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.