Sunday, August 20, 2017

August Notes

Notes from a Small Country
 (I’m done apologizing to that Bryson character.)


Время Летит! / Vrem-ya Lye-teet! / Time Flies!
Well boys and girls, it’s that time again for those of us in the Foreign Service, the bittersweet departure from an overseas tour.  Sadly, the time has come for me to say «До свидания!» to the lovely little nation of Moldova.  As in most languages, however, “da svi-dan-iya” does not literally mean “good-bye,” at least not in the sense of permanence.  Even when we say it in English we don’t normally mean it like that, and in Russian it’s really a statement of “until we meet again,” because the word свидание is a literal meeting or appointment.  And so:  До свидания! / La revedere! / Au revoir! / ¡Hasta la vista, baby!  I very sincerely hope to be back one day…

Sallying Forth with Verbal Excellence “Fără Frică” (Without Fear)
I’m kind of like a blunt instrument when speaking Russian, as my language skills lack nuance and precision, and while I’m sure I make many errors as I go about my day, I manage to get the job done.  If we are discussing things like family, work and travel, I’m marginally competent, and of course my main audience of visa applicants has a vested interest in understanding me, or at least pretending to.  I’m easily derailed when the discussion strays from such topics, however.  The Foreign Service Institute does a fine job in a relatively short time in preparing us for our overseas posts, as far as that goes, but acquiring and building on language skill is a lifelong process, and is easy to see if you consider all the words you don’t know in your own native language, or if you ponder all the permutations of just one topic, like all the ways to express the idea of verbal communication: talk, speak, say, discuss, chat, describe, express, articulate and a dozen others.  And then consider all the ways to do the same in a foreign language, not including vernacular or idiomatic speech, and perhaps it’s easy to see how I can get lost in the flood of words coming at me.  Performing the day-to-day tasks of any job in a foreign language not only humbles me, but provides me with an ever-increasing level of admiration for those who do this day-in and day-out in at least three languages, in particular the local colleagues with whom I work most closely.  It’s quite something, really.

Our Fantastic Consular Team from US Embassy Moldova

Now one could have a reasonable expectation that I’m a bit more articulate in my native tongue than in Russian, however then I’m confronted by a reporter with a large microphone and a camera, and in a heartbeat I’m spinning in discombobulated circles.

One recent Saturday this spring I decided to attend the local Pride Parade with our Human Rights Officer and a few others from the Embassy community in order to show our support for legal protections of minority populations.  It turns out that I should have listened to my denim-clad colleagues who informed me in advance that we might see various consumable items (mainly eggs) tossed in our general direction as we made our way through town, and so coming in casual clothes was advisable.  I, on the other hand, chose differently, and wore a jacket and tie.

And before the parade even started, the aforementioned camera and microphone made an appearance in my face (the consensus being that my attire made me an interview target since among us I alone wore a tie), and for the second time in two years I found myself struggling in my own language on camera.  (The first time was in the wake of the Paris terror attacks in November 2016 as Kate and I placed flowers in front of the French embassy here in town; in my defense, we were kind of ambushed by the local press, and saying “I really have no words” in Russian and then English was, while simple, actually kind of appropriate.)

Fortunately for posterity, and your bemusement, evidence exists of my most recent public speaking escapade, where I wax eloquent on universal human rights themes made famous by such luminaries as Locke, Hobbes, Rousseau, Jefferson and de Toqueville.  My articulateness is on full display at about the :55 second mark at this site here.  Yup, verbal excellence without fear (fără frică / far-a free-ka / Without Fear, which is the name in Romanian of the campaign here in Moldova) and of the highest order, right there ladies and gentlemen.

The march of several hundred of us proceeded largely without incident for about five blocks, and as a result of last years’ egging of marchers the police force lined the entire route in full riot gear.  I didn’t even know the police here had that many officers, and wow they looked prepared for battle.  At either end were small Russian and Romanian Orthodox crowds of protesters who sang hymns and shouted epithets at those of us marching.  Shortly after we departed the area a few eggs were tossed, but as I understand it was nothing like last year, and no injuries were reported. 


Police in riot gear prior to the march


My colleagues and me ready to go
Photo credit:  Mike R


Some of the several hundred who turned out to march
Photo credit:  Mike R

Paper hearts fluttering down on parade-goers

As Moldova continues a generation on in its struggle to recover from its post-Soviet hangover, progress is made daily on any number of fronts, but it’s frustratingly slow for many.  This small, peaceful country has made great strides toward modernization, although sometimes it seems the classic case of one step forward, two steps back.  But this is a long struggle, and I believe – as I’ve said since 1989 – it will take several generations to right the ship, not just one.  Such a march for equality and protection of minorities would have been unthinkable just a few years ago, and official security for those marching equally difficult to imagine, perhaps more so.

Proof of hope for future, по моему мнению / pah mo-em-u mnen-ee-you / in my opinion.

Two Cats Walk Into a Bar…
About a month ago I was invited to dinner at a colleague’s home, where I met the father of the birthday celebrant, an old comrade educator and fellow grizzled veteran of life.  We were enjoying several nice glasses of wine and chatting about this and that, and the subject of language learning came up.  Humor and jokes rarely translate well from one language to another, but in this case we have an exception.

A cat is in the street with a mouse trapped in his hole, waiting impatiently for the mouse to come out and become lunch.  It’s clear he has been waiting and mewing a long time for the sorry victim-to-be to make an appearance when another cat wanders up to him.  The second cat inquires as to what the first cat is doing, and the first cat shares his dilemma.  Cat number two gives his friend a wise and knowing look, and then proceeds to bark like a dog.  The mouse then pops out of his hole and cat number one has his lunch.  The wise old tom says, “You see, knowing another language is important for getting what you want.”

Ok so less a joke I guess than a parable of sorts.  But still a pretty good, if modest, attempt at explaining the power of knowing a second language…

The 21st Century Foreign Service
I’ve spent a considerable amount of time pondering the difference between today’s Foreign Service and that of days of yore, and not without a certain amount of sadness at what it must have been like in the old days compared to now.

Perhaps, of course, it’s a form of nostalgia for that which I never experienced but only imagine, although the image of the Foreign Service I’m thinking about has less to do with the work itself and more with life abroad.  As clunky as our software is in the Consular world, I don’t think I’d want to go back to strictly paper copies and no computerized method for scheduling and controlling the interview flow…

But consider, for example, how much easier it is in today’s world to remain intimately connected to your home country than it used to be.  While the Internet has no doubt brought enormous advances and added value to life in the modern world, including the Foreign Service, it gives those of us who live abroad in this capacity almost unparalleled ease to not become as immersed in the culture of the countries where we serve.  And while it’s true that Foreign Service Officers always represent the United States first and foremost, not the host country, when you can travel abroad and carry in your backpack an entire music and media library in your native language, and then remain “plugged in” to that library during most waking hours, I think we tend not to immerse ourselves as deeply, and therefore don’t become as knowledgeable about the local culture as we could be.  And that’s a loss, in my opinion.

Imagine what it must have been like to do this job thirty or more years ago, in pre-Internet and pre-iPod days.  No Netflix, no Spotify, no iTunes or streaming or downloading of music and movies.  Letters from home and local newspapers came in the mail from family or friends back home – if they came at all – and it could be weeks later before you learned how the Twins did in that series against the damn Yankees.  Certainly no email, text messaging, Snapchat or what have you back home to the family.  And while these technological advances have served to keep us connected to home and to increase the spread of English language music, information and American culture, I believe we who live abroad have slightly less rich lives when it’s so much easier to just go home at the end of the day and stream the newest episode of Better Call Saul or Ozark instead of immersing in the local musical or cultural scene.

When serving abroad for two years or so, one also longs for the comfort foods of home, and I’m no exception to this broad principle.  The ability to ship favorites to our post overseas has always been part of the deal for us, but it’s further a little sad – just a little – that many of us fill our personal lives with only those things (food, culture, amusements) that we already enjoyed at home.  I have a real soft spot for certain delicacies like Velveeta and Hostess cupcakes, but perhaps I send them in my consumables allowance or order them on Amazon at the expense of trying more new things in the host country.

But then maybe I’m wrong and this isn’t all that widespread, and I’m the only one who decides to stay in and stream old episodes of Friends instead of heading out on the town.

On a Serious Note
Having the option to live in a little cocoon of comfort like that is certainly a nice personal benefit when living in some pretty tough places far away from home, but it’s not really a super serious concern.  Foreign Service Officers have long lived in tough places, and further we tend to live lives of some isolation from the local population.  To some degree of course this makes sense.  Consider security, for example.

The United States spends a lot of money hiring, training and preparing us for our tours overseas, and we work daily on issues often critical to the advancement of the foreign policy of the United States and to whomever sits in the Oval Office, so in today’s world it makes perfect sense that the government writ large is rather risk averse when it comes to our lives and work when abroad.  Certainly the team on the ground responsible for our security while overseas would be more comfortable if we just stayed in every night eating junk food and watching TV.

But neither is that the world we live in, and so in order to do our jobs effectively, and to provide an accurate picture back to Washington about life in the host country, living our work and personal lives carries a certain amount of risk, more in some places than others, of course.

Moldova is not a particularly dangerous place to live, and worldwide the reality is that FSOs and their families tend to get hurt most often as a result of traffic or household accidents.  But as any thinking person can understand, local economic, political and social conditions can effectively change a situation from a small march through town in support of rights and protections for minority populations into all-out civil unrest in a matter of minutes.

Perchance a man by the name of Chris Stevens has crossed your mind while thinking about this.  Of course he was not in a safe and peaceful country like Moldova, but he was well known for being “out there” with the people, making inroads and building bridges in a difficult place and time. 

And I mention Ambassador Stevens and my other FS colleagues very deliberately, as the current proposals from Congress and the White House, and even from within the State Department itself in response to these proposals, would effectively make it more difficult, more risky, for us to securely do our job.

Consider a few side-by-sides with another organization responsible for extensive overseas work, and which garners (understandably) considerable support in Congress, from the White House, and from the American people:  The U.S. military.
  • The Department of Defense has a lot of employees:  750,000 civilian, 500,000 reserve duty and 1.4 million active duty soldiers work for all branches of the military.
  • The vast majority of these employees work domestically, and the DoD has a physical footprint (bases and other physical facilities) outside the United States in a dozen or so countries around the world, maybe two.
  • The budget for the DoD is enormous (in fiscal year 2017 it was $516 billion for military operations alone), and as it has been for most of my life, Congress and the White House continue to call for increases in military spending year after year.


By comparison, the Department of State, the oldest cabinet-level Executive Branch office since the adoption of the Constitution in 1789, is a bit smaller.
  • The Department has about 75,000 total, to be exact.  This number includes 50,892 locally employed staff who live in the host countries where an Embassy or Consulate is located, about 10,826 civil service employees who largely work in Washington, D.C., and 16,178 in the Foreign Service.  Under the broad Foreign Service umbrella are 8091 Foreign Service Officers, 5795 Foreign Service Specialists, 1850 FSOs from USAID (the United States Agency for International Development), 255 FSOs from the Foreign Commercial Service, 175 FSOs from the Foreign Agricultural Service, and 12 FSOs from the Broadcasting Board of Governors (those responsible for Voice of America, for example).
  • Of the Americans working abroad for the Department, we work at 270 foreign posts in the 190 countries or so where we have a physical presence (although that also includes a few positions at the UN in New York).  That’s essentially the entire world, and of course in more than a hundred of those countries we have no US military presence.  (If you are curious about this the United States has the largest diplomatic presence abroad of any nation on earth, with France coming in at number two with 267, China in third place with 258, the Russian Federation in fourth place with 243 and the United Kingdom in fifth place with 236.)
  • The budget for the DoS is also large (the fiscal year 2017 budget was $25.4 billion), but absolutely pales in comparison to the DoD:  about 1% of the federal budget is spent on foreign affairs (the USAID budget together with State is $54.9 billion), and as has been the case for virtually my entire life (recall battles between Jesse Helms and Madeline Albright in the 1990s), Congress and the White House continue to call for cuts.


Maybe you think my comparison isn’t fair, or that proposals to increase military spending while at the same time decreasing diplomatic spending are acceptable.  I think such a comparison is fair, and I do not think these proposals are acceptable, and since this is my show, I’m going to say so.

But don’t listen to me just because I’m in the service and am directly affected by these proposals; I have an obvious bias regarding this issue, after all.  How about listening to some real experts in the international arena, like the 225 corporate executives who sent the president a letter after his proposed 30% cut to the State Department was made public in spring 2017?  They said

“America’s diplomats and development experts help build and open new
markets for U.S. exports by doing only what government can do:  fight corruption,
strengthen the rule of law, and promote host country leadership to create the
enabling environment for private investment.  Our country’s investments have
generated impressive results:  eleven of America’s top fifteen export markets are
in countries that have been recipients of U.S. foreign assistance.” 

Not a very ambiguous position.

Or how about listening to one of those generals on the ground who we hear so much about?  Retired now after 36 years in the United States Army, General James T. Hill – whose last post was commanding all U.S. military forces in Central and South America and the Caribbean – wrote in May

            “…I saw firsthand the return on investment for our country when all the tools
            of American power – diplomacy and development alongside defense – are
            strengthened and work in coordination.  ….  We need only look at … ‘Plan Colombia,’
            a U.S.-sponsored program to assist the people of Colombia in developing                   
            a sustainable political, economic and security structure for themselves,” which 
            was “simply remarkable.”

He went further:

            “In just a decade, we helped Colombians transform their country from a failing
            state harboring violence and narco-trafficking that bled across our borders into
            what former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates called a ‘lynchpin of prosperity
            in South America.’  Colombia has seen a significant reduction in violence and,
            while more remains to be done, has become a valuable security and economic partner.
            In 2015, U.S. exports to Colombia quadrupled to over $15 billion.  While challenges
            remain as in every country, U.S. foreign assistance undoubtedly contributed to greater
            stability and economic opportunity for the people of Colombia.”

He joined 120 retired generals and admirals who wrote to Congress earlier in 2017, stating “Now is not the time to retreat,” that pulling back from the international community now would be “irresponsible” and that in a place like Venezuela, for example, “…American interests are best served by being engaged – not absent.” 

Further, American statesman, former Chair of the Joint Chiefs, former Secretary of State and retired 4-star General Colin Powell said that such budget cuts “…signal an American retreat” that would “achieve exactly the opposite” for our citizens as proposed by the president’s America First policy. He continued, stating that such drastic cuts would “…be internationally irresponsible, distressing our friends, encouraging our enemies and undermining our own economic and national security interests.”

The Office of Diplomatic Security – the people directly responsible for our safety and security while abroad – notes that the areas of the world where large cuts would have a major impact are locations with the heaviest violence against U.S. interests and American citizens.  The overall Worldwide Security Protection budget is slated to be cut by 13% ($562 million compared to 2017), and would disproportionately affect areas referred to as “high-threat, high risk” posts.  Lindsey Graham, no lily-livered bleeding heart liberal, stated that cuts such as those proposed would mean “a lot of Benghazis in the making.”  That’s quite a frank, and bleak, assessment of the situation.

In short, shrinking back inside our borders and isolating ourselves from the big, bad world would be bad for American corporations, bad for American investment, bad for American labor, bad for our standing in the world, bad for our future projection of American power and ideals, bad for diplomats around the world and therefore bad for me and my family.

Perhaps if these draconian cuts are realized, the future of American diplomacy will involve us attending meetings with host government interlocutors dressed like this:

An old photo of me from Haiti


Firing an old WWII-era revolver

My grouping on the first try with an AK-47

Did Benghazi bother you?  Me too.  I know I’m not interested in seeing any more similar events.  And if you don’t want to see any more Benghazis either, please call your reps and senators and encourage them to support our safety and security as we conduct the business of the federal government and the American people out there in the world.  The Congressional switchboard operator can direct you to the appropriate Senator’s or Representative’s office, and can be contacted directly by calling 1.202.224.3121.

Thanks.

Moldovan Potpourri
As my time here has come to a close, and in an attempt to tie up some loose ends in this Moldovan chapter, I present to you a series of short stories omitted from previous editions, either because they happened since then, or because I simply forgot about them in the mix of all the other stuff swirling around in my grey matter.

Moldovan Politics
Over the course of the last four years, the country has had a change in government no less than eight times, at least two during our two years in country.  Protests have occurred off and on as well, mostly in reaction to government actions which served to do little other than put, or keep, certain people in positions of power.  Mostly the protests have been peaceful, with few arrests and little in the way of violence.  One exception was in January 2016 when protesters stormed the Parliament building and engaged in clashes with riot-gear clad police the day after a late night, closed-door deal was struck, effectively locking out the opposition and further reinforcing the current political leadership.  Local and FSO colleagues were in the building doing their jobs at the time, and after they became trapped there due to the unrest, our local and FSO security colleagues had to make an end run around the violence in order to secure their escape from the situation and the building.

In December 2016, the newest iteration of the government took shape in the form of a former Communist and current Democrat, as Igor Dodon was installed as president after a mostly free and fair election.  I say mostly because the people participating in the poll were free to choose for themselves, largely without outside undue influence and without violence or unrest on Election Day, but the campaign itself was one filled with innuendo and misleading assertions about the most popular candidate who wound up losing.   As a consequence, Moldova now has a Russia-leaning leader at a critical crossroads, solidified by Dodon’s proposals to strengthen ties with Russia while calling into question prior efforts to budge Moldova to toward the West.  The optics of his government’s efforts were made more clear by Dodon in early May when he was the only world leader to appear with Vladimir Putin on the dais on Red Square in Moscow for the May 9 Victory Day celebrations. 

One step forward, two steps back.

EU:  An International Organization, and a First Person Singular Personal Pronoun
Moldova is not a member of the European Union, but maintains a position as a potential future member after the 2014 signing of the Deep and Comprehensive Trade Agreement.  In about 2009, Russia reacted to Moldova’s more westward stance by placing an embargo on Moldovan agricultural products (the economy is based largely on such products), and over time the EU and US worked to help Moldova in its response to this crippling action.  For example, grape growing and wine production are big ag-econ sectors in Moldova, and the embargo effectively shut off ties to Moldova’s largest wine trading partner, causing widespread economic disruption and uncertainty.  With training and technological development sponsored by the EU and the US, the wine industry has taken off in Moldova, and over the last decade or so exports of high quality bottled wines (as opposed to raw bulk wine previously shipped to Russia) increased dramatically to the EU, the US, China and the Middle East, essentially wiping out the effects of the embargo.  Consequently today in some markets in America you can find very good, reasonably priced wines from Moldova, a place most of my friends and acquaintances would likely not have associated with wine production previously. 

As I was winding down my final days at the Embassy, my colleague Vlad, who works in the office responsible for shipping our household effects back and forth, made a point to chat with me about how proud he was to see that we chose to purchase about twelve cases of high quality wines to ship back to America with our things, and he was honored that we would someday be sharing this with our friends back home.  I relayed for him the story of my first encounter with Moldovan wine several years ago when I came across a few bottles in a wine shop in Madison, WI.  Thinking this would be a nice treat for us at Christmas since we had only just learned we would be serving in Moldova a couple years later, I bought a few to share with the family.  Unfortunately that was a mistake, as it was more like cough syrup than anything resembling wine.  In response, Vlad told me it was probably the result of Russian re-packaging, re-labeling and then exporting the previously imported bulk wine from Moldova, a practice his friend from the Moldovan Customs Service had explained to him previously.  Another example of the many and varied efforts of Russian malign influence in the region, and why the work we do in a little-known place like Moldova is important.

But that bad experience was then, and this is now.  The wine industry in Moldova is a bright spot in the Moldovan economy, which is otherwise somewhat unstable and unpredictable.  Next time you’re off to look for a nice wine to share, take a chance on a vino from Moldova, if it’s available.  And when you come to visit us in Washington in the next couple of years, we’ll decant one of our favorites to share with you.

Another step forward.

European Integration
Back in May, the EU sponsored “EU Day” in a central park in downtown Chisinau.  Booths from the various EU partner countries were manned around the square, and food and drink were available as well as cultural activities and concrete examples of how the EU has invested in this small, peaceful country (the canine police unit was a big hit, judging by the long lines of little kids and families waiting to visit with the two- and four-footed officers).  The Germans had a tent selling sausages and beer, the French were selling crepes and cheese, and the kebabs sold by the Turks (not an EU member but a Western ally nonetheless) were very popular.  Everything was properly typecast, but on a beautiful Saturday afternoon in the spring, who was I to complain?

Happy participants in EU Day

The blue and yellow of the EU

Moldovan traditional dancers / singers

EU Day flag decorations

A pottery demonstration

Sharing a Chimay in commemoration of the beer from our first date

Later in the summer, Moldova’s pride on the international stage received a big boost after the annual Eurovision contest was held in Kiev, Ukraine.  Hugely popular in this part of the world, Eurovision is an annual song and talent contest that effectively captivates entire nations when their country’s entrants are on stage.  Moldova has had a history of spectacular entries in the past few years (a simple YouTube search for keywords Moldova and Eurovision will have you enthralled, particularly for a recent song entry titled “So Lucky,” if for no other reason than the cool hats, the girl on the unicycle, and ‘epic sax man;’ easy to find if you search by the title, or just click on the link), and this year the popular trio known as the Sunstroke Project performed their hit song “Hey Mamma,” an upbeat and snappy little tune available for purchase at iTunes, in the event you’re interested.  Happily for Moldovans, the group took third place in the final competition, and the country celebrated.

Interestingly (well, at least in my brain), the term “EU” (as the initialism for the European Union as spelled in English) is also the exact same spelling (eu) for the first person singular pronoun “I” in Romanian.  Coincidence?  I think not.

The Wedding of the Year
In June I attended my first Moldovan wedding.  I had a chance to attend the wedding of a colleague from the Consular section late last year, but unfortunately was on R&R at the time and so missed what was reported to be a spectacular affair.  And that’s the thing about Moldovan weddings, they are really something, typically following a script of sorts where guests are guided by an MC who informs everyone what to do next and where to go, where the food and drink comes all night long, where music and dancing occurs all night long, and where “all night long” can easily mean until four or five o’clock in the morning.

This wedding I attended was a little different, however.  One of my American colleagues was marrying a local Moldovan woman he met within weeks of his arrival at post back in 2015.  While they were technically starting their lives together, neither were young and “just starting out” as they both were successful in their careers and were not ‘in need’ like a young couple might be if they were marrying at 25 or something.  So the need or desire for gifts to assist in getting started in their lives was low, and as a result they made a historic decision to hold what was billed as “Moldova’s first charity wedding.”  Guests were asked not to bring gifts for the couple, but instead to donate what they felt was right to two charities chosen by the couple.  Let’s be honest:  This is not done in Moldova.  Aside from the billing as the first of its kind wedding, organized events in order to raise money for charity is highly unusual if not outright unknown here.  Citizens walking in the city will routinely give a few lei to the old woman on the street or the man on crutches with one leg at the intersection, but fun runs or other events of this sort are just really not common, if they happen at all.

So this wedding was a bit different in that way, plus, you know, the Moldovan woman was marrying an American guy, so the blend of styles was a bit different too.  There was an MC, yes, but he was only there for about 30 minutes or an hour in order to introduce the couple and to provide a general overview of the night.  The first hour or two were more like social time, as people milled about at tall cocktail tables chatting and getting acquainted or reacquainted.  Moldovans seemed a little confused by this.   While there was no sit-down meal as is typical of American weddings, the food provided was buffet-style, not served to individuals at a specific table.  Guest were not directed anywhere and were free to sit wherever, move around, get more food or drinks, and move around some more.  The music was a little different, too.  There was a dance floor and a DJ of sorts, but only to support the six or seven different well-known local Moldovan artists who appeared for two or three songs each, including the aforementioned international stars the Sunstroke Project and another former Eurovision finalist, Pasha.  (If you’re so inclined you might be able to see my video of the hit Hey Mama at Ben and Iolanta’s wedding here, where you will also see Ambassador Pettit’s head bobbing up and down in the foreground as he dances away to this popular song.)

The event raised over $16,000 USD, quite a sum considering the relative strength of the dollar compared to the Moldovan lei.  Putting your money where your mouth is was never more apt, and I’m proud to call them my friends.

The Great Moldovan Peach Fight of 2017
Speaking of friends, it goes without saying that living abroad is made much easier with a good group of colleagues and friends.  An added benefit is when some of those people are not just Americans, but local colleagues and other expats from around the world.  And in both Haiti and Moldova, we have been quite lucky in this regard.

Often these friendships can be quite intense and develop very quickly, in part as a result of the knowledge that our immediate relationship will last at most a few years. 

These bonds were never more evident than during the Battle of Anton Ablov, also known as the Great Moldovan Peach Fight of 2017, which in most cases would have otherwise been called the Fourth of July.

A Tuesday, the Fourth of July gave us an odd mid-week day off.  I had not yet packed out my household effects, and since we have such a nice house and yard and the weather was going to be beautiful, it made sense for me to host a barbeque/picnic in celebration of Independence Day.  About 20 or so people came by to grill out and to help deplete my diminishing stock of American beer.  After a few hours some people drifted home, and the group stabilized at about 12 mostly DoD and State guys.

The breeze was warm, the sun was shining, the music and burgers were good, and we were pretty successful in reducing my supply of beer.  Someone brought along a football, and we were casually tossing the pigskin around in the yard, occasionally to those of us up on the elevated patio where the festivities were centered. 

When you add together all the ingredients of sun, burgers, beer, football and a decent sized group of idle, unsupervised adult males who are in need of a little release, exciting things can sometimes happen.  Sprinkle the mix with an ample supply of over-ripe fruit recently fallen from trees conveniently located near all the activity, and the result is the Great Moldovan Peach Fight of 2017.

We universally blame Chuck for being the spark responsible for starting this grand battle.  He was in the yard with another guy, tossing the football around.  Occasionally, someone on the high ground called for the ball, and we continued on like this for a few minutes, lobbing the ball back and forth.  And then it started.  Chuck tossed the football up to us on the patio, but immediately followed the football with an over-ripe peach.  (Probably not really a peach, but whatever, it sounds better than nectarine.)  No direct hit was achieved initially, but this one little mortar lobbed from below was the catalyst for what followed, essentially about thirty minutes of all-out war between those of us with the superior position on the high ground but with little ammunition, and those with the supply of ammunition of peaches and the occasional apple (which were decidedly not over-ripe) but with an inferior position down below.

The battle raged, peaches – and peach parts – were retrieved and used to return fire, tomatoes from the kitchen were acquired to supplement our fire from the high ground, and down below one of the opposition took hold of the tree providing the ammo and gave it a good shake, quickly increasing the supply of projectiles.  Eventually one enterprising member of our team up above recalled an apple pie that was all but asking to be utilized, and then scampered below behind enemy lines in a surprise attack on the opposition, drawing fire away from us up above.

Surprisingly, no one ended up in the infirmary as a result of Battle of Anton Ablov, although we certainly had sore stomach muscles from laughing so hard.  Believed to have ended in a draw, we all agreed that we hadn’t had so much fun in ages.  It was epic.

The Trolleybus Bash
Before departing post, I wanted one more opportunity to have a gathering in order to enjoy the company of my friends in Moldova, and since by then I was actively preparing to pack out it would not have been convenient at the house.

The elegant solution was to rent a city bus, invite about 50 or 60 of my colleagues from the Embassy, acquire a keg of beer from the local barbeque joint and then traverse the city for a couple of hours of fun and frivolity.  It was a great success and we had so much fun singing, dancing and not spilling beer as we bumped along the city streets, drawing odd looks from locals and scowls from babushkas who seemed completely confused by this party bus when we drew up to the occasional bus stop.  It was hot (Moldovan’s don’t care much for air conditioning, and it likely wouldn’t have made a difference anyway) but the beer was cold and the laughter was plentiful.  I think it’s safe to say that a good time was had by all.

The gang's all here!  What fun we all had...


Final European Travel
Living in Europe these past two years, even in a small out-of-the-way corner of Europe, has afforded us some wonderful travel opportunities, which we worked hard not to let pass us by.  In the last few months here, I did manage two more trips away, first to Warsaw, Poland with a friend from the embassy, and a few weeks later to London in order to visit friends with whom we worked in Haiti.  Highlights of these excursions include the Warsaw Uprising Museum (commemorating the brave women and men who rose up against fascism in World War II), walking around the old city of Warsaw (what was left of it after the War), and a visit to Stalin’s gift to the people of Poland, a massive Soviet-era building that today houses movie theaters, a museum and a nice viewing platform near the top.  In London it was great fun to see my friends, visit Abby Road and to take a Jack the Ripper walking tour of the central city.

Old City in Warsaw 
Old City in Warsaw 



Old City in Warsaw 

The Palace of Culture and Science, built by Stalin and the tallest building in Poland

My friend Mike in front of a rudimentarily armored vehicle at the Warsaw Uprising Museum

Viewing platform at the Museum with the artistic symbol of the Uprising called the Kotwica, showing the letters “P” and “W” which stood for “Fighting Poland” and stylized to resemble an anchor (kotwica in Polish)

A commemorative line in the sidewalk showing the location of the wall of the Warsaw Ghetto

View of the city from the viewing platform of the Palace of Culture and Science

Abbey Road Studios 
Tourists crossing Abbey Road



Poets for Hire along the Thames 
Reconstructed Globe Theatre along the Thames


The Tube in central London

Our Return to Washington
As you no doubt already know, we’ll be returning to the US for the next tour, where I’ll be working in Washington in the Bureau of Education and Cultural Affairs in the Office of Global Education.  Happily for me, I’ll (likely) never have to do visa interviews again (hope I’m not tempting fate here), and after more than 20,000 nonimmigrant visa interviews (7035 in Haiti and 13,648 in Moldova), I think I’ve earned my keep.  My totals are nowhere near the most interviews compared to officers in other countries (a colleague in next door Romania did 27,000 in two years there), but I did my best and kept out the terrorists, as far as I know! (Thanks, Jenny, for that sage advice!)  I’ll be a Policy Assessment and Coordination Officer (a PACO) in the OGE, and while it sounds great, I really have no idea what exactly this will entail.  But that’s kind of par for the course for the State Department, so we get used to showing up and learning on the job.  And when someone asks me when I’ll be doing my next visa interview, I will happily chirp in with a hearty «Когда рак на горе свистнет!» / Kag-da rahk na gor-ay svist-nyet! / When the crayfish whistles on the mountain!

Most happily, however, Kate has secured a part-time job as a librarian in Fairfax County, and even better we have found a place to live!  We have a townhome leased as of August 2017 in a region of Arlington, Virginia known as Ballston, and this three-bedroom place is about ten minutes’ walk from the Ballston Metro stop on the Orange Line, as well as about a fifteen minutes’ walk from the Foreign Service Institute, where the Department hosts the vast majority of our training.  With at least two years ahead of us on the East Coast, we look forward to visiting all the places we have yet to see back home in America, from Maine all the way to Georgia, and we genuinely invite you to join us in the Washington, D.C. area when you have the time.  You will always be welcome.

Th- th- th- … That’s All, Folks!
Well, that’s about it folks.  I hope that the both of you enjoyed this time with us here in Moldova here on the eastern edge of freedom, and that you weren’t too terribly bored by the whole thing.  If you truly made it this far and managed to stay awake, I thank you most sincerely.   Not sure if I’ll keep this up during our tour in the US, but if I do it certainly won’t be from a Small Country anymore. 

We’ll be home in Minnesota and Wisconsin for most of August and into early September, and I hope we have a chance to catch up while there.  If not, drop either of us a line at davepanetti@hotmail.com or katepanetti@hotmail.com, or call one of us at 952.200.8407 (me) or 952.200.8406 (Kate), and we’ll work out details for your visit to see us later.

Всего доброго / Vsevo dobrava / All the best / to you and your families.  For us, life is good, and we hope you can say the same.

Sunrise over Twin Bear Lake | Iron River, Wisconsin