Sunday, January 28, 2018

The District Demarche

The District Démarche

И снова здравствуйте! / Ee snow-va zdravst-vu-yetye! / Hello again!
Hello friends, it’s been awhile.  Welcome to the first – and likely only – domestic version of this little home-grown rag.  And given that we’re now in a domestic assignment, don’t look for any more Russian or other funky languages, at least for the time being!

Your head feels better already, doesn’t it?

First Things First
What’s with the wacky title?

Well, since the field in which I now find myself is, you know, diplomacy and all, it happens that once in a while you come across jazzy words in foreign languages.  Hence the word démarche (the French noun for gait, step or approach in English), or other French words we use still today, since it was once the principle language of diplomacy (really the lingua franca of all international trade and relations) for quite some time, and in effect remains one of the working languages of international diplomacy today.  So our use today of said French terms is kind of a holdover to a bygone era of French geographic dominance, and as English began its inexorable march to take over as the worldwide language of choice for commerce and foreign relations, some words and phrases tenaciously held on.

In practical terms, a démarche is a formal representation of the official position, views or wishes on a specific subject, provided by one government or international organization and delivered to another.  A démarche can also register opposition or voice a complaint to another state.  Démarches are written and delivered, usually in person, to the receiving state or organization, and when from the U.S. a démarche can be delivered by anyone serving under the authority of the Ambassador or Chief of Mission.

I’ve never delivered one or been involved in drafting one or anything, but this little publication of mine delivers my thoughts and views on any number of useless and inane things from me to you, and I work in the District of Columbia, so there you go.  Plus it just sounds classy.  You’re free to disagree with my judgment on this matter, but you’d be wrong.

A Tale of Three Cities
No apologies to Dickens.  Evidently he was a grumpy old man anyway, so I have no plans to apologize to such a curmudgeon.  Actually, I have no idea if he was a grumpy old curmudgeon or not, but I’m still not apologizing to him.

Our return from eastern edge of freedom in 2017 brought the entire clan together back to the familiar soil of the Midwest, and once again Team Panetti spent a quiet, pleasant week in the north woods of Wisconsin on a beautiful lake in Bayfield County, outside of the little town of Iron River.

My family has more than a 100-year association with this town, as my paternal grandmother was born in Iron River in nineteen-hundred-aught-something to the town pharmacist, Alva Miles.  My father was born in Milwaukee but spent many summers as a child in the town, on the ballfields, and on the lakes up north, and spent at least part of one school year there in the 50s (probably 1952) in order to avoid the polio epidemic back in the city of Milwaukee, which killed several thousand people nationwide. 

When my brother and I were kids, our parents took us to Iron River many times as well, and we have done the same with our kids.  If you’re driving along U.S. Highway 2 across the northland and you blink at an inopportune moment, you’re likely to miss the little burg of about 800-odd people. (The town does have its share of characters!)

A week on Twin Bear Lake, a couple weeks back at the homestead in Bloomington to round out Home Leave, and I was off to D.C. for the start of Tour #3.  For a king’s ransom, we rented a comfy townhome in Arlington, VA, about midway between my job in Foggy Bottom and Kate’s job at the library in the city of Fairfax, in a nice little district called Ballston.  I would forgive you if you didn’t recall that the two of us have a three bedroom place – plenty of space for visitors – since our plan was that #1 daughter would be joining us here to find a job or an internship post-college.  Prior to our arrival but of course after we inked the deal on the rental, she changed her mind and decided to stay in the Twin Cities where she now has a nice apartment in a duplex with a couple of roommates, and two jobs with the Minnesota Historical Society.  Darn kids.

And so it is that Team Panetti is living a tale of three cities; we’re here in D.C. with Riley the Wonder Dog, Tommy and Jenna are in Baltimore (along with a new Wonder-Pup-Wannabe, Webster), and Sophie is making her way back in Minneapolis.

Maybe not the best of times, but certainly not the worst of times, either.  

Sophie’s place in South Minneapolis, and Webster the mini-goldendoodle Wonder-Pup-Wannabe.

Making a Hard Right at Europe
If you use your imagination a bit, you can easily see that it’s a pretty complex thing to employ 75,000 people to fill every single position for the State Department, both here in the U.S. and also in our embassies and missions in virtually every nation on earth.  Inevitably positions go vacant on occasion, for sometimes funding is consumed or cut, or maybe someone has left a job (for all the reasons a person might possibly leave a job or career), and sometimes positions “magically” appear altogether once funding is approved or what have you. 

On the Foreign Service side of the house, positions that are available to be filled immediately are often known as “Now” positions, which means just exactly what the two of you think it means.  These positions are made known to FSOs via unclassified cable, email from a Career Development Officer, word of mouth, or found simply by conducting a search using our specialized program online for bidding on jobs.

Normally, I just glance at these notifications, if I give them any attention at all.  But lately I’ve taken a keen interest in what’s out there, not only because I would be bidding for my next tour later in 2018, but also because my job here in Washington is kind of sedentary, and a little too free-form for me.  In addition, I have never worked in a cubicle farm before.  Not that I don’t enjoy it or the people with whom I work, but this position is also somewhat new, in fact completely new, and so there was no one to provide me with any handover documents or anything, no one to say “Here are your general duties on a day-to-day basis.”  Enter that double-edged sword of having a lot of freedom to make the job what I’d like, but also the freedom to not know exactly what it is I should or could be doing.  But they hire Foreign Service Officers to make things work and to use our brains to figure things out, and so I committed myself to doing just that for this two-year tour.

And then one Friday an email arrived.  A little more than two weeks ago, one of those “Now” positions entered my inbox consciousness.  And it looked good.  Really good, in fact:  An interesting job in an interesting place, and on the surface I appeared qualified.  Right now we’re a little out of the normal cycle of when jobs come available, so I felt that maybe I would have a real shot if I pulled the trigger and applied, since the number of people actually applying would be smaller right now than if I were to bid later in the spring or summer, when competition for available jobs would be greater.

Several somewhat frantic text messages and a few hours later, and Kate and I decided that there was no harm in trying.  The worst they could say is no.

So I applied.  Despite the preceding factors, I didn’t see that I really had a strong chance, but I knew I had something of a shot, and so I applied.  Paperwork completed, references submitted, application entered into the system, email introductions done, and I was officially a candidate for the job. 

Now the ball was in their court, for if they liked what they read then they would contact me and we might set up an interview over the phone.  If not, a pretty standard email would arrive notifying me that, while I was a strong candidate, unfortunately the relevant office found a candidate who better fit their needs at this time, thankyouverymuch.

Well, I hoodwinked them into setting up an interview a few days later, and another day or so after that I received an email just before I left for work.  It was a formal handshake for the job, and I readily and happily accepted the job!

And so now I will have a mid-tour detour, and in May 2018 I will leave my job as a Planning and Coordination Officer in the Office of Global Educational Programs in order be the Assistant Cultural Affairs Officer in the Public Affairs Section at the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad, Iraq. 

I’m about as excited as one can reasonably be when they just volunteered to go to Iraq.  Which in my case is pretty excited.  If you had asked me in 2008 where I’d be in ten years, well, I wouldn’t have guessed Iraq.

I won’t expect visitors. 

Empty Nexting
We’ve been working and living in the D.C. area since September now, and while mostly life continues as it would for anyone, we are able to take advantage of many of the events and activities of the region now that we are empty nexters, a term coined by dear friends John & Kate M.

You might not really care, but neither do I care that you might not, and so here’s a little snapshot of life in NOVA (Northern Virginia) or the DMV (clever initialism for the District-Maryland-Virginia):

Panorama of downtown Baltimore from Federal Hill Park, overlooking the harbor.  Tommy and Jenna live about ½ mile away on the far left, close to the Inner Harbor, the Raven’s stadium, Camden Yards and Jenna’s office.

Theodore Roosevelt Island is in the Potomac and is a very quiet and peaceful park surrounded by the hustle and bustle of the city.  We visited last fall with some good friends we met in Moldova.

Of course Riley the Wonder Dog keeps us busy as well, and we are fortunate to have found a place to live that is but steps away from a bucolic park with this babbling brook running through the middle, straddled by paths for walking or jogging.  Come and visit and we’ll wander like we’re lost, even though we won’t be.

A friend visited back in the fall, and we enjoyed a nice rooftop drink before a delicious Afghan dinner in the District.  It was a bit strange to realize later that it was 9/11...

Baltimore sits about 45 miles from our place in Arlington, and one weekend we met Tommy and Jenna in Annapolis for brunch at the Iron Rooster, and then we walked it off with a visit to the Naval Academy and a wander around the harbor front.   The Maryland State House is quite lovely, and includes this statue of Revolutionary War hero, the German born Major General Baron Johann DeKalb.

Friends from Bloomington visited DC a little later in September to stage an exhibition of interactive art and photography on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial.  After a day in the heat collecting stories that “explore the meaning of peace, one story at a time,” we enjoyed brunch together and then spent the afternoon in the air conditioned Newseum, a fantastic place dedicated to the defense of the first amendment.   We are now members, so come on out to visit and we’ll join you on another visit.

A friend of Tom and Jenna’s was visiting that same weekend, and as things have a way of happening, she’s also a graduate of Prior Lake High School.  We enjoyed a hot afternoon at the Georgetown Food Festival, along with an ice cream from Ben & Jerry’s.

On October 9th, the federal government observed a holiday for Columbus Day, and so of course we made an excursion to the National Museum of the American Indian, a wonderful relatively recent (2004) addition to the Smithsonian collection of museums.

One Saturday, the three of us (Kate, RTWD and me) hopped in the car and set off on a little marathon day trip. We visited several Virginia wineries, lunched on barbeque, had a short outing to Harpers Ferry, WV (small town and National Park of John Brown fame), and met Tommy and Jenna in Baltimore for dinner that evening. 

(Top) Plaque commemorating John Brown, whose raid on the arsenal in 1859 did not take place at this spot, but rather in the lower part of town, which is the National Park itself.  (Center) The point where the Potomac and Shenandoah Rivers meet along a portion of the Appalachian Trail and with the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad bridge and tunnel off the left.  (Bottom) Downtown Baltimore in the Italian quarter.

The entire Team was together in late October for Kate’s birthday.  Sophie flew out and Riley joined us to visit one of our all-time favorite places, Shenandoah National Park.  We had several nice hikes, and at least one rather soggy one, and a very chilly and windswept picnic outside a Visitor Center.  But views like this from Miller’s Head Lookout made it all worthwhile.

One of the programs that makes up part of the Office of Global Educational Programs (the office where I currently work) is the Hubert H. Humphrey Fellowship program, which brings mid-career professionals to the United States for a year of non-degree graduate-level study.  A part of the Fulbright program, Humphrey Fellows come from a variety of nations not typically represented in other programs. I volunteered to assist in the big evening reception held in the Diplomatic Reception Rooms of the State Department, and while there met Andrei who hails from Moldova and is spending his academic year at the University of Minnesota.

November 10th happens to be an auspicious date, as not only is it my birthday, it’s also the birthday of the United States Marine Corps.  As is our tradition in the State Department, we honor the USMC every year on or about this date with a black-tie event called the Marine Ball.  At the State Department itself this year, the USMC was celebrated with the recognition for all the Marines do protecting us when we are overseas; speeches were given, and recognition made.  Current and former Marines in the hall stood and sang a verse of the Marine’s Hymn (likely you know the “Halls of Montezuma” refrain), and the cake was cut and served.

Here is the 37th Commandant of the Marine Corps General Robert Neller cutting the cake.  Moments earlier, in his speech in the State Department, he said “We (the Marines and his audience, FSOs and other State Department employees) live out our oath of office every day.”

Tommy had a birthday in November as well, and we celebrated in Philadelphia where we took in a Wild game against the Flyers.  Philly fans were largely fine despite the fact that we all had Wild gear on and the Wild beat up on the Flyers.  Some fans razzed us a bit, but we crushed them with our Minnesota niceness.

Being stateside means we can see family more than when overseas, and we were pleased that my parents made the drive out to DC from Milwaukee to be with us on Thanksgiving.  Unfortunately Sophie was just starting one of her jobs and had no time off, but she also spent the day with family back in Minnesota.  While my parents were visiting we toured George Washington’s Mount Vernon by candlelight.

Are we thankful?  Pretty darn.

In mid-December we participated in the annual effort to place Christmas wreaths on each of the headstones in Arlington National Cemetery.   65 semi-trucks full of wreaths from Maine delivered nearly 250,000 wreaths which were placed on grave markers by the largest crowd ever to participate, nearly 75,000 people.  It was a beautiful, cool and clear day to pay our respects in this annual rite, which takes place at more than 1400 participating cemeteries in all 50 states and Puerto Rico. 
It was crowded, but we highly recommend it.  Simply search for Wreaths Across America, donate a bit of money and then register in order to participate where you live next year.

We’ve had the great good fortune to experience some fantastic musical events this year, as well.  So far we’ve been to the Kennedy Center four times for a performance by the National Symphony Orchestra and to see the Book of Mormon, An American in Paris with our Dishy, and on New Year’s Eve with good friends for a humorous interpretation of A Christmas Carol called Twist Yer Dickens.  We also went to the National Cathedral for Handel’s Messiah, and best of all we had excellent seats to see Andrea Bocelli live.  So much great stuff here in the area!!

Schedules didn’t permit returning back to the snowy Midwest for a white Christmas this year, but happily the Team descended on snowless Washington and we celebrated with good friends and their little guy here in Virginia.  We recreated local versions of family traditions such reading from the Book of Luke in an old family Bible, and gathering to look out for Santa’s sleigh and Rudolph’s nose so the kids could catch him in the act of filling stockings.  Once again we had no luck, but Santa was certainly generous once more.  Our family is unquestionably blessed.

Early in 2018, I witnessed one of the first days in the United States for a group of 64 teacher leaders from around the world as they kicked off their participation in a year-long fellowship across the country.  The program (International Leaders in Education Program) is paid for largely by the State Department, and in the lead up to lunch that day, one Fellow from Uganda stood and expressed the feelings of all the Fellows in the room in an emotion-filled speech.  He thanked not just the organizers, but specifically all American citizens – whether they are aware or not - for supporting financially and otherwise their participation in this life-changing exchange.

So if you didn't hear it already, thank you.

Assane Sow from Senegal says "Thank you!"

In mid-January, we left balmy Washington and flew to icy cold Minnesota for Sophie’s birthday where we enjoyed a relatively quiet weekend home with our favorite daughter.  She gave us an extraordinary tour of the James J. Hill House, built by the railroad magnate of the same name and now operated by the Minnesota Historical Society where Sophie works.  We then celebrated her birthday dinner with family not far from U.S. Bank Field where the Vikings had just pulled of the Minneapolis Miracle.  Every minute spent in the Greatest State in the Union, and of course with our little girl wherever that may be, makes it all worth it.

We continued our tradition of a chili cook-off again this year, and had a fantastic turnout among our neighbors, and a good time was had by all.  Especially after the breath mints and antacids were passed out.

Until Next Time
When I joined the Foreign Service six-and-a-half years ago, I agreed to serve where the State Department needed me.  My mid-tour transition away from home, from family and from the United States will certainly be a challenge, but the people in the Public Affairs Section in Baghdad have an opening they need filled, I volunteered to fill that slot, and an agreement was made.  Lots of wheels are in motion at the moment, and the entire thing can still come undone for any number of reasons, although we don’t think that’s likely.  I’ll be there for twelve months, and one benefit of a tour there is three R&Rs, so I’ll have a chance to get away, most importantly for some wedding I have to attend this coming August.

Generally speaking, the State Department takes pretty good care of us, and in Iraq I’ll be (theoretically) safe and busy with lots of (hopefully) interesting and important work to do.  The rest of my Team will be here Stateside, and that will be difficult, no doubt.  I can’t say with 100% certainty that this will have been a good move for me to take this job, but I think it will.  What I can say with certainty is that I am forever grateful to my partner in crime, my co-captain of the Team, for agreeing to full-membership in this adventure, and for supporting this crazy thing I just volunteered for.

None of this would be possible without her support.

No shortage of twists and turns for us, I guess. But then again, we knew this when we signed up.  For us, life is good.  We hope you can say the same.

The Team.

The opinions expressed within are my own and not those of the U.S. Government.
Please do not disseminate widely without permission.