Friday, May 27, 2011

Arrivederci Roma

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.