Sunday, August 26, 2012

Yep, I Went Gaga

Really, I am too old to do what I did last night.

Lady Gaga came to Tallinn. I like her music, as is evidenced by my iPod, but I have never cared one way or the other about whether or not I got to see her in person.

Actually, I am this way about most performers. Other than Elton John, who I have seen twice in my life, and BETTY, who I have now seen perform four times (all for work but I enjoyed every minute), I am just not that into going to concerts.

Too loud. Too many people. Too tiring.

Last night's concert was all of that and then some, but I am really glad we went. We had a blast!

The concert was held at the Song Festival Grounds, which meant standing the entire time. And the grounds have really limited parking, which means walking or cabbing to get there.

But because it was a standing venue, we were able to get really good tickets at the last minute. I wouldn't have even attempted it in the states...we all know the ticket mafia in the states makes sure that the decent seats are gone milliseconds after they go on sale.

There are of course disadvantages to a standing concert. One is that you have to stand for HOURS (six by my count). The other is that in the land of seriously tall people, being short is HARD. So my original spot was almost right next next to the runway part of the stage (you can sort of tell that from the photo below...that is can also tell iPhones don't do good action shots). There were only two people between me and the stage...but they were both like seven feet tall. So I ended up moving back to the rear part of that area (which was still really close to the stage) and having a much better view.

Which you need at a Gaga concert. Because MAN does she put on a show! And the show tells a story. So you need to be able to see the whole stage.

And like I said, the show was a blast. The music was great and she knows how to cater to an audience. Like regularly throwing Estonia into songs (like in You and I, instead of singing about her cool Nebraska guy, she said her cool Estonian guy). And in the part where she drives a motorcycle around the stage, having an Estonian flag flying from it. And telling the crowd that the guy at the hotel told her not to be offended if the Estonians didn't make a lot of noise because they were very reserved...she told them that they proved that f*cker wrong!

I also loved the pro-American sentiment of the crowd...lots of American flag clothing to be seen...including the guy next to me by the stage with his American flag bandana, and the little girl she brought onstage to dance with her during her encore who was wearing American flag pants.

Today, I woke to my wife singing songs to and about the cats to the tune of Gaga songs...I guess she had fun too! Plus, she is impossibly cute. But don't tell her I said so.

As for me, I am indeed too old to stand for six hours and then walk two miles home at midnight. Today there is pain, groaning and advil in my life.

But I'd do it again! :)

Sunday, August 19, 2012

One Year Here

Today is my one year anniversary in Estonia.

Actually, yesterday was one year in country, and today was my first day on the job.

After less than this amount of time in Jerusalem, one of my favorite local staff members called me "the embodiment of anger."

And most of you who know me know I am not a generally angry person.

One year into my tour here, I still love it here.

I have an excel file called "Rotation Tracker." It tells you to the second how much time you have left in your tour. I looked at it practically daily in Jerusalem.

I have yet to look at it here. In fact, I find myself resenting the bidders contacting me about my job. While I know my job is on the bid list and that they are doing what they are supposed to because they will get their assignment a year before starting a year of language, they still feel a little like vultures to me.

I am not eager to leave.

And that is on top of a touch of homesickness. I really want to go home, see my family, and see my beach.

But then I want to come back.

Some of it is Estonia, and some of it is luck.

As everyone in the Foreign Service knows, a tour in a great place can be awful with bad management or nasty colleagues.

But here, not only is Estonia beautiful, the people friendly, the food tasty, and the travel easy, but the job is fun, my team is amazing, the management is good and there is not one of my colleagues that I dislike.

One year in, I still feel very lucky to be here.

Friday, August 17, 2012

Introducing Ambassador Levine

Our new boss will be arriving soon.

While we already miss Ambassador Polt, we are all excited to meet our new Ambassador, Jeffrey Levine, who should be joining us sometime next month.

Personally, I am thrilled that he is a dog person!

In advance of his arrival, Ambassador Levine shot an introductory video (and it includes cute dog pictures!):

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

What Is Better Than Old Churches?

Back in May, I told you that I had decided that I would make a personal project of photographing all the old churches in Estonia.

I have revised it a bit...they have to be built before 1900. I still may have bitten off more than I can chew, but I have continued to work on it none the less.

I went to Saaremaa a couple weeks ago for Regional Outreach and took a few more pictures, including a pentacle in the Kaarma Church that I missed in May.

Yesterday, we went back down to Saaremaa so I could speak to students at the GLOBE camp, and I got to see something even better than an old Estonian church.

I got to see one of the candidates for the OLDEST church in Estonia...and they were doing archaeology there!

The Pöide Church was built around the mid-1200s. The archaeologist I spoke with said that while the Kaarma Church was built around the same time but was likely a little younger. He even showed me some of their finds.

Plus, there were art historians there who were carefully removing the plaster covering the paintings on the wall. Restoration work is going on outside of the church as well. I hope to go back again and see how they progress.

We saw a couple other churches too, including one, Birth of Christ Orthodox, just off the island that is in ruins.

This is what it looked like before it bombed in World War II, and construction blasting in the area made the roof fall in.

This is one of just one of dozens, perhaps of hundreds of ruined churches in Estonia. I find them haunting and  sad.

Even if I can't finish this project, I am really enjoying it.

Friday, August 10, 2012

Sad News

The Foreign Service family lost a member yesterday.

USAID Foreign Service Officer Ragaei Abdelfattah, as well as three ISAF soldiers, were killed Thursday at the hands of a suicide bomber in Afghanistan. Another State Department employee was injured.

Secretary Clinton said "Ragaei's work over the last year was critical to our efforts to support Afghanistan's political, economic, and security transitions and was an example of the highest standards of service. Over the last 15 months -- partnering with local officials -- he worked in eastern Afghanistan to help establish new schools and health clinics, and deliver electricity to the citizens of Nangarhar and Kunar provinces. Ragaei was so committed to our mission and to the people of Afghanistan that he volunteered to serve a second year."

The work we do is sometimes dangerous but vital none the less. Our thoughts and prayers go out to him and his family.

You can read more about Abdelfattah here.

Thursday, August 09, 2012

I'm On A Boat!

Public Diplomacy in Tallinn this week has had a decidedly military flavor.

We had a reception for some Estonian Wounded Warriors who had just returned from a week-long bike ride in Germany with other Wounded Warriors from the U.S. We had some U.S. cadets in town.

Yesterday, there were concurrent ceremonies at Arlington Cemetery and Ämari Air Base to honor Major Martin Kommendant, who was an Estonian-born American shot down in Vietnam. His remains were finally recovered and he was interred at Arlington.

And then today was kind of like this (warning: explicit lyrics!):

Actually, it was not at all like that. But it was exactly like this:

The USS Farragut is visiting Tallinn, and we arranged for the media to get a tour of the vessel. Poor me, I had to go to the harbor and tour the ship with them!

Life is hard!

And this is the view from the pilot house: as a PD officer is awful! :)

Tuesday, August 07, 2012

Just One Complaint

Jill over at The Perlman Update has started doing the blog round up (BRU) again (yay!), and this week’s theme is five things you like and five things you dislike about post.

I did one of these a while back, so I am not going to do another. My feelings about Estonia have not changed, and I remain convinced that if you are unhappy in Estonia, it is because you WANT to be unhappy. For me, as I approach my one year anniversary here, I still completely get why people come here and want to stay. Or come back and retire. I love it here.

But there is one thing I do not love. It is post related but not post’s fault. Nor it is Estonia’s fault.

It is our mail service (or lack thereof). And it is the Post Office’s fault.

We started having issues with our mail back before Christmas. Presents that people ordered well in advance of the holiday were not arriving. That is largely due to the Department’s going to the DPO (Diplomatic Post Office) rather than the APO we had before. It was a cost saving measure, but it means that DPO mail is space available and gets last priority after APO mail is put on the planes. So at Christmas, when everyone using the APO mail is ordering gifts, chances are ours are going to get bumped.

So fine. This year I will order in October. Or better, I will buy them in the states when we are hopefully there on R&R.

Then in January, we had a new problem. One of the carriers the Post Office contracted with sent our mail to Moscow! Something like 15 bags of it. And it was never seen again. Mostly it was flat mail, not boxes, so if you had bills coming by snail mail (or, say, replacement credit cards…), they never arrived.

The post offices response was that we should be happy we get mail at all.

Um gee. Thanks for your service?

Now it has happened again. This time, some 24 bags were sent to Warsaw. I think we have gotten some of them back and are expecting the rest…eventually. And along the way, I have also gotten random late pieces missent to Amsterdam, Riga…

And today, I learned that the problem is not just in one direction.

I got a note from my dad saying he just received his Father’s Day card!

You know, that holiday in JUNE?

The card was postmarked June 6. Today is August 7.

It took less than that amount of time for my HHE to arrive, and it was on a SLOW BOAT!

And all of that could have been mitigated if someone had said, Oh my gosh, I am so sorry. We will do all we can to find your mail and make sure it doesn't happen again. But instead we hear that we should be happy we get mail at all…this is why people hate the Post Office.

Saturday, August 04, 2012

What I Missed Last Time

I went to Saaremaa yesterday for Regional Outreach.

Yesterday and today were Kuuresaare's Merepaevad, or Sea Days. There was a festival down at the water, complete with lots of boats on the water.

We used the opportunity to meet with local journalists, tour the local radio station and newspaper, and take a boat ride with some local officials (and end up in a "battle" with "pirates"...Nooste, who went along, did NOT approve of the cannon used to fight off the pirates!)

It was a lot of fun! I seriously dig my job!

But while I was there, I also got back to the church at Kaarma, the one with the giant pentacle that I missed.

I didn't miss it this time.

Pretty cool, huh?

Thursday, August 02, 2012

Giving Credit

I pride myself in giving credit where credit is due.

So hats off to my wife for suggesting we wrap up our trip in Heidelberg! It was AWESOME!

AND...I finally got to see a castle. From the inside!

We essentially did two tours of Heidelberg castle. The first was with one of those hand held audio devices...where you walk around with headphones on and stop and stare at things.

Then we did a guided tour where you got to go inside places that are locked to those not taking the tour. I think part of the appeal is the guide actually unlocking the door so you have the feeling of getting something special.

The castle has a really interesting history. Out front is Elizabeth's gate, built for the daughter of the English king who married Wilhelm. He had it built for her overnight for her 19th birthday. They say she got a kiss for every small animal she found carved on the pillars.

They were married for 17 years when he died, and in that time, she bore him 13 children. Holy crap! Apparently, though the marriage was political, they apparently fell deeply in love. He even built her an "English castle" within the castle, complete with a theater in the round, so she would be less homesick.

Another interesting, but really sad, story about the castle concerns the architect of Ruprecht's building. Apparently his twin sons died during his construction of the building. One fell over a cliff and grabbed his brother to try not to fall, dragging them both to their deaths. Overwrought, he was unable to continue until they appeared to him in a dream. Comforted, he had images of his sons carved as angels to place over the entrance.

Also cool was the powder tower. An explosion of the powder kept there some three or found hundred years ago created the ruins as they exist now, with essentially an intact portion of the tower cracked off.

Pretty of the things I like in fact about this castle is that it is not completely restored. They did restore Friedrich's castle (below), but preserved the rest in ruin. It is awesome.

After the tours, we took the funicular to the mountain overlook...a pretty cool trip and awesome view.  

For dinner that night, we went to a little place out of the Old City. My wife actually lived in Heidelberg as a child, so we found a place she had eaten in 37 years earlier! The food was really good.

The next morning, we headed to the airport, where I nearly lost half our wine. I thought that since you can bring stuff in from within the EU, I could just put the wine in my carry on so I didn't have to worry about the bottles breaking. But no, it had to be less than I had to run back to check in and check my carry on...which is a soft sided shoulder bag. Luckily, the bottles made it...we sampled it last night.

And now that we are back, I have to leave again. I am doing a regional outreach trip to is rough!.

Wednesday, August 01, 2012

I WILL See A Castle, D*mmit!

After our last night in Colmar, we headed to Molsheim via a visit to the castle Haut-Konigsberg. I had planned to use that as a base to explore the wine route some more and to go back to Herrlisheim. We had two nights reserved in a hotel there.

The castle was unbelievably crowded. In fact, we couldn't even find a parking place at all.

So we decided to give up on it and head to Ribeauville instead. After all, Ribeauville has not one but THREE castles. I could just get my castle fix there.

Or not.

Turns out, you can't get there by car. To the castles that we walked around town while they taunted us from on high.

Hot and tired, we decided to head to our hotel and just relax and see the town there.

Even before we pulled into the hotel, I questioned the wisdom of deciding to stay there.

First, there is very little to see in Molsheim. In fact, in 30 minutes of walking around town, we basically saw all there was to see.

Then, there was the hotel. The room was clean enough, but very small. And a little smelly. And hot. With no AC. So our options were to roast or to sleep with the mosquitoes. We opted for the latter. There was a badly painted over mold stain in the bathroom, which had no shower. And when I attempted to unplug a lamp to charge my phone, the outlet CAME OUT OF THE WALL!

We decided to change our reservations to just one night and reserve an extra night at our next stop, Heidelberg.

We did find a surprisingly good Italian restaurant in town, and the waiter was even from South Carolina (his mother was a Charlestonian and his father was French). From the outside, it looks like a cheap pizza stand, but the food was excellent.

That night, we roasted, and mosquitoes buzzed my ears constantly. It was miserable. And then at 7 am, I heard someone tapping a toothbrush or razor on the bathroom sink so loudly that I actually thought they were in our room.

No, the walls were just that thin!

We went to breakfast, which for 8 euros only got Mary one cup of coffee before they ran out. The croissants had already run out by 8:45. All that was left was some cold cereal, sliced Swiss cheese and lunch meatloaf.

The decision to leave was clearly a good one.

We headed north and stopped at Souffleheim, which is know for its pottery and is only a couple kilometers from the town my dad's family is from. I got a little wine jug and then headed to Sessenheim to get pictures of the church there (minus the funeral) and then back to Herrlisheim.

We went to the city hall and found Jacques, who despite speaking very little English, helped me me find several Schohns in town. It was a little like an episode of "Who Do You Think you Are?"

We left there and headed to Heidelberg. The hotel was MUCH better! It was gi-nourmous! It actually used to be a studio apartment, so we had couches, a dining table and a kitchenette.

And best thing? It is walking distance to the castle. I could see it in the distance when we walked to the Old City that first night.

There is finally a castle in my future!