I've been in Papua New Guinea since last October without access to residential internet and I didn't want to use the embassy internet to update this journal. I finally moved into my apartment on February 1st and should have access to residential internet very soon. It's a pretty amazing place and I'm looking forward to sharing some impressions and photos.
Sunday, September 18, 2011
These giant clamshells come from the Philippines but can also be found in the waters around PNG.
People said, "You're going to Pakistan!" "How exciting!" "How dangerous!" "What a fantastic experience it will be!" "You are so lucky!" And they were right. It was exciting, there was an element of danger and it was most definitely a fantastic experience!
People said, "You're going to Rome!" "How exciting!" "How wonderful!" "What a fantastic experience it will be!" "You are so lucky!" And, again, they were right. It was both exciting and wonderful. The two years I spent living and working in Rome were a truly fantastic experience!
People say, "You're going to Port Moresby, uh huh. Where is that exactly?" "Papua New Guinea!?" "Isn't that where one of the Rockefellers was eaten by cannibals?"
Let's be clear about one thing right away, while it's pretty certain that Michael Rockefeller was in fact eaten while in Papua New Guinea, the jury is still out on whether he was dined upon by his fellow man or consumed by a salt water crocodile. All the current research indicates that the cannibals down there haven't eaten anybody in ages. Headhunters are another story, but no one claims that Michael was a victim of those gentlemen and no evidence that he was has ever appeared in any of the souvenir markets hanging by its hair from a pole marked, "All Items Reduced For Fast Sale!!" However, a bit of headhunting does, apparently, still exist in the course of tribal warfare in the Highlands.
Papua New Guinea also has the distinction of being the last place that Amelia Earhart was seen alive, making it appear that flying off aimlessly into the uncharted South Pacific in a tiny two propeller aircraft was preferable to spending another minute on the island.
After people have googled Papua New Guinea, they come back to me and say, "Are you nuts?"
In fact, people now seek me out to give me what I have come to think of as 'The Bad News of the Day'. People outside the Foreign Service quickly become experts on the deplorable living conditions, the poverty and, more specifically, the high rate of violent crime on the island. "Do you know," they'll ask earnestly, "that Port Moresby is the worst capitol city in the world?" Again, in the interest of accuracy, Port Moresby was identified by the Economist magazine way back in 2005 as the 137th (with #1 being the very best) out of 140 capitol cities surveyed. It was clearly better than three other world capitols and, therefore, could hardly be considered the 'worst' as it didn't even qualify for the bronze medal. More current surveys rank Baku, Azerbaijan as the world's dirtiest capitol, Harare, Zimbabwe as the world's worst capitol to live in and on the 2011 list of the most dangerous capitol cities (with #1 being the most dangerous), Port Moresby ranks way down at 7th. There are neighborhoods in Washington DC that rank above 7th for crying out loud!!
People seem to feel it's their duty to seek me out to share their opinions with me. However, opinions are, indeed, very much like belly buttons; everybody has one and other peoples' are only of passing interest to me. I fully anticipate having a blast while I'm there.
My Foreign Service colleagues have the added benefit of being able to do 'research' (by which I mean that they listen to and/or create gossip, rumor and innuendo) regarding the embassy in Port Moresby. "Do you know," they'll ask earnestly, "that every single one of the Locally Employed Staff have quit to go work for Exxon?" (Our LEStaff are the backbone of our embassies and we could not function without them. To lose any of them is awful, to lose them all is an unthinkable disaster) Well, in fairness, not all of them have quit, we still have the ones that Exxon wouldn't hire! From the legions of people who have never been there, I have learned that the embassy staff are unmotivated, untrained and unwilling to work. Morale, they assure me with whispered sincerity, is low. "As you have never been there, how would you know that?" I ask. "I know a guy in Tokyo who has a buddy in Frankfurt who heard it from a friend in Jakarta and Jakarta is really close to Papua New Guinea." Ok then, as long as the information is that reliable I'll consider it. I have no idea what the situation is like at Embassy Port Moresby and I won't know until I get settled in down there. Part of me hopes that it isn't running with the efficiency of a Swiss watch because I'd much prefer to go into an embassy that needs some help and try to improve things than to go to one that is functioning perfectly and screw it up!
Whistling into this storm of negativity are the handful of folks who have actually served at our embassy in Port Moresby. To a man, or in several cases a woman, they are uniformly and enthusiastically positive about their time and experiences at the embassy and in the country. Some go so far as to call it the best tour of their careers.
Housing is somewhat of an issue in Port Moresby. About a year ago, right after I accepted a handshake for the job, I contacted post and asked them to reserve a specific house for me in our compound of six leased houses. I had the advantage of knowing someone who had just finished a two year tour there and she told me which house to request. "Make sure you get House #1," she said. We have six houses in the compound and three of them, including House #1, have balconies that face the sea. So I, dutifully, sent off my housing request to the Management Officer and GSO appealing to their sense of Management Brotherhood. I carefully mentioned that I have committed to three years at post and would really appreciate favorable housing. I must also confess to having a somewhat inflated sense of my own importance. After all, I would be the incoming Management Officer, a man of stature, a man of position and rank, and no longer a mere entry level officer. It felt pretty good to exercise my newfound power and I was already looking forward to that balcony with the sea view.
The utter audacity of my request apparently shocked the Management section into total silence because it wasn't until several months later, after the departure from post of the incumbent Management Officer, that I finally received a reply from the GSO. "Unfortunately," he said, "House #1 was going to be assigned to someone else. As were Houses numbered 2 through 6." Post, in fact, did not actually have a house for me, but they were looking. He felt certain that something would be found eventually and he would let me know as soon as that happened. In the meantime, I would just have to be patient. I can assure you that nothing brings your sense of self-importance back to reality quicker than having a guy who will report directly to you tell you that he'll find you a place to live when he has the time.
At post we have the six aforementioned houses, one apartment, a house for the DCM and, of course, the Ambassador's residence. We are adding several new American staff positions, a tandem (married officers who share a house) has left and been replaced by two single officers (who don't share a house) and we just don't have enough places leased to accommodate this influx of new officers. The housing market is ridiculously tight because Exxon has discovered an enormous bubble of natural gas in Papua New Guinea and is leasing up everything with four walls and a roof. In spite of that, the State Department reluctantly acknowledged that 'having a place to live' is required by the regulations and authorized the embassy to begin finding suitable housing for the additional officers.
This is a fairly straightforward procedure. Post locates suitable properties and after the Regional Security Officer (RSO) approves them for safety and security, post negotiates a lease. Finally, OBO (the overseer of all State property and leases overseas) must authorize the lease. The Housing section at the embassy found a building that is still under construction and reserved five apartments in it. As described to me, the apartments are two bedroom, two bath with balconies overlooking the Coral Sea. It's a new building right on the beach, with all the amenities, pool, gym, etc. and it'll be ready for occupancy in January or February. The RSO gave the building a thumbs up for safety and security and the leases were then sent off to OBO for signature.
OBO looked at the bottom line on the leases, gasped, clutched dramatically at its small flinty heart and told post to "sober up and go find cheaper apartments." Post carefully explained to OBO that any acceptable properties in this dangerous city were going to rent for a king's ransom or more thanks to Exxon's entry into the housing market. After a bit of back and forth, which may or may not have included inviting OBO to "come on down and find a damn place yourselves", the apartments were leased. Ironically, several of those apartments are reserved for the OBO personnel going to Port Moresby to direct the construction of the new embassy compound scheduled to break ground early next year. Much more importantly, however, one of those ridiculously expensive apartments is mine! I'm fully prepared to be quite happy there.
A good friend of mine sat in on the internal negotiations for the apartments (which were conducted in Washington between OBO, post and the bureau) and sought me out to ask if I'd heard about my new place. "Sure," I said, "it sounds great! Ocean view, brand new building, brand new furniture and appliances package, indoor parking, secure and located right next to the new embassy site. What's not to like?"
He just shook his head and said, "Yeah, but they're small, very small."
"How small can they be?" I asked. "They have two bedrooms and two baths!"
"Yes," he said, "But they are very small bedrooms. Japanese small!"
So, apparently, I'll be living in a brand new 'cozy' two bedroom apartment with a view of the Coral Sea sunsets! Go ahead, try and make me unhappy about that. Of course, I'll be staying in a hotel for the five months just prior to occupying my new place, but I can live with that. Room service can be a wonderful thing!
Speaking of apartments, the woman who owns the one I rent while I'm at FSI has thoughtfully provided it with a treadmill. The treadmill, a state-of-the-art Reebok gym-quality machine, sits in the corner of the living room just by the tv. This apartment is a 'cozy' one bedroom, one bath and the living room holds the couch, the dining table, the tv and the treadmill. Lying on the couch to watch tv puts the treadmill directly into my line of sight. I am fairly adept at ignoring subtle offense, however, the treadmill goes too far. It questions my resolve, it assumes an air of silent disapproval and rolls its nonexistent eyes at my natural inclination towards laziness and sloth. I'll be resting on the couch minding my own business, happily watching reruns of Hillbilly Handfishin' while the treadmill assumes an air of mute superiority right next to the tv. A lesser man would undoubtedly succumb to this constant badgering and even I have been tempted to find my sneakers, put them on and begin exercising once again. But, I will not be bullied into submission by an inanimate machine. Instead, I realized that by turning the couch slightly and placing the pillow on the opposite end I can now watch tv without seeing the treadmill at all. Finding a non-aggressive solution is a key to good diplomacy!
I was told by several of the people who have served there that I would definitely need a vehicle in Port Moresby so I bought a Toyota 4-Runner online from a used car salesman in Japan. It's a 1996 but looks brand new in the photos and has fewer than 50,000 miles on it. The used car salesman's explanation for this suspiciously low mileage was that "Japanese people just don't drive that much." I suppose they prefer spending all their time in their tiny little apartments. Quite a few Foreign Service Officers have used this company when they've transferred to countries that require vehicles with righthand steering. The car, including shipping and insurance, cost a few thousand dollars but I can recover the shipping and insurance fees when I get to post because State will pay to ship a vehicle to post whether it comes from Maine or Tokyo. Generally, since we import the vehicles duty free as diplomats, we can sell them easily when we leave post. We're prohibited from making a profit but we can almost always recover 100% of the original cost of the vehicle. So I wired my several thousand dollars to Japan and have just received a notice from the company that my Toyota will arrive in Port Moresby on October 18th. That'll be perfect. As a rule, we tend to purchase vehicles that are low profile and won't attract any particular attention. Gray, white or black and no-frills are the norm.
This is my low profile Toyota 4-Runner in electric blue with fog lights, sun roof and bull bar!!
There will, no doubt, be things that I won't be able to easily acquire in Port Moresby. Odds and ends that might serve to soften the hardships at this critical needs post. Papua New Guinea is not one of our more sought after posts. It is, officially, a "hard to fill" post and anyone committing to spend an additional year there automatically earns a further 15% differential. The money is nice, make no mistake, but life must also be lived there during those three years so I just sent off my air freight shipment (UAB) packed to the gunnels with the necessities. Four boxes of cigars, a new iMac computer, a shower head to be installed in my bathroom that simulates an Amazon rain forest downpour, a full set of professional quality poker chips, a carton of sealed playing cards, three new bathing suits, a pair of flip flops and 20 pounds of Skippy creamy peanut butter. Bring on those hardships, I'm ready!
I only have two weeks left in Washington and then I head out. I'll fly non-stop from here to Tokyo and lay over there for about six hours. Then I'll catch the non-stop flight on Air Niugini down to Port Moresby. State travel regulations give me the option of either using the Business Class lounge at the lay over point or breaking my journey and staying in a hotel. I prefer to just get there once I start going, so I'm opting for the lounge in Tokyo. Door to door, the trip will take about 30 hours and I'll arrive at approximately 4:30 am on a Sunday. Regulations also allow me to take the next workday off to recover but, unless I'm flat out of it, I'm pretty eager to see where I'll be working for the next three years so I plan to go in on that Monday.
With creative decorating and the strategic use of some mirrors, this apartment will look huge!!
Friday, May 27, 2011
Piazza San Marco - Venice
I ran the 5K Komen Race for the Cure on Sunday. The Race is an annual fund-raising event in Rome to benefit breast cancer research and it is a point of pride for the U.S. Embassy to field the biggest team of runners each year. There were almost 500 of us this year and several of us were very nearly competitive. In spite of that, all of us participated and enjoyed a great day. I have to admit that a lot of my motivation and desire to excel in the race took a hit when the first runner to cross the finish line (technically, I suppose, the 'winner') did so before I was able to cross the starting line. There were thousands of people in this race and as a fund raiser it was a huge success. For someone who had trained for the event by running tens of yards on a treadmill and visualizing himself, arms in the air, chest thrust forward, breaking the tape at the finish line, it was a bit frustrating like forcing a racehorse to pull a plow! However, after much shuffling forward with the masses, I managed to break free of the pack for ten or fifteen feet and sprinted up to the back of the group just ahead of me. Another small impediment to my competitiveness was my four year old running buddy, Claudio. Claudio is my friend Silvia's son and I ran with him today. I'm proud to say that I could easily have lapped him if I wasn't responsible for holding his hand! By the end of the day, of course, I was sitting on a curb weeping in pain and he was running in circles around me. My own modest estimate is that I finished in the top 100,000.
Since the day I arrived in Italy, the departure clock has been ticking and the list of 'places to see' and 'things to do' doesn't seem to have gotten any shorter. On the Saturday night before Easter Sunday, a friend and I decided to fly up to Venice for Easter and return on Monday. It might actually have been a good idea or it might have been the bottle of Prosecco, we'll never know. At any rate, bright and very very early Easter Sunday morning we were in a limo headed for Fiumicino with EasyJet tickets to Venice clutched in our hands. Although we didn't have a hotel room, we weren't worried because every human being in Italy was in Rome to see Pope John Paul II beatified. Every human being in Italy that is except for the 400,000 extra visitors to Venice this year. The crowds were overwhelming, the sidewalks and bridges were jammed to capacity and the hotels were booked solid. With a bit of luck we managed to find a room in the very upscale Hotel Danieli on the Grand Canal just a bridge or two down from Piazza San Marco. The room wouldn't be available until later in the day so we went out to see Venice with the crowds.
I decided to buy a couple of the famous Venetian Carnival masks as souvenirs to take down to Port Moresby with me. I checked them out in various stores and stands but didn't see any that looked just right to me. Finally, as I was walking aimlessly down a wide street, I spotted two masks in the window of a small shop that seemed perfect. They were the classical theater masks, one with a smiling face and the other with a frowning face. They were painted in brilliant reds and golds and had fools brocades with bells all around them. I knew that they would be more costly than the 25 to 30 euro masks I'd been seeing but they were much nicer and I was prepared to spend a bit more. I wasn't really prepared for the 250 euro price tag, but a chair and a cool glass of water soon revived me and I got down to haggling. The shop owner explained that the masks I'd been seeing in the souvenir stands were made in China out of plastic but the masks I wanted were authentic Venetian masks made of paper mache, painted with gold leaf and crowned with real Italian brocade. "Go and look," she said, "you'll see the difference. Then come back and we'll talk." Damn if she wasn't right. I think the masks will look really good on a wall in Port Moresby and I'm perfectly willing to talk to you about that bridge you have for sale in Brooklyn!
The mask on the right reflects my expression upon learning how much the shop owner wanted for them!
We enjoyed a great dinner in a small osteria, a coffee at Cafe Florian and a stroll around town that night. We took a water taxi back to the airport in the early morning on Monday and flew back to Rome. All in all we were gone for 23 hours! When we added it all up, between us, counting all transportation, food, drinks, lodging and souvenirs, we spent approximately 3,000 euros. It was as nice a way to see Venice as I could imagine and, based on the availability of Prosecco, I plan to do it again some day.
A good friend of mine owns a really nice wine bar in Assisi. She is a certified sommelier and her place is stocked with an excellent selection of regional and national wines. It's cozy and comfortable and located right in the center of town. It's called Bibenda and it's a great place to sit and relax with a glass of wine while you're visiting Assisi. My own personal level of wine expertise allows me to confidently differentiate between red and white wine and I can tell if it has or does not have bubbles. Beyond that, I rely on my friend to educate me in the nuances of flavor, color and aroma. As part of my ongoing education in wine appreciation, I accompanied her to a gathering of wine folk at the Hilton Hotel in Rome. I believe I was the only person in the room who didn't a) own a winery b) own a vineyard or c) have a master sommelier's certification. We tasted 24 very special Italian wines and listened to an expert describe each one in great detail. Way too late in the process I learned that the plastic bucket alongside my wine glasses was so I could take a small sip of the wine and then pour out the remainder of the glass. I have a vague recollection of trying to make plans to go to Venice again, but that might just be my imagination.
As one of the guests of honor, my friend had places reserved for her and her guests right up in the front of the room. We were each given a small booklet that listed the 24 wines we'd be tasting that night. The others took copious notes based on the expert's opinions, then tasted the wines and modified their notes according to their own taste preferences. I put a little star next to the one I liked best and I was quite proud of the fact that I was still able to make a little star after tasting 24 wines!
These three were red wines!
When all is said and done my car will be shipped back to Maine, I will also have one air freight shipment to Maine, one surface shipment to storage and then on to Port Moresby when I move there in the Fall, one shipment to storage that will remain there until I finish up in Port Moresby and one air freight shipment from Washington DC to Port Moresby in the Fall. Now much of my time is spent trying to figure out what I'll need where and when I'll need it. The movers are coming on June 6th and 7th to pack me out and I'll need to be organized by then. It's a grueling experience that will require me to point at various belongings and state where I want them sent. Actually, upon reflection, it's not so much grueling as it is effortless and hassle-free. Over the years I've moved in every conceivable manner, from having a couple of friends help me put everything into a VW bus and then carry it all up four flights of a New York walk-up to sitting with a cool drink while others did the packing, hoisting and heaving and I can state without fear of contradiction that the later is by far the easier way to do it.
On June 6th a crew from the appointed moving company will arrive at my apartment and begin to wrap, cushion and pack my belongings. I'll be in the way most of the time in a purely supervisory capacity. It shouldn't take them too long to get me packed up and then on the 7th they'll return and load my stuff onto the truck and start it on its way. My sole responsibility will be to determine what goes where. You'd think I'd be right on top of that and, of course, you'd be wrong. I'm still wandering around my house pointing at stuff and not having a clue where it would best spend the next three years. Final decisions, in my case, are usually made by the packers as they randomly put stuff in pre-addressed boxes. Of course, this method of decision making results in increased levels of anticipation when I arrive in Port Moresby. It also absolves me of responsibility when things I desperately need, such as bedding and silverware, are in storage in ELSO and my five dollar custom-made wheelbarrow from Islamabad is first off the truck in Papua New Guinea. "What were those crazy packers thinking?" I can fume in righteous indignation.
When I packed out of Islamabad, most of my things went into ELSO until I arrived in Rome and then were sent to me here. Imagine my delight when I unwrapped my kitchen garbage pail complete with its Islamabad kitchen garbage! Fond, albeit mummified, reminders of meals past. In Rome, all my garbage containers will be emptied before the packers arrive. It's the least I can do.
So, on June 10th I'll leave Rome and head for Maine where I'll assume my customary position on the porch of the beach house. There I'll smoke the occasional cigar and begin to think about my upcoming job in Port Moresby. The beach in front of the house is absolutely perfect for walking. It's a three mile round trip from end to end at low tide and the sand is hard packed and gives the working class families from Boston a firm enough surface for their bocci games. So I'll walk the beach and think about the Financial Management course that I'll begin at FSI in July and the work ahead of me in Port Moresby as post goes onto the ICASS cost allocation system and also begins work on the New Embassy Compound. In addition to these two fairly complex and interesting projects, there will be all the usual day-to-day responsibilities of the Management section to oversee.
The Management section provides all the support functions for the Embassy. Housing, maintenance, logistics, human resources, finance, travel, transportation, shipping, IT, health services, language training and so on all fall under the auspices of the Management section. I find it to be, personally, the most satisfying place to work in an embassy, no two days are ever the same and the challenges test your abilities daily. While I'm sitting up at the beach in Maine, I'll be reading up on the State Department guidance for building a new embassy and the requirements for converting to ICASS. I'll be thinking about undertaking the financial responsibilities for post and all the million details that that will require. But mostly I'll be doing what we all do between posts, I'll be preparing to complain about my housing assignment.
There is a famous piece of sculpture in Rome known as the mouth of truth. It's supposed to bite your hand off if you tell a lie. I wasn't willing to risk it so I put my hand in the 'mouth of small fibs' instead!
One very important function that Management serves at post is to help new arrivals settle in and then to assist departing employees with their outbound move. Once we receive our TMFOUR (our orders), we can have our tickets issued. However, prior to actually taking possession of those tickets we have a check-out list of things to do and signatures to acquire. All of our ID cards, ration cards, CAC cards, MFA cards, parking permits and security badges must be accounted for and turned in to the proper offices. Our commissary account must be settled up and closed. All our telephone and two-way radio equipment must be returned and all bills paid in full. Our health unit folder must be picked up and hand carried to our next post. We must schedule and receive an outgoing briefing from the RSO. Our State Dept. computer account must be transferred to our onward assignment. Our apartments must be inventoried and inspected and any damages must be paid for in full. Our home internet and cable bills must be settled and our accounts terminated with those companies. Our local bank accounts must be closed. We have to appoint a sponsor who will assume responsibility for covering any unpaid bills after our departure. We must complete our final EER and ensure that any EERs that we are required to do for others are completed. The check-out list is extensive and only when it is completed and signed off by each of the various sections, can we be given our tickets.
The Management section in Rome has done an excellent job of organizing out briefing seminars to help guide us through the details of our departures. They have produced a guidebook and a series of checklists and sent individualized countdown spreadsheets to each of us that sit on our computer desktops and can be accessed every day. The guidebook even has a detailed list of suggestions on what to pack in your air freight shipment, what you'll need on home leave, what might go to storage, etc. I really hope that the packers have a copy and that they've studied it!! While the lists and guidebooks are helpful, if the Management section here was really interested in helping me they would simply assign someone to do it all for me.
Someone said, "Give me five reasons why you enjoy working in the NIV section." Okay.
I've completed my language training and can now muddle through simple conversations in butchered Italian. I've discontinued my volunteer work at the animal shelter and taken my final trip up to Bibenda in Assisi for my wine lessons. I've seen as much of Italy as I'm going to see on this trip and am already making plans to come back. My ride to Fiumicino Airport is scheduled for the morning of June 10th and my tickets are sitting in the HR safe waiting for my signed check-out sheet to be released. I'll spend this weekend seeing some friends and next weekend getting ready for the packers. I'll miss Italy and all my friends here, but I'll be back. In the meantime, I have one heck of an adventure ahead of me in Papua New Guinea. I just hope they give me a really nice house!
I'm quite certain that white ties are not required after Labor Day even in Port Moresby.
Sunday, February 06, 2011
After bidding and lobbying and hugs and handshakes and finally, at last, paneling, you would think that you'd be finished with the entire process and would be all set to move on to your next post. You would, of course, be wrong.
Now you have to negotiate your transfer details, aka your orders, from your present post, or losing post, to your future post, or gaining post. It begins with the actual timing of your move but it doesn't end there. Your itinerary, any required or desired training, the shipment of your UAB (Unaccompanied Air Baggage) and HHE (Household Effects), the shipment of your POV (Privately Owned Vehicle) and your Home Leave will all have to be determined. You begin the process by filling out a TMTWO form online and hitting the 'submit' button.
The TMTWO is the form you use to carefully craft your plan to cover all the details of your move and it's surprisingly interactive, coherent and easy to complete. When you have completed the form to your satisfaction, you hit 'submit' and it's automatically routed to all the parties who need to approve it: your supervisors, the HR sections at both posts, the Bureau assignment officer in charge of your move and HR in Washington DC. Then the games begin.
The losing post doesn't want you to leave until your replacement is physically pushing you out of your chair, while the gaining post wants you to arrive ten minutes after you've been paneled. In addition to the losing and gaining posts, you must also receive the Bureau's blessing on your transfer plans. So getting everyone to agree to the timing of your move seems a logical place to start.
In Rome I worked out a departure plan with the NIV Section Chief and our boss, the CG. Based on my arrival here in August 2009 I would be, theoretically, expected to depart from Rome in August 2011. My rotational tour had me working in the Econ Section for one year and then transitioning into Consular for my second year. However, because the officer I was replacing in Consular left post early, I was pulled into the NIV section in June instead of August. I was quite happy with this arrangement because I enjoy Consular work and this would give me an extra couple of months working with a great group of people.
I'll be the Management Officer in Port Moresby and the DCM there recommended that I take a course in Financial Management (FMO) at FSI before I report to post. The course is nine weeks long. I also have to take mandatory Home Leave after Rome. This is leave time we are given in addition to our regular annual leave. It must be taken in the US and is designed to ensure that Foreign Service Officers spend time in America between tours. I have over thirty-five days of Home Leave on the books.
So, sitting down with a calendar, an abacus and a slide rule, I worked out my itinerary. My proposed itinerary, or TMTWO, had me leaving Rome in June, taking most of my Home Leave before the FMO course, taking the course, then taking a final week of Home Leave in September to attend my son's wedding and finally heading down to PNG immediately after the wedding in the beginning of October, hungover but happy. The officer who will replace me in the Consular Section is already in Rome, working in the Econ Section. Therefore, leaving early isn't as much of a problem as it would otherwise be and so, Rome agreed to release me in mid-June, approximately two months early, based solely on my enrollment in the FMO course.
Upon discovering that I would be leaving Rome in June, PNG promptly asked me to forgo the training course and report to post immediately after Home Leave to cover the early departure of the incumbent Management Officer. Rome coughed discreetly into its hand and withdrew its approval for my early departure because I would no longer be attending a training program... and, I was back to square one. Now I would have to stay in Rome until August, not receive the Financial Management training, take my thirty-five days of Home Leave and still arrive in PNG in early October. Rome, it seemed, was willing to accommodate PNG when it came to training schedules but mere staffing shortages warrant no sympathy between posts.
In fairness, PNG is a very small post with fewer than a dozen American officers so gaps in staffing can have an exaggerated effect there. The current Management Officer was scheduled to depart in September but is, I would imagine, being pressured by his onward assignment to report there early. Once Bureau realized that I would either arrive in PNG in October with Financial Management training or I would arrive in October without it, they weighed in and re-set my original itinerary so that I'll arrive in PNG in October after my FMO training. The timing of your transfer will require some give and take all around.
Next on the list was negotiating with HR in Washington DC for the shipment of my car. State shipped my car to Rome for me and on my TMTWO I asked them to ship it back to the U.S. when my tour ends. It's a left-hand drive vehicle (as so many American cars tend to be) and PNG follows the British habit of driving on the left (or as we commonly think of it, the 'wrong') side of the road so I don't want to ship my old Mustang down there. I explained this in my TMTWO and stated that the government wouldn't incur any storage expenses in the U.S. because I'd put the car back in my garage.
I received a brief message from HR advising me that they "would not ship my POV back to the States simply so I could use it for Home Leave". Realizing that there had been a miscommunication somewhere along the line, I decided to call the HR tech and explain the situation a bit more clearly. Silver tongue'd devil that I am, I was certain that I could sort this out in a couple of minutes on the phone. After all, my car would require special permits in PNG, post recommends against shipping left-hand drive vehicles and I wouldn't feel comfortable driving a left-hand drive vehicle in a right-hand drive world anyway. Therefore, if it wasn't going to PNG, the only option left would be to send it back where it came from...to Maine.
I suppose that my biggest failing is that I lack imagination. HR correctly brought to my attention during our conversation that a third option does indeed exist as noted in 14FAM615, the rules and regulations that govern our moves. "If you don't want your POV to go to your next post, we will ship it to our storage facility in Brussels (ELSO) and hold it until your post after that and then, we'll ship it there". "But", I said, "PNG will be my last post because I have to retire at the end of that tour". "In that case", the HR tech replied, "we'll ship it from ELSO back to the States when you retire"!
Somehow, shipping my car to ELSO, storing it for three years and then shipping it to the States made more sense to HR than simply shipping it to the States when I leave Rome. Helpfully, my HR tech reminded me that I could, in fact, purchase a right-hand drive vehicle at my present post and a) ship my old car to ELSO, b) store it there for three years, then c) ship it home, and they would d) ship the new vehicle to PNG. Yep, it's all right there in 14FAM615! Fortunately for me, those same regulations allow me to ship my POV to "an alternate destination" using 'cost-contruct'. This means that I can choose to ship the car back to Maine and pay the difference between the cost of that routing and the cost of shipping it to PNG or shipping it to ELSO and storing it for three years. Under 'cost-construct', the least expensive option is to simply ship it home so, in the end, the car will go back to Maine and I won't have to pay anything out of pocket. I have to make these arrangements with our Transportation Dept. in Washington after my orders are cut. Why, you may well ask, can't that be put on my orders? Beats me.
I honestly believe that they still think that I'm trying to scam them into shipping my car home so I can use it for Home Leave and somewhere in the dark suspicious part of my psyche, I believe that if I weren't going to the U.S. between posts they would have shipped it home without batting an eye!
The remaining chips on the table are the pack-out and shipping of my personal stuff, some from Rome to the U.S. and then to PNG and some from Rome directly to PNG, an approved access to the storage facility in Hagerstown while I'm at FSI, my request to use one week of my Home Leave after the FMO course and the actual routing of my trip to PNG. This last point is important because, depending on the routing, the trip to PNG from the east coast of the U.S. can take up to 40 hours!! Why do I suspect that the only acceptable routing on my orders will require me to row in the economy section of a small boat from Hawaii to Guam?
In other good news, my Class One Medical clearance will need to be renewed prior to my departure for PNG. That means a full fluids, filters and working parts tune-up before I leave Rome. In anticipation of this medical examination, and in full recognition of the deleterious effects of nearly two years of Italian food and enough gelato to pave a hockey rink, I have re-loaded the C25K program on my iPod and begun to run again! I, of course, use 'run' in the figurative sense of the word. I actually amble, meander, saunter and stroll on a treadmill in the gym in my apartment building. Breaking into anything more than a trot makes it almost impossible to hold my cigar and turn the pages on my book.
I took a trip up to Siena a few weeks ago and managed to climb the bell tower! I was somewhat surprised and moderately disappointed when post refused to send a helicopter to bring me back down!
Here's the view going back down the 479 steps.
For Christmas my son, the soon-to-be chef, gave me a brownie pan and five boxes of brownie mix. The entire NIV section in Rome thanks him.
I have four months left in Rome (assuming my orders will finally be approved) and reservations for the guest room are now difficult to obtain as family and friends all jostle for a last visit to the Eternal City. I will stop volunteering at the dog shelter next week and I plan to spend my remaining weekends seeing as much of Italy as I can before I leave. I'm pretty sure that once HR discovers that I intend to use my POV to travel around the country, they'll insist on shipping it to the States immediately. Anyway, it sure will be nice to have it back in the States so I can use it while I'm on Home Leave!