Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Wishing You The Best!

Guilt from the realization that I haven't blogged since November and not wanting to let a New Year role in without one last post prompted me to pry myself from the comfort of my recliner to come upstairs and post.

2014 has been an eventful year, as are they all of late, and I continue to feel extraordinarily lucky for all that I have and all I have been able to experience.

This year brought us to the conclusion of our three years in our beloved Estonia, And after finally getting to move into the house we bought more than a year ago and a wonderful home leave that took us as far north as Maine and as far south as Atlanta, it took us right back to Estonia to help with President Obama's visit to Tallinn. I got to thank him, personally, for supporting Marriage Equality.

Courtesy of Freedom to Marry

And this is a year that will go in the record books for Marriage Equality, The Supreme Court's refusal to hear cases where a number of Appellate Courts had ruled in favor of marriage equality meant that the number of states where you can marry the person you love blossomed to 35. Including South Carolina. SOUTH CAROLINA, y'all!

We can retire someplace warm!

I don't know what 2015 will bring. We all know I am famously bad at keeping New Year's Resolutions regardless of what I call them, so I just hope that life continues on the way it has. I hope all goes according to plan, and that we will finish Albanian language training and head off to Kosovo in July. I hope that my wife, our pets and our families continue to be healthy. I hope our work continues to be meaningful and that we get to continue to serve the country.

I also hope for continued improvement in our country. I hope 2015 brings marriage equality to the remaining 15 states. I hope our economy continues to improve and that the improvement lifts those who are suffering. I hope that lift helps heal some of the divides in our country so that people can once again remember that there are smart, dedicated, patriotic people on both sides of the political divide in this country. We all want what is best for the country. We just don't agree on how to get there. If we can remember that, it would be a huge start.

And for you, I hope that your 2015 is better than your 2014 regardless of how 2014 was for you. If you were loved, I wish you more love, and if you weren't, then I wish you love. If you were happy, I wish you more happiness, and if you were sad, I hope your sadness if finally abated.

I hope you and yours are happy, healthy, and secure in 2015.

Happy New Year! Head Uut Aastat! Gëzuar Vitin e Ri!

Saturday, November 22, 2014

When Will It Be a Lesbian's Turn

The Senate is finally getting around to clearing some of the ambassadorial nominees that have been sitting in limbo for months and months.

I suspect this could be happening because they know that when the Republicans take over in January, Presidential appointments could be more contentious.

I am really happy to see this happening. We need to have ambassadors in our countries. It says a lot about the seriousness with which we take the relations with that country and it affects the work we are able to do.

I am particularly happy to see folks like Donald Lu, who is going out as Ambassador to Albania, get confirmed. I have never met him, but every single person I have spoken to about him said he is a guy to work for. That they would work for him anywhere. That is the highest compliment a Foreign Service Officer can get.

And I am ecstatic to see Ted Osius' confirmation as Ambassador to Vietnam. Up to now, all of the current openly gay Ambassadors have been political appointees. Ted is a career officer, as is his husband Clayton Boyd. I have never met Ted, but Clayton is an awesome guy. I'd love to work with him one day.

But still missing from this lineup are openly gay Ambassadors of color or openly lesbian Ambassadors (career or political). Yes, I have heard speculation that this female Ambassador or that was lesbian (though that is often something speculated about any strong woman regardless of her sexuality), but I am talking about an out lesbian. A role model to the lesbians of the world and to the lesbian diplomats in the Department.

When will we see those appointments?

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

The Risks We Take

For all of you still convinced of how easy the lives diplomats live are, Email from the Embassy has a good piece this week on the risks we take to serve the country in the Foreign Service.

Everyone knows the risks we take to serve in some of the most dangerous places in the world. At least, I like to think they know. Sometimes I am not so sure. But to refresh your memory, there have been 21 attacks on U.S. embassies and consulates since the 1998, when our embassies in Nairobi, Kenya and Dar e Salaam, Tanzania were attacked. Fifteen of that attacks have happened just in the nearly 11 years I have been a part of the Foreign Service. Hundreds have died in those attacks, including the one everyone now remembers, the one at Benghazi, which took the life of my friend, Ambassador Chris Stevens.

But there are other risks too. Risks we are aware of but sometimes try to push from our minds. The Department is why we can retire with full pension after 20 years instead of the usual 25-30 the federal government requires.

That risk is to our health.

We serve in places where healthcare is far less than what we can get in the U.S. while the risk is far greater. Ebola is just the most recent example. In addition to the courageous health care workers risking and sometimes losing their own lives to help the people of the affected West African countries, there are also diplomats serving in those places, working to make sure we can get help where it is needed. But this is far from the only place. When I went to visit my wife in Baku, a pre-checkup at my then university advised me simply not to go. And added that if I got sick with ANYTHING, to leave the country. As Donna mentions in her piece above, she sacrificed hearing in one ear to the pollution in China and now wonders about the mysterious chemical she inhaled for a day in Moscow before they were warned to turn off their heating systems and close all windows. One of my wife's A-100 classmates lost 1/3 of his intestines to a mystery bug at his first post.

There are cancer clusters from people who served at certain posts together. malaria, respiratory illnesses from years of pollution, and mysterious miscarriages. And even for me, there is a potential connection between vitamin D deficiency and arthritis. But mine, like so many others, can't necessarily be traced to my service.

Like Donna, most days, I think the risk is worth it. And I know if my knees are the worst of it, I have gotten off easy.

Monday, November 17, 2014

Searching For Diversity in the Foreign Service

PBS' show "To The Contrary" had a nice piece this week on the Foreign Service's efforts to become less pale, male and Yale.

The show does a good job of showing where we have succeeded and where we have a ways yet to go.

Personally, I would have liked for them to talk more about the lack of American Indians at State. I think there are only about 35 of us throughout all of State's Foreign and Civil Service. That number would be less than the percentage of the population if it were entirely FSOs. American Indians make up about two percent of the total U.S. population. At 13,000 Foreign Service Officers and Specialists, that number is only 1/5 of one percent. When you consider the additional 11,000 Civil Service employees of the Department, you begin to see exactly how small the representation of American Indians at State really is.

I know it is hard to recruit Indian people. People in my own tribe don't understand why I would do this. Why I would go so far from home. But it is important because we represent an important part of America's story, one that the world needs to hear. We are uniquely situated to talk about this country, warts and all, and our willingness to still serve it and believe in the best that it can be. And in communities with minority populations, previously occupied peoples, or indigenous populations, we are uniquely able to speak the language so to speak.

While I am a member of the newly formed employee affinity group for American Indians and I have in the past gone to speak to universities with significant Indian populations, it is my hope that I will one day be able to work in recruiting for the Department and hopefully make our numbers more representative.

Saturday, November 15, 2014

I Forgot To Tell You

It is sometimes hard to remember to post things about language training.

So here it is. Albanian is hard, but not as hard as Estonian. But still hard.

We have been moved to block A (you might remember I complained about being on Block B here). I don't know how long it will last, but it is objectively better. There is parking, food in the cafeteria (which is no longer a half-eteria, as they have finished the renovations), and the schedule allows us to make some much needed doctor appointments (something all FS folks do when they are back in the states). Plus, we have a good class with great chemistry and similar abilities and a good teacher who is willing to let us geek out on grammar.

And we all know anything geeky is likely to make me happy.

We also both had our first progress test last week and we both did well. Nice to be over that hump.

Oh, and I finally got assigned to DC...only three months after I arrived....

Now for my locality pay to catch up!

Friday, November 14, 2014

Ten Parting Thoughts for America's Diplomats

I meant to share this with you back when it was published last month.

It is some parting thoughts by William Burns, a career Foreign Service Officer who is retiring after serving as Deputy Secretary of State, the number 2 position at the State Department. He is uniformly respected and admired, and will be missed.

10 Parting Thoughts for America's Diplomats: As one of America's foremost diplomats hangs up his spurs, lessons from 33 years at the State Department.

Thursday, November 13, 2014

Don't expect to get kissed....

You probably (hopefully) noticed we had an election last week. Hopefully you even voted.

You probably (hopefully) also noticed that the Republicans gained control of the Senate and maintained control of the House.

The Washington Post had a good piece on why this might make federal employees nervous. Because you can bet money that federal employees will be getting screwed again. And don't expect to get kissed.

"A look at what the Republican-dominated House has already approved provides a good indication of what will soon get much greater consideration in a Republican-dominated Senate. For starters, take the budget plan the House approved in April.

It would save Sam $125 billion over 10 years — at the expense of his employees.

The GOP has repeatedly given feds good reason to be wary of a Republican-controlled Congress. Last year’s 16-day partial government shutdown was engineered largely by recalcitrant House Republicans. At the same time, it’s worth remembering that the three-year freeze on federal pay rates was proposed by President Obama, a Democrat, and approved with a bipartisan congressional majority. Those two things, the pay freeze and the shutdown, angered the workforce and hurt its morale more than any other issues in recent years."

That's right, we get to continue to be Congress's favorite whipping boy. They will make cuts to our pay and our retirement, even though federal salaries make up only 15% of discretionary spending, and discretionary spending is only about 29% of the entire federal budget.

But it makes them look good to their voters.

Guess whose salaries and retirements won't face any cuts?

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

SC determined to bring up the rear....

A federal judge today found South Carolina's ban on marriage equality unconstitutional.

Photo courtesy of SC Equality
This should come as no surprise, since the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals found the ban unconstitutional last month. And while that ruling concerned a case from Virginia, all the states covered by the Fourth have seen the handwriting on the wall, have stopped wasting taxpayer dollars, and started allowing same-sex couples to marry.

Except, of course, South Carolina.

Because Governor Haley, who vowed that "This administration will continue to uphold the will of the people," wants you to remember her as the governor who continued to fight for the will of the people, much as George Wallace is remembered for photos of him blocking black students from entering Alabama schools after desegregation. Maybe she could block the doors of the courthouse as same-sex couples try to enter for marriage licenses.

Make no mistake, SC's governor is just as much on the wrong side of history as he was, and history will be no kinder to her. Remember too that slavery was once the will of the people.

Likewise, SC Attorney General Wilson has already said he will appeal this the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals. The same court that has already ruled that the bans are unconstitutional. A ruling that the Supreme Court has already declined to review.

His argument is that the 6th Circuit Court has since ruled that such bans ARE constitutional. But they are the only court to rule that way of more than forty federal court rulings. And SC is not covered by that court. True, that ruling may mean the Supreme Court will have to address the issue again soon, and hopefully this time more fully, and it has even been rumored that the ruling was designed to force the Supreme Court to get involved. But that does not change the fact that the issue has been addressed by the very court he is appealing to, and the Supreme Court already refused to hear an appeal of that ruling.

In case you are wondering why all this matters, consider the words of William Lucas Walker, who is, like me, a South Carolinian in exile. And consider the same-sex families still living there:

"I love South Carolina. Loved growing up there. Love going back. Despite the fact that we're two guys with kids, in 15 years we've never had a bad experience. Our family is welcomed at Sunday services by the same congregation that's known me since I was child. Our kids have been cared for in the same nursery where I used to play. On my October trips, when Kelly and the kids aren't with me, the minister always asks to see pictures. That's the South Carolina I love.

But it doesn't mean we're safe. Not as a family. Not in case of emergency. Every time we go back together we can't avoid the unspoken stress of wondering what might happen to us if there were some sort of accident or medical crisis. Would Kelly be recognized as my spouse? Would I be recognized as his? Would we be seen as our children's parents? Allowed to make medical decisions for each other or for them?

 It's not a hypothetical fear."

 It is done, South Carolina. Get on the right side of history. Be the state I love.

Your drive to get to be the very last state with institutionalized bigotry is embarrassing. And your citizens deserve better than you wasting their money on that.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Dangers In The Work We Do

There have been a number of interesting stories in the news lately (and by lately, I mean last month, because I have sucked as a blogger lately) about the risks of being a diplomat. The articles stem from the deaths of journalists and other Westerners held hostage by ISIS, though I wonder whether some of this is also related to the new show Madam Secretary (which no, I will not review here. A lot of my colleagues hate it, much as my friends in construction hate HGTV, but I am enjoying it and figure anything that shines a positive light on the work we do is a good thing, even if it is not terribly accurate).

I meant to share these sooner, but I don't yet have a desk in my office in our new home and that makes blogging challenging. But hopefully my new desk will arrive tomorrow and I can organize my office so that work up here will be possible.

So for now, I will just share some links with you.

From Federal News Radio: It happened to me: Diplomats recount stories of crisis and survival

From the Center for American Progress: Attacks Against American Diplomats.

From the Washington Post: Reporters’ deaths point to dangers Foreign Service officers also face abroad

Monday, October 13, 2014

A Whole New World

SC Statehouse
Photo by
SC Equality
My wife and I were driving down the GW Parkway to FSI last Monday when we first heard the news: the Supreme Court had declined to hear the cases on marriage equality.

My initial response was confusion and disappointment. We had really hoped the court would finally weigh in and give some clarity to the issue. How could they not weigh in when five separate appellate courts had ruled that the ban on marriage equality was unconstitutional? And what would this mean in those cases? More lives on hold?

But clarity was soon in coming and change swept through like wildfire.

Their non-decision, while not deciding on the issue for the whole country, is having close to the same effect and was apparently the right one: there was no need to weigh in on an issue upon which all of the lower courts had agreed. So in Virginia, Utah, Oklahoma, Indiana and Wisconsin, the lower court ruling would stand and marriage equality would be the law of the land.

The non-decision would likely expand marriage equality to the other states covered by those federal appeals courts: meaning marriage equality was also coming to Colorado, Wyoming, Kansas, West Virginia, North Carolina and South Carolina.

South Carolina, y'all!

Virginia immediately accepted the ruling, and as of 1 p.m. on the 6th, couples began to get married and suddenly we were married both at home and at work!).

A few other states fought and then surrendered, including North Carolina, where GOP leaders went back to the court with the argument that the federal court didn't have jurisdiction (really guys? 'cause I think we fought a war over that one...).

Others are still fighting it, including South Carolina (of course), although the probate judges in Richland, Charleston, and Colleton counties have begun accepting applications. The SC Supreme Court ordered them to stop, but the judge in Richland County refused. She is the same probate judge who handled my grandmother's estate...I thought she and her staff were awesome then. Now she is my hero.

In the week since SCOTUS' non-decision, even more states have joined the right side of history, including Alaska (one Facebook meme noted that a certain politician from that state could now see marriage equality from her back yard!).

In fact, on Wednesday, Estonia passed a gender-neutral civil partnership law that will grants LGBT people there many of the rights and responsibilities of marriage. They are the first country formerly occupied by the Soviet Union to do so! Told you I loved that place!

I don't even know for sure what the count of states is now with marriage equality because so many places are in flux. It is somewhere between 30-35, up from 19 before the non-decision. More than half of the country lives in a marriage equality state. Here is the latest map from wikipedia (it is edited by Joe Jervis of the LGBT blog Joe.My.God., and he noted that he had to change it some eight times in a week, including twice in one day).

Here is the current map (as of this morning):

Here is what that means:

Dark blue: Same-sex marriage legal
Dark silver: Same-sex marriage performed elsewhere recognized
Light blue: Same-sex marriage legalization pending, but not yet in effect
Light Silver: No prohibition or recognition of same-sex marriage in territory law
Gold: Judicial ruling(s) overturning the same-sex marriage ban stayed indefinitely pending appeal
Yellow: Judicial ruling(s) overturning the ban on recognizing same-sex marriage performed elsewhere stayed indefinitely pending appeal
Red: Same-sex marriage ban runs contrary to federal appellate court precedent (includes SC, of course)
Garnet: Same-sex marriage banned

This is a historic moment. Love is winning.

And our potential retirement locations are increasing! Thanks to Asheville for being so are currently that the top of the list!

Asheville, NC City Hall.
Photo courtesy of WLOS ABC 13

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Catching Up

We are finally settling in.

We started Albanian language training on Tuesday, a week later than our other classmates thanks to our TDY back to Tallinn.

Being back at FSI (the Foreign Service Institute) is like old home week. You are constantly running into people you haven't seen in years. It is a lot of fun. Less fun is the cafeteria, or as folks there are calling it, the "halfeteria." It is mostly not functional owing to construction to expand it. Of course, I have never been a big fan of the food there, so it isn't much of a loss.

Albanian is a hard language, and not one that is related closely to any other language. But thankfully, having learned Estonian, I feel pretty confident in my ability to get to the required score.

The teachers seem good and I like them. Plus, we have a neighbor from Albania who also used to teach Albanian. She said she would be happy to practice with us.

Our schedule has left a bit to be desired. Overcrowding at FSI has meant them needing to have two time blocks for students. We were originally scheduled to be in Block A, 7:40 am to 2:30 pm. But while we were in Tallinn, that got moved around because basically no one wants Block B, 10:40-5:30, and we weren't there to state our case.

Block B is objectively worse. Even as a confirmed non-morning person, the extra sleep offered by block B is not enough to make me prefer it. It means that our 30 minute commute turns into an hour or more on the way home. If you are in block A, you can make doctor's appointments for the afternoons. This is a big bonus when you have been overseas for a while. The few hours in the morning aren't long enough for that when you have a commute of any sort.

We are trying to get it changed, but I am not optimistic. So I am trying to use the time in the morning to make progress unpacking. Good grief we have too much crap! And too many clothes! We lack the drawer or closet space for most of our clothes, so our bedroom is one place where I have made less progress unpacking than I had hoped. But at least we have functional (of still cluttered) kitchen and living rooms. Both offices are progressing, and the spare bedroom will be visit ready as soon as we figure out what to do with all those books!!

Outside the house, we have installed a new patio and ordered a table to put on it. So soon we can have guests. And I have assembled a porch swing and just need to find someone to hang it. I also took down the crappy house numbers (a piece of white wood with stickers of the house numbers) and replaced it with a nice house sign I ordered.

Of course, my fear is we will get everything situated just in time to pack out again in July...

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Getting the Rest of Our Stuff

If you could come up with anything to do after you have just worked an exhausting week preparing for a POTUS visit, just traveled back across the globe and are still suffering through jet lag, what would you do?

Have your HHE delivered, of course!

Because I am a masochist, clearly.

We flew back from Tallinn on the 5th, a Friday, and had our Household Effects from Tallinn delivered Monday. Because I am nuts. But mostly because I wanted our bed.

Our stuff filled four and a half crates! Clearly I need to spend this year decluttering.

Sunday, September 07, 2014

The Travel Day Was Worth It

I could also title this post "the day I met the President...again."

I met President Obama once before, when I was in Jerusalem. Of course, at that time, he wasn't President Obama, he was Senator Obama. But I knew he was going to be president one day, so I got my picture taken with him.

On September 3rd, I got my picture taken with him again, this time when he was actually president. If you are my Facebook friend, you have seen it. If not, you'll have to take my word for it, since this blog is "anonymous."

I knew that we wouldn't get more than a split second with him, and I wanted to make it count.

So we got there early so we'd get a good place to stand. Turns out we got one of the best places...the embassy photographer was right near us and not allowed to move, so we got one of the only good pictures that day. And when he was talking, before he came around to shake everyone's hands, I was about 10 feet from him.

When he shook my hand, I looked at him and said, "Thank you for supporting marriage equality." He touched my shoulder and said "of course."

The rest of the visit was...a visit. I handled his speech at Nordea Concert Hall. I was maybe 20 feet from the stage, my reward for having worked all week through constant headaches and changes and headaches that came from the changes. Let's just say when you are trying to invite people to a limited seating event that everyone wants their favorites to attend, it gets a little nuts. But it was worth it...the speech was great and ended up being important from a foreign policy perspective.

You can read the speech here or watch it below:

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

A Travel Day From Hell in Facebook Posts

Here I am, back in Tallinn. I wasn't sure I was going to make it.

My uncertainty started a few days before. My dog got stuck on the nose by one of the myriad of insects in the DC area, and apparently had an allergic reaction. So we went from an itchy lump on her nose to some mild barfing to explosive poopies.

Just what you look for two days before you are planning to leave the country and leave your baby in the hands of pet sitters (who are awesome, but who are not you).

But one trip to the emergency vet and a few hundred dollars later, she was fine. And I was back on track to come to Tallinn for my TDY.

My shuttle arrived about 10 minutes later than scheduled but I didn't worry, since it was scheduled for an hour before I felt like I needed to leave. We made it to the airport in plenty of time. Then I get to the ticket counter and...

Digger Diplomat
August 23 6:34 pm
So apparently American cancelled my ticket. WTF???

So I spent more than an hour working with British Airways people and the government person at the agency we are required to use to make our reservations. They said they hadn't received my orders, so they canceled by ticket. I consider turning around and going home, but remember that I really like my old boss and want to help her out. Plus I really don't want to spend two weeks apart from my wife, especially since our anniversary is during that two weeks. So I had the travel agent rebook everything. I also had her put in my known traveler number so I would be able to speed through security and make my flight. So we should all be good now, right?

Not so much. 

Digger Diplomat
August 23 7:44 pm 
Finally got my tickets. Too expensive to upgrade to economy plus. And the travel company didn't put in my known traveller number even though I gave it to them twice. And I got stuck behind the people in the security line with tons of crap and no clue how to go through. Sigh.I better get a pic with the President out of this!

Finally got my tickets as in only one hour before my 8:55 flight! AND the company got to charge the Department for having to deal with this over the phone...even though it was their error. And that upgrade to economy plus would have cost me nearly $400! 

Digger Diplomat
August 23 8:02 pm
Back on the flight. [Redacted travel company] STILL doesn't know they have to abide by the Open Skies treaty, hence they routed me on American carriers only....DC to London to Copenhagen to Tallinn...

This is actually a problem. The Open Skies Treaty we signed means that if a flight originates, terminates or transits the EU, we can't insist on only American carriers. EU carriers also need to be considered. Bet I could have gotten a better flight if they had considered say Lufthansa or Scandinavian Airlines... Regardless, given that this nasty routing was my original itinerary, I had a suit in my backpack. You know, just in case my suitcase doesn't make all those connections.  So I wasn't too worried about the number of stops. 
Then, at the gate, my name is called. Please come to the counter immediately. Really? Now what? I wonder if it is too late to go home. No no, my wife is already there.
Oh good...they just moved me back one row because a family had been separated. But it wasn't my last seat movement.

Digger Diplomat
August 23 :8:40 pm
Finally on board. A passenger asked me to switch with him, so now I am on an exit row with lots of leg room. Not that I need it

Oh, well that is good, right? Much less claustrophobic. No seatback pouch though...I spy the barf bag in the pouch across the aisle from me and mentally note that if I feel airsick, I bet I can grab that guy's back before he does! But I should be fine, right? I have taken my dramamine an hour beforehand, and it lasts for four hours. I should be fine. 

Digger Diplomat
August 23 9:03 pm
Sitting in the tarmac. They have too many bags on board and have to turn around, causing a "significant delay." Awesome.

So we were already away from the gate when they discovered that one of the bags on board had been mistagged for the people behind me. It didn't belong to anyone on the plane. For security reasons, it needed to be taken off before we could fly. Wonder if this will happen in time for me to make my connection in London to Amsterdam? I only have an hour and a half layover. 

Digger Diplomat
August 23 9:58 pm 
Still waiting on the tarmac. over an hour now.

Not feeling optimistic about my connection.

Digger Diplomat
August 23 10:08 pm
This is taking so long they are reshowing the safety video 

It also took so long they had to top off the fuel!
The pilot says they have been routed a faster route. Any bets on my making my connection?

Digger Diplomat
August 24 5:49 am [10:49 am London time]
Travel day from hell continues. Missed my flight to Copenhagen. The next one leaves in two hours. Then a five hour layover...and there is no Estonian Air rep here to make sure I can get on thay flight

Digger Diplomat
August 24 12:02 pm London time
BA gave me a five pound voucher...that neither covered my lunch nor adequately compensated me for my inconvenience.

I should turn around and go home. At this point, wanting to help my boss has fallen from my motivational list. Only my wife remains...

Digger Diplomat
August 24 5:04 pm Copenhagen time
Made it to Copenhagen. Took some doing to find my ticket to Tallinn. When the agent finally found it, she said I was in business class (which differs from regular class on Estonia Air only by seat location and free alcohol....and I don't drink.) I asked if that meant I could use the business class lounge and she told me to go try. The agent at the lounge, however, said that while I might have a seat IN business class, it isn't coded business class. So she sent me I just have to sit in the hall and wait for four hours.#willthisdayneverend?

More than a tad embarrassing. Seriously? I should turn around and go home. At this point, wanting to help my boss has fallen from my motivational list. Only seeing my wife remains..

Digger Diplomat
August 24 6:07 pm Copenhagen time 
Just spent $20 for a sandwich, chips and a diet coke...and it was the cheapest thing I could find!

Digger Diplomat
August 24 8:15 pm Copenhagen time 
There have been multiple points today where if it hadn't meant spending two weeks apart from wife (including our anniversary), I'd have said screw it and gone home. And it isn't over yet!
Oh, had I mentioned this before? It is because I thought about it. A Lot.

Digger Diplomat
August 24 11:27 pm Tallinn time 
Made it to Tallinn. Wonder if my bag did. 
The good news is that my bag made it as the same time I did. I was in the hotel and in bed...a mere 24 hours after my journey began. And nearly twice as long as it has ever taken me to get here.

But at least I will spend my wedding anniversary with my wife....hopefully.

Thursday, August 21, 2014

We Interrupt This Home Leave...

Did you hear?

President Obama is going to Tallinn.

Naturally that had to happen after we left...except...

They asked us to come back to help (there will be more advance people there prepping for this that all of Americans at the twice).

So we are cutting home leave short to head back.

It is going to cost us a bit to do it. Despite getting per diem and having our travel paid for, we will still need to get a pet sitter for a couple weeks. And we will miss a women's festival we have already paid to attend.

Still, I am happy to be going back, happy to be able to help, and happy they think enough of us to want us back when it would be easier and cheaper to get regional help.

Besides, in case you haven't gathered. I love Estonia.

So, we are heading back!

Wednesday, August 06, 2014

Road Tripping

Now that we have arrived safely, gotten all our available stuff delivered, gotten the pets settled in (the cats remembered their couch still had their fur on it!...and settled into their old spots on it) and located the most awesome pet sitter, we are officially on vacation. On the agenda for this trip is:

* Northampton, Massachusetts (WHY didn't I know about Smith College when I was looking at where to go for undergrad???)

* Baa Haa Baa (I mean, Bar Harbor), Maine and Acadia National Park

* Pennsylvania (to visit the inlaws)

* Tennessee (to visit my "new" uncle...apparently my grandfather had a girlfriend we didn't know about!)

* Asheville, NC (to our favorite cabins, Willow Winds).
Our little cabin in the mountains
* Georgia (to see my dad)

And then back home.

This is what I meant when I said we didn't "have" to get hotels for five weeks but still are for part of it!

Details and more pictures to come!

Tuesday, August 05, 2014

Travelling With Pets

I will start this post by saying that I know there are a lot of folks out there who think you should just find homes for your pets if you join the Foreign Service.

I am decidedly NOT in that camp. You will find me in the camp of people who believe that a) the pets are a lifelong commitment and members of the family, and b) we give up a lot to serve. We shouldn't give up everything. Including our furred and feathered family members.

And while I believe it is worth the inconvenience, travelling with pets is challenging.

For us, we have a "no more pets than hands" rule. It is an airport rule had is needed when we are in the airport for each pet. So two of us, four hands, four pets. Two cats, a dog and a parrot.

Travelling with cats and dogs is easy. Those who tell you it is hard have never traveled with a parrot. Hard is relative.

For the dog and cats, when going overseas, you need proof of rabies vaccine, a visit to a USDA certified vet, and a USDA certificate validated within 10 days of travel. I admit that can be challenging when you are trying to packout, but I have had great success overnighting the form to the USDA and including a return overnight envelope. That worked much better than our first time, when we drove to Richmond and back. And I have had wonderful success in dealing with the animal services folks from USDA. They have always been super friendly and helpful. You may also need additional paperwork

Depending on where you are going, you may also need additional paperwork filled out, as we did for the EU. Our vets at Caring Hands in Arlington helped us with all of it. They are awesome.

Depending on how quickly you get your orders (don't get me started...), making plane reservations can be the most challenging part. We were lucky enough to get our orders in plenty of time coming back this time and so got both cats in cabin and the dog and bird in as excess baggage. One note: make sure you have a dog carrier sized for the smallest plane you will travel on. This is especially true for those with larger dogs than I have.

You may get a travel tech telling you that you MUST fly on the contract carrier. This isn't true and for some destinations, hasn't been for a while. The latest guidance allows you to fly on a carrier other than the contract carrier if you can't fly your pets with the contract carrier. Plus, Fly America doesn't apply if you are going to, from or transiting through the EU. Then the Open Skies treaty applies, meaning you can use an EU flagged airline. This was important for me as American airlines are generally not allowing parrots anymore.

Coming back, we went to a local vet and got pet passports for all the pets except the parrot. This meant having a means to show all of their vaccines and the timing of them as well as that the pets had a last checkup within ten days of travel.

Now if all of that sounds complicated, you have to do all of that and then some to travel with a parrot.

I love my bird. I have had her for 18 years and I will do what I have to in order to travel with her. But a word of advice: if you don't have a bird and are in or joining the Foreign Service, DON'T GET ONE.

Leaving the US, you have to work both with US Fish and Wildlife and the USDA. You do all of the above vet visits and certifications, but you also have to get your bird tested to make sure it doesn't have avian influenza or Newcastle's Disease. This means that you have to find a USDA certified avian vet and have them tested three additional times within that ten days (a ten days, then avian flu test at seven days, results check at five days and final check at two days before travel). Then you need to get a CITES ( Convention on International Trade of Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora) permit. Actually, you need export permit from the US and an import permit from the country you are heading to. And you have to make an appointment with Fish and Wildlife to examine the bird at the airport as you are leaving (because you need one more thing to do at the airport when you are PCSing). If the airport is not an approved wildlife port, and Dulles is not, you need to get a port exception permit as well.

Coming back, you have to go through this again. Find an avian vet to check your parrot. Get the state vet to sign off on the paperwork from that checkup. Get the import, export and port exception permits. You also need a USDA permit. In fact, let me share with you the email I got from Fish and Wildlife (also really awesome people...I made some mistakes in the process of going TO Estonia, and they helped me sort it all out).

"Thank you for contacting the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service (FWS), Dulles office regarding the procedures for importing a pet bird through Washington Dulles International Airport.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) must authorize the import of your bird through Dulles. Some pet birds are required to be quarantined for 30 days in a USDA Animal Import Center at the owner’s expense. A reservation at the facility must be made in advance by contacting the USDA port veterinarian. Other birds may qualify for home quarantine. For USDA import procedures and contact information, please visit:

In addition, imports of pet birds must be processed at a FWS designated port. Under limited circumstances, you may be authorized under a permit to use a port that does not normally handle wildlife trade. You must show that using one of our designated ports would result in substantial deterioration or loss of the wildlife, or would cause undue economic hardship. If you are importing your pet bird through a non-designated port, you must have a copy of your valid Designated Port Exception Permit (DPEP) prior to import. Washington Dulles International Airport is not a designated port.

You can find general information on FWS import procedures at: You may download a DPEP application from this web page. An original signature and a $100 application fee are required. The permit may take 3-6 weeks to process, so plan your import accordingly. Please send your application to:

U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service
Office of Law Enforcement
70 E. Sunrise Hwy, Suite 419
Valley Stream, NY 11580
Tel: (516) 825-3950

You must also file a Declaration for Importation or Exportation of Fish or Wildlife (Form 3-177) with our wildlife inspectors at the port. You may file your declaration electronically ( or in hard copy form (form available at: Since the bird will be travelling as checked baggage, there are no user fees due for our agency."

All of that is in addition to the CITES permit. And you saw the part about quarantine. We make a point of not bidding on places that require quarantines coming or going. But with birds, if the country gets bird flu while you are there, as happened while we were in Jerusalem, they will still have to be quarantined (and that is if you have done all your paperwork properly...screw up and they might have to kill your bird!). Which means you will be required to fly into a port with quarantine facilities. JFK in New York was what we opted for. That also means going back 30 days later to that port to pick up your bird. But luckily the people at the facility are true bird people and let me send along my bird's favorite toys, food and treats. They took excellent care of her...I was still a nervous wreck.

We were lucky this time and were able to home quarantine our bird. This mean that in addition to meeting the USDA agent at the port to test her, she also had to be tested at our home. The agent came by at 15 days.

And of course, all of this costs money. We paid 85 euros per pet for the flight (I think it should have been more, but I am not complaining). Then we paid all total for all the permits somewhere in the range of $750-$1000 (I don't have the numbers in front of me and it may have been more...I even had to pay an overtime fee because my flight arrived after 4:30 pm). Luckily, what can't be vouchered with the Department can be claimed on my taxes as a moving expense, but that is still pretty pricey.

So the morals of this post are: 1) traveling with pets is challenging but doable (and in my opinion, worth it), 2) make sure you get all your permits, especially for birds, 3) it is going to be expensive, even if you don't use a pet shipper (I have never used one but it often sounds like you are better off handling it yourself if you can), and 4) don't get a parrot if you don't already have one.

Monday, August 04, 2014

Coming Home to Home Leave

We made it home, including all of the pets (pausing to say another round of thank you thank you thank you) and are currently enjoying home leave.

Yes, I said enjoying. There are lots of folks who disagree with me on this, for completely valid reasons.

Home leave is the vacation we are required by Congress between tours. Yes, you read that right. Congress, in an effort to make sure we don't forget we are American, gives us one day of leave for every month we are overseas. We are required to take that leave in between tours and we are required to take that leave in the United States. Never mind that I feel MOST American when I am overseas...I'll just thank Congress for the free vacation anyway.

Of course, as I said, many don't enjoy it, not because they don't love their country (why you would live this crazy life unless you loved your country is beyond me), but because it isn't exactly free.

In fact, it is pretty expensive. If you don't have a home to camp out in, you are essentially a vagabond for about five weeks. Five weeks in hotels can get expensive. Five weeks camping out for free with relatives can get...well, you insert your own descriptor. And if you have kids, that becomes an even greater hassle.

Luckily for us, we don't have kids except for the pets. We own a home in the DC area and we arrange to come back for more than five weeks between tours. So last time, we came home and served in DC for a couple tours. This time, we are home for a year of language. Each option makes it worth our while to live in our own home. So we don't "have" to get hotels for the whole time. More on that later, as we ARE using the opportunity to travel a bit.

The other complaint people often have with home leave is competition among families to get to see them while they are stateside...that can be think "who do we visit at Christmas?" is bad - try, "who do we visit when we are only stateside for five weeks every three years?"!

Again, having some time in DC avoids that conundrum for us (though we are visiting both of our families on this trip, it is only a short stop with each set of parents because we will be home for a year). It is harder on R&Rs, but then we have opted for the "home base" route of renting a place, usually at the beach, and inviting the family to visit. So far, that has worked pretty well.

All of which is prelude to say we got home just over two weeks ago. Because I am uber-organized/insane, I arranged for our stuff from storage, our UAB, AND our car to be delivered the day after we arrived. Yes, all of them (packing out the UAB and car early worked and they both arrived stateside before we did!), PLUS I had the cable guy come set up our cable and interwebs that day. Of course, that meant pure chaos the whole day, but also meant we had a bed to sleep in that night and a television to watch while sitting our our sofa.
Lots boxes on the lawn

Our car...with a very dead battery
because the parking lights were left on!
I planned for our vacation to start exactly one week later so we would have time to go to the Department and get new badges (success!), get our new Maryland drivers licenses (success!), and get the car inspected, registered and plated (success!...after spending $1000...sigh), and be completely unpacked (not a complete success, but not bad considering our new place has three levels and my knees post-surgery are not liking that one bit.

Side note: I think all DMVs are awful...we went to get our licenses and I brought all the stuff needed for proof of residency, including our mortgage statement. We went to separate clerks. My clerk would not accept the mortgage statement because although it was for a Maryland home, it was mailed to me at our DPO address. So I needed another proof. They said they would accept the vehicle registration, which my wife was working on. Meanwhile, my wife's clerk accepted the very same mortgage statement as proof of residency. So I go over to get the vehicle registration from her, and her clerk says, "Oh, she can just sign for you as proof of residency since you are married."

Yay, marriage equality. Boo/yay for bureaucracy!

So for unpacking, living room, dining room and kitchen are done. Spare bedroom, where we are sleeping, is mostly done, as is my wife's office. Our bedroom is done to the degree it can be until our HHE arrives...our bed is in it. My office/the parrot's room and the basement are started. I'll call that a win.

So for now, we have a home. And the pets seem to approve.

The cats approve of Birdie TV in the back yard

The dog approves of the porch from which to survey her new domain
And now we are vacationing. But I will leave that for later posts.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Things I love about Estonia

I started this post month's before I depart post, because I keep thinking of all the things I will miss about Estonia.

For example:
* My staff
They sent me this when I was in the hospital
* The beautiful people and their beautiful Estonian flag

* The beautiful Estonian language

* Long summer days
About 11 p.m.
* Beautiful old churches
Kaarma Kirik on Saaremaa
* The pagan symbology in some of those churches
Pentacle inside Kaarma Kirik
* Maausk (earth religion), from which that symbology derives

* The Christmas market
Old City Christmas market
* Crisp, clean air

* The Old City

* And how the Old and New come together in Tallinn

* Regional Outreach to the island of Saaremaa
Kuuressaare Castle
* Estonian humor

* Kuum shokolad at KehrWieder (like drinking a chocolate bar!)

* Cafe VS (The Indian food there is awesome!)

* Smoked cheese soup, especially the tomato kind at:

* Van Krahli Aed

* Wi-fi that is faster and usually cheaper (often free) than in the U.S.

* How well everything works

* Like the narrow streets. People actually take turns letting each other through. That would NEVER happen in the states!

* Helkurs (reflectors everyone wears on their coats so they can be seen by cars on the long winter nights...the ad says Don't Forget the Helkur...You are hard to forget.")

* Frozen waterfalls
Jagala Falls

* Studded tires in the winter (yep, those are metal studs...I am taking those babies to Kosovo!)

* Tartu (especially that cool, leaning building)

* Going mushrooming
Don't eat that

* My shower (it reminds me of an old Star Trek transporter tube and has a radio).

* Narva (and being closer to Russia than Sarah Palin!)
The Narva River, Estonian-Russian border,
with a castle on each side (Russia is on the right)

Ivangorod castle in Russia from inside Narva castle

* The Narva Soap Box Derby
Turbo Chicken...his crash was spectacular!

* The TV Tower
The famous TV Tower

A long way down from the top

And to be fair, I should also list what I dislike about Estonia:

* Leaving