Sunday, January 29, 2012

Decorating With Stories

Perhaps more so than in other professions, people in the Foreign Service tend to visit their co-workers houses when they are overseas.

As an example, when I was in DC, I visited one person's house in a total of four years. I've been here six months, and have already visited four. Plus the Marine House. And I will visit another next week.

There are two reasons for this.

First, you want to see what kind of housing they got. We get very limited input into our housing. You generally tell the housing board kind of what your needs are and they try to assign you to one from the housing pool that meets those needs. Whether you like your house or not, chances are good you will live there for your entire tour.

So with my house, I told them I wanted to be in the city. I wanted to be able to walk to work. And it had to allow pets.

I got all that. And aside from the fact that I hate my (lack of a real) kitchen, I love this place. And since I don't really cook, I can deal with it. Because everything else is great...underground parking, walking distance to the Old City and the Embassy and tons of cool places to see, restaurants, etc. Seriously love it. Even the quirky artsy glass wall has grown on me.

But you still want to see everyone else's place, to make a mental assessment of whether they got a better deal. (I'm four for four...all my colleagues have aspects of their housing that I like better than mine, but none is a total package that I would chose over mine. Big score!)

The other reason is to see where they have been.

One of the cool things about the homes of those of us in the Foreign Service is that the decorations tell a story. We all have the same drexel heritage boring furniture. So we make our houses into homes with the stuff we bring. And what you generally see in other folks' homes is a little from where they are from and a lot from where they have been.

M and I went to a friend's last night for pizza and cards. And to see all the stuff she got from her last tour. She has just tons of interesting nicnacs plus this cool coffee table that rises up so you can use it like a tv tray. Her house, like all of ours, is a record of where she has been.

Ours, for example, has lots of carpets from Azerbaijan. Plus some paintings we got there, including the famous (to us and our friends) cow painting. M and I walked into a gallery in Baku and basically didn't agree on anything. Except this one painting. She thought it was loaves of bread...and upside down.

I said, no honey, its cows.

After some debate, she agreed with me that is was cows...we both liked it for its whimsy. And the PAO there, who was also an artist, proclaimed that it was meant for us to have that painting. so we took it home. In the states, it hangs over our fireplace. You can see it in the picture below. Here, it gets a prominent place in the living room.

Like that painting, each thing has a story. The carpets remind us of shopping in the Old City, drinking tea with the merchants who were willing to let you take the carpet home and see if you liked it in your room before you bought it. The butcher block table with the Armenian tile-work inlay that I had custom made by the Armenian artists in Jerusalem brings up stories of walking that table through the Old City of Jerusalem, and of working with the tile maker to make it just perfect. There is a Palestinian tile tray my local staff in Jerusalem gave me, or the carpet we picked up on a vacation in Turkey with friends from America. Like these things, most everything that decorates our home has a story. And like our home, most everyone in the Foreign Service decorates with stories.

I got a new story to decorate with this week.

Our local guards each come with interesting stories of their own. One studied at the Moscow Conservatory and is a gifted musician. And another is an artist and Reiki master.

To look at him, you might just think he is an old grandpa who has been a guard his whole life. But this week, our CLO organized a showing of his work. He described his work with Reiki and how he uses the energy he sees and feels in his artwork, drawn in beautiful pastels.

And one piece particularly appealed to me. It was a smaller piece called "Ullatus" or "Surprise." The bright yellow orb surrounded by flowing purples and radiating pinks and blues just drew me in. The picture doesn't do it justice.

It currently sits in my office, and no doubt at my next post, will be one of the stories I decorate with.

Friday, January 27, 2012

And You Thought Gas Was Expensive Where You Are...

I'll start with saying I love USAA.

A friend of mine here went to purchase gasoline the other day.

She doesn't drive an extraordinarily large car. She filled it up, and used her US debit card to pay for it.

Now when I fill up my car, it usually costs about 50 euros. Or about $63.

Hers cost $ another four zeros.


And you were complaining about $3-4 a gallon?

The crazy part? Her bank let it go through. And didn't put a hold on her account.

That's just nuts!

USAA put a hold on my account for a weird looking charge of just under $3. And they were right, it was a "test charge" by someone who had stolen my number.

Which is why I love USAA!

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Welcome to the 165th!

I think it is the 165th anyway!

I have only found one blogger in the new A-100, so welcome to:

The Alavis Abroad.

And in the meantime, blogger is fighting with me on updating my blogroll. Not sure why. But I have stumbled upon a couple new (to me at least) blogs, and I want to post them here (at least until I can get my darned blogroll to update!)

They are:

Foreign Service IMS

Foreign Service Thurows

How The Heck Did We Get Here?

Kaitlinfso's blog


Ongoing Adventures

Welcome all!

You Know You're an FSO When...

Matt over at Just Another Fool For Christ cracked me up with You Know You're a Foreign Service Officer When....

I particularly like "You can’t watch an election campaign debate on foreign policy without throwing a shoe and/or yelling at the television set" and "You have household effects stored in Hagerstown but can’t for the life of you remember what any of them are."

Be sure to read the comments too.

Saturday, January 21, 2012

Fire and Ice

It is well known that the Estonians are not terribly religious people, unless you count maausk, or earth beliefs. They were among the last in Europe to adopt Christianity, and the presence of paganism after a fashion is still very real here.

This was pretty obvious at the Fire and Ice Festival tonight.

After Christmas, Estonians gather all the dead Christmas trees, and artists use them to construct huge sculptures. Then, they set the sculptures on fire in Toompea park against the backdrop of the frozen pond and snow covered park and the beating of drums.

The scuplture above is a dragon. Others were small buildings with rotating interiors or abstract pieces. You can see from the people near by that these were huge sculptures...they lit up the night sky.

Pretty awesome.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Second Verse, Same as the First

I found an interesting piece today thanks to Vermont Freedom to Marry. It had struck me how similar all of the arguments were against same-sex marriage to those made against interracial marriage in Loving v Virginia.

For those of you not familiar with the case, ultimately ruled on by the Supreme Court, Richard and Mildred Loving were an interracial couple married in D.C. and then arrested in Virginia in 1958 for being married and violating the "Racial Integrity Act." They were each sentenced to one year in prison, suspended if they moved out of the state. They did, but fought to get their criminal records cleared. There is a short piece in the UK's Daily Mail Online today showing some photos taken of the couple.

At any rate, 45 years ago, in my lifetime, interracial marriage was illegal in 16 states. But the Supreme Court overturned those laws in 1967 (some states, including South Carolina, kept them on the books until into the late 80s, early 90s...I actually got to vote to remove the ban from the SC constitution...shocking that it was still there, more shocking that nearly 30% voted AGAINST removing it).

Even when I got to vote on expunging this shame from my state's constitution, some of these same arguments were being trotted out. Which is why I find the arguments below so there anyone out there who still thinks interracial marriage is going to bring about the apocolypse (don't answer that), or is this just second verse, same as the first?

Same-sex marriage runs counter to God's plan:“If God had intended for same-sex couples to marry, he would have made Adam and Steve, not Adam and
Eve.” (Source: Vermont House and Senate Judiciary Committee Public Hearings, 1/25/00, 2/1/00)

Interracial marriage runs counter to God's plan:
“Almighty God created the races white, black, yellow, malay and red, and he placed them on separate continents. And but for the interference with his arrangement there would be no cause for such marriages. The fact that he separated the races shows that he did not intend for the races to mix.”(Source: Virginia trial judge upholding conviction of Mildred and Richard Loving for interracial marriage, quoted in Loving v. Virginia, 388 U.S. 1, 3(1967))

If we allow “gay marriage,” then the next thing you know we'll have brothers and sisters wanting to marry each other, or demands for legalization of polygamous marriages. (Source: Vermont House and Senate Judiciary Committee Public Hearings, 1/25/00, 2/1/00)

“[If interracial couples have a right to marry], all our marriage acts forbidding intermarriage between persons within certain degrees of consanguinity are void.” (Source: Perez v. Lippold, 198 P.2d at 40 (Shenk, J., dissenting, quoting from a prior court case))
“The underlying factors that constitute justification for laws against miscegenation closely parallel those which sustain the validity of prohibitions against incest and incestuous marriages.”(Source: Perez v. Lippold, 198 P.2d at 46 (Shenk, J., dissenting, quoting from a prior court case))
“[T]he State's prohibition of interracial marriage . . . stands on the same footing as the prohibition of polygamous marriage, or incestuous marriage, or the prescription of minimum ages at which people may marry, and the prevention of the marriage of people who are mentally incompetent.” (Source: Excerpted United States Supreme Court oral argument transcripts from Loving v. Virginia, from Peter Irons and Stephanie Guitton, eds., May it Please the Court (1993) at 282-283, quoting Virginia Assistant Attorney General R. D. McIlwaine, arguing for Virginia's ban on interracial marriage)

Gay people are free to marry just like anyone else, as long as they marry a member of the opposite sex. (Source: Vermont House and Senate Judiciary Committee Public Hearings, 1/25/00, 2/1/00)

Each [party seeking to marry a member of a different race] has the right and the privilege of marrying within his or her own group.” (Source: Perez v. Lippold, 198 P.2d at 46 (Shenk, J., dissenting, quoting from a prior court case))

Same-sex marriage would precipitate the breakdown of society.(Source: Vermont House and Senate Judiciary Committee Public Hearings, 1/25/00, 2/1/00)

Civilized society has the power of self-preservation, and, marriage being the foundation of such society, most of the states in which the Negro forms an element of any note have enacted laws inhibiting intermarriage between the white and black races.” (Source: Perez v. Lippold, 198 P.2d at 40 (Shenk, J., dissenting, quoting from a prior court case))

Allowing same-sex couples to marry would degrade “traditional” heterosexual marriages. (Source: Vermont House and Senate Judiciary Committee Public Hearings, 1/25/00, 2/1/00)

Allowing interracial marriages “necessarily involves the degradation” of conventional marriage, an institution that “deserves admiration rather than execration.” (Source: A U.S. representative from Georgia quoted in Eric Zorn, Chicago Tribune, May 19, 1996)

Same-sex marriages have adverse effects on the parties' children, and those children are apt to suffer stigma.(Source: Vermont House and Senate Judiciary Committee Public Hearings, 1/25/00, 2/1/00)

It is contended that interracial marriage has adverse effects not only upon the parties thereto but upon their progeny . . . and that the progeny of a marriage between a Negro and a Caucasian suffer not only the stigma of such inferiority but the fear of rejection by members of both races.”(Source: Perez v. Lippold, 198 P.2d at 26 and n.5 (summarizing the State's argument in favor of ban).

And this is just a sample. You can read the rest of the arguments here.

And one final thing to keep in mind, one argument they didn't mention. Those against marriage equality say the majority of the country opposes marriage equality (not true anymore, actually, the lastest polls show a slight majority favor marriage equality). In 1967, when the Supreme Court ruled that marriage was a civil right, that denying it denied due process, and that the distaste of the majority was not reason enough for the state to prohibit a marriage, more than 75 PERCENT of the country opposed interracial marriage.

And the Supreme Court did the right thing anyway.

My Inner Duck

The thing that scares me most about Estonia is the weather.

Specifically, the ice.

Snow is a pain, but so far, we haven't had so much of it for it to be unmanagable.

But the ice!

It doesn't help that folks here dutifully clear away all the snow (and traction) from the ice, but seldom put down salt. Then it warms up, melts, and refreezes into sheets several inches thick. You could seriously ice skate to work (hey, there's a thought!).

There was an article in the press the other day that said something like 1 of 3 people will fall on the ice, and the bumps, bruises, and broken bones end up costing the country a onsiderable amount in lost productivity, to say nothing of the medical bills.

I am in fear of being one of the casualties.

I took a nasty fall when I came here in March for my language immersion, but luckily, I landed on my most padded part. So the worst of the pain I suffered was emotional (because it is pretty embarrassing to end up on your back side...). But one of the folks here at the embassy this winter has already been less lucky. The result is a broken bone. I feel really badly for this person.

And I worry about being next. In more than four decades of life, I have never had a broken bone. I hesistate even as I type that, worrying I may jinx myself. I have had some really nasty strains, the result of which is that my ankles are not as sturdy as I would like. So I wear boots to work every day and am always on the lookout for boots for work that are warm, waterproof and offer ankle support while still looking work appropriate. Oh, and that will fit on my weirdly short calves. Not an easy find. I did find a pair the other day at Stockmann's, but they rubbed my heel when I wore them last night...maybe with thicker socks...

And in the meantime, I am just channelling my inner duck, waddling slowly across the ice.

Friday, January 13, 2012

What Was That Sound??

I was having a meeting in my office this week, when I heard this weird sound outside.

It sort of sounded like someone trying to start a motorcycle or leaf blower.

Both would be pointless this time of year. The leafblower, obviously, because there are no leaves. And the motorcycle...well, unless you like sliding to the ground.

The ice here is just treacherous.

Folks make a good faith effort to clean the sidewalks. The trouble is, we are having a mild winter. Okay, not mild by my winter standards, but really mild by Estonian ones.

What this means is that there has not been enough snow. It keeps getting warm and melting the snow, making icky slush (I have learned two new words - lörts (sleet or slush) and libe (slippery) - of neccessity), and then getting cold and refreezing said slush into a solid sheet of ice.

You can't walk on ice. And I suspect you can't really drive a motorcycle on it either (as a side note, I really like the metal-studded snow tires they require here. Every bit of extra traction you can get is a good thing!).

Which brings me back to the sound.

Every March or April, as spring arrives, people get injured, sometimes critically, by falling icicles and mounds of snow coming off the roofs as the weather warms and the snow melts. Usually, at least one person gets killed per year.

And that sound? That is this phenomenon happening NOW. Because of this weird weather, the snow accumulates on the roofs, melts, and slides off. So instead of having this danger IN THE spring, we could have it ALL WINTER and THROUGH the spring.

So okay, the Estonians are right. It probably needs to be colder and snowier.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Saturday, January 07, 2012

White Christmas

We are finally getting some snow in Tallinn, just in time for Orthodox Christmas today. So at least someone got a white Christmas!

Actually, I kind of like the snow so far. Not too much of it (maybe 3-5 inches) plus I don't have to drive anywhere at the moment. Of course, if it keeps snowing between now and say, April, like it did when I lived in Syracuse, I will be less jazzed about it. But for the moment, I'm enjoying how pretty it is.

My wife and I used the opportunity to walk over to the Old City and get some pictures of snow in the Old Town. I particularly wanted to get a picture of the Christmas market in the snow, since that ends this weekend.

Of course, all that snow is also kind of cold, so we stopped at a local place known for its hot chocolate. Specifically, its cup of hot chocolate that is basically a melted chocolate bar.

So tell me again why visiting me in the winter is so bad?

Friday, January 06, 2012

So It Wasn't Just Me

You know how I told you that I was having a different experience in Estonia that others said that were having?

How I was not finding it to be true that people all spoke English, or automatically switched to English, or refused to speak Estonia with you once you made a mistake?

I wondered and wondered why I was having a different experience.

Turns out, it isn't just me.

My wife makes a concerted effort to use her Estonian in public. She has only had four months of study, so not even as much as I had by my immersion trip.

And you know what happens?

People speak Estonian to her. And if she stuggles for a word, they give it to her.

In Estonian.

And then they keep talking to her.

In Estonian.

So it isn't just me.

It really is that people appreciate you making an effort. And that they will be nicer to you if you do.

I am still glad I learned the language. I am glad my wife is, that my APAO learned it and that my incoming APAO is learning it. I think it matters. Because we are diplomats. It isn't our job to make people to do things our way by force. Our job is to convince people to work with us, as partners. To explain the American message. To serve the best interests of America.

You can't do that if you come at people from a position of disrespect. Learning their language is a huge step in showing you appreciate and respect them. And it yields fruit, not just now, but in the long run.

Thursday, January 05, 2012

Maybe this proves you can have to much stuff

Well really, of course you can.

Anyone in the Foreign Service can tell you that.

But it shouldn't be your UAB that teaches you that lesson.

Let me back up. My wife's UAB arrived yesterday. Because I had already gotten my UAB and HHE, we were pretty well covered in terms of "needs," so her UAB contained her clothes plus some "wants."

One of the wants was our PS3. In preparation for that, I had attempted to plug a surge protector into the transformer. Although there was nothing plugged into the surge protector, it blew it and a fuse.

I assumed that it was because the surge protector was old.

You know what they say about assumptions...

But no worries. I knew I had a newer one in good shape in the UAB.

The GSO here is my friend...we spent a year together in language and that kind of close contact either makes you good friends or makes you despise each other. I was really lucky, given how small this post is. I really like both him and his wife (our consul).

So I felt really bad about having to call him after work hours.

I felt worse when I told him what happened, and he sighed deeply and said, "How big is the fire?"

There was no fire, fortunately. What I had done was attempt to plug the new empty surge protector into the transformer. It too blew the transformer and the fuse (clearly the issue is the transformer...just saying). My wife, before I could tell her not to and before I could unplug the transformer, reset the fuse.

And blew out the whole house.

Let me tell you, Tallinn in the winter is dark. An apartment in Tallinn in the winter with no power any time after say 3 pm is REALLY DARK. And this was well after 3 p.m. Well after work hours.

Neither of the breaker boxes in the apartment worked. Nor could I find the mysterious third breaker box for which I was given a key and the tag on the key says "ceiling breaker box." Yes, I looked at all my ceilings.

Finally, after some guidance from my friend (who I clearly owe lunch), I discovered a FOURTH breaker box in the hall outside the apartment and a key in the mass of keys I got when i checked in. And inside there I found the tripped breaker.

So the story ends well...but probably wouldn't have happened if I had been happy with only using the wii.

Wednesday, January 04, 2012

Settling Into the New Old Normal

One of the most consistent aspects of Foreign Service life is change.

You are always either moving, just arriving, bidding, or preparing to leave. There used to be a blog called "Six Months of Settled," a moniker that aptly describes our lives. When they say that the Foreign Service isn't for everyone, this is part of what I mean. If you can't handle lots of change, lots of unsettled, this may not be the career for you.

Need an example? As some of my FS friends of facebook pointed out today, since it is now 2012, they can refer to next year being in post X. I can even think in terms of leaving Tallinn the year after next. Not a thought I want to dwell on.

Because I really like it here.

And I am settling in to what is my new (old) normal: life living with my wife again.

We are riding into work together, having lunch together, spending evenings together.

It is exactly how I prefer my life to be.

Of course, I also prefer my life to be settled, though given my proclivity for getting bored pretty easily, this is probably a pretty good compromise for me in terms of careers.

Tuesday, January 03, 2012

This is Why Making New year's Resolutions is a Bad Idea

I saw someone call New Year's Resolutions a "To Do List for the first week of the New Year."

No kidding.

I made a New Year's resolution years ago not to make any more New year's resolutions and I kept it, except for a little fudging last year. But I called them "goals" instead of resolutions.

Want to know the only thing dumber than me making New Year's Resolutions/Goals? Putting them in a place (like my blog) where I can easily find them a year later.

Dumb. Really dumb.

And those "goals?" EPIC FAIL.

Of the five goals, I only accomplished one. On really a half if you count that I said my secret goal was to get a 3+/3+ instead of a 3/3, which was my actual goal. but I'll take the one.

As for the others:

* Getting back into running: FAIL (unless thinking about it counts)

* Decluttering Before the Move: FAIL (I did take some stuff to Goodwill, but not enough. And mostly I procrastinated, figuring we can declutter all the stuff from storage when we retire!

* Finishing my dissertation: EPIC FAIL. At this point, it seems I am unlikely to finish, a realization that makes me sad but I think is for the best, at least for now. I have a good job, with good prospects, good pay and good security. A job most people would love to have. My degree won't change that for better or worse. But I still hope to finish it one day, maybe when I retire.

* And finally, settling my grandmother's estate: FAIL. Though really that was always mostly out of my hands. If I had the money to pay off her few debts, I could. But it would mean transferring into my name property that has a HUGE balloon payment coming due in July. And that is definitely something I can not afford, either in terms of the amount of the payment or the hit to my credit for not paying it were it in my name. So realistically, unless that sells, closing the estate is out of my hands.

So yeah, mostly a fail on the goals thing. Which is why making New Year's Resolutions is a bad idea.

My one and only goal for 2012? Enjoy life. Hopefully I can report back next year that I succeeded on that one.