Friday, December 24, 2010

The Grand Return

I came home from leave and found the door to my office covered in red medical biohazard bags, inflated like balloons. The inside had been lovingly draped in as many rolls of toilet paper as one can fit inside a space that's barely large enough to turn around in.

There was a meeting the next evening to go over the form and structure of one of the line ministries, and the Petty Officer leading the meeting opened his requisite power point with a slide captioned "What Turkeys Do We Have Running This Place, Anyways?" The photo accompanying the slide indicated that my office had been occupied by a different member of the team in my absence:

It's good to be home.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

The Seige of Bologna.

I was wandering the streets of Bologna in an attempt to hungry up -- Italy for me was just killing time between bowls of pasta -- when I came across a group of carolers in the central piazza. They looked like students from the university, and they were surprisingly talented for a ragtag group that appeared to have just collected in the streets.

They were singing in Italian (a language I at best pretend to speak) and I didn't recognize any of the songs, but that didn't detract from the experience of it. The singers were accompanied by two guys doing a bang up job on rhythm guitar, and a guy was playing the clarinet and a girl was on the sax, and they were both OUTSTANDING. Though I will concede that it's possible that they were just enthusiastic, since I sometimes confuse the two.

People were drinking wine straight from the bottle, stumbling around and singing along, and the whole thing was outrageously fun. There was a guy who appeared to be dressed as Jesus, and I assumed the whole thing was somehow related to the Feast of the Immaculate Conception, which is way more of a big deal in Italy than in the States.

But then they stopped singing briefly, and the guy in the middle -- he was dressed as a friar and really looked the part -- started shouting something in Italian to general cheers. And then I thought I maybe heard him shout something like occupazione dell'Afghanistan, and I thought -- Oh good LORD, am I at an Afghan war protest?

But then they started singing again and it went back to being so fun that I thought -- maybe I'll stick around and try to confirm it's a protest before I make any hasty decisions about leaving. I will concede that staying did make me feel a little guilty (What would The Secretary do!?), but I rationalized it in the same way that I rationalized eating double-digit helpings of tortellini every day: R&R comes but thrice a year.

So I stuck around, head bobbing with the music and generally enjoying myself (though occasionally feeling stupid for having failed to purchase a delicious bottle of cheap local prosecco). And then suddenly everyone stopped singing, and someone shouted Andiamo! and the whole thing moved half a block down the piazza.

I walked with them -- still somewhat guiltily, I will concede -- and used the opportunity to examine the participants up close. Jesus, it turned out, had dreadlocks and a general unwashed look that really contributed to his whole Messiah air -- the guy, tinsel crown and all, was just nailing it. They were carrying an effigy of the pope (Immaculate Conception not war protest, I kept telling myself) and a bunch of people had signs in Italian that included the word chiesa -- church -- but I had no idea what they were all about because my Italian is really limited to plaintive requests for lasagna and sangiovese.

It was only when I spotted the sign with the MasterCard logo on it, and the words MasterCardinal written under a Catholic-looking face surrounded by cynical dollars and euros that I realized I was at an anti-church protest. And then Jesus and the sax player started handing out free condoms, and the friar started reading a list of complaints to which the crowd responded with mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa and it all fell into place.

I left feeling significantly less guilty.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Julebryg and not you.

I went to a bar in Copenhagen to have a Christmas beer -- a julebryg -- as part of my ongoing vacation plan to lap up all the things we don´t have in Farah. I asked the person next to me if I should leave a tip (nope!), and it was enough to start a conversation.

"You're not from here," he said. I told him he was correct, that I'm an American but living in Afghanistan, and his eyes narrowed a little bit.

"What do you do there?" he asked me. Heavy emphasis on the there, with an ominous sound in his voice.

"Development," I said. "Schools, roads, hospitals." That isn't strictly true, of course -- development is firmly USAID's schtick, and one that State doesn't have much to do with. I figure, though, that we're all part of same development-related team, and schools and hospitals are easier, conceptually speaking, than the more nebulous "governance advising."

He took a swig of his beer. "You're in the army," he said. It wasn't a question.

"No," I responded. "No, I work with them -- I live with them, actually -- but I'm not in the army. They do their thing, and then we come in afterward for reconstruction, for schools and roads and everything else the people need."

He looked pointedly away from me and down the bar. "It's horrible," he said, "that war of yours."

(Technically speaking, the war is not strictly ours: Denmark is a troop-contributing nation and has about 750 soldiers in Afghanistan, mostly holding down a fire base in Kandahar province that's affectionately known as the tallest, blondest Combat Outpost in all of Afghanistan. It didn't seem like the time to bring that up, though).

He shook is head. "I'm sorry," he said, "but I don't want to talk to someone who's part of that horrible war." And then he stomped off. It was all every uncomfortable, even though I wasn't particularly sad not to be talking to him any more.

"I hope you threw that whole viking destruction of Europe thing right back at him," a friend of mine commented. I didn't -- I'm not nearly that clever -- but it did lead to a little bit of introspection. For one, there's the whole Vietnam Vet Gets Spit On aspect of it, even though I'm not a vet and generally don't welcome or entertain comparisons between Afghanistan and Vietnam.

But more interesting is that it occured to me later him getting all hot under the collar in my involvement in the war didn't faze me at all, because I don't actually think of myself as being part of the war. That seems kind of ridiculous, now that I've typed it out, but it's true -- the war seems like something that's tangential to me, that's happening around me, mostly in other places though occasionally very near to me, but something that I really have nothing to do with. The fact that I'm surrounded by a sea of camouflage and get driven to my meetings in a car capped with a .50 caliber weapon doesn't really change that fact.

That may be a little ridiculous, but since I work hand in glove with a bunch of guys who consider their job title to be "warrior," I (job title: bureaucrat) will leave the war to them.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Foreign Service Vacation Spots

I'm currently in tiny San Marino, the world's oldest republic. I thought (in a moment of Foreign Service ├╝ber-geekiness) that it would be cool to visit the World's Oldest Republic AND the World's Oldest Parliament -- the thingfellir, or some such, in Iceland -- on the same trip.

I'm finding Italy (which, come on -- is completely magical, no matter how stereotypical it is to love it here) to be short on Internet cafes, which is killing me since a question from work popped up a few days ago. But in the mean time, a friend flagged for me the fact that people have been googling looking for the author of the Afghan Plan, and I thought maybe it might be the Tigers, so I posted a link to my email on the upper right. Just thought I'd flag that here before we move on.

And now, back to my regularly-scheduled cobblestones, white wine and glorious pasta.

Saturday, December 4, 2010

Fear and loathing in...

Two of my buddies -- a married couple out of US Embassy Sarajevo -- are working on an art project in which they're attempting to get a photo of people standing in front of iconic local scenery from every country in the world, holding up the equivalent of about twenty bucks in local currency.

The two of them are probably my most Bohemian friends in the Foreign Service -- she herself spent a year on a Fulbright studying the cult-like underworld of the Venezuelan beauty pageant industry, and he was the genius behind last year's "31 days, 31 jack-o-lanterns" project. Knowing them is refreshing: the Foreign Service is long on lawyers but sadly short on artist-types.

The places I'm going to on this trip are slightly out of the way and by extension lend themselves well to their project, and I was excited to join in: Iceland and Malta aren't exactly Congo or North Korea, but it does take a certain determination to get there. I figured I'd snap a photo in every country I made it to, and if that turned out to be their first photo from, say, San Marino, then all the better.

I arrived in Vienna, my first stop on this trip, and promptly forgot to take a photo.

I was determined to do better in the Netherlands. I wanted a quintessential Amsterdam photo, a variation on the theme of sex, drugs and fries with mayo. I went to the Red Light district. I was ready to take some pictures.

I want to pretend that six years with State hasn't turned me into a stodgy bureaucrat. I like to think of myself as laid-back and West Coast, easy going to a fault, though the people who know me find that risible given how ridiculously high strung I am. ("West Coast?" one of my actually West Coast friends said. "You're, like, SO buttoned up East Coast").

Buttoned up East Coast or not, I still think of myself as a grungy backpacker type, a position that was validated by my buddy in Vienna who referred to me repeatedly as a dirty hippy. I actually loathe hippies (I think of them as the willfully unemployed -- and no, you can't have a dollar, go wait tables like I did when I was your age), but I can see where she's coming from since I'm traveling for three weeks but only carrying two changes of clothes. I thought I'd fit right in with the other unwashed people in the Red Light district and this whole photo project would fall right into place.

Good god I loathed the Red Light district. I, Mr. No-Fun from the Embassy, felt like I was surrounded by dozens if not hundreds of potential American Citizens Services cases, people who could stroll into the Embassy at any time with no money or documents, no recollection of where their hotel is, and a pending court date for wanton theft of munchies-type food. I wanted to grab the people around me, glassy eyed from the coffee shops at 11 a.m., and shake them by the shoulders and tell them not to lose their passports.

My distaste at the roaming hordes in the Red Light district dovetailed with an assumption, innate and unshakable after six years at State, that all female sex workers are the victims of human trafficking. Even in a city as well-regulated and up-and-up as Amsterdam, it was all I could think of. I had to fight the urge not to ask strangers if they needed help in contacting the Embassy of their home nation.

I also found, when surrounded by the chronically high in the market of sin, that I was unwilling to ask anyone -- "hey, can you hold this twenty bucks for me?"

I grit my teeth and bought an order of fries with mayo, a food product that formed the staple of my diet in Amsterdam. I held the fries at arms length with a twenty Euro note wrapped around them, snapped two quick pictures with my ungainly camera -- one with the fry stand as a backdrop, the other next to a "dancing girls" sign -- and then bolted.

I vowed to do better in Copenhagen.