Sunday, June 8, 2014

Under a June Haitian Moon

Under a Haitian Moon

Fok ou kon kote ou soti pou ou konnen kote ou pwale.

You must know where you come from to know where you’re going.
Haitian Proverb

Port-au-Prince at sunset from Observatoire de Boutilliere

Welcome Back!
It’s almost impossible to believe, but we now count the time remaining in our first tour in only months.  Soon we’ll have to start preparing for our pack-out (well, maybe not ‘soon’, but rather ‘soon-ish’ I suppose).  It’s been an eventful year, and the ride ain’t over yet!

Back in February I spent a long weekend in South Florida for a medical appointment.  Can I just say that Fort Lauderdale is a very pleasant place to spend time?  I’m particularly fond of the nice paved roads, clean public bathrooms, the Gateway Cinema, and Taco Bell.  I know, I know; surely you’re thinking clean public bathrooms aren’t all that much to get excited about, but like the old saying goes, you never know what you’re missing until it’s gone.

While preparing for my little mini-trip, Kate planned her own trip that same weekend to Minnesota for the annual Minnesota Intercollegiate Athletic Conference championships to see Tommy swim.  Upon her arrival back in the United States, word came from our renters that our old doggie, Snickerdoodle, was acting oddly and seemed a bit out of sorts the few days prior.  This news cast something of a pall over an otherwise very pleasant diversion from daily life in Port-au-Prince, for when one is a 12-year-old golden retriever one doesn’t want to experience behavior that is deemed odd.  Kate learned that she was not really eating, and for a dog who loved nothing more than mealtime, this was indeed a bad omen. 

A trip to the vet confirmed our worst fears that she was seriously ill.  She had had a toe removed last fall due to a tumor, and now the cancer had returned with a vengeance, having spread widely into her lungs and leading to another tumor on her left hind-quarter.  She struggled to breath and couldn’t run or play in anyway like she used to.  Her appetite had largely disappeared, and with that in particular it was clear she wouldn’t be able to withstand this new onslaught much longer.  We made the difficult decision to have her put to sleep, and I made a small side-trip back to Minnesota to be with the family and say my goodbyes to our loyal and loving puppy.  This sad trip did coincide with a serendipitous opportunity to see Tommy swim in the championships at the University of Minnesota Aquatic Center, so that was a plus.  The plan now is to take our loving puppy to the place we were all most happy together, and spread her ashes near the mouth of the Brule River on the shores of Lake Superior during out next visit.

Team Panetti Tackles the Motherland!
In April, we had a fantastic trip to Italy to celebrate our 25th wedding anniversary (technically not until May, but the timing also coincided with the kids’ Spring Break).  Kate and I met Tommy and Sophie in Rome where we stayed for three nights, and then we traveled to the medieval town of San Gimignano, Florence and Venice for a couple days each.  So while we did the pretty typical ten-day, skip-across-the-surface, see-all-the-big-tourist-sites kind of a trip, we had such a good time it’s hard to even describe.  Stopping in little piazza’s for a coffee or an afternoon glass of wine, walking outside on the old cobblestoned streets window shopping and people watching, taking in the unimaginable history, just generally relaxing in the Italian spring has to have been the best family trip we’ve taken to date.

Trevi Fountain in Rome

The Coliseum

Inside the Coliseum

Photo classico!  Caio bella!

One of my favorite pictures:  My girls with old Italian men in Orvieto.

Overlooking a valley in Orvieto.

In the old medieval city of San Gimignano.

The Ponte Vecchio in Florence.

Visiting the old homestead of Florence.


Family duck-face selfie in Venice.

Having a wine outside Il Duomo in Florence.

At the Vatican Museums.

Le travail
My work in the Consulate has, perhaps somewhat obviously, got me thinking a lot about the immigrant experience lately.  Like any job, the major tasks of interviewing and processing visa applicant files can occasionally get a bit tedious.  Asking similar questions and getting similar answers can even be boring from time to time.  But when I step back from the daily routine and consider what these people are really doing – or trying to do, as the case may be – I’m often pretty impressed.

Of course the immigrant experience is different for everyone, but I often reflect on what these people are about to do, and am sometimes filled with awe and admiration for the risks they take.  In the best of worlds it is difficult to imagine giving up everything you know – family, friends, life, work, culture and country, all of it – to move to a foreign country and start anew.  When the average Haitian makes $2 per day and has an average of about a fourth grade education, it’s clear that Haitians often are not making their decision to immigrate under anything like the best of circumstances.  Of course they are not making their way to the US totally without family connections, and like immigrant groups always and everywhere, Haitians tend to settle where there are other Haitians.  But I often wonder if the 30-year-old woman or the middle-aged man, moving to the United States with almost no education and therefore few employment prospects, really has any real idea what they’re in for once they arrive.  What moxie these people must have.

Not Exactly NSFW
The advances in technology and their ability to constantly increase the speed of life have encouraged an explosion of acronyms and initialisms that would make the federal government envious.  In the online world one I see one occasionally which reads “NSFW.”  Of course I was confused, and then I looked it up on the Internet.  Evidently this means “Not Safe For Work,” indicating that the story contains inappropriate material which might get one in a spot of trouble with one’s employer if viewed at work.  Of course it does.

We in the IV section, on the other hand, routinely – and as a matter of course in the performance of our duties – come across material that would most assuredly qualify as NSFW in virtually any other situation.  A typical example happened to me just the other day.  I was reviewing the file of an IR1, the spouse of an American citizen.  The applicant was a woman of about 30 and the petitioner was her husband of about three years who lives in the US.  You might recall that a petition requires many things, including financial support, a clean medical report, passport, legal documents like a birth and a marriage certificate, things like that.  In addition, it is often required that the applicant supply information that would provide proof of a real, ongoing relationship, such as receipts for money transfers between the petitioner and the applicant, printed emails between the two, airline tickets and passport stamps indicating a visit to the other party, or perhaps family photographs.

It won’t require much imagination to think about the type of photographs one might provide to a complete stranger that would help to prove an ongoing marital relationship, such as pictures together on vacation, with family and friends, at the moment of the marriage proposal or their wedding, with their children and extended family, that sort of thing.  Improvements in technology have not only increased the number of unintelligible words and acronyms for an old codger like me, but have also made accessible a wide variety of small cameras in things like mobile phones, which are ubiquitous in the developing world.  So while the average Haitian may only earn $700 a year or so, they most certainly have a cell phone and therefore access to a camera of some sort, and can easily provide photographs to support their claim of being married.

Of course you can see where this is going.  Included in my applicants file were photos of the happy couple together at the civil court office for the wedding ceremony, having dinner at a restaurant, at the beach, and in various states of undress while lying on the bed together, including one rather, ahem, ‘compromising position’ which would very likely make Hugh Hefner blush.  Curiously, these sorts of photos appear in an applicant’s file more often than you might think, unfortunately.  It appears to be the case that applicants for immigrant visas believe such explicit and semi-explicit photos will help to prove to the Consular Officer that they are in a real relationship.  Ummmm… no.

In this most recent case, I administered the oath and conducted the interview as normal, asking about their relationship, when they first met, how he asked her to marry him, what the wedding was like, how they maintain a marriage from afar, like that.  It seemed to me they likely do have a real relationship, and as she was missing a document of some kind, I was going to have to put off a final decision until she returned with that document, and therefore I needed to explain this to her before letting her go.  After all was said and done, I then asked her why she submitted explicit photographs.  She seemed a bit confused so I helped her to understand what I meant by showing her one in particular.  She seemed rather embarrassed, and I asked why she thought I would want to see such photos.  She rather sheepishly said it was because she heard it would prove their relationship, just as I suspected.  I then asked her if her mother would like to see such photos of her, to which she visibly recoiled at such a preposterous suggestion.  Ever the helpful Consular Officer, I reminded her – perhaps a bit too loudly over the microphone – that now the entire waiting room knew she submitted such photos, and not only that but all of my colleagues who work in the IV section knew as well.  I kindly suggested to her that maybe she could tell her friends that these kinds of photos are not only unnecessary but unwanted, and that I really didn’t find them helpful in making my decision.  Pretty sure she avoided all eye contact with the guards and those still in the waiting room as she slinked out the door. 

Like we find ourselves saying all too often, you can’t make this shit up.

Speaking of the Internets
As Foreign Service Officers in the service of our country and working for the federal government, we sometimes have to be careful of what we say and to whom we say it.  We sign a document approximately twelve times in the first days of the career saying that we agree to go wherever the State Department needs us; that we agree to serve in whatever job needed; and that we agree to support US policy publicly, even if we personally disagree with said policy.  It’s not that we are forbidden from expressing personal opinions, it’s just that when acting in our official capacity in public fora we are always “on” and required to support the current administration.

My job doesn’t often require such commitments, although I have done a couple radio shows.  And this blog doesn’t qualify as acting in my official capacity, although since it’s out there traversing through that series of tubes it happens to be quite public.  So it’s sort of a grey area when it comes to the blogosphere, and of course the State Department has rules and regulations regarding what we can and cannot say or post about in personal blogs.  Given that mine is more of a personal narrative and travelogue, I don’t have much about which to be concerned.

Recently I posted an entry, on a Sunday afternoon, I think.  On Tuesday I was asked by Washington via my manager – asked not commanded, and politely and respectfully I might add – to edit a small portion of my post by removing some details that might have allowed my two readers to identify the subject of a story I was sharing.  I wasn’t too surprised about this, as I very deliberately tried to tell the story with some accuracy and detail while at the same time avoiding too much detail about any one individual.  I knew it was kind of on the edge, but felt I was erring enough on the side of caution to avoid any problems. 

The part that did surprise me though, was that there are actually more than two other people out there reading this drivel.  And to the two guys sitting in some windowless basement office back in Washington, tasked with reading through such long-winded malarkey:  Howdy! I owe you guys a beer or two next time I visit…

Crazy Story of the Day:  Two for the Price of One!
Today your intrepid correspondent brings you two stories of craziness and nonsense.  The first is a cautionary tale of “chikuns” and eggs, the second involves a small Haitian town “without equal.”

As if the folks living in these latitudes needed another malady with which to deal, there exists now in the tropics a new pestilence sweeping the island of Hispaniola called “chikungunya,” another mosquito-borne virus with no remedy, treatment or cure.  Similar to dengue, symptoms include days of fever and painful, sometimes severe and debilitating, joint pain.  Mosquito control and prevention of bites by infected insects are the only ways to avoid contracting chikungunya, and treatment is limited to rest, liquids and ibuprofen or acetaminophen.

Unfortunately the arrival and spread of this little bugger on the island was quite rapid, and people in Haiti are falling ill to chikungunya in large numbers.  Embassy employees are perhaps more informed than most about the disease, but knowledge alone isn’t always enough to prevent the spread in such a hot and humid climate, and many colleagues have also become sick over the past month or so.

The impact on staffing at business and employers has been rather dramatic, which of course includes the Embassy.  As my colleague tells this tale, one day she went to the cafeteria in the Embassy to buy some breakfast.  Omelets are a regular item on the menu, and my colleague went to the cashier to place her order for a plain one.

“Sorry ma’am,” she was told gravely and in all seriousness, “our plain omelet chef is out sick with the chikungunya.  However, if you want a ham and cheese omelet, we can certainly whip up  one of those for you in no time!”


* * * * *

On the north coast of Haiti there is a town called Cap Haitien, a port town of about 200,000 souls.  As a small working port, there obviously exists on the waterfront a pier for the loading and unloading of goods and people.

About four years ago the pier was rebuilt using steel and aluminum construction.  Evidently this is not a good combination, particularly when placed in salty sea water.  The Internet tells me, as it happens, that the most common form of galvanic corrosion of aluminum alloys occur when aluminum is joined with steel or copper and exposed to a wet saline environment.  Guess they didn’t consult the Interwebs when building this pier, for earlier this week the pier in Cap succumbed to science and simply collapsed.

Now my friend Aaron, using his new dad-voice and in his new role in telling awesome dad-jokes, says that Cap Haitien is a city without equals, because it is pier-less. 


N a we pita!
The kids have closed another chapter back in Minnesota as they recently finished the school year at Gustavus Adolphus College.

Sophie had a good, strong start to her college experience last fall after her gap year in Washington and Haiti, and just days ago returned to Haiti for a couple of months to be a summer intern back at the Embassy.  This year she’ll be working in the American Citizen Services unit, meaning 75% of the Panetti family will be working in the Consulate for the next six or eight weeks.

Tommy finished his junior year, and within two days of his last final embarked on a cross-country trip with Kate to start an internship of his own at the US Coast Guard Training Center in Yorktown, Virginia.  Until August he will be working as a full-time Morale, Well-being and Recreation intern, which he absolutely loves so far.

We’re hoping to reunite Team Panetti for the July 4 holiday here in Haiti, and so once again put us all in the same place at the same time.

Life for us is good, and we hope you can say the same.

Enjoying our visit to the 152 year old Barbancourt Rhum factory, complete with free tastings!


  1. Love your blog! Such interesting stories. Unfortunately that IV bit is universal -- I've seen some pretty indecent photos, too, and I always wondered who took them. Glad you are enjoying Haiti, and see you in DC/MN/wherever soon!

  2. DC from Jan-July 2015, then off to Chisinau!