to unload they simply opened the door! It was, "Gentlemen, start your engines! and, Palermo here we come!" 

I found a place to park and began to walk around the city. It was fun to watch Palermo wake up and to dodge the traffic. In Palermo, although not as homicidally crazy as Naples, the traffic always runs at full speed sort of like Formula One without caution flags. No one drives in Palermo with any semblance of caution or reserve and it's important to arrive first at each red light and be the first off the line when it turns green. This makes being a pedestrian much more of a participatory sport than I enjoy. I would hover on the curb, bobbing up and down watching the oncoming traffic, looking for a break in the flow or an indication that someone might slow down or even stop. I felt like some great flightless bird trying to time a run across an interstate.

Citizens of Palermo take a totally different approach, they simply saunter out into the street and amble across the road. Nonchalance is the watchword of the day and they neither hurry nor pay the slightest bit of attention to the drivers. In Naples, I'm quite certain this behavior would result in hundreds of incidences of pedestrian roadkill daily, but in Palermo it seems to work. I confess that I never quite got to the point where I could stroll out into the street and make it to the other side without breaking into a run as soon as I spotted an opening. The low point of my 'dodging the traffic in Palermo' experience came when a very senior lady dressed all in black and walking with a cane took my arm and kindly helped me across one particularly nasty five way intersection. I decided that I'd seen enough of Palermo's charms at that point and headed south to Erice.

I drove down this street in Erice!

This somewhat disturbing headstone has an airconditioning vent. I didn't want to ask.

Erice is a beautiful old village perched high up on a mountaintop overlooking the Egadi Islands on the west coast of Sicily. The streets are cobbled and, in some places, are precisely one inch wider than my side mirrors. It took me almost twenty minutes to negotiate one right angle turn on my way to the hotel. There were several restaurants and the food was excellent in the two I visited. My hotel was great and I left the next day with some vague feelings of regret to be going so soon. But, while Erice has charm, wonderful views and great food, it is lacking noticeably in volcanoes. So I headed east towards Mt. Etna.

The Valley of the Temples in Agrigento. 

This Greek temple is supposedly in better repair than any in Greece.

It is possible to drive from the west coast of Sicily to the east, with a stop in the Valley of the Temples in Agrigento, in one day. All the guidebooks will tell you that you must stay in either Siracusa or Taormina on the eastern seaboard of Sicily. I stayed in Catania. From there I drove down to Siracusa and up to Taormina and both cities are well worth visiting. I preferred Siracusa to Taormina because it's less of a resort town. Catania, on the other hand, lies in the shadow of Mt. Etna and that's what I'd come to see.

Mt. Etna is puffing out white smoke, but no lava today!

The hike up Mt. Etna was designated as "Easy", but I don't think it was even that difficult. It was a nice stroll on a well tended path on a very pleasant day. Etna's activity consists of periodic puffs of white smoke coming from a fissure on the side of the mountain near the summit. However, from time to time it does rear up and bury one town or another in molten lava, most recently in 1928. Catania was destroyed by a lava flow in 1669. I joined a group that hiked up the south side and then drove around the base and hiked up the north side. The views from the high points on both sides were excellent.

Next on my list was Stromboli. I drove up to Milazzo, parked my car in a lot and caught the hydrofoil out to Stromboli. The guy selling tickets for the boat said something about the wind, but I didn't really understand all of it. On Stromboli I checked into my hotel and jogged up to the meeting point for the group hike up the volcano. This hike was designated "Moderate-Difficult", but I don't think it was that easy at all. My first clue that this wasn't going to a Mt. Etna type climb was when the guide looked at me and said, "you'll have to sign this because we had a guy your age die from a heart attack last month." So I signed a disclaimer absolving them of all culpability if I a) succumbed to cardiac arrest or b) foolishly slipped into the molten lava at the top. Ha, I laugh in the face of molten lava!

The afternoon I arrived on Stromboli was absolutely beautiful.

Our group waiting for sunset and lava bombs!

We climbed straight up for approximately 741 (I made that number up) hours and arrived at the summit just before sunset. Below us was an open crater that spit 'lava bombs' into the air with an amazing crashing boom. The sun set and the wind picked up, maybe this was what the guy in Milazzo was talking about? We watched a few more explosions in the dark and the wind increased in intensity. The guide pulled us all together and said that we had to start back down. Apparently, the climb up was the "Moderate" part because the climb down would be done in total and complete darkness. Well, we did each have a headlamp that cast as much light as three or four highly excited lightening bugs so that made me feel better.

This picture of a lava bomb is somewhat out of focus due to the photographer running for his life!

We took a different route down, through an ash field. I can only describe the experience as like being on ice skates on a vertical beach of deep powdery sand. When we reached the town, we looked like coal miners after a double shift. The climb had started at 5:00pm and I fell into bed at the hotel just before midnight. I set the alarm for 5:30 because the hydrofoil would leave at 7:00am and I planned to drive from Milazzo straight up to Pompeii and Mt. Vesuvius that day.

Unfortunately, due to high winds, the hydrofoil was unable to come out to Stromboli the next day. Or the next day. Or the one after that. So that's what that guy was saying.....who knew?

It may interest you to learn that hydrofoils are 'grounded' in high winds. It did me.

All in all, it was a great spot to be stranded.

If I hadn't been in a four star hotel and there weren't a dozen excellent restaurants on the island and I didn't have my books and my cigars, I'd have felt exactly like Robinson Crusoe! As it was, I had the most relaxing three days I've had in years and on the fourth day the winds subsided and the hydrofoil appeared at the dock. I had to pound straight back to Rome and will have to leave Mt. Vesuvius for another day.

When I got back from leave, I started spending half my day in the Consular section as an orientation and the first person I interviewed was a student from Milazzo. "Have you ever been to Stromboli," I asked? "Yes," he said, "but the last time I got stuck there for a week because of the wind." I smoothed the lapels on my white linen suit and said, "Young man, your visa is approved!"

Monday, April 26, 2010

La Corsia della Vergogna

I was in Washington when my apartment was assigned to me and when I asked the Housing staff if it had a terrace they said, "no, well not really, well there is a sort of terrace but you don't have access to it and it is more like a small cage anyway. You won't want to go out there." The U.S. government owns four buildings in Rome: Villa Taverna, the official residence of the Ambassador, is an historic building in Villa Borghese and the largest single family home in Rome; Villa Pinciana, another historic building, is divided into luxurious apartments for the most senior officers in the embassy; and, two decidedly non-historic apartment buildings that have approximately thirty units between them. My apartment is in Building A. We also lease apartments and houses all over Rome for the large numbers of personnel at Embassy Rome but the U.S. government actually owns these four buildings.

When you are assigned to Rome, unless you are the Ambassador or one of the four senior staff members at the embassy, you have a choice of furnished or unfurnished housing. If you prefer, as I did, furnished housing, you will be assigned a unit in one of the two government owned apartment buildings. The advantage to living in government owned housing is that it's furnished, it's relatively secure and in decent condition and any necessary repairs are performed by the embassy maintenance crew. The biggest disadvantage is that it falls under the benevolent tyranny of the Overseas Buildings Operations unit or OBO. OBO is responsible for all construction projects on all government owned buildings overseas.

Before I moved into my building, OBO had decided that it definitely needed to have a very ugly fire escape added to the outside corner right by my two bedroom windows. I was told that they had originally wanted to add the external fire escape to Villa Pinciana but were told in no uncertain terms that adding a very ugly external structure to one of Rome's historic buildings occupied by very senior staff was not going to happen under any circumstances. So they had a perfectly good, albeit ugly, fire escape and no building to burden with it. The Italian government and the Ambassador made it perfectly clear that Villa Taverna was also completely out of the question and, as both Villa Taverna and Villa Pinciana are guarded by units of the Italian army, OBO soon looked towards our apartment buildings. Finding no Ambassador, no senior staff, and no uniformed men with machine guns to chase them away, OBO decided to hang the fire escape onto Building A.

The fire escape, a rectangular box of steel and wire mesh, was built onto the northeast corner of Building A. Because my apartment is on the first floor (which is one floor up from the Ground Floor in Italy) it didn't have a terrace. This was important because the other apartments above me all accessed the fire escape from their terraces and without a terrace my apartment wouldn't have access to this life saving construction project. So OBO built a terrace outside my bedroom window leading to the fire escape. For 'security' reasons, the entire terrace was enclosed in a steel mesh cage and a steel mesh door was installed at the end to prevent anyone who gained access to the fire escape from then gaining access to my terrace or apartment. When I arrived I was shown the terrace from the bedroom window and I understood that in the event of a fire, I would have to climb out the window and access the fire escape in that manner. That was fine with me.

The bedroom window OBO wanted to remove, with a view of the cage.

Then I received word that OBO had decided to put in a door leading out to the terrace. The first message I received said that they were going to install a door by removing one of my two living room windows. I pointed out that this would be a major construction project and I did happen to actually be living in the apartment now. They said they were sorry but they had to do the work anyway and described their plans to open a gaping hole in my apartment wall, install a door and then seal up the side gaps. In February. I then pointed out that after they removed a living room window and installed a door, the door would open out onto a twenty foot drop to the pavement below, as the terrace did not, in fact, extend as far as the living room. They said, "oh."

Time passed. OBO contacted me again to say that they really meant that they were going to remove the window in my bedroom and install the door in there and they were really serious this time, no kidding. Again, in February. I began the process of respectful and courteous dissent. I felt that to do a major construction project (did I mention, in February?) while I was living in the apartment constituted a major imposition. They disagreed and we tussled back and forth. Finally, we struck a compromise and the work crew arrived to begin removing the bedroom window and installing the door. In April. The embassy escort said that they were ready to begin taping up my bedroom closet because that was part of our agreement but she didn't quite understand why it was necessary.

"Because all my suits are in there and this project will create a great deal of dust. OBO has agreed to either tape up the closet or clean the suits, take your pick," I said.

"OK," she said, "but we're not going anywhere near your bedroom."

In fact, they were planning to punch through the wall in the dining room not through any of the windows and install the door in a corner of the apartment. I pointed out that if anyone had actually told me that instead of insisting that they were going to break through my bedroom window, I wouldn't have had any objections at all. We all laughed. They began work. I looked forward to having access to my terrace (hey, even though it's in a cage it's still sort of a terrace!).

Here is the outside of the bedroom window and, at the far end, the wall that eventually became a door.

The contractor completed the work more or less on time and did a fine job. I moved a table and a couple of chairs into the cage and enjoyed my first cigar on my new terrace. I mentally hung a couple of baskets of plants. I looked down the terrace towards the fire escape and noticed that the steel mesh door between my terrace and the fire escape didn't seem to have any kind of a handle. I walked down to the door, examined it and realized that it was locked, had no handle and couldn't be opened from my side without a key. I didn't have a key.

No problem. I asked the contractor for the key they'd been using. "I'm sorry," she said, "we're not allowed to give you the key. It's for security reasons."

Here's the very secure steel mesh door that prevents me from actually getting to the fire escape.


So there you have it. OBO spent a fortune designing and building a very ugly external fire escape on a relatively pleasant neighborhood apartment building, added a terrace to my apartment, broke through a wall and installed a very nice door to that terrace from my dining room and then trapped me like a rat in a steel cage. And people say the government doesn't have a sense of humor.

EER season is upon us once again. This is the time of year when we all stop working so we can very honestly and factually describe our achievements and all the work we have done during the previous year. I use 'honestly and factually' here in the sense that those words mean 'wildly exaggerated, unbelievably embellished figments of our depraved imaginations'. It is with your EER that you must convince a panel of complete strangers, at some appointed time in the future, that you are worthy of tenure and promotion. The Tenure and Promotion Panels have nothing other than your EERs to base their decisions on so we take them quite seriously and strain to shine a light on anything positive that we've done.

For example, my afternoon excursions in search of gelato will become "networked with local community small business leaders while improving Italian language skills." The day I hit the Carabinieri jeep on my way to work becomes "interacted with local law enforcement officials on ways and means of improving traffic safety." The forty-one demarches I've done in ten months now demonstrate conclusively that I've "single-handedly saved a failing Italian economy and strengthened our bi-lateral relationship." I know that it's not as impressive as when I "made Pakistan safe for Democracy", but Italy is already pretty safe for Democracy and the Promotion Panels like to see that you're developing new skills.

Three people have input into your EER. The Rater is your immediate supervisor and his/her section is vitally important to your career. Most Raters will look to you for bullet points and suggestions as they draft their section of your EER. The Reviewer is usually your Rater's supervisor and he/she gives your achievements an over-all blessing with one or two carefully chosen examples from your body of work. You are the third person to have input. Raters and Reviewers often have several subordinates to write up, so they are generally grateful for as much help as you want to give them in drafting their sections. In practical terms, if you're willing you can end up writing all three sections and your biggest challenge will be to identify a mandatory 'area for improvement'. You are discouraged from using, "Larry really has to learn to stop working so hard."

Hyperbole, exaggeration and embellishment are the norm. People are damned by faint praise and careers are enhanced by the use of carefully chosen examples to bolster key precepts. I hope to translate my volunteer activity at the dog shelter into "this officer took community outreach to new levels while bringing a sorely needed sense of organization to a small NGO. His tireless work on behalf of a local shelter demonstrated his clear understanding of information gathering and analysis and showcased his leadership skills by organizing the physical rehabilitation of the facility." Pretty much what I actually do is show up on Saturday or Sunday, clean kennels and feed the dogs. I fix the odd thing here and there and try to keep out of the other volunteers' way. I enjoy the time I spend there and will only include this 'accomplishment' on my EER because I'm desperate for things to write!

My tour in Rome is a 'Rotational' tour. That means that I'll spend my second year working in the Consular Section as Vice-Consul Gemmell. I'll rotate jobs on June 1st and will begin going over to Consular as often as I can from now on to get a refresher on the training I took over a year ago. I have thoroughly enjoyed working as a reporting officer in the Economic Section but I'm really looking forward to Consular work too. Rotational tours are a great opportunity to get as wide a field of experience as possible in a very short time. In my first three years I'll have done GSO, Econ and Consular. Now, if I can just find a Political/Public Diplomacy rotation for my third bid, I'll have the hat trick...all five cones in the first five years.

We tend to talk about people in other countries as being 'terrible' drivers. "Oh, Italians are terrible drivers," we say. I don't think that this is necessarily so. It's true that some Italian drivers are terrible drivers but so are some people from Connecticut. I think that people develop very specific sets of expectations when they learn to drive based on what they've been observing as they grew up. I'm amazed that things that would lead to serious road rage in the States don't even raise an eyebrow here. Zipping up the shoulder of the road to pass a line of slow moving traffic on the right and cutting back in at the front of the jam never causes one horn to beep, one finger to be raised in salute or one shouted challenge to the offender's birthright. No one seems to mind. An Italian waiting on a side street to make a left turn onto a road with heavy traffic will wait a minute or two then slowly begin to creep out into the lane causing the first few cars to swerve into the oncoming lane to avoid him (or her). Finally, he'll move so far out into the lane that traffic will have to stop and then he'll slowly begin nudging his way into the lane he needs. This practice doesn't seem to upset anyone either. After all, he did wait two or three minutes and how long can a man be expected to sit patiently while the world passes him by?

Most drivers here prefer to drive in the far left lane. They go as fast as they can and if they can get up onto the bumper of the car ahead of them and flash their lights to ask him to move over and let them by, their day is made. The center lane is used as a temporary holding lane until you can get back into the left lane and make someone else move over. The right lane is only used by trucks, grandmothers and foreigners. The Italians even have a name for it, they call it La Corsia della Vergogna or The Lane of Shame.

I'm strongly considering putting it into my EER that I've never voluntarily driven in La Corsia della Vergogna. It's all about attitude!


The Coliseum behind me is also gated and locked and they won't give me a key for it either.

Friday, March 19, 2010

Diplomacy at Work


She seems to be saying, "Play nice, children!" and could very well be the patron saint of diplomatic meetings.


As I thought it might interest some people to experience 'diplomacy' in action, I'll briefly describe some meetings I participated in over the past couple of days. The subject under discussion and the parties involved are not of particular interest so you can be assured that we were not bringing peace to the Middle East, ratcheting up sanctions on Iran or setting troop levels in Afghanistan. No, this was your everyday diplomatic negotiating session to agree to the wording on a memo, a non-binding memo that proposes to create a framework in which we can, mutually, proceed forward to discuss substantive projects.

Some background might be helpful. The Economics and Political sections of our embassies are called the Reporting sections. These two groups are responsible for facilitating the flow of information in their respective areas between Washington and the host country. Good reporting officers establish contacts in the host government and, over time, develop a rapport with them that enables the officers to provide Washington with high quality insightful information. This rapport also eases the flow of information from Washington back to the host country.

From time to time, as is their wont, our colleagues in Washington decide that it is critical that they personally give or receive the information. Unsurprisingly, the decision that their personal presence is required is made much more frequently when the host nation is Italy than when it is, for example, Mali. The immediate drawback to this plan of course, whether they are in Italy or Mali, is that they do not, personally, know anyone in the host government. So we are called upon to set up meetings for them with our carefully nurtured, highly valuable contacts. That's an expected and accepted part of our jobs and, frankly, we're happy to do it. Most of our visitors from Washington are very senior people and have attained a certain level of importance, some are even legends in their own minds.

Recently, a group of State Department folks in Washington realized that Spring had come to Rome at the very same time a memo needed to be discussed and flew over to, personally, do the discussing. Because one of the Italian government contacts they needed to meet with was mine, I would be included in any meeting he attended. There are several reasons for embassy personnel to be included in any meetings between host country officials and our Washington visitors. We generally brief our host government contacts on the expectations of the visitors, thereby giving them an opportunity to prepare for the meeting. We are also there to ensure that our visitors arrive on time and at the correct ministry and to introduce the two parties. One of the embassy members of our delegation will always serve as a notetaker during the meeting and will be responsible for writing a reporting cable immediately after it. If and when appropriate, we are there to add our own insight, ideas or opinions to the general fray. Finally, we are there to assess and evaluate the level of damage control required after our visitors have met with our contacts.

We try, whenever possible, to keep the numbers of participants on each side equal. Unfortunately, we are notorious for arriving with last minute unannounced additions to our team. This happened on the first of the two days of meetings I sat in on last week. Our Italian counterparts expected seven of us and ten of us arrived. The start of the meeting was, therefore, delayed while we waited for three Italian 'subject matter experts' who had, unavoidably, "been detained in a previous meeting" but were definitely supposed to participate in this one too.

When the three 'experts', one looking suspiciously like my contact's secretary, arrived, we began the Dance of the Table Positions. The two principals sit in the center facing each other and the rest of the delegation arranges itself in equal numbers on either side of them. There is a tendency, especially on the part of our visitors, to want to sit as close to the principal as possible and the subtle jostling and nudging is entertaining to watch. However, eventually the music stops and everyone has to sit down, with the victors on the principal's right and left hand and the lesser victors in descending order away from the seat of power. As a general rule, the embassy staff take the seats at the far ends and avoid the unseemly jockeying for position.

The meeting began with the usual pleasantries and then our team stated in several thousand well-chosen words what they hoped to accomplish over the next two days. Their team politely acknowledged what we hoped to accomplish and then carefully explained why that would be impossible to achieve. Undaunted, our team re-explained, using many of the same well-chosen words, what they felt was essential to accomplish during the course of the meetings. Unfazed, their team carefully explained the pitfalls inherent in overly ambitious expectations. Back and forth it went until an agreement was reached. It took the better part of an hour to reach an agreement on how the meeting would proceed!


"If they don't begin making progress, I'm throwing this water down on them!"

Once we got into the meat of the discussion, things really slowed down. Those in the center continued to beat horses long dead and those of us on the wings amused ourselves as best we could. The man sitting next to me, who had come from Washington, was playing a game on his BlackBerry and my contact, sitting across from me, was surreptitiously working on a Sudoku puzzle. I happened to see that he'd put a 7 where a 5 needed to go so I texted him and suggested that he might want to change the number. He read my message, frowned, changed the number to a 5 and then smiled and nodded his thanks my way. Diplomacy in action!

The meeting lasted two days, gave the folks from Washington an excuse to visit Rome, didn't destroy our bilateral relations with Italy and produced a non-binding memo that suggests a potential way to begin exploring possible areas of mutual interest. Both teams agreed that it was a highly successful encounter and promised each other that they'd have a follow-up meeting in the near future. It's Cherry Blossom time in Washington, so I think their team will find it necessary to visit us there.


This was the look on the face of the principal Italian negotiator when we said, "Yes, but..." for the twentieth time.


I bought an app for my ipod. It's a beginner's running program designed to take couch potatoes and turn them into 5K runners. In fact, it's called C25K, clever huh? The premise behind the program is that if you follow the instructions three days a week for nine weeks, you will be in shape to run 5 kilometers or 30 minutes at a stretch. You begin with a relatively easy routine of walking and jogging and progress from there to a steady 30 minute run. The ipod app just puts some bells and whistles onto the program. It tells you when to walk and when to jog and when you're halfway through so you can turn around and finish up back home in the end. You can listen to music while you walk/jog and the whole experience isn't much more strenuous than getting up out of the La-Z-Boy to fetch another beer. The concept is that exercise shouldn't be painful; if it doesn't hurt you, you're more likely to continue doing it.

There are actually several apps dedicated to the C25K program and I took my time before selecting the one I chose. It had many positive reviews by people who had used it and one of them said, "I'm a fat old man and I can run 5 kilometers now. This really works!" Well, I thought to myself, I too am a fat old man and I would like to be able to run 5 kilometers, so I bought the app. It is very important to commit the same three days a week for nine weeks, so I decided that Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday worked best for me and planned to begin the next Tuesday. Tuesday it rained.

I was quite certain that the originators of the C25K program never intended for me to run in the rain (although they were curiously silent on the point in their instructions) so I postponed getting started until a Tuesday when it wasn't raining. The following Tuesday I worked late and it was pretty dark when I got home. Surely, no one would expect a beginner to run in the dark, that's madness. I was impatient to get started but not foolhardy, so I decided to wait another week. On the third Tuesday I had prior dinner plans so I was forced to wait until the fourth Tuesday after I bought the app to get started.

Tuesday came, it wasn't raining and it was still quite light out. I started off and paid close attention to the commands to walk and jog and walk again. Halfway through the 30 minute program I was notified and I turned around and retraced my steps back home. I arrived home feeling very good and quite pleased with myself for completing the first day of my C25K. In fact, I was already looking forward to Thursday which would be the second day of my journey to running a 5K.

Wednesday morning I got out of bed and nearly fell on my face. The pain in my knees was intense and neither of my legs seemed to be under my direct control any more. I wobbled around for a minute or two and then ate a hearty breakfast of aspirin, Advil and Tylenol. By Thursday I could walk with a limp, but without groaning out loud, and couldn't even think of jogging without causing knifelike pains to shoot through my knees. Saturday wasn't much better and I've realized that I just might not be a 'runner', some of us aren't. I have also had time to reflect on the review that persuaded me that I could do this and I think that it should be mandatory for people to state exactly how fat and how old they are when they make these absurd claims.


"...and then I ran from here all the way over to there..."



Speaking of exercise, I have a compiled list of 26 of the most highly recommended gelaterias in Rome. I've downloaded an app for my ipod that has allowed me to map each of them and plot the shortest route there from my apartment. I can also enter my comments and evaluations in a very high tech manner. Every weekend, on whichever day I don't go to help out at the kennel, I will visit one of the 26. Although I will always order the largest size they have, personal restraint will keep me from having seconds. It's all about will power. Today I plan to visit Giovanni's over on Via Eleonora Duse. There's a light rain falling and it's getting dark out now, Via E. Duse is about a mile away, but a man can't let minor inconveniences interfere with a mission. Like they say, if it begins to hurt, I'll stop!


The Pantheon - built by a whole bunch of guys who also never did the C25K.