Friday, March 30, 2012

United Airlines Screws the Pooch

I didn't make this, but I wish I did.

"United doesn't care about America. United cares about money."

Boycott United Airlines!

Thursday, March 29, 2012

Another Reason To Love Estonia

Every place on the planet has its share of jerks.

So it isn't uncommon to see a swastika painted on a wall in any big city in the world. Because there are bigots everywhere.

But in most places, the grafitti is either left in place, scrubbed off (hopefully by the offender), or painted over.

But around the corner from my house, someone had a different approach...and I love it.

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Pet Lovers, Boycott United Airlines

Nick Kralev writes a great piece on United Airlines' new pet policy.

He writes:

"Nearly 3,000 U.S. diplomats have urged United Airlines to extend to them a waiver from its more expensive and “unfriendly” new pet travel policy that the carrier has granted the military, the diplomats’ union said. While it took United just days to exempt the military, it has been mulling the State Department’s request for weeks.

The biggest hurdle appears to be the lack of understanding by United’s management — as is the case with most people — what the Foreign Service does, and why diplomats’ service to their country is no less important than the military’s. That’s exactly why — long before this issue arose — I decided to write my upcoming book “America’s Other Army.”


It seems United’s management doesn’t think that American diplomats make any sacrifices when serving in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Sudan, the Congo and many other extremely dangerous places. Not all diplomats are posted to London and Paris — not that those “cushy” in most people’s minds posts are not dangerous, judging by the 2005 London terrorist attacks or last week’s murders in the French city of Toulouse.

By many accounts, PetSafe has been very successful domestically. United takes care of the pets without using third-party vendors, it automatically transfers the animals to connecting flights on its own aircraft and keeps them in air-conditioned facilities during layovers. Although the pets are checked in as cargo, there are no customs or other bureaucratic formalities, so the service is not too expensive.

However, that doesn’t work internationally most of the time. Very few diplomats take a nonstop flight to their new post. In some cases, they make two or even three connections. In each city, they are now forced to leave the passenger terminal, walk or take a taxi to the cargo terminal, collect their pets, recheck them in — often on a different airline, which could add more fees — then return to the passenger terminal, go through security again, and finally arrive at their next gate. By the time all that happens, they may well miss their connecting flight. Even worse if a single parent with small children is trying to accomplish those tasks.

Because of the so-called Fly America Act, the federal government must book its employees on U.S. carriers — on full-fare tickets. Foreign Service members and their families often end up on United, and many of them are elite MileagePlus members. The State Department and its 50,000 employees around the world have supported United for decades. Not to mention that one of the missions of the Foreign Service is to help create and expand business opportunities for U.S. companies, and airlines tend to benefit from that significantly."

You can read the whole piece here.

And after you do, tell all your family and friends to Boycott United.

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Where Have You Been?

Latvia, that's where!

One of the reasons I have been out of pocket is that the three Baltic Public Affairs Sections had an offsite in Riga. And since I took my iPad instead of my computer, blogging would have been challenging.

The offsite was incredibly useful...we got to meet a bunch of our colleagues for the first time, reconnect with others (one of them is an A-100 classmate of mine...and a friend as well!). And there were a bunch of great ideas shared...some I plan unabashedly to steal!

It was my first time to Latvia, but definitely not my last! There are so many things there I had no time to see but that I really want to.

But the one thing I did get to, eat...Ze Donats!

I hear they are coming soon to Tallinn. Can't happen soon enough.

But in the meantime, I brought some home for my wife and I to share.

In related news, I learned, when someone asked my wife in Estonian if she liked the donuts, what the Estonian word is for donut. And also that the cafe where I have been eating for seven months is named "Donut Cafe."


Thursday, March 22, 2012

Pet Lovers: Unite Against United Airlines

So here's another reason United Airlines sucks.

Lots of you have already seen how United Airlines doesn't consider the service of Foreign Service families to matter when it comes to flying our pets with us when we PCS to a new location. Their new rules, from which they have granted the military a waiver "in recognition of the commitment made by members of our military and the family members (including the four-legged ones) who share in their sacrifice" but not the Foreign Service families who serve alongside the military, could make prohibitively expensive to keep our pets with us.

Because our service, even though we too are on government orders, even though we too put our families in harm's way for the needs of the country, doesn't count.

But now, there is one more part to their announcement. Sure, United says, we will give the military a waiver (but not those pesky diplomats, since the 3,000 letters we received is a drop in the bucket compared with all the military), but we are also going to start breed-specific restrictions as well. You can find the list of breeds here. And there is no waiver for that.

United thinks it can get away with this because they don't think we will buy our own tickets. And they don't care even if we do. Because they assume mostly people will try to figure out a way around it. And even if we don't, we are small. There are only about 11,000 of us total in the Foreign Service. And probably the number of military owning a restricted breed is similarly small. So who cares if we don't get to take our pets with us.

But we have families. We have friends. And we need to let them all know how United disrespects those who have devoted their lives to the service of the country, often at great personal cost. And get them to tell their friends, because I know the pet lovers in this country outnumber those who don't.

Ask them to write to United. And ask them to boycott United.

I will not be flying United again if I can help it. I will buy my own ticket if need be because the cost will be lower than letting the government pay full refundable fair for me and me just pay for my pets to be shipped back separately.

Please stand with those who serve and don't fly United.

Monday, March 19, 2012

Why I Won't Be Flying United

As some of you may have heard, United Airlines has changed their rules so that flying with your pet is now MUCH more expensive. Basically, their new policies on pet travel restrict options, raise costs and pose enormous practical problems for the safe and timely transfer of pets at transit points where a change of plane and carrier is required. As in, just about every PCS any FS family will ever make. AFSA said the likely difference to Foreign Service families would be instead of paying around $250-$400 per pet, families would have to pay as much as $1,000 and $4,000 per pet.

United has, kindly, granted a waiver to members of the military traveling on permanent change of station orders. Although all the specifics are not clear, it appears that the main elements of the waiver are (1) optional use of professional pet shipper; (2) waiving of $40 fuel and security charges; (3) flat rate* for cargo under United’s PetSafe program; and (4) United will assume responsibility for the transfer of pets to the connecting airline. Without the waiver, the traveler has to somehow accomplish this on his or her own, coping with getting to a cargo terminal, collecting a crated pet, take it to the connecting airline and do all this within the transit time allowed. (*the flat rate for cargo appears to be much higher than the rate for accompanied excess baggage.)

So AFSA started a letter writing campaign, and 3,000 people, including me, wrote in asking that the waiver also be extended to members of the Foreign Service too. Because we are serving too. We are PCSing too. We are on government orders too.

And the response they got back? Well, all of us individuals got the standard "Thanks for writing. Your letter is very important to us. We'll look into it." But their real response to AFSA was from United's Senior Manager for Marketing, Customer Service and Business Systems. He said that United developed the waiver for the military "in recognition of the commitment made by members of our military and the family members (including the four-legged ones) who share in their sacrifice" and intends to limit this "special process" to military families only.

I guess that we don't make a special commitment. We and our families don't sacrifice. We don't serve.

The Fly America rule passed by Congress requires that if the government is paying for the ticket, the passenger must fly on an American carrier. This means that most of our tickets are either on an American flight or an American codeshare flight. And when you are on a codeshare flight, you fly by the rules of the codeshare company, not the company actually running the flight. I learned this trying to get my parrot on the United codeshare flight with Scandinavian Airlines. Scandinavian allows parrots. United does not. So if I got a ticket through United, I could not bring my parrot.

What I learned in all of that is that most of our codeshare flights are with United. And that means following United's rules. But what I also learned was that while Fly America means if the government pays for my ticket, I have to fly on an American airline if available, it doesn't mean I have to let the government pay for my ticket. I can buy my own. And at an additional up to $4000 per per moving cost, it is cheaper for me to buy on a foreign carrier to get myself and my pets home than to let the government buy the ticket for me. And because it is a moving expense for my job, I can take it off my taxes. So it isn't even saving the taxpayer money for me to buy my own ticket.

So unless United changes its policy to include the other people who are serving this country and PCSing on government orders, I will be buying my own ticket. And I will certainly avoid buying tickets on United for my vacations if I have to jump through these hoops in order to PCS. In order to serve.

And that is why I won't be flying United. And I hope you won't either.

Friday, March 16, 2012

I'm Kind Of Like a Drug Dealer

Only the really sad middle-man kind who never makes any money because he consumes the product.

On my list of things I always miss about the U.S. is one of my drugs of choice...Girl Scout cookies (the other drug of choice is Diet Mt. Dew of course).

So when it is Girl Scout cookie time, I try to appoint myself drug dealer...find a source, offer the product to other, who always buy in. (This year, my sources was Jen and her daughter K over at The Dinoia Family. Thanks Jen!)

It is kind of a disease really.

It started when I was a kid...I was never a Girl Scout, but I was a Brownie (the sort of entry level of Girl Scouts...I think there wasn't a Girl Scout troop once I was old enough but I am not certain. It could have just been that I was protesting because I wanted to be a Boy Scout - they DO get to do much cooler stuff than the Girl Scouts).

Still, my lack of camping badges aside, there is a warm place in my heart for the Girl Scouts. They were founded in the South (Savannah), and they have been gay friendly WAY before it was cool to be gay friendly (actually, it still isn't cool to be gay friendly in the South, except maybe in places like Folly Beach, SC (my favorite place on earth), who just passed a non-discrimination ordinance...they were pretty inclusive even without the ordinance, even back when I lived there twenty years ago...but I digress).

So while I wasn't a Girl Scout, I was a Girl Scout camp counselor (that was a cool job!), and because they had long since been gay friendly, I was allowed to tell two girls there who were struggling with their sexuality that they were okay. That there was nothing wrong with them, and that if it ended up that they were gay, they would still be okay with nothing wrong with them. One girl was being picked on because she was so boyish, and I was able not just to make her feel better about herself but to demonstrate to the other girls that bullying wasn't going to be tolerated and that this girl was just fine. And because I was the counselor with the cool activity (I ran the ropes course...the girls called me Rambo), they started treating the boyish girl better.

I feel good about what I did there. And I feel good about supporting the Girl Scouts now when they are being attacked by the far right for things that are flat out not true.

Of course, all of that good feeling could be the drugs talking. But I'll take it. I'll also take another box of Thin Mints please.

Monday, March 12, 2012

It Takes A Visitor make you go out and do what you have been meaning to do.

We had company this weekend, our third visitor in the seven months I have been here (making it three times as many visitors as we had during our whole tour in Jerusalem...people seem more interested in coming here!) This time is was a friend from area studies (and before that, the A-100 yahoo group) who is currently serving in the Balts. She was here for consular leadership day and stayed an extra night to check out the sights (I originally typed sites, but considering where we went, that would have been okay too).

So Kiek in Der Kok (or peak in the kitchen) is one of the more famous of Tallinn's Old City towers. I have meant to go in there since I did my language immersion a year ago and had my picture taken by it. Actually before that, back when I drew a picture of it from a photo I had seen. And since it is right by Vabaduse Valjak (Freedom Square), I see it regularly and never manage to go in. My wife took her dad when he visited, but I was working and didn't get to join. I even took Noostie for a walk by it once, but never went in.

Well the trip was worth the wait. Tallinn knows how to do museums (lots of fun, creepy stuff in this one, like a torture rack, an executioners sword...and a nerf pig on a spit), and if you walk all the way up the windy original steps (or you can take the new, safe ones, but where is the challenge in that?) you can see why it was such a good defensive tower. You can see everything from there...we got some great views of the Old City...I could even see my apartment from there.

I hope you are planning to visit...there are some other places I need to visit, but clearly I need a push!

Friday, March 09, 2012

ATTENTION PET OWNERS: AFSA Appeal to United Airlines

From AFSA President Susan Johnson. As one of many pet owners in the Foreign Service, I urge (beg, plead) you to write.

AFSA Appeal to United Airlines

Include U.S. Foreign Service in New Pet Policy Waiver for U.S. Military

Dear Foreign Service Colleagues:

This is a call to collective action now on behalf of Foreign Service pets and their owners/families. See the sample e-mail letter to United at the end of this message immediately after my signature.

AFSA has engaged with the Department of State and United Airlines regarding United’s new policies on pet travel which restrict options, raise costs and pose enormous practical problems for the safe and timely transfer of pets at transit points where a change of plane and carrier is required. The likely difference to Foreign Service families would be instead of paying around $250-$400 per pet, families would have to pay much more and in many cases between $1,000 and $4,000 per pet.

United has granted a waiver to members of the military traveling on permanent change of station orders. Although all the specifics are not clear, it appears that the main elements of the waiver are (1) optional use of professional pet shipper; (2) waiving of $40 fuel and security charges; (3) flat rate* for cargo under United’s PetSafe program; and (4) United will assume responsibility for the transfer of pets to the connecting airline. Without the waiver, the traveler has to somehow accomplish this on his or her own, coping with getting to a cargo terminal, collecting a crated pet, take it to the connecting airline and do all this within the transit time allowed. (*the flat rate for cargo appears to be much higher than the rate for accompanied excess baggage.)

AFSA invites Foreign Service pet owners (and their friends) to participate in an important collective action e-mail campaign to United. If we join together we can have an impact. For maximum effect, we want as many e-mails as possible to be sent during a 48-hour window starting as soon as you receive this e-mail and ending at 5:00 pm EST on Friday, March 9. We ask that you copy AFSA at so that we have a central record of the number of participants in the action and can follow up. Otherwise, we won’t know how many of you joined in to make a difference and any needed follow up will be more difficult.

To make our collective voice heard, if you are a pet owner, past, present or future, or you believe that civilian federal employees traveling on permanent change of station orders should be given the same waiver accorded to our colleagues in uniform, we are asking you to click on the link below and send a message to United, urging them to extend the waiver program to members of the United States Foreign Service traveling on official transfer orders. Please make sure that your message is cordial and to the point; you should identify yourself as a United States Foreign Service employee or family member.

Susan R. Johnson
AFSA President

Here is a suggested message that you may copy/paste and personalize (briefly) if you wish.

Dear Mr. Smisek – As a [member of the Foreign Service/spouse or family member of a U.S. Foreign Service employee], I welcome your decision to grant a waiver of certain parts of the new United pet policy to members of the U.S. military on permanent change of station orders, and I urge you to grant the same waivers to America’s Foreign Service traveling with their pets when they are on official “change of station” orders.

Extending the waiver would demonstrate that United recognizes the service of those who work to advance and protect America’s interests abroad, and would modify a policy that unfairly penalizes members of a career service that requires its members to be available worldwide, who rely on and feel deep responsibility to their beloved animal companions. This policy will cause serious hardship, both financial and emotional, to members of the U.S. diplomatic service and their families when they are assigned to official stations abroad and traveling to and from their official station on government orders.

This is a fair and common sense solution and we urge you to extend the waiver to members of America’s Foreign Service, for the benefit of our animal companions who are such important members of our families and our lives.


(If the link does not work for you, please send the message to,,, and

Thursday, March 08, 2012


That is not a typo.

It is Estonian for strike. As in a work strike. Which is what they are having today.

Roughly a third of the country's teachers are striking demanding a pay increase. They currently make less than the average Estonian salary and want a 20% pay hike to bring them to that average.

In support of the teachers, the public transits are also striking. At least they say they are. So we were warned of no buses or trams to get to work this morning and horrific traffic.

I didn't notice much traffic, but to be fair, I take side streets to work. And not ones that lead anywhere most people need to go.

I also noticed buses and trams running. They tell me that a few are running, but with no schedules. So people who want to use them just have to wait at the stops in the cold and hope one comes by. Which would kind of suck...

But in all, the strike has seemed pretty orderly to me.

Which isn't surprising. This is a pretty orderly place (one of the many things I love about it).

In other news, Happy Women's Day! I arrived to work to find three lovely tulips on my desk. It was a pleasant surprise. My staff is pretty awesome!

I also bought flowers for the women in my section (after I got to work and remembered it was Women's Day, because I kind of suck).

Wednesday, March 07, 2012

They Pay Me To Do This

One of the things we do as representatives of the United States overseas is to support American businesses and ways in which they can cooperate with the host government.

Yesterday, this meant helping organize an event where General Dynamics could show off its Piranha III, an armored personnel carrier it thinks could be of use to the Estonian military.

The idea behind the event, which was attended by high level Estonians as well as interested defense folks from other countries, as to let them get really hands on with the vehicle, including getting to take rides in it.

Which of course, also meant the rest of us got rides in it. In the snow.

It was very cool.

I was the one yelling, "Run over the snow bank! Run over the trees! Run over those people!"**

**No people, trees, nor snow banks were harmed during the making of this event nor the writing of this blog post.

Tuesday, March 06, 2012

Private Life? What Private Life?

Another thing you give up in the Foreign Service is any expectation of privacy.

We are on duty 24/7, especially when we are overseas. And you may even be being "observed" in the "privacy" of your own home.

Got a blog? Don't say anything that contradicts our official foreign policy. When you sign up, you do so giving up your right to object publically to our foreign policy. If you can't do that, there are better jobs for you. (Domestic policy is fair game, however. Thank god!)

Got a Facebook account? Make darned sure, no matter how strong you think your privacy settings are, not to post anything that might be embarrassing if say, your mother or your Ambassador or the Washington Post were to read it.

For that matter, if you wouldn't want people to know about it, just don't do it.

A recent article in the Washington Post's "The Loop" demonstrates this (and judging by the number of "shares" by my friends on Facebook, is generating a lot of buzz too). According to the article, the State Department can now discipline Foreign Service personnel for having affairs, even if they are conducted off duty.

And you know what, I don't really have a problem with that. For this reason: if it would embarrass you for your mother or your Ambassador or the Washington Post to know what you were doing, you might consider doing whatever you have to in order to cover it up. And there are people in a lot of places where we serve who would just LOVE to blackmail you.

The military has long since had a policy along these lines, and I imagine for the same reason. We don't need vunerabilities to blackmail and we don't need black eyes on the services.

I know there are a lot of folks who will disagree with me, and say that what we do offduty is our own business. And maybe that is true when we are stateside. And certainly they need to clarify the policy and take it on a case-by-case basis. But really for me it comes down to, if you wouldn't want people to know, just don't do it.

Monday, March 05, 2012

Why FS Life Is Hard

One of the reasons we in the Foreign Service get so little sympathy is because people think we have such a great life. Oh, who cares if you take a pay cut to live overseas. You get to live in these great houses in cool places rent free!

It is true that we live in our houses overseas rent-free, and that sometimes the houses are nice. Sometimes they are not. Unlike most Americans, we get no say in where we will live. We get assigned a place at post and usually that is where we will live for our entire tour. Like it or not.

But the real hardship of the Foreign Service is not what you get but what you give up.

And the hardest thing to give up is almost every important milestone in your family's life. You don't just miss birthdays but usually weddings, religious celebrations, births, and most poignantly, deaths.

This was driven home for me yet again yesterday when I learned that a friend from the Service lost his father in the tornadoes that hammered the Midwest and southeast over the past few days.

In a way, he was "lucky" in that he was posted to DC at the time. So he was able to get home to his family quickly. But I have had friends who lost one parent while overseas, flew home for the funeral, got back to post and lost the other parent within a week.

The Department is great about giving us the time to go home when things like this happen. But nothing replaces being able to be there with your family. Nothing replaces getting to spend the last precious weeks or moments with a loved one. You never get that back.

I think about this with every birthday and Christmas that I spend away from my nieces and nephews. They are changing so much and I am missing it all. I think about it with every family gathering I miss. I love my family and I miss them.

It is a sacrifice I make to serve my country, but it is one of the hardest things about being in the service.

Friday, March 02, 2012

We Interrupt Our Normal Topic...

Sorry for the interruption of the usual topics. But you all know I am an archaeologist as well as a diplomat, so...

You have probably read some of the uproar recently about a couple of new shows that essentially glamorize looting of archaeological sites. If you have not, I recommend you check out Archaeologists Protest 'Glamorization' of Looting on TV over at Science Insider on Science Mag.

The article states:

"On 20 March, Spike TV will premiere a new show called American Digger, while a show called Diggers on the National Geographic Channel made its debut 28 February. Both shows "promote and glorify the looting and destruction of archaeological sites," Society for American Archaeology (SAA) President William F. Limp wrote in a message posted earlier this week to the SAA listserv.

The premise of American Digger, which is being hosted by a former professional wrestler, was laid out in a recent announcement by Spike TV. A team of "diggers" will "scour target-rich areas, such as battlefields and historic sites, in hopes of striking it rich by unearthing and selling rare pieces of American history." Similar locales are featured in National Geographic's Diggers. In the second episode, set in South Carolina, Revolutionary War and War of 1812 buttons, bullets, and coins were recovered at a former plantation."

After you have checked out the article, I encourage you to consider signing the petitions circulating protesting these shows. You can find one of them here.