Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Egypt, Democracy and Popular Uprising

I have been glued to the TV for weeks now.  I jump up and down when I recognize the location and the camera perspective.  I remember the same spaces with people jammed in to see Nasser.  Nasser was popular because he was going to unify the Arab nations and economic prosperity to the people.  Sound familiar?

Ok, so I am old.  and I remember the evacuation for the 6 Day War.

One of my favorite memories of Egypt is the day of evacuation.  We got up one morning extra early with my parents explaining that we were going on "vacation."  Problem was Dad was staying behind and we hadn't finished school for the year.  We were off to Greece!  I thought that was terrific.  Woohoo!  No school and vacation at the ocean....hmmm, yeah.  That works.

The family car at the time was a VW 2-door station wagon.  I can't help you with this if you're really young....VW made a 2-door station wagon, trust me.  My favorite place was in the very back.  It was away from my parents and most importantly, away from my younger brother.  In this particular trip, my view was even more of a perch with all the suitcases.

To get to the airport from where we lived (in Maadi/Digla), you had to drive along the Nile for a bit to get from the south side to main road to the airport.  One of the best views in Cairo is along the Nile.  The water seems to rush by and the Faluca's (Egyptian sailboats) are stunning.  The contrast of the old (Faluca's) and the new (the lotus TV tower) was a favorite.

The problem was I couldn't see the Nile when we got to the Corniche.  It was totally blocked by elbow to butt end with tanks and armed personnel carriers.  The view was completely blocked.

When I asked my parents what was going on, they replied that Nasser was protecting Egypt.  I said that he was prepping for war.  The next question was why all the cars had their headlights painted over.  ...so they would not be seen at night from the air.  Of course that begged the question how you were going to see where you were going at night.  That one didn't get an answer.  Course all the sandbag walls in front of every door and window along the Corniche was the next question.  ...so broken glass doesn't fly out and hurt people.  I guessed out loud that the only thing that would push glass out that fast would be a bomb.  ...that didn't get an answer either.

When we got to the airport, it seemed that every American family and all their kids were in the lobby trying to check in.  It was no "vacation."

One of the tip offs was the level of anxiety.  And the women either in a small quiet group chatting with worried looks, or loudly talking to no one in particular.  Mom parked us with a very firm "sit here" and she went off to a woman who was dominating the conversation in the entire lobby.  She seemed to be the one that everyone was talking about.

I thought her loud wailings to be ridiculous.  She was going on about having to leave her fur coats and her chandelier.  She just knew her place was going to be broken into and horrible people were going to steal everything she owned.  The most important of those things seemed to be her furs and a light.

I wondered what you needed a fur in Egypt for...much less more than one fur.  And why did she care about a chandelier.  It must have been some kind of light.

Mom later told me that she went over to the lady and informed her that she needed to calm down and put her priorities in order.  All of the women in the lobby were leaving husbands behind.  I didn't hear that part when it happened, but the impact was immediate.  All the women calmed down including the hysterical fur coats lady.

When the plane took off, the plane was quiet.  Deadly quiet.  A few of the women were crying.  When we arrived in Athens, we were all taken to a hotel in the suburbs.  It was great with a playground and all my friends at the same place.  The moms were a little tense, their was no ocean, and people kept leaving for points unknown in a slow and steady stream.  Mom to this day doesn't know how she did it.  The State Department was awesome in organizing, but she had no cash.  None.  This was 1967.  Pre-ATM.  Pre-email.  Pre-Internet.  Pre-standard international phone calls.

Dad later told us...and wrote it all up a couple of months later....that he spent the 6 Day War on our veranda.  He watched the Israeli Air Force bomb the hell out of an Egyptian Air Force Base.  He said it was unbelievable fireworks.  He drank gin and tonics while he watched.

His evacuation next time.  But this time, I miss being in Cairo right now.  I want to be in Cairo and help the folks out.  Help close down the Embassy.  If necessary, I will be the one with a spreadsheet in my hand and turning off the lights as the last one out.  It is making me twitch.

something fun to read....

A DC  'airport ticket agent' offers some examples of  'WHY' our country is in trouble!

I had a New Hampshire Congresswoman (Carol Shea-Porter) ask for an aisle seat so that her hair wouldn't get messed up by being near the window.  (On an airplane!)

I got a call from a Kansas Congressman's (Moore) staffer (Howard Bauleke), who wanted to go to Cape Town.  I started to explain the length of the flight and the passport information,  and then he interrupted me with,  ''I'm not trying to make you look stupid,  but Cape Town is in Massachusetts ..''

Without trying to make him look stupid, I calmly explained,  ''Cape Cod is in Massachusetts ,   Cape Town is in South Africa .''
His response -- click..

 A senior Vermont Congressman (Bernie Sanders) called, furious about a Florida package we did.  I asked what was wrong with the vacation in Orlando .  He said he was expecting an ocean-view room.  I tried to explain that's not possible, since Orlando is in the middle of the state.

He replied, 'Don't lie to me!, I looked on the map, and Florida is a very THIN state!!''  (OMG)

 I got a call from a lawmaker's wife (Landra Reid) who asked,  ''Is it possible to see England from Canada ?''

I said,  ''No.''

She said,  ''But they look so close on the map''  (OMG, again!)

 An aide for a cabinet member (Janet Napolitano) once called and asked if he could rent a car in Dallas ..  I pulled up the reservation and noticed he had only a 1-hour layover in Dallas ...  When I asked him why he wanted to rent a car, he said,  ''I heard Dallas was a big airport, and we will need a car to drive between gates to save time.''  (Aghhhh)

 An Illinois Congresswoman (Jan Schakowsky) called last week.  She needed to know how it was possible that her flight from Detroit left at 8:30 a.m.,  and got to Chicago at 8:33 a.m.

I explained that Michigan was an hour ahead of Illinois , but she couldn't understand the concept of time zones.  Finally, I told her the plane went fast, and she bought that.

 A New York lawmaker, (Jerrold Nadler) called and asked, ''Do airlines put your physical description on your bag so they know whose luggage belongs to whom?''  I said,  'No, why do you ask?'

He replied,  ''Well, when I checked in with the airline,  they put a tag on my luggage that said (FAT),  and I'm overweight.  I think that's very rude!''

After putting him on hold for a minute, while I looked into it. (I was dying laughing).  I came back and explained the city code for Fresno , Ca. is (FAT - Fresno Air Terminal), and the airline was just putting a destination tag on his luggage..

 A Senator John Kerry aide (Lindsay Ross) called to inquire about a trip package to Hawaii .  After going over all the cost info, she asked,  ''Would it be cheaper to fly to California and then take the train to Hawaii ?''

 I just got off the phone with a freshman Congressman, Bobby Bright from Ala who asked, ''How do I know which plane to get on?''

I asked him what exactly he meant, to which he replied, ''I was told my flight number is 823, but none of these planes have numbers on them.''

 Senator Dianne Feinstein called and said, ''I need to fly to Pepsi-Cola , Florida . Do I have to get on one of those little computer planes?''

I asked if she meant fly to Pensacola and fly on a commuter plane.

She said, ''Yeah, whatever, smarty!''

 Mary Landrieu, La. Senator, called and had a question about the documents she needed in order to fly to China .  After a lengthy discussion about passports, I reminded her that she needed a visa.  "Oh, no I don't.   I've been to China many times and never had to have one of those.'' 

I double checked and sure enough, her stay required a visa.  When I told her this she said, ''Look, I've been to China four times and every time they have accepted my American Express!''

 A New Jersey Congressman (John Adler) called to make reservations, ''I want to go from Chicago to Rhino,   New York .''

I was at a loss for words.  Finally, I said, ''Are you sure that's the name of the town?''
'Yes, what flights do you have?'' replied the man. 
After some searching, I came back with, ''I'm sorry, sir, I've looked up every airport code in the country and can't find a rhino anywhere."

''The man retorted, ''Oh, don't be silly! Everyone knows where it is.  Check your map!''

So I scoured a map of the state of New York and finally offered, ''You don't mean Buffalo , do you?''

The reply?  ''Whatever!  I knew it was a big animal.''

Now you know why the Government is in the shape it's in!

Could ANYONE be this DUMB?


I don't write it, I just offer it for your consideration.   Like manure, you just gotta spread it around.

Sunday, January 9, 2011

A-100 Class: Step 1 to being a Foreign Service Officer

Ok, so granted I am writing this 6 months after the fact, but perhaps that is good perspective for those wanting to know what they will be getting themselves into and for friends/family who wonder what the excitement was all about.  Moms can only paint the picture they are being told at the time....!

We shoved everything that didn't fit into our UAB (read items that we needed for a temporary assignment as compared to the all the rest of the stuff that went into long-term storage), and put it in a UHaul behind the Murano.  Off to Texas to visit family.  Also to be able to claim Texas as our home state of residence and as our home leave location.  We can import the kids (now in college in LA and Colorado) to where ever we are at any given time and have a home base in Texas when we need it.

Rather maddening that last couple of days in Colorado trying to get everything done.  As mentioned before, Deidre laid the last tile an hour before we left.  Andrew (one of our sons) and a couple of friends finished the deck (minus a safety rail) and sister-in-law and nephew left to paint what we didn't get done.  The handyman had a long and costly list to finish up. The landscape needed minding.  You get the idea.  Long story short, the house got rented.  All done.

Land in DC after a 4 day trip dragging a UHaul trailer.  Despite our complaints, I am glad we did have all the stuff in there.  Clothes and kitchen items that we really needed.  A painting from Greece that I remember from living there that Mom had stuffed behind a door.  It now hangs in the apartment.  Kitchen items badly needed cause the "kitted out kitchen" from the corporate apartment people is basic and now lives in a box at the bottom of a closet.  NOT what a couple of cooks operate with....(we COOK!  Deidre fed 22 people at Thanksgiving....we adopted all those who were orphans).

A party hosted by our "sponsoring class" was the Sunday before A100 started the following day.  Awesome and exciting.  Nothing like your first "State Department" function.  Got to meet my mentor from the sponsoring class.  A delightful person who is now a good friend.  She is from Denver, adult children and trying to manage a separate (and invisible to her cause no one is talking) drama to get to her first post to Havana.  Deidre and I want to go visit when she gets there.  ....whenever that might be.

A100 was a surprise.  A class of over 90 officers ranging in age from 22 (really...) to 57 (also really...).  I was delighted to realize that I was not the oldest in the room.  We had a parade of Ambassadors, Directors, HR people, Insurance briefings, and lots and lots of conversation about how to manage your career.  An interesting briefing caught my attention about awards given to those who speak out and change the Foreign Service for the better.  It was a real "wow" experience.  I thought, 'terrific!  a culture that rewards those who think and want to change things for the better....'

So, immediately I start raising my hand and sending emails.  Now, I will grant you that I was sitting next to a guy (now good friend) who had the same sense of humor and view of the planet that I did.  We got separated if that tells you anything.  We both quickly realized that the reason you get an award for changing the Foreign Service is because it might be the only incentive you have.  Those awards are something between the Red Badge of Courage and a Purple Heart.

The response you get when you say things like..."wait, isn't there a way to do this better?  more efficiently?  stronger, faster, more informative?"  is not always well received.  It was my take-away from A100.  Choose your battles carefully to win the war.

And then, when your done and have your assignment, all the things they told you are true.  You take care of yourself and your career in the Foreign Service.  Not an issue for me, but is a real departure from the A100 attitude of herding the newbies around to keep everyone together.  Post graduation is a life filled with cliffs and you better hope that you were listening during A100 so you know where the cliffs are.  An uneducated officer can wind up on a black run when there are plenty of blue runs available (snow skiing metaphor).

And lastly, I learned that it is in my best interests to meet and befriend as many people as possible.  Something D and I enjoy anyway, so it wasn't a big transition.  The people that you are in class with may end up as your boss one day.  It is like a very large (only 7500 officers around the planet including DC at the moment) and extended family.  You may not like them all and it may be easier to love them from a distance (what family doesn't have those kind of family members...?).  But, eventually you build a network of 1 degree of separation.  Somebody you know and get along with knows the person who has a job open that you really, really, really want.  Those 1 degree of separation can be the make or break you getting your next job.  A Foreign Service Officer is responsible for bidding and landing all the future positions after the second one.  So year five and counting becomes a dialing and smiling process (with emails in-between).

Still love this job.  Love where I am (I am going to Tel Aviv and am in Hebrew language learning at the moment) and think this is going to be a great adventure.  I just have a jaded way of looking at the world.  More later....

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Look Mom! No hands...!

I keep looking over my shoulder and expecting somebody to take this all away.  Something along the lines of the last words of a Red Neck: "Hey, watch this..." I keep having thoughts that the State Department is going to call up and they are going to change their minds and withdraw the offer of employment.

I know that isn't the case though.  It is just that it is all too good to believe.

After 3 other careers and the necessity to upgrade my skills with another masters due to the global economic meltdown, I passed the Foreign Service Exam. (I will write about the exam later...) It is what I should have pursued all along.  I lived in Cairo (twice), Athens, Houston, Addis, Munich and that was all before graduating High School!  I went to college the first time with the intent to major in Political Science.  Somehow I talked myself out of it...and had several lifetimes of work in the business world using a MBA from Thunderbird.

Still in school for the second masters, I promised my wife, Deidre, after passing the Foreign Service Exam that it would be months and months before I would pass the security/background check.  And I told myself that I had months to study up on German so I can pass the FS language test.  Months....I promised.

Deidre made me promise again because we had to update the house so we could rent it out.  So, Deidre went about gutting 2 bathrooms.  And figuring out what else needed to be done.

And then....the phone call.  I passed the security/background process in 20 calendar days.  I have never heard of anything so short.  One of my fellow co-passers at the FS Exam just now got through it all....9 months after passing.

Deidre panicked and we went into overdrive.  I was on the list so it could still take months, but who knew....

And I got the call to join the August class (the 155th/August 2010) shortly therefore.

Of course, Deidre had to navigate my panicking that I hadn't passed the German test and was going to have to go through the entire process again and set up another candidacy.  She did what she always does, and pat my head and tells me to keep marching.  Spending too much time fretting does no good.

Deidre ended up laying the last bathroom tile an hour before we pulled out of the driveway to come to DC.

We are at the Crystal City Oakwood (closer to Reagan Airport than a grocery store and Metro in the basement) and after A100, we got assigned to Tel Aviv.  I am up to my eyeballs in Hebrew.  D just finished her last class for her Masters in Religious Studies.

Life is good.