Saturday, November 28, 2015

November Notes...

Notes from a Small Country
(with apologies to Bill Bryson)

Entering Chisinau from the south, not far from our home.

И снова здравствуйте!  Hello again!
And welcome back to another edition of Notes from a Small Country; I’m glad the two of you are here.

I’ve been ruminating about transitions of late.  Not necessarily the kind of major, life-altering transitions (although those have occupied my mind as well, what with the start of this new tour and Number One Son running off to join the Navy), but rather along the lines of more pedestrian transitions, like learning or re-learning daily life and work routines.  Or packing up and moving.  Or getting to and from work.  Like that.

And so it turns out that this new life (small aside:  can I keep calling it our “new life,” even after more than four years in the Foreign Service?) is filled with learning and re-learning lots of simple tasks that we previously took oh-so-for-granted.

It all starts with the preparations for a big move, which of course we do every couple of years in this job.

In our most recent Foreign Service transition, we actually started the process for our fall 2015 move to Moldova in about October or November of 2014 as we prepared to depart from Haiti.  We had never been to Moldova before, and although we had been to the region and knew people from Moldova, we had never lived there.  So there we were, in the hot and sunny Caribbean with essentially one season, preparing to make a series of rather major moves over the nine months or so before actually arriving in Moldova, a mid-continental, four-season country in Eastern Europe where we would pass the time during eight changes of seasons.  Sounds fairly straightforward, right?

The first move was simply from Haiti back to Minnesota; however shortly thereafter I was scheduled for six months of training in Washington where I would need clothes and personal items to outfit my temporary apartment.  So what from Haiti should go to Minnesota, and what should go to Washington?  Kate was going to join me for two months of language as well, so we had to decide whether some of her things should go straight to DC or to Minnesota first.  In addition, some of our household goods in Haiti were going to be packed up and shipped directly to Moldova by surface shipping, and in an added wrinkle we were allowed to ship about 700 pounds direct to Moldova by air so as to get it sooner once we arrived at post.

What should go in which box and to which destination?  And when eight Haitian men descend on your house to start disassembling things, wrapping them up and putting them in boxes, in which crate will they end up?  Supervising all the movers at once is not entirely feasible, so it takes a lot of advance thinking and planning to coordinate such a complex move:  The second bedroom will have only items going to DC by air and the office will only have things going to Minnesota; once they arrive we’ll unpack it all and rearrange it to prepare for the pack-out from Minnesota and the move to Moldova.  The living and dining rooms will have only items destined to go straight to Moldova, but the area near the window will be designated for items that go to Moldova by air.  Wait, will we need the vacuum in Washington, or should it go to Moldova?  But then they use 220 volt electricity in Europe, don’t they?  So it should just go to Minnesota, right?  What about winter clothes?  Will the surface shipment arrive before snow flies, or should we put winter clothes in the air shipment?  What clothes will I need for work, and for how long, after arrival in Moldova?  Will I really need my Caribbean wardrobe in Eastern Europe, or should that just stay in Minnesota?  What if they send our things to Monrovia instead of Moldova?  Then what??  Such was our life in the fall of 2014, and no one had even moved yet.

Kate left Haiti in early December (move #1), and I departed about three weeks later (#2).  After two weeks in Minnesota for the holidays, I moved to Washington for language training (#3).  Kate moved to Washington in mid-February to join me, and brought along a new wrinkle named Riley the Wonder Dog (#4).  She and RTWD then moved back to Minnesota in late April (#5).  Sophie moved to Washington in May for her summer internship at the National Archives (#6).  She and I moved back to Minnesota at the end of July (#7) in order to do the final prep for our next move later that fall.  I moved to Moldova the last weekend of August (#8), and Kate flew to Moldova (well, to Bucharest, Romania really, but more on that later) with RTWD in October (#9).  None of this included getting Sophie back to school or getting Tommy off to basic training in the Navy.

And that was just the moving part.  Then when all your stuff arrives, you have to unpack it all and decide where it should go.  In a new house with which you are also unfamiliar and which may not have the same electrical supply, storage space, or amenities you had at home.  Or at your last post, where you essentially did the same thing just a couple of years ago.

Once we arrived in Moldova, all old/new routines had to be worked out.  Where to buy groceries?  And how does one ask where the shoe polish is in Russian, anyway?  (где находится крем для обуви?, that’s how.)  Did I buy canned tuna, or is it really pickled pig’s feet?  (The jury is still out on that one.) Does that label say dishwasher detergent or just dish soap?  (Turns out it was dish soap.  At least my kitchen floor was nice and clean after running the dishwasher.)  How does the heating system work?  And this alarm system, is it really necessary?  How does anyone bake things in this tiny little oven?  And how does 350 degrees Fahrenheit convert to Celsius, again?  What do those instructions say (in Russian only) on the washing machine that holds about one pair of pants?  Can I use my credit card when buying gas, and is it safe to do so?  (Yes, and mostly.)  And when the station attendant starts yammering away at you in Romanian about who-knows-what, then what do you do?  (If he’s young maybe reply in English or Russian, if old stick with Russian.  Alternatively, just leave and try another station.)  How do I get to work when I don’t have my car yet?  (Use the Embassy motorpool for a few weeks or ride the bus.)  How do I take possession of the car I bought sight-unseen back in July and which has been sitting here the past three months?  (Wait for Moldovan authorities to accredit you as an honest-to-God diplomat, then wait for the motor vehicle authorities to issue diplomatic plates, then once you have plates you can buy third-party insurance, then once that’s done you can get the mandatory safety check, and after that you can get the keys, but if you want to drive to other countries you will need a special border crossing card.) 

And then you can start working out the cultural norms and legalities of driving on actual roads with actual other people, which is a whole new learning experience.  Can I really turn left from the middle lane?  What does that sign mean?  Wait, there are lane lines?  Oops, is this really a one-way street?   Whoa, those pedestrians can just pop out of nowhere!  (You really have to be on the ball when driving here, especially at night under mostly dim street lights; any lack of attention puts many people at risk.  My lifetime of left-footed braking sure comes in handy here!)

All the activities one usually pays little or no attention to suddenly need rather sustained, focused attention, or you might wind up creating a diplomatic incident or worse, driving the wrong way down a bus-only lane only to find yourself facing an irate busload of Moldovans who wonder who the hell you think you are.  Not that I know anything about this, mind you.  (I don’t, really.  But I have nightmares about it happening.)

If learning new things helps forge new pathways in the brain, then my brain must be about ready to explode.  It is most definitely an #expatlife.

30A Anton Ablov.

Our very own orchard!

The strawberry bed and a small barbecue area.

Great place to make шашлык!

View of the house from the garden.

Modes of Transport
When we in the diplomatic corps attend language training at the Foreign Service Institute, it seems that many of the language lessons are focused on topics like global warming, raising children, health care systems, forms of government, and modes of transportation, among other scintillating subjects.  In reality, getting around the city is kind of an interesting process.

In Haiti, we were not allowed to take Tap Taps, the local form of quasi-public transportation, so we relied either on personal cars or Embassy shuttles, and walking the streets in Port-au-Prince, while not exactly prohibited, certainly wasn’t encouraged.  Here in Moldova, none of those restrictions exist.  Normal caution is suggested, of course, but we are free to ride city buses (mostly powered by overhead electric wires and called trolleybuses), taxis, and minibuses (a minibus is called a маршрутка / marshrutka, and they hold maybe 10-25 people).  Walking in the city, while not always pleasant because of the sparsely lighted streets and uneven sidewalks, is certainly possible and typically is pretty safe, particularly in the city center.

While waiting to take possession of my car (which, perhaps not surprisingly, we have nicknamed Ivan), I started using the local #10 bus to get to work.  Other than the fact that most riders tended to look as if someone had just run over their cat, it was not an unpleasant experience, even when riding the creaky old Soviet-era model.  (I do know which of my fillings are loose now, though.)

I would walk about five minutes from the house to the bus stop where the trolleybus came by every 3-4 minutes during the morning rush.  Once there all I had to do was hop on and wait a bit, for after a few minutes a lady would come by and tap me on the shoulder, which is the signal to pay her bus fare and get a small paper ticket.  Bus fare costs 2 lei, and the ride itself for me was about fifteen minutes.  Now, 2 lei isn’t very much to pay.  In fact, when there are roughly 20 lei to the dollar, my morning commute cost roughly 10 cents, which is a pretty good deal if I do say so myself.  Gas is about 19 lei per liter, or just under $4.00 per gallon, and while it’s true that I wouldn’t use much gas to get to the Embassy, 10 cents is probably not the real cost of driving every day.

But then my car was ready and I pretty much stopped riding the bus, at least to work.  I am an American, after all.

Bus fare.

Drawing an Inside Straight in Chisinau
Now if that doesn’t sound like a B-grade film from the 50s or some strange modern mash-up of Zane Grey and Alexander Pushkin, I don’t know what does.  However, it happens to be something I did not long ago. 

A colleague had invited me to play poker one Friday night, and of course I readily agreed.  The stakes were high, let me tell you:  a 200 lei buy in for Texas Hold ‘em, with the option to buy in again at the half-way point when the stakes would then double.

I got there a bit early, so a few of us were watching pre-season football and having a beer when the doorbell rang.  Much to my surprise, the last entry in our friendly little game was the United States Ambassador to Moldova, James Pettit.  Suddenly the tenor changed:  Is it appropriate to raise the stakes on the Ambassador?  What if he loses all of his money?  The book on protocol doesn’t really include a chapter on cleaning out the Chief of Mission in the country where you are assigned.  This was definitely new territory.

Turns out the Ambassador isn’t a card shark after all, and in fact is as much a regular guy as anyone else, he just happens to be the President’s representative to the Republic of Moldova, speaks four languages and is married to – wait for it – the Ambassador to Latvia.  Evidently he never managed to absorb the rules of poker while learning all of those languages, and, you know, being kind of a badass guy in regular clothes.  In fact, after we cashed in for chips and sorted out who would have the first deal, the Ambassador pulled out a cheat-sheet from his pocket which he had printed from Wikipedia.  It seems that he needed help recalling whether two pair beat three of a kind.

At some point during the evening, our in-between hands discussion turned to spirits.  And no, not of the metaphysical type.  Hennessey, the various high-end versions of Johnnie Walker, Bombay Sapphire and some South American top-shelf rum were discussed, and several were brought out for sampling.  So naturally I brought out my locally produced bottle of vodka called Exclusiv (sans “e”), a liter of which costs about 100 lei or $5.00.  (I’m quite the high roller.)  High quality stuff, that.  And since I like to share, we all did a shot together.  Including the Ambassador.  Yup, it was quite an experience in cognitive dissonance.  I’m still wondering how all of that played out, especially since when the night ended, and with no evident favoritism at play, the Ambassador managed to take everyone’s money.  It was a night for the record books, that’s for sure.

На здоровье!  Well, maybe not...

RTWD becomes an IDOM
So of course by now, the both of you now know that we have a new addition to Team Panetti; one four-footed, furry and uber-friendly golden retriever named Riley.

One day in mid-January, while I was in Washington and just after having started language training, I received a phone call from my co-captain.  Seems she had seen an ad from the local Humane Society back in Minnesota that a golden retriever was up for adoption, and she called to see what I thought.  My memory isn’t what it used to be, but I kind of think the conversation went something like this:

Me:  So, how old is he?
Kate the Puppy Pushover:  about five, they think.  What do you think?
M:  Is he healthy?
KPP:  Well, he has had seizures, but they’re not too bad, and we’ve managed them before with Snickers.  What do you think?
M:  Ah, I see.  How long has he been there?
KPP:  Just a couple of days, actually.  What do you think?
M:  Huh.  What’s that sound in the background?
KPP:  Sound?  I don’t know.  What do you think?
M:  Are you already at the Humane Society?  Is that what I hear?
KPP:  I’m sure I don’t know what you mean.  What do you think?
M:  You’ve already adopted him, haven’t you?
KPP:  But he’s soooooo cuuuuute!!!!  You’re going to love him!

-         click    -    

So it came to pass that Riley the Wonder Dog joined the Team, and what a pick-up he’s been.  A more loyal, loving puppy would be difficult to imagine.

And now he’s become an International Dog of Mystery!

Long ago we had agreed that I would head to post alone, and Kate would stay back in Minnesota in order to help get Sophie ready to start school and to see Tommy off as he transitioned to Basic Training outside of Chicago.  And, of course, that’s exactly what we did.  However now we had RTWD and another set of concerns with which to contend, such as:  How do we get him to post?

Well, after more researching, questioning, debating, discussing and no small amount of fretting, we arranged to have RTWD fly with Kate when she was scheduled to arrive in Moldova, about six weeks after me.  It turns out that traveling with pets, if they are just the slightest bit bigger than a breadbox, can be quite the ordeal.  Since RTWD weighs about 80 pounds, and his travel crate us just so big, the total weight of the two together trends toward just under the 100 pound limit by which most airlines allow you to bring the pet as excess baggage instead of having him go as cargo.  Unless you’ve done this before you might really have no idea how much of a difference that makes.  Classifying him as excess baggage meant the cost to get RTWD on the plane was about $200, as opposed to a classification as cargo, which would cost something like ten times that.  Good thing he cut the chocolate cake out of his diet!

And then a new wrinkle emerged, as it is wont to do.  It would seem that one can fly with pets all the way to Moldova, but only if they are under a certain weight and total size.  Which Riley is not.  Evidently the airlines which service the Moldovan capital don’t fly to Chisinau in planes big enough to handle crates his size, and so plan “B” it was!

Plan B was to fly from Minnesota to Moldova via Romania, and upon arrival in Bucharest simply collect the baggage – inanimate as well as animate – and drive to Chisinau.  So that’s what we did.

Riley transforms into the IDOM in our very own wine cellar!

An Interesting Week
A few weeks before Kate and RTWD flew to post, I was asked by the DCM (the Deputy Chief of Mission) if I would be the Control Officer for an upcoming CODEL visit.  CODEL, if you didn’t know, stands for Congressional Delegation, and being the Control Officer means you have to, well, control things.  Mostly it means coordinating and arranging for other people to do some particular task:  arrange for accommodations, transportation, set up meetings with appropriate people given the CODEL’s focus, stuff like that.

I was fortunate in that this CODEL was only going to be in town for about 36 hours, and Moldova was the last country on their four country tour.  These trips are notorious for being massive amounts of effort with minimal benefit (think of the “junkets” you might have heard of in the past, and you might have an idea).  This trip was two Congressman (no spouses), one professional Congressional staffer, and a military officer escort. 

Late on a Tuesday evening in mid-October, the Ambassador and I met Congressmen Duncan Hunter and Mark Sanford at the airport.  I rode with them to their hotel, got them checked in and settled, and they then spent the evening on their own in Chisinau.  The next day was filled with meetings of various sorts, and mostly I just arranged the details (who, what, where and when), although I did sit in on one and take notes.  On Thursday, Congressman Sanford departed Chisinau for South Carolina on the 700 am flight, which meant getting him to the airport at 530 am, which meant I needed to get up at about 400 am in order to get ready for the day and get him there on time.  The others had further meetings to attend, and then they departed around 1230 pm.

The CODEL at the local BBQ restaurant the Smokehouse.

At the Ministry of Defense.

After the last of them checked through security, my job as Control Officer was done, so I went home, packed, and then drove the seven hours from Chisinau to Bucharest to pick up Kate and Riley for their arrival the next day.  That made for a long day, let me tell you.  Add to that the fact that I had never been to Bucharest, had never driven on Moldovan or Romanian highways (that particular experience will wait until the next edition), and in fact had only had possession of my car for about four days previous and it was quite the adventure, I must say.

And so that’s how RTWD became an IDOM.

Further Transitions
And so it’s probably time to transition back to reality now, and let you get back to more pressing matters.

We are extremely fortunate to be in Chicago at the moment, having flown in to celebrate the Thanksgiving holiday with both kids, Tommy’s girlfriend Jenna, and a good portion of the family.  Tommy and the other naval recruits were given about ten hours of leave from the base, and so we had a wonderful meal together in downtown Chicago at Aunt Susie’s house, complete with my first ever turducken.

The matryoshka of meat.

My girls.

Tommy is about to complete his eight-week stint in Basic Training at Great Lakes Naval Training Center next week, and so we will spend some time visiting family in the Milwaukee area and then will return to Chicago for his graduation next week before heading back to Moldova.  Overall it will be a short trip, but we are very, very grateful to be able to come back to the US for the holiday and to all be together for this next milestone event.  Sophie’s semester abroad is fast approaching, and we are so looking forward to meeting her in Rome in the New Year, immediately after which I will hopefully have the opportunity for some additional training in Frankfurt, Germany.

And then before you know it, we’ll all have transitioned ourselves into 2016, and everyone will perform that ritual duty of making exclamations about where the time has gone.

But in the meantime, we wish everyone a happy Thanksgiving, a happy holiday season, and all the very best as 2015 comes to a close.  And despite recent events which have shaken many, for us life is good, and we hope you can say the same.

Extremely blessed, and very, very thankful.

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

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