Sunday, October 28, 2012

More Than Was Promised

I am just going to go on record as saying that is not so hot at predicting snowfall totals in Estonia.

Because really, one inch is not equal to like 8 inches.

I know that and I am no math genius.

And of course, all that snow had to come Friday night, which would ordinarily be great since we didn't have to get up early on Saturday.

Except of course, we did, because we had scheduled an appointment for the car's 70,000 mile check up.

And of course, I thought the appointment was at 11. But it was at 1:30.

So we had to drive out there and then get a taxi home and back there later.

And of course, all of this was without our snow tires, because the deadline for having your snow tires on is December 1st. December, not October.

On a side note, snow tires here are seriously awesome. They have metal studs in them to help with your traction. Seriously awesome. Too bad they aren't legal in the states.

We did try to get an appointment to get our tires changed when we saw the forecast, but so apparently did every other person in Estonia. So we are hoping to get an appointment next week.

Because according to, we are supposed to have snow showers later this week.

Which probably means we will have a blizzard.

Friday, October 26, 2012

Election Exhaustion

I am so ready for elections to be over. Beyond ready.

Not because I don't care who wins. I do, though don't ask me who I am voting for because I won't tell you. I have to work for whoever wins.

And not because I am tired of all the campaigning. That would be true if I were in the U.S., but really, you don't hear much of it overseas. It is a major advantage of being overseas at election time. My only "American" television is AFN (American (formerly Armed) Forces Network), the television programming for the military. And like me, they work for whoever wins, so no campaign ads. In fact, no real ads at all unless you count "never shake a baby."

No, the reason I am ready for it to be over is that I have SO MUCH to dobetween now and then. (Voting is not among those things...that I took care of a while back so I could make sure my ballot made it home in time to count.) Elections are a great time for Public Diplomacy officers because it is a ready made topic to reach out to foreign audiences and explain America, especially American democracy.

Because when you really think about it, that a country can have a peaceful, predictable change of power every 4-8 years is pretty incredible.

So we do a lot of programming around it. We do tons of school visits explaining what is happening and what will happen after the fact. In our embassy, that has meant lots of heavy lifting for my section, but for other sections too. We have been trying to get as many Americans as possible out and talking, and we have had to put together good materials for them to use in their presentations. We are particularly working with our Regional Outreach teams (teams of one American and one local staff member assigned to each of Estonia's 15 counties) to get the word out. And they have been doing an awesome job at it.

We are in the final stretch now. We will be going to the north east part of the country to do a marathon two days of talking to schools and other programming surrounding Narva's America Days. 

And then of course, there is election night/morning.

Every embassy has a big event and we are no exception. 

We are not pulling an all-nighter...some posts in the region are and others aren't. We are, however, getting to the event location at o-dark-thirty so the event can start while some of the polls are still open.We are expecting hundreds of Estonians, from middle school students to members of Parliament, to show up. We'll have food, reporters, moderators explaining the elections, televisions running in the background, and more. It will be great! And exhausting. In fact, I am already tired.

I'll sleep when it is all over. 

And oh yeah. Don't forget to vote.

Thursday, October 25, 2012

The Sound of Impending Doom

If you have been reading this blog for a while, you know that I love Estonia and I love my job.

Except for one thing.

I am not a fan of the cold. I don't particularly care for snow. And I really do love hot weather.

So Estonia's weather doesn't do it for me.

All this "summer," I really wanted to stomp my feet and yell, "What gives, Estonia? I can deal with your winters but you gotta give me some summer." In fact, I might have actually stomped my feet and said that out loud. And for the record, three days of it just making it into the low 80s is not summer. That's spring.

So here we are in what ought to be autumn. I say ought to be because for me, autumn is temps in the 60s, not 30s. And it damn sure ain't snow.

And yet, today, in October, just days after the end of the State Fair in South Carolina (where they have a log flume because you will NOT catch a death of cold if you get wet), we had our first snow.

The current temperature is 37. The forecast high was 39, but I am not sure it made it. And tonight it will be below freezing.

And tomorrow we are supposed to get an inch of snow.

Even the Estonians are complaining about it. Which is a Really. Bad. Sign.

We already have R&R planned for the beach in SC in January. I am thinking I need to also plan us a little escape maybe in February. Maybe Italy. Or Greece.

'Cause this is gonna be a bad one.

Thursday, October 18, 2012

We Need A Slogan!

The lament is as old as diplomacy:

No one really gets us.

Even Benjamin Franklin, our nation's first diplomat, was misunderstood and to a degree, mistrusted. It is like we are a bit too tainted by our interactions with "furn-ners."

Amongst ourselves, we share stories of telling people what we do. If you say you are in the Foreign Service, people ask if that is like the Foreign Legion. If you say State Department, they ask you which state.

And if you say you are a diplomat, they just think you are uppity.

It is this lack of understanding among the American people that makes it so easy for Congress to slash our budget. Even our security budget. And then bad things happen (and the Department gets blamed...).

So I have said many times before and will say again, we need to be better at telling our story. Telling the good, bad and ugly about life in the Service. I try to do some of that here, in the hopes that some will read it and understand the prices we pay to serve, but also so that some of the best and brightest out there will decide it is a worthy cause and join us.

I am selfish like that...serving with good people makes the hard parts easier, so I want to convince all you good people out there to serve with me.

So again, and not for the last time, join me in telling our stories.

But also...

We need a slogan.

The Marines have "The Few. The Proud..." Army has "Army Strong."

We need one too...and it can't involve pin-stripes or cookie pushing. Those stereotypes are long past their shelf life.

Instead, something like:

"Bringing Your To The World and The World To You."

Or "Spreading American Values Since 1776."

Or "Using Our Words So Our Soldiers Don't Have To Face Their Guns."

Or "We're Everywhere So You Don't Have To Be."

Or "Making America Safer One Poster Show At A Time."

Help me come up with a good one...and then let's spread it.

Sunday, October 14, 2012


It has been just over a month, but the attacks on our embassies and consulates and the deaths of four diplomats including one friend are never far from my mind. And the dangers friends continue to face continues to worry me.

The politicizing of this situation, however, including the blame game going on, is infuriating.

That the very people who have repeatedly slashed our security budget would then try to find scapegoats within the State Department, the people who have tried their best to "do more with less," is unconscionable.

We know we sign on for dangerous tasks when we join the Service. It is a risk most of us gladly take for the privilege of serving the country and the feeling that we get to make a difference and help keep America safe.

Since I last posted on this topic, there have been a couple good pieces I wanted to share with you on what we do and the choices we make to do it.

From American University Radio:

U.S. Diplomats Grapple With Risks, Rewards Of Jobs Overseas

"Citing statistics from AFSA surveys over the last eight years, [AFSA President Susan] Johnson says 89 percent of the foreign service now say they have served in hardship posts of 15 percent or above. And when it comes to what the foreign service refers to as "danger posts," Johnson says, "Thirty-three percent say they've served in unaccompanied posts. And 'unaccompanied posts' means they're so dangerous that you can't take your family."

Then, as we've recently seen in Lebanon, Tunisia and Sudan, there's the number of foreign service workers who have experienced an emergency evacuation: to date, about 22 percent. In terms of all authorized evacuations since June 1988, Johnson says the reasons for these ordered departures include everything from earthquakes and cyclones to civil unrest, war and, of course, terrorism.

"That's the environment in which diplomacy needs to operate, and we accept that," Johnson says.

And From McClatchy, this:

Risky business: U.S. diplomats abroad

"The ambassador's decision points to an often overlooked truth about diplomacy: at its core, it is risk. From the craft's origins in antiquity, diplomats left the protections of our own borders and relied for our safety on persuasion, judgment and our indispensable role, without which state-to-state relations would go dark. Our presence on foreign soil best positions us to assess others' receptivity to our messages and to persuade them to work with us. But we are exposed when we are abroad.


In many places, it is difficult to distinguish friend from enemy. Our role is to clarify and to win partners. We cannot leave the world in the hands of economic or strategic competitors, or in the grip of dictators, criminals or extremists. We must, in the can-do spirit of our country, take necessary risks to represent the American case. We compete, we win, and we bring others along with us. These are the reasons that Ambassador Blaney chose to keep the flag flying in Liberia. They are the reasons that Ambassador Stevens and his team ventured last year into a contested land."

We are doing our best, under dangerous and trying conditions, to serve the country and make America safer for Americans. The blame game going on now to me is akin to rejecting a military request for bullet-proof vests and then blaming the supply guy when they get shot. So rather than looking for ways to blame those on the ground for doing the best than they could with the limited resources we are given, how about take a look at this moving piece, written by fellow blogger L over at Four Globetrotters, about what they faced in Tunisia and how they responded.

All employees are ordered to the safe haven. Everyone dutifully files in, deposits their cell phones since the safe haven is a phone-free zone. Reports continue to come in. The motor pool is on fire. The rec center is on fire. The employee parking lot is on fire. Protesters are on the roof of the Chancery. We immediately begin to do what we know to do. Destroy classified. I hear the sound of sledge hammers pounding away, comforted to know that my colleagues are destroying the classified material. The sound of the hammers echo through the Embassy, making the walls vibrate. Find out that sound isn't coming from within. The protesters are at our windows and are intent on getting in. They are attempting to set fire to the Chancery, dousing the building with gasoline and setting it on fire. My mind flashes back to the images from Benghazi, just a few days prior. I visualize the caskets of my dead colleagues on board the C-130 in Tripoli.

A faint smell of smoke begins to waft through the safe haven, where I'm sitting with 103 of my colleagues, some of whom are panicking and crying. I'm trying very hard to project calm and confidence. The fire alarm goes off. Someone decides to go get everyone's cell phones so we can start calling our loved ones. I sent three quick emails from my blackberry -- to my ex-husband: "In safehaven. People are on the compound, on roof. Tell the kids I love them so much. If the worst happens don't let them forget me.", one to my parents and my sisters, and one to my very special person. I'm worried sick about my motor pool team, stuck in an outside building.

I'm worried sick about my friends like L, as they continue to face danger, as well as my friends back in the Department, now no doubt second-guessing every decision they have made as they tried to do more with the less they were given and wondering whether they will be the sacrificial lamb in this tragedy.

Saturday, October 13, 2012

Not Once In A Lifetime

Before I joined the Service, I truly thought of overseas travel as a once in a lifetime kind of thing.

And I'd had my once in a lifetime trip before I met my wife. I had gone to Germany for a week. I had loved it, but I had no expectation I would ever go overseas again.

And then I met my wife, and together we went to London so she could do some research for her dissertation.

And then she joined the Service, and I went out to Azerbaijan three times to see her.

And then I joined the Service, and just like that, travel shifted from the thing other people get to do to the thing we get to do. From the once in a lifetime to the plan for a long weekend.

Since joining the Service, I have been served in Jerusalem and Estonia. And I have visited Israel, Jordan, Egypt, Turkey, Italy, Greece, Belgium, Finland, France, Germany again, and Russia. And just this weekend, I added Hungary to the list.

This is one of the things I love about being in the Service. I always suspected I would love to travel. Now I KNOW I love it. The trip to Hungary was just an overnighter. My wife had a conference there and while I couldn't join her for the whole week (alas, work interfered!), I could take off Thursday and Friday and fly out to join her.

I didn't get to do a lot of sightseeing while I was there, but I did get to spend an evening with good friends from A-100 and another friend who also serves in the Baltics. And the view from our hotel, plus pictures my wife took on a river cruise that was part of her conference, give me a good idea of where to visit when we go back.

When. Not if.

Because travel isn't once in a lifetime for me anymore.

Monday, October 08, 2012

Not All Who Wander

One of the cool things about being in the Foreign Service is all the places you get to see that you might not have otherwise.

This weekend, because my wife had not yet made it to Tartu, we decided to hop in the car and go there.

Tartu, as I have mentioned before, is a beautiful city, the second largest in Estonia at just more than 100,000 residents. I have been there several times for work, as well as during my language immersion, but we had just not gotten around to making the two hour trek there for fun.

We watched a bit of the Tartu Marathon (which we hadn't known was happening), wandered the town a bit, took a few pictures, and had lunch at a nice little cafe in town hall square. Then we wandered along the Ema Jogi, the country's most important river, and spotted some swings on the river bank. We spotted this rainbow as well.

For whatever reason, Estonia is the land of rainbows. Maybe God just really loves Estonia. Or they have put up with enough that it is a message to them that he won't put them through that again in the future.

At any rate, we spotted this double rainbow on the way home, and then another at home before the sun set. And I spotted one from my office window a few minutes ago.

I will be doing a bit more wandering this week. My wife is going to a conference in Budapest, Hungary this week. I can't join her for all of it, but I am going to fly out for one night. I am never been there and we have good friends living there now. So why not?

Now when in my past life could I have said, Hey, why don't I fly out to Budapest for the night?

Not. Ever.

Monday, October 01, 2012

Back in the U.S.S.R.

Actually, not at all. It is just a good title to explain why I haven't posted in a week.

So no, not back in the U.S.S.R. First, because this was my first visit to Russia, and I am currently back FROM there. And second, because Russia is clearly NOT the U.S.S.R. (which no longer exists), as is evidenced by the reason for my visit –

Social media.

I was in Moscow last week for training on social media in Russian space. But getting there was half the battle.

It started more than a month ago. When the announcement for the training came out, I deleted it because they required post to pay for the travel. And my budget was stretched thin. But then the department came up with money for me and one of my staff to travel. So we happily agreed to go.

All went well with getting our visas. So our next problem was just getting on the plane. They had us on standby! Not sure how that happens with what the government pays for fares, but luckily we managed to get on the plane. Then we get to passport control. And the officer says to me “You came in from Copenhagen in August 2011.”

I answered in Estonian, Yes. I work here.

“But you have no visa.”

Luckily, I had my diplomatic card. I brought it at the last minute thinking I would need it to get back INTO Estonia, not that I would need it to keep me from being deported!

The flight was uneventful, but the traffic is Moscow is ridiculous. It took forever to get to the Golden Ring hotel.

We spent the first evening wandering around, and I got to tick on an item on my bucket list – seeing St. Basil’s Cathedral at Red Square. I didn’t get to see Lenin though…the entire building containing his tomb was covered by a gigantic sign for a light show that was to start a few days later.

We went to the Arbot and looked at souvenirs, then ate, of all places, at a Wendy’s. Don’t judge me. Sometimes you need a frosty.

The next two days were spent at the embassy, which is BIG. The room where our class was held overlooked a nice green space…it could have been any apartment complex in Arlington. You could watch people walking their dogs and babies staring out of apartment windows, runners getting exercise and moms with strollers. You could forget it was a compound.

Lots of folks at the embassy apparently live on the compound, and I really think you could survive without ever leaving it. In addition to the green spaces and homes, there is dry cleaning, a cafeteria, a commissary that is like a small grocery store, a gym, a park with playground equipment, and there was even a bar! I bet there are people who never leave it, though that for me kind of defeats the purpose of being in the Foreign Service.

I saw a ton more people who I knew than I expected. Friends from Riga and Minsk. A fellow blogger. There was even someone who was in my oral assessment! And of course, people from big PA in Washington. Of course, the State Department is a very small world…I even ran into someone my wife served with at Main State.

After the first day of training, we had a reception at the DCM’s house. All I can say is wow, she has a seriously awesome chef! Sadly, the food was just finger food (I would so love to taste her meals!), so after the reception, some of us headed to dinner. We found a place on the Arbot that served pasta and sushi, a weird combo but okay none the less. The eel was better than in Tallinn, the smoked salmon was worse and the salmon roe doesn’t seem to exist here.

Our second day of training started entirely too early…you should not have to get to training earlier than you normally go to work. But the session was a good one on creating a crisis response plan, so with the help of copious amounts of coffee (which I normally don’t drink) and an engaging instructor, I made it through.

The one thing lacking in the training was time to sight-see, so I opted out of a dinner they scheduled for our second day and walked around Red Square instead. I needed to buy some souvenirs (got them...complete with haggling!) and see more of the Kremlin. And ride the metro again. I am glad I was with a Russian speaker, because Russians and Americans are alike in the lack of an inclination to put their signs in anything but their own language. The city is challenging for those of us with barely above zero Russian skills.

So there you have it. My excuse for not blogging this past week. No tigers. Just no time or computer access! I am glad I went, but even more glad to be home. And I got some good news after I got back…I got promoted! Guess I will have to quit saying "this is why I will never get promoted!"