Sunday, April 29, 2012

Don't Tell My Wife

Don't tell my wife, but I love BETTY.

Luckily for both of us (and for our marriage), BETTY is a band, not a person.

On of the many cool parts of my job is that I get to bring in awesome artists from America to perform here. And this weekend, we brought in BETTY to do two performances in Tallinn and one in Viljandi.

BETTY is pretty famous stateside, especially among the LGBT community. They are especially known for their performances on the hit series "The L Word," as well as for the theme song of that show.

But their music and their message go beyond that, and the reason we brought them here was to spread their message of tolerance throughout Estonia.

Our selection of venues was deliberate. One was a local gay nightclub, X Baar. That was to give something to the LGBT community here, a community filled with brave souls already involved in activism here. Just last year, this blossoming community hosted Baltic Pride.

Our next venue is a more mainstream local, Kino Sõprus. They will perform there tonight at 8 pm. This will offer a chance for anyone in Tallinn to come out and enjoy their talents.

And Tuesday, we will head out to Club Rubiin in Viljandi, where folks far outside the city will get a chance to watch them perform. This is particularly appropriate because while Viljandi is a ways outside the capital, it is very much a cultural capital in its own right.

These are the days (okay, I know there are a lot of them) when I really love my job.

I love that I get to bring such awesome performers here (and I have to add, genuinely nice people...I spent most of yesterday with them, and they are just down to earth and nice).

I love that I get to spread a message of tolerance throughout a country and community I have already come to love (and who is clearly receptive to this message.

And...I love BETTY.

So please don't tell my wife!

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

WP: We growled, they listened

Al Kamen of the Washington Post's "In The Loop" covered United's decision to extend the pet waiver to Foreign Service personnel PCSing overseas on official orders.

We growled, they listened

Score one for Fido!

United Airlines has told the State Department and the American Foreign Service Association (AFSA) that it will extend its military rate for pet travel to Foreign Service officers assigned abroad.

An April 18 Loop item noted that UAL had given a waiver to members of the military when it newly classified dogs and cats as cargo instead of excess baggage — a change that could run transport costs from a few hundred dollars to several thousand dollars. Because of its size and federal requirements that officers use U.S. carriers, United is often the only option.

The AFSA members protested that they should be included in the waiver. Former commerce secretary Gary Locke, now ambassador to China, weighed in with a letter to the airlines.

Members of Congress, including Reps. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.), Jim Moran (D-Va.), Donna F. Edwards (D-Md.) , Gerry Connolly (D-Va.) and Nita Lowey (D-N.Y.) and D.C. Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton (D), wrote UAL executives last week urging they extend the waiver to the Foreign Service.

The effort apparently paid off. A senior UAL official called Undersecretary of State Patrick Kennedy on April 18 and AFSA President Susan Johnson the next day to tell them the military waiver would be extended. 

AFSA’s not been talking about it, one official said, because they were “still waiting for something in writing before we make it official,” and that the organization hoped to get written confirmation this week. Unclear if the new policy also applies to employees of other agencies who are stationed at embassies.

You can read the whole piece here.

Sunday, April 22, 2012

Dear Anonymous

I don't publish assinine comments from people who hide behind anonymity. 

But I will tell you this. We are not "bureaucrats on vacation." We are diplomats working far more hours for a frozen salary than most people ever will, mainly in the hopes of maintaining good diplomatic relations with countries in the hopes of keeping our soldiers out of harms way.

Because diplomacy is far cheaper than war.

And as for paying the ultimate price: more Ambassadors than Generals and Admirals have been killed in the line of duty. We too know we are signing up to risk our lives in the service of this country. We just don't get to carry guns when we do it.

Friday, April 20, 2012

United Extends Waiver to Foreign Service, FS Pets Cheer (bark, meow, chirp...)

It seems that United has decided to do the right thing and extend their waiver on pets travelling as excess baggage to members of the Foreign Service. This is a great thing! 

 I don't know what convinced them. Clearly it wasn't all of our letters on their own. I am sure that the potential los of income after the Department approved us flying on other airlines played a role. And I imagine that Al Kamen's "In The Loop" column in the Washington Post two days ago also had a hand in it. 

Susan Johnson, our AFSA president, offers some of the details below as well as word of thanks. She left out one person: herself. Thank you Susan, for addressing the needs of AFSA's members. 

Thank you for fighting tirelessly for us and our families, including our furred and feathered family members. Like military spouses, kids and pets, our families serve too.

United Decides to Extend the Military Pet Transport "Waiver" to Members of the Foreign Service!  

This is a victory and provides recognition to the Foreign Service and those who serve abroad.  AFSA will continue to work to ensure we have the option to transport pets as accompanied baggage checked in at the passenger terminal and delivered with baggage and hope to work with United to make PetSafe viable globally and truly safe for pets.  

AFSA 's request for a meeting with United's CEO Jeff Smisek or with an appropriate Vice President resulted in a call today from Hershel Kamen, United’s Senior Vice President for Alliances, Regulatory Affairs, and Policy.  Mr. Kamen told us that United Airlines has decided to extend its military pet travel policy waiver to members of the U.S. Foreign Service who are traveling on official change-of-station orders. This will include USG employees traveling to take up assignments in our embassies and missions abroad from all agencies.

We have not received official notification in writing and are awaiting details about what the waiver provides, but this decision is a direct result of this collective action that you made possible by your quick and united action.  We want to let you know right away.

Huge thanks to all of you who wrote quickly and eloquently to United!  Volume, speed and content combined for successful collective action and a message that was heard.  This is a real success and validation of collective action for a good cause, and for standing up for the Foreign Service and what we do in service to our country.

We extend our appreciation to the work of Under Secretary Kennedy and his staff and to the Director of Logistics Operations in the A Bureau to get GSA authorization to use alternate U.S. carriers or code shares. This option should remain in place because the option to transport pets as accompanied baggage is the standard we need for ourselves and for our animal companions.

AFSA also extends our appreciation and thanks to six members of Congress – Nita Lowey, Jim Moran, Chris Van Hollen, Donna Edwards, Gerry Connolly and Eleanor Holmes Norton who wrote to United in support of extending the waiver to members of the U.S. Foreign Service.

AFSA extends a big thank-you to the Overseas Briefing Center, and to volunteers from AAFSW, the Foreign Affairs Friends of Animals Network (FAFAN), the FSpets Yahoo Group as well as from our FS pet owners themselves for their great work for this cause.  It would not have happened without you all!

We appreciate United's decision to extend this courtesy to a large and dedicated customer group, demonstrating their appreciation of the service and sacrifice of the U.S. Foreign Service on behalf of the United States.  We hope to work with United to help them improve their level of service to customers and to make PetSafe a program that is safe for pets globally.

AFSA will publicize the details of what the waiver provides as we learn them. Until then, you may read about the military waiver on the 
pet issues page of AFSA’s Web site. That page also includes the details of AFSA’s campaign to date.


Susan R. Johnson
AFSA President

Thursday, April 19, 2012

EER - Employees Exaggerating and Rambling

I wrote this post a few years ago, but as it is EER season yet again, I thought it was worth sharing again. Especially since last night, as I was trying to sleep with what seems to be turning into my THIRD cold in eight months (seriously, I never get sick. I didn't take a single sick day during a year of language...What is up with this??), I had this ongoing dream that I was writing the remaining part of my EER (I'd wake up from the dream and then resume it when I dozed back off). By the time I finished it, I thought, hey, this is pretty good.

But do I remember it now that I am awake?

Not. One. Word.

I hate EERs.

From February 2010:

I wish I could take credit for finding this gem. Actually my wife found it (though really, if I can't take credit for what she does, whose efforts can I take credit for?!)

At any rate, it seems particularly timely given our (me and No Double Standard) recent discussion of EERs and the like. What my wife found was Form FS 316, the Performance Report for Foreign Service Officers, Revised June 1949 (and then according to a stamp on the page, again revised in June of 1958).

Now by Foreign Service Officers, the form means male FSOs...there are no feminine pronouns on the form.

Also missing from the form are the big blank boxes you have to fill in (there is only one for a summary and recommendations). Not even a "suicide box." No, instead, it is a bunch of multiple choice descriptors and the rater is to underline the one which is most descriptive of the officer and his job performance and to x out the letter of the one least descriptive.

So an example is:
A. He will probably not go much further in the service
B. He demands a high degree of efficiency from those associated with him
C. He is not active in seeking desirable contacts
D. He is imaginative
E. He is probably one of our future career ministers.

You get the idea. As I said, SHE is not an option. But at least I couldn't find the part where they graded an officer on his wife's ability to host social functions.

So with that in mind, I thought I'd share some of the funnier descriptors:

*He shows little taste in his clothes. (Maybe this is why Secretary Powell had to put out the memo saying no flip flops or sparkly tank tops)

*He is inclined to be pompous (I wonder if they consider this a good thing or a bad thing?)

*He is careless in his personal habits (this is the guy who got dust on his pants and the dust stayed there for the whole season...he wore them EVERY DAY).

* He becomes emotionally upset at times. (What, screaming is bad?)

* He gives little promise of development (And yet still gets promoted)

* He is a clock watcher in slack periods (How is this a bad thing?)

* He is petty in minor matters (and in major ones, he melts down completely)

* He is slow (How often have you asked how someone passed the FSOT?)

* He does not wear well as one knows him better (He seemed nice for the first 5 seconds I knew him)

* He bores intelligent people (this is my personal favorite)

* He has an exaggerated idea of his own importance. (I am pretty sure I worked with that guy).

* He has a tendency towards hair splitting (is this a comment on his appearance?)

* He is of limited intellectual attainments (no doubt the guy who bores intelligent people)

* His personal appearance is an asset (well thank god for that)

* He is overbearing (In the Foreign Service? Shocking!)

* He impresses you as not being fully alive to the problem you are discussing
(or maybe just not fully alive?)

You know, as I read this through, maybe we should bring it back. Of course, there'd be tons of lawsuits ("You can't call me stupid! Everyone is special!"), but there'd also be some honesty in the EER. Really all you need to do is add a feminine pronoun.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

AFSA’s campaign against United Airlines’ New Pet Policy Is Finally Getting Noticed

Apparently AFSA’s campaign against United Airlines’ new pet policy is gaining notoriety…let's hope that it makes United do the right thing.

In today’s In The Loop in the Washington Post, there is a section called "Foreign Service officers feel dogged by airline" in which Al Kamen discusses the issue (though less seriously than I would prefer).

And there is this in the Federal Times…

and this in AAFSW

And this...

And this From “Carla Runs the World”

and this from Government Executive.

And what have we heard from United Airlines since they said they had no intention of extending the policy to Foreign Service Officers?


Saturday, April 14, 2012

One of the Hardest Parts

Elton John has a older song called "Sorry Seems To Be The Hardest Word."

But he's wrong. Goodbye is much harder.

There is a lot about this job, this life, that is great. There is also a lot about it is that is hard, even painful. The constant moving and associated issues (i.e., our current issue with United Airlines over bringing our pets with us). And part of that constant moving is the constant saying goodbye.

This weekend, I am saying goodbye to my APAO.

This is his first tour, but he is already an excellent officer. I'd serve with him again anywhere (and this is the highest compliment you can pay a fellow FSer). In fact, I genuinely hope to serve with him again someday.

He has also become a friend. You develop fast, intense friendships in this life. The Americans you serve with are sometimes the only touch of home you have. And you work so closely with the local staff as well, that as I said to him yesterday, you love hard and love fast (this is especially true for my APAO and me, since we share having learned early and often about the brevity of life). I already care deeply about the folks in my section, and I have only known them eight months.

We had a get together at my place yesterday for just the staff, me, my departing APAO and my incoming APAO. I am glad we did it. It was both necessary and hard.

Harder still for him, since when we leave a post, we are leaving behind local friends we may never see again. Officers, we'll see again, either at another post or at our perennial reunion grounds, FSI. But the local staff...that's hard. At some posts (thankfully this is not among them), our local staff risks their lives serving with us. Several of my wife's FSNs from Azerbaijan have been killed. One of mine from Jerusalem died at a checkpoint...another has been in a coma for years.

These are among the things that make this life hard and yet so worth it.

I hope my APAO realizes this and stays in the Foreign Service.

His presence in the Department benefits us all. And I hope I serve with him again.

Sunday, April 08, 2012

Welcome to the 166th!

Yeah, I'm late.

I'll spare you all my excuses...I'll try to do better by the 167th in May.

So in the better late than never category, I'd like to welcome the only blogger I know of who joined in this class (though I know someone in the class who has a livejournal account, but I am not sure it is public...)

Compass and Companion


I have moved you up to the More FS Blogs blogroll (since blogger still won't let me edit the old one).

Welcome to the Foreign Service! And let me know if I have missed anyone!

Friday, April 06, 2012

Like Giving Birth

I have finally, as of this week, given birth to the baby I have been carrying since shortly after my arrival at post.

Get off the isn't THAT kind of baby!

No, what I have given birth to is a project that we are calling a Mobile American Corner.

The Mobile American Corner builds on the idea of a traditional American Corner in that it contains information about the United States and our diplomatic mission to share with overseas audiences. Where the Mobile American Corner differs, however is that it is an original mobile platform (designed for iPad but soon accessible via iPhone and Android) application through which the Embassy puts this kind of extensive information on the U.S. into the hands of the user along with an invitation to actually participate in the Embassy’s public diplomacy.

The Mobile American Corner is well-suited to Estonia, a tech savvy and well-wired country that gave birth to such innovations as Skype and is a world leader in e-governance. Our goal has been to broaden our reach among these internet savvy consumers by creating an interesting, interactive format that would keep users engaged for hours exploring and engaging the United States.

I can't take credit for the original idea, but I can certainly take credit for what it has become. Since shortly after my arrival, working with the text, the graphics, and the developer has consumed much of my time.

The app contains information on U.S. government, culture, geography and plus specific information about our embassy as well. It has videos like that of President George H.W. Bush restoring diplomatic relations with the Baltic countries in 1991. Embedded into the text are links which can direct the user to more information on topics ranging from Congress to the Prohibition Movement, to U.S. food and music. And one particularly cool part is that the app has a page that lays out key elements of the U.S. diplomatic agenda with Estonia and lets users comment, argue and participate in the development and execution of our public diplomacy.

We rolled out the project in two parts. First, we did a Steve Jobs-like presentation at Solaris, a local shopping mall and teen hangout. And yes, by we I mean I did one. No, you can't see the pictures.

Then we took one of the Mobile American Corners to one of the most remote corners of Estonia, to Setomaa, the lands of the Seto people. The Seto are a religious minority living on both sides of the Estonian/Russian border. Their king is charged with protecting their language and culture, and when he meets with dignitaries, he dresses in traditional clothing: a hand-made shirt with the embroidered designs of his people encircling the collar, as well as woolen pants and overcoat, all made by hand from sheep raised by his people. Over his shoulder is draped a traditional bag made of sheepskin.

We visited him on Monday as part of a two-day Ambassadorial visit to the southern part of the country, and left at the Seto cultural museum one of the Mobile American Corners. Those are his hands exploring the app in the picture. And of course, leaving the app there makes two points: one, that the app lets us reach the most remote places. And two, the app is particularly relevant in E-stonia, where inside that traditional sheepskin bag was a laptop and inside their traditional cultural center was wifi access.

We are also have a contest via our facebook page for residents of Estonia to take a picture of "A Piece of America in Estonia." From the most "liked" photos in three age categories, we will select winners to receive a new iPad with the app pre-loaded onto it. We are already seeing a dramatic increase in our number of followers. (You can follow us too...we won't mind, really).

Our goal is for this app to be available to all embassies around the globe...but wait, there is more. We also want anyone to be able to download it free. Because revolutions like the Arab Spring took place by smart phone. And when people seeking democracy want inspiration, we want them to have to look no further than the American their pocket.

There is still more to do...last minute tweeks to the app, adjustments for iphone and android...and then of course there is the July 4th party where we will present the winners of the contest with their ipads.

But that is the easy part...the birthing was the hard part...

I will say I am pretty pleased with my new Public Diplomacy baby.

Thursday, April 05, 2012

Promising Signs on the United Front

So there seems to have been some movement on the issue of our traveling with our pets.

This week, the Department put out a cable saying we could now use non-contract carriers to fly if the contract carrier (read: United) doesn't allow pets to travel as excess baggage. It also said that there may be exemptions to the Fly America Act, which requires we use a U.S. airline even if there is a cheaper non-U.S. one, for those of us going to, leaving from or transiting through the E.U. (because the Open Skies Act allows folks in those categories to fly E.U. carriers if it is cheaper because to prohibit it would be a violation of WTO rules).

AFSA has created a link where you can read the cable here.

In addition to this, people are getting the word out. A new facebook group called Fabulous Foreign Service Pets have been created where people can post pictures of their FS pets. And the photo blog At Post has rededicated itself to FS Pet pictures.

People are tweeting about it copying @United (though I think they are actually @UnitedAirlines, which is what I have been using...along with the hashtag #UnitedSucks).

And there is a new video of pictures of FS Pets on YouTube.

And finally, a fellow blogger heard second-hand that a person was able to book her pets as checked baggage, and that when the person asked the Customer Service Rep about the policy of forcing them to go as cargo, she was told that the CSR had gotten a memo a week ago changing the policy.

So maybe United is doing the right thing. Maybe even for the right reasons, though I suspect it is more to do with the combination of bad press and the threat of losing a lot of government (read: full-price fare) business.