So it is bidding season, and I am thankfully not a
participant. Even so, people are already inquiring about my job (stop it! I
have TWO YEARS left and you are going to have to pry me out of my office when
the time comes). And since Sunny over at Fabling has created, maybe without trying, an FS blogger meme, I figured I would play along and come up with ten things I love
and ten things I don’t love about Estonia.
Ten Things I Love:
My Job: This section is the perfect size. I am supervising an American and six local staff. We are a busy section, with an Ambassador who really gets Public Diplomacy. Were the section much larger, I would either not be running it (at least not yet) or I would not get to do any of the cool stuff. PAOs in really large section often have to do all the paperwork/budget stuff with no time for the engagement stuff. I get to do both.
The City: Tallinn is beautiful. The Old City is charming and the newer areas nicely developed. You can walk most anywhere in the city, especially if you live downtown. And there are tons of things to see and do and yummy restaurants to eat in.
My apartment: Which is downtown…see above. I love to walk my dog around the Old City (added bonus, the vendors leave you alone when you have a dog because they don’t assume you are tourist). Plus, I have beautiful views.
The Summer: The weather is gorgeous! The temps are a little cooler than I prefer…I find myself in a light jacket most days, especially in the shade. But compared with the 115 degree heat index I hear the East Coast is dealing with, I will add this under things I love.
The Light: The days will only start getting shorter from
here but boy do we have a ways to go! I woke up this morning at about 1 am and
it was still light outside. And the sun comes up at 4 am. You wouldn’t believe
how much energy you have!
The Language: Estonian is easily one of the hardest languages on the planet. It is also one of the most beautiful. It sounds like it was designed for singing and it might have been. I am glad I learned it.
The People: I heard a lot of nonsense before I got here about how Estonians are “cold.” They can be reserved when you first meet them, but I have found that they warm up quickly, especially if you have attempted their language. And I like too, that despite what I was told, people WILL speak to you in Estonian. They don’t “ALL speak English” (a lot do, but a fair number don’t). But even those who do will speak to you in Estonian if you speak Estonian to them. And another cool thing about Estonians...they have maintained their identity and language despite spending most of the last 800 YEARS being occupied. Pretty damned impressive.
The Countryside: Estonia is amazingly beautiful. Particularly in the summer, it is green and sparsely populated. And the air here is ranked as the world’s cleanest. So getting out into nature won’t leave you with an asthma attack!
The Culture: Many people have the profoundly mistaken notion that Estonian culture is a remnant of Soviet culture. Nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, Estonians are far more Nordic and European than they are Eastern and “former Soviet.” This is a fully developed democracy among a people who respect the rule of law. I love that they are orderly and punctual while still being incredibly smart and innovative.
The Interwebs: And speaking of smart and innovative, you
know they call it E-stonia, right? That they invented Skype? That by 2015 they
are slated to have broadband access to EVERY building and home IN THE COUNTRY,
at speeds faster than we have in the U.S.? That they can vote, pay taxes (in
five minutes…seriously), register their child’s name and a variety of other
government services, all online? Yeah, they are way ahead of us on this whole
internet thing…and I LOVE it!
Ten Things I Don’t Love (Because Hate is too strong a word)
The Winter: It is really frickin’ cold. Like take the coldest you have been and multiply it kind of cold. Like I now know where Celsius and Fahrenheit converge kind of cold (-40 if you are curious…we hit -25F this year).
The Dark: And when it is cold, it is also dark. The days get super short in the winter, and the daily change is noticeable. In winter, you lose about 6 minutes of light per day. The sun doesn’t rise before about 10 and sets by about 3. It is really dark. I never thought I would have said this, but the snow actually makes it better…at least it is a little lighter then.
The Ice: There is just nothing to like about ice unless it is in a glass chilling a tasty beverage in the heat of an east coast summer. I took a nice fall on cobblestones during my language immersion, and this past winter, while getting out of the embassy’s Tahoe, I hit a patch of ice and fell backwards, cracking my head against the vehicles step. It hurt…a lot. And I was one of the lucky ones. One person at the embassy broke his ankle.
The Way They Shovel the Sidewalks: Basically they remove the top coat of snow, otherwise known as the only thing that gives you any traction, from the layer of ice below. And see above for what I think of ice.
The Mosquitoes : Holy crap, they are like small birds! Swarms of small birds! I have spend a fair amount of time in the swamps of SC, where I ran across what I *thought* were big mosquitoes. But no, they were tiny by comparison. These are the biggest I have ever seen, and when they bite, they really HURT!
Drunk Tourists: Particularly in summer, there are lots of tourists in the Old City, and lot of them are drunk because alcohol is cheaper here than in some nearby places. I am only thankful that the most obnoxious drunk tourists tend not to be English speakers. And even the most obnoxious English speakers tend not to be Americans. I like it when we are not the most obnoxious tourists around!
The Sushi: Or lack thereof. There is sushi here, but not like at home. And really, sushi doesn’t need mayo. At all. Ever. The same goes for Mexican food (not the mayo part, the lack part).
Hmmm…out out of things I don’t like…and I could have kept going on the things I liked….I guess that is a pretty telling sign.
But don’t bid on my job…because if there are no bidders, they have to let me stay, right?
I'll admit I was surprised, albeit pleasantly so, when support came out of South Carolina for marriage equality. Of course, of all of our politicians there, Rep. Jim Clyburn was certainly the most likely to do it. Still, I was pleased when he did.
So I wrote him a letter, thanking him. Because I wasn't sure how much appreciation he would get from my fellow Sandlappers.
And I got a response.
Thank you very
much for your letter of appreciation regarding my support for marriage
equality. Like President Obama, my thinking on this issue has evolved over the
years, and I was proud to announce my support. I have fought for equal rights
under the law since my days as a college student protesting segregation, and I
am confident that we will continue to make progress toward achieving marriage
equality for all Americans.
Thank you again
for taking the time to write me. If I can ever be of any assistance to you or
your family, please do not hesitate to contact me.
It was so much easier to keep track of the new A-100s when I was at FSI. You'd walk in, and suddenly there would be a bazillion people in the cafeteria in suits. They would all have nicely printed name badges.
It is harder to remember when I am not around to see the new folks and to welcome them to the service in person.
So nearly a month late (y'all started May 21, right?), I want to welcome the latest class with a special shout out to the bloggers:
Another great video from a great boss. And it has a nice shout out to two Ambassadors who marched in Baltic Pride in Riga...that would be my boss, Ambassador Michael Polt, and U.S. Ambassador to Latvia Judy Garber. Yeah, I love my job!
I am honored to join you to celebrate the fundamental freedoms that all human
beings deserve – no matter who they are or whom they love. This month, and every
month, we proudly reaffirm our commitment to making sure that all human beings
are born free and equal in dignity and rights.
In the United States and around the world, progress is being made. The
tireless advocacy of generations is bending the arc of history. Barriers are
being torn down, discriminatory laws repealed, and millions are now able to live
more freely and participate in the future of their communities and
But there is still much more to be done. Gay, lesbian, bisexual, and
transgender men and women continue to be persecuted and attacked. They are
arrested, beaten, terrorized, and even executed.
United States Embassies and Missions throughout the world are working to
defend the rights of LGBT people of all races, religions, and nationalities as
part of our comprehensive human rights policy and as a priority of our foreign
policy. From Riga, where two U.S. Ambassadors and a Deputy Assistant Secretary
marched in solidarity with Baltic Pride; to Nassau, where the Embassy joined
together with civil society to screen a film about LGBT issues in Caribbean
societies; to Albania, where our Embassy is coordinating the first-ever regional
Pride conference for diplomats and activists to discuss human rights and shared
experiences. And through the Global Equality Fund that I launched last December,
we have strengthened our support for civil society and programs to protect and
promote human rights.
We will not rest until full and equal rights are a reality for everyone.
History proves that the march toward equality and justice will overcome barriers
of intolerance and discrimination. But it requires a concerted effort from all
of us. No matter how long the road ahead, I’m confident that we will travel it
Wherever you are celebrating this month, I wish you a happy Pride.
Okay, not exactly. But I was really pretty close, closer than a certain Vice Presidential candidate...
I was in Narva yesterday, Estonia's third largest city, which borders the Russian town of Ivangorod. The picture above is the castle in Ivangorod from the banks of the Narva River. Below is from a hill showing Estonia's Narva Castle on the left and Russia's Ivangorod Castle on the right. Obviously, I was still in Estonia.
We were in Narva for the Narva Soap Box Derby. The derby, now in its fifth year, is part of the Narva City Days and is something the embassy has sponsored each year. The event is great for many reasons, not the least of which is that it is just a lot of fun. But mainly, it is one of the few events in the country that really brings together ethnic Estonians and Russians in a very non-political way.
The race takes place down a hill right next to the Narva River....one wrong turn and you could end up in the river...and then in Russia!
Luckily, none of the cars ended up in Russia. One though, the Turbo Chicken, did wipe out pretty badly at the end. At least he got most original car for his trouble!
Of the other cars, I'd say my favotires were the Magic Carpet, and of course, the embassy's car, USA 1.
This was my first trip to Narva...I hope it won't be my last. It is an interesting town...almost entirely ethnically Russia and with a sad story. The town used to have a beautiful old city, smaller, but apparently more ornate than Tallinn's Old City. But it was bombed heavily in World War II, and very little survived. And unlike places in Poland, where the Old Cities were restored, Narva was not. So there are just small hints of its former glory. Like its Town Hall:
And Alexander Kirik, which was heavily bombed but not entirely destroyed. So it was restored.
After the derby, we went around and did a small bit of sight seeing...after all, how could you pass up Narva City Days. We saw dancers:
And some sort of running of the brides...this is just a small number of them...there were literally hundreds planning to run in their wedding dresses to win some kind of laptop.
And we ending the day with a hike up to the top of the tower at Narva Castle for some even better views of the castle in Russia.
Every had a moment when you hear the words coming out of your mouth and wished you could pull them back? And they just hang there in the air, taunting you with your inability to suck them back in?
You know you have.
I had that this week.
I was having a meeting with some of my staff. And we hear, coming from my APAO's office, a noise.
What is that, one of my staff asked.
I said, "Oh you know. It's that time of the month."
And I wanted those words back that instant. I turned five shades of maroon and my staff all scattered, kindly waiting until they were in the hall to fall out laughing (though not kind enough not to repeat the story multiple times...).
See what I meant was...
Every month, at the beginning of the month, we have to prepare our Value Added Tax receipts in order to get the tax back. At 20% here in Estonia, that is comes to a substantial amount. I usually get back a few hundred euros each month.
But getting the refund involves stapling dozens of receipts to a page, preferably no more than 4 per page, stamping each receipt with your name, entering all of the data into a spreadsheet with no more than 17 receipts per spreadsheet, and photocopying all of it.
It usually takes a few hours.
So that Bam! Bam!...was exactly what I thought it was...it was my APAO stapling her receipts.
Even if a place is awesome, there comes a time in your tour when it hits you. Usually they estimate it hits at about six months, although I had a boss who once told me he liked three year tours because for the first year, you are stupid, the second year, they are stupid, and the last year, everyone is just who they are.
It didn't wait six months to hit me in Jerusalem. It took about two.
And I expected it to hit me here.
But it hasn't...or hadn't. And still hasn't hit in the way I expected.
I love it here. I still love it here. I love everything about it.
It is summer...and it isn't summer.
And I am a southern girl.
I like heat. I want to be in short sleeves outside. Most days so far, the best I can manage is a short sleeve shirt with a light fleece.
So I am a little homesick. All my friends are headed to the beach, particularly my favorite beach (Folly Beach in SC). And it is 90 degrees there.
And barely 60 here.
I thought the winter would bother me...turns out, it is summer I really want.
I went to Latvia to participate, officially, in Baltic Pride.
Just saying that somehow still amazes me.
That someone like me, someone who was so bullied in high school, could become a diplomat fighting for LGBT rights, that is the stuff "It Gets Better" videos are made of.
I went down on Friday to speak at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. They hosted a seminar in conjunction with Pride that included speakers from the International Gay and Lesbian Alliance, as well as from various governmental agencies and NGOs. Plus, Deputy Assistant Secretary for Democracy, Rights and Labor Thomas Melia spoke. And then there was me.
I hadn't thought about my speech as being all that moving. I just talked about how my wife joined the Department and there had been no place at the table for me. How I subsequently joined the Department and then became President of GLIFAA (Gays and Lesbians in Foreign Affairs Agencies). How being out, open and pushing on doors, timed fortunately with the arrival of long-time LGBT ally Secretary Clinton, resulted in a lot of improvements for LGBT Foreign Service families.
But people said I made a difference. Several people were moved to tears. And several people said I had convinced them that being quietly gay, a sort of "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" if you will, was the wrong approach. That we have to let people know who we are so that they know someone they love is gay.
Then Saturday, we had the march...hundreds of brave activists from the Balts (including some of the folks from Eesti Gei Noored, or Estonian Gay Youth), Belarus, Russia, Ukraine and throughout Europe braved the rain and hail (yes, hail) and the counter demonstrators to fight for their rights.
You see, the last time Latvia had a march, there was violence. Eggs and feces were thrown at the marchers.
But this time, we had high-ranking U.S. officials IN the march, including my boss, Ambassador Polt, as well as U.S. Ambassador to Latvia Judy Garber and DAS Melia. And I think that the violence of the last march, and the negative international attention it attracted, was something the officials in Latvia were determined not to see repeated. So we had significant police presence, including riot police walking along with the U.S. delegation.
And so when eggs were thrown (they were, but no feces, thankfully...one person was hit, and another egg landed near my feet), they responded in seconds and arrested the perpetrators. I was impressed with their swift response. And the rest of the counter demonstrators, though offensive, were non-violent.
We ended the march with a rally at a local park (you can check out photos of the march and rally here, here and here, where we listened to a number of moving speeches and saw moving videos. I was particularly impressed with the video from the EU and European Commission...all these leaders, most of them straight, talking about how they were working to make things better. Ambassador Polt's speech was excellent as well...in fact, I made a nice video of it that I would love to show you...if I could find the right cord to download it! Ah, moving overseas...the surest way to lose something you need.
After the speeches, the crowd braved the pouring rain for a great concert by BETTY. I have videos of that too...but you get the idea.
I left the event feeling I had made a difference. That I had played a part in helping others stand up for their rights. Because while things are not perfect in the U.S., there are places where it is much worse.
And there are places like Latvia where activists feel their time has come.
This blog is intended to give anyone who is interested some insight into life in the Foreign Service. The views expressed here are my own and do not necessarily reflect those of the U.S. State Department. But hopefully, I won't say anything that will even make you wonder.