Wednesday, June 02, 2010


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!"