Thursday, December 29, 2016

December Notes

Notes from a Small Country
 (I think Bill Bryson has already forgiven me…)

Tree at 30A Anton Ablov.

Visiting with Santa at the Ambassador's residence.

Merry Christmas!  Happy Holidays!  Happy New Year!
You might recall that last year at this time I was paddling around in little pool of self-pity as I was alone at Christmas for the first time ever, even though I wasn’t really alone, since I had RTWD and friends who came through in the clutch to make my Christmas less lame than it could have been.  Fortunately this year will not be a repeat, as I joined the rest of the Team in Minnesota just in time for Christmas and a week back home – which included at least a few days together with both kids.  Needless to say, during the last few weeks in Moldova I was blasting the Christmas tunes in preparation, and I am very grateful for the chance to have been home with family for the holidays.

Christmas at the Quirk's.

Next Year in Jerusalem!
So perhaps at some time in the past you’ve wondered about the title of this insignificant little periodical, especially given my training in Washington, first tour in Haiti, second tour in Moldova and plenty of travels, none of which were even remotely close to Israel.

The truth is more mundane than an upcoming Foreign Service tour spent in Tel Aviv, which admittedly would be pretty cool.  (By the way, the US Embassy is not in the Israeli capital of Jerusalem, as one might expect.  Why, you ask?  Well, it’s complicated – but if you follow the President-elect’s recently announced proposal for US Ambassador to Israel, we're sure to learn a lot more about it soon.)  In reality, when thinking up some clever title for this record of travels and random thoughts, I remembered the phrase from books I have read and re-read over the years by author Chaim Potok, whose work I first encountered a hundred years ago when I read The Chosen in my 10th grade English literature class.  Honestly I can’t remember if the phrase played an important role in the book itself, or even if it was uttered at all in that novel.  The Chosen really affected me, and served as my introduction to the language and many of the rites, rituals and habits of Judaism.  Since then I have read many of Potok’s books, and in my mind his work is undoubtedly where I picked up the use of the phrase – in my elementary way, that is – to mean something akin to “hopefully next year I’ll be in a better place,” figuratively as well as literally, spiritually as well as physically.

My rudimentary understanding of the phrase is that Jews repeat it at the end of the Passover Seder or on Yom Kippur as a way of making a prayer for movement closer to the Promised Land, that the journey is still not complete and with the passage of another year the faithful are one step closer to Jerusalem, which means ‘the city of peace.’  I hope to be using the phrase not as an appropriation of the culture, but as a way of appreciating the universal nature of the sentiment.

And so the phrase comes in handy when thinking about where, exactly, we’ll be next year in this crazy Foreign Service life we’ve chosen.

The three of you who read the last edition may recall that we were in the process of bidding on third tour posts, some of which included Mustachistan, Elbonia, Equatorial Kundu, Brobdingnag and Freedonia.  Well, if you looked for those places in your family atlas, you might have encountered a little difficulty, because of course all of them are fictional.  So what’s next for Team Panetti?

Being in east-central Europe the past 18 months or so has been a pretty positive experience and has really given us a taste for life in the area.  And so we made the decision to bid exclusively on Cultural Affairs positions, almost all in the region.  Good jobs in fascinating places like Belgrade, Serbia; Sarajevo, Bosnia & Herzegovina; Tirana, Albania; and our top choice in central Europe:  Ljubljana, Slovenia.  Other really good jobs outside the region on which we bid included Lisbon, Portugal; Brussels, Belgium and our overall top choice, Oslo, Norway.  Outside of Europe, we also bid on Auckland, New Zealand.  All interesting places, all interesting Cultural Affairs jobs.  Two domestic positions in Washington also looked promising, a Special Assistant position and a Sports Diplomacy position, both in the Bureau of Education and Cultural Affairs.  That put us at the maximum of ten bids, and any one of them would have been welcome.

The difficulty for me came when trying to be competitive for Cultural Affairs positions when I’ve never yet had the opportunity to work formally in the field.  You might recall that all of my Foreign Service experience thus far has been as a Consular Officer, so any Cultural Affairs experience I have has been on the side, in addition to my formal role, and with no training in the field.  Not having the formal experience yet nonetheless bidding on very interesting jobs in exciting places meant that I was, by default, not a very competitive candidate bidding on very competitive places and jobs. 

An additional twist to the process at this point in history is the recent introduction of something called “FICA” positions.  These are specific jobs for people in my situation, those who have chosen one area of specialty (Public Diplomacy, in my case) but who have, for two or three straight tours, worked outside that area.  These specific jobs are called First In-Cone Assignments (hence FICA), and are available only to those who meet those criteria, above.

One more twist to our bidding strategy was that Tommy had only just found out he would be moving to Fort George Meade outside of Baltimore soon, and would be there for three years.  With Sophie about to graduate and Tommy in the greater DC area, domestic jobs suddenly became much more appealing.

None of the jobs I had initially bid on were FICA positions, which made me even less competitive than I already was, but I was determined to try even so.  The Department doesn’t publish in advance an overall list of FICA positions, which of course would be helpful when bidding.  Instead, messages come out periodically announcing the availability of such jobs, and then bidders must decide if they want to add one more to their bid list, which may require removing one if already at the maximum of ten.

So the emails and phone calls flew between me and Cultural Affairs offices in other Embassies in European (and other) capitals. 

Keep in mind that there are hundreds of us all over the world bidding at the same time, and for hundreds of positions on every continent.  It gets pretty intense pretty quickly once the bidding season opens (one specific day when official bids can be electronically submitted).  Recipients of all the interest get dozens of emails, and they have to weed through all of it to come up with a “short list” of candidates in which they are actually interested.  That’s when the actual conversations and interviews start, and once posts and the Bureau have narrowed it down to one, an offer can be extended.

I emailed the various posts again after about a week suggesting I’d really like to be on their short lists, and in response a couple replied that they were grateful for my interest, but unfortunately no, I was not on going to be on their short lists.  Of course this is expected, after all you can’t get offers or interest from every post, and of course I was behind the eight ball in the first place.  Once I knew I wouldn’t be on a post’s short list, I removed that post and looked for others to take its place from within those notifications of FICA positions.

Then one day a FICA position appeared in a place we hadn’t even considered:  Casablanca, Morocco.  This was definitely intriguing, as the job was ideal, although after Haiti and Moldova we were a little less interested in another developing country.  And while Casablanca is undoubtedly in Africa, it is North Africa, exotic and interesting and very close to other interesting places we might visit during a tour there, and as I said the job was ideal.  We went back and forth about whether or not to bid on this job, ultimately deciding that yes, we would give it a go.

Within about an hour of submitting my letters and the formal bid, I received a reply from the head of the Public Affairs section in Casablanca requesting an interview.  Well now this was something.  After replying that, yes, I would very much like to talk to him, Kate and I began thinking seriously about what this would look like.  Was it safe for the dog?  Was it safe for us?  What’s the climate like?  Would we be in a house again, or an apartment?  What did we know about Morocco, anyway?  And so on.  We contacted people we know who either are in Morocco now or who had been there in the past to get a sense for the place if an offer were to be tendered.

At about the same time, I received some interest about the two DC posts, the Special Assistant and Sports Diplomacy positions.  DC jobs bring with them a whole new set of challenges and concerns, principally with regard to housing, since it’s not provided like it is in almost every overseas post.  And while the jobs were interesting and would be good for my future in the Department, we were holding out hope for a bite from Oslo, Brussels, Ljubljana or one of the others which remained from my initial bid list. 

But that didn’t turn out like we had planned.  I interviewed for the two DC jobs and Casablanca and made it to their short lists, but then several more of my initial bids told me I was not on their short lists and so I removed them.  I felt as if I was the leading candidate for one of the DC jobs, and maybe for Casablanca as well, and think that if I had been willing to say “This is my top bid and I really want the job,” then maybe I would have received an offer of a handshake.  Playing the odds and saying this can be tricky though, since you might say that on Monday, and then on Tuesday get a message from the one post that you really, really wanted.  And backing out of a handshake is, well, not very nice, and while technically possible, is probably not very good for career development after that.  Similarly, if you never are willing to pull the trigger and tell someone how interested you are, they may never offer the handshake.  As Kenny Rogers sang, you’ve got to know when to hold ‘em, and know when to fold ‘em.

So there we were, three or four weeks into a five week process, sitting on three possibilities, none of which was really tops on our list, when an email landed in my inbox out of the blue for a different FICA position within the Bureau of Education and Cultural Affairs in Washington.  The Director and Assistant Director had been given my info from another person in their office who suggested I might be a good match for their FICA job, and so they asked if would be interested in bidding on the job.  Being a FICA position it was new, and so there was limited info about it online and no one to ask who had done the job before.  At this point in the process I wasn’t terribly confident that I’d get a call from Oslo, Brussels, Ljubljana or Auckland, or that a handshake would be offered from Casablanca, so we decided that yes, I would bid on this job.

Several emails and telephone interviews later, I was offered – and accepted – a handshake for the position of PACO (Policy Assessment and Coordination Officer) within the Office of Global Education in the Bureau of Education and Cultural Affairs, a two-year position in Washington, DC.  The Office of Global Education is housed in the Pharmacy Professionals Building, just across the street from the Main State Department building, and a stone’s throw from the Lincoln Memorial.

Flag of the city of Washington, DC.

And so now we’ve reached the point where we start thinking about the next transition.  We shipped several hundred pounds of consumable goods to Moldova upon our arrival, all stored in our basement kitchen, and all of which will need to be used up before we go.  Similarly, we ordered frozen and other consumable foods from the US Air Force commissary in Aviano, Italy, and so our freezer is full of things that need to be used up, too.  Other places on our list to see before we leave Europe need to get penciled in and plans made, and the formal process of departing post will start not too far into the New Year.  Most critically, we will need to find a place to live in the DC area.  My tour in Moldova ends in August, then we’ll have home leave and I’ll have some training in DC, and I should start the new job sometime in mid- to late-September 2017.

And so for us, “Next year in Jerusalem!” means a tour in a good job in Washington, DC, close to Tommy and (hopefully) in a house with space for Sophie to come and live after graduation, and of course with room for plenty of visitors.  (Really what I mean is that we need to find a place with a nice yard for RTWD.)  It wasn’t our first choice, but it’s the right choice, and we are happy about the prospect of being near the kids and family again, and seeing parts of America we have yet to explore.  2017 is shaping up to be the start of a couple of good years.

Some Random Thoughts on Language
When I was teaching Geography, we had a unit on cultural geography that dealt with religions and languages of the world.  One item from that unit I find myself thinking about often is the concept of the “lingua franca,” sometimes called a bridge language, which is a common third language often used between speakers of two different languages in order to conduct business, trade, diplomacy or other reasons.  (The term itself literally means Frankish Language, taken from the trade language of the Mediterranean used for several hundred years either side of the Renaissance, which was built on a base of Italian.)

French is a good example of a world-wide lingua franca historically, particularly if you think about the areas of theatre and the arts, cuisine and diplomacy.  In Haiti, natives speak Haitian Creole, also a bridge language developed between French colonizers and those who were descended from slaves brought from West Africa and who didn’t speak French.  Arabic was central to the spread of Islam from the 7th century on to regions of the world where Arabic was not native, just as Latin was key to the spread of Catholicism.  Lingua francas exist all over the planet, but are often more prominent regionally rather than with extensive use worldwide. 

In the 20th and now 21st century, however, English has emerged as a worldwide lingua franca, which appears to have no sign of slowing in the near future.  I think about this a lot as I try to navigate my way around Moldova and other European countries, and for some reason find myself continually surprised at how common English is around the world, and suspect it to be so even in places I’ve never been. 

If you think about international airports, to use one example, signage and assistance is typically available in at least two languages, one of which is almost always English, even in places where English would be unlikely outside the airport.  International tourism and trade from the English-speaking world likely has had that impact, together with the fact that English is the language of international civil aviation. 

In October I attended several days of training in Rome.  (I know, I know:  tough gig, right?)  The training was for US Embassy employees who came from perhaps twenty Embassies around the region, and so of course the language of instruction was English.  But it struck me how, even though most of the attendees were US Embassy employees, they were almost all local staff, and therefore not native speakers of English.  The trainers were not Americans, either, and here were all these people, representing a wide range of nations and languages, using highly technical language in a very specialized field (US federal government benefits administration), and doing it all in English that was at least as good, if not better than, the average native English speaker.  This happens all the time all over the world in training scenarios for US Embassy employees, and while these people certainly reflect a subset of the overall populations of their respective countries, I am constantly amazed at and impressed by their linguistic ability. 

The thought struck me again recently as I was watching a few minutes of Russian language TV one day in Chisinau.  There, in the midst of a rapid fire Russian man-on-the-street interview (I think in Russia somewhere, not in Moldova), appeared several phrases in common English being used in a context nothing like a training session of highly educated people who use English daily.  This was just an interview with regular people on a normal TV show, nothing out of the ordinary.  I got to thinking not only about how often you hear or see this in normal, everyday settings around Europe, but also how you don’t hear other languages represented.  I can’t think of one time when I was watching TV in Russian or English and heard immediately and universally recognizable phrases inserted into the conversation in Mandarin, Urdu, Bengali or Portuguese (in the US Spanish might be an exception).  I thought also about Germans visiting France (or some other logical combination), and if they don’t speak one another’s language, how do they communicate?  My experience has generally been to observe people using English as the bridge.  I suspect it is generally true that if you live in, say, Vietnam, you are pretty likely to hear or see an English word or phrase used like this way more often than you’d hear Russian or Italian used.  Or if you are in Ecuador or Burkina Faso you’ll hear English inserted in everyday speech more often than, say, German or Finnish.  My friends living in Asia, Africa or South America can confirm or refute the notion, of course, as I’ve never been to countries there before.  But I further suspect that English is in no way in danger of dying any time soon.

On a related language note, after my training in Rome I took the train to Florence where I met Kate for a long weekend.  I was alone in Termini, the train station in Rome, buying my ticket from a kiosk.  Having been to Italy a few times previously, and having taken the train from Rome before, I already knew what to do, but was having credit card difficulty.  I switched to the next kiosk and restarted the process, this time without changing the language to English.  A young woman approached me, I assume since she saw I needed to switch machines and thought I needed assistance.  She came up behind me and asked in English if I needed help, then glanced at the screen, saw it was in Italian, said “Oh” and then just walked away.  For some reason I found that humorous. 

Finally today, just two parting Russian language thoughts to make you scratch your head.  Again.  About a year ago I was explaining some of my struggles with the language, and one thing I referenced were all the different conjugations for verbs that exist, and how I had seen a photo of the verb “to run” all laid out when I was last at the Foreign Service Institute.  Well, thanks to my unique powers of searching on electronic resources, I was able to locate an image of that very same photo.  So, with no further ado, I give you To Run, in all its aggravating Russian glory:

The various and wonderous permutations of "to run."

And just because it may never have occurred to you before, let me share that Russian can also be written in cursive.  Oddly, because I’m weird that way, I find it much, much easier to write Russian script in cursive than I do in printed form.  (Well, as in my English cursive, it’s kind of a hybrid of printed and pure cursive, but whatever.)  My printed Russian always ends up looking like a two-year-old wrote it while using his off-hand, if he were capable of distinguishing whether he was right- or left-handed at the age of two.  So for your general edification and enjoyment, I give to you two examples of my handwriting in Russian cursive:

My version of Russian cursive.

As you gaze over these samples, perhaps you’re coming to the realization that all these years your doctor has actually been writing out your prescriptions in Russian cursive…

Travels and Other Distractions
As you both know, 2016 has offered us many chances to travel and see amazing places.  The last few months of the year have been no different, especially as we try to fill in gaps in the record during our final year in Europe.

Late last summer, we had a couple of open weekends remaining before Sophie left Moldova to return for her senior year at Gustavus.  One was already booked with another obligation, so that left one opportunity for her to visit a place she’d always wanted to see.  Her choice?  Why, Chernobyl, of course.  She is her father’s daughter, after all.  J

And so Kate, Sophie and I followed almost exactly in the footsteps of my previous trip there, driving through the disputed territory of Transnistria into Ukraine, stopping for an overnight in Kiev, eating at the same restaurants and staying in the same hotel as before.  Why mess with a good thing, right?

The trip into the exclusion zone was largely the same as well, with a few exceptions as to the actual sights.  Not going to repeat the entire story of Chernobyl, the accident or what it’s like there now.  If you’re interested or you would like a refresher, the description of our tour, and many photos, can be found here and here

Dishy doing her grumpy face at the Ukrainian border.

3/4 of the Team in the village of Chernobyl.

Kate and Sophie entering the control room of the Duga-1
radar installation.

Kate with her nuclear buddy.

However, there are several anecdotes to share which I found particularly amusing.  I know, you wouldn’t normally use ‘amusing’ and ‘Chernobyl’ in the same breath, but there you go.

The first occurred before even arriving in Kiev, so not technically Chernobyl, but we were en route, so I say that qualifies.  We were maybe 30 or 40 minutes out of Kiev and running low on gas, so we pulled over into a turnout gas station to fill up.  The attendant came out and I asked him to fill ‘er up.  (By the way, I have yet to stop for gas anywhere in Eastern Europe where you fill your own tank.  I don’t know, but perhaps it has to do with those trust issues I wrote about last time.)

So the dude fills up the tank and I head to the kiosk to pay, only to find out that their credit card reader is broken, I have Moldovan lei and US dollars but no Ukrainian hryvni, and they have no ATM.  Arguing with the guy inside his hovel with my bad Russian and his beer-soaked Ukrainian was going nowhere, so I asked where, exactly, was the closest “bankomat” (an ATM in Russian).  Well, neither the attendant nor drunk-manager-guy knew, but they pointed vaguely a couple hundred yards down the road to a small series of auto supply shops which dot the roadsides in this part of the world like Starbucks in Arlington, Virginia.  I tell them I’m going to exchange for cash and be back in five minutes, and surprisingly – although clearly uncomfortably – they agree to let us drive away without first paying.  Honestly, none of us in this situation had much choice, really.  But then as I hop in the car to head down the road, gas-station-attendant-guy decides he wants to hop in the car with us.  Now the discomfort has shifted, and I’m motioning to him my hand signals for “No thanks, that’s quite alright, we need no assistance, thank you very much for the kind offer.”  Or maybe I quickly locked the doors, cracked the window and just hollered that I’d be right back as I drove away…I can’t quite recall.

So off we drove to the auto mall where they had no ATMs.  However, at one shop there was a sleepy guy behind the counter next to the shiny chrome hubcaps and air fresheners you hang from your rear view mirror who was willing to do an on-the-spot cash exchange.  Thankfully my phone carried Internet so I could look up the exchange rate before negotiating, and we came to an agreement of dollars-for-hryvni that we could both live with.  Back we went to pay the two confused Ukrainians, who were probably even more confused that we bothered to return, and our trip recommenced without further incident.

Now that’s the kind of thing they should teach us how to handle in language class.

The other incident was a bit less humorous.  As we traversed the exclusion zone with Lyudmila our overly-excitable tour guide, and just as we arrived within sight of Reactor #4, we noticed a large cloud in the near distance, just a few miles away.  This was not a pleasant looking, puffy, Winnie the Pooh-shaped cloud of water vapor.  Turns out it wasn’t exactly a cloud, per se, but rather a large and expanding column of smoke.  Clearly there was a fire in the distance, and while not really that close, and with the wind currently blowing in the right direction (uh, away from us!), it was a little close for comfort.

Several of us in our group asked Lyudmila about it, but she brushed it off with a wave of her hand.  Our concern was decidedly not abated by her disinterest, so she offered to call and see if this was something we needed to really be concerned about.

Consider, for a moment, where we were, precisely.  30 years ago, on this very spot, the world’s worst nuclear disaster had happened, destroying the power plant, causing the evacuation of more than 50,000 people from the nearby towns and villages, and contaminating large swaths of the local territory.  This territory was, of course, still radioactive in varying degrees, which is why we are forbidden from eating random vegetation (mushrooms, apples or strawberries, for example) which might still grow within the zone.  And of course if radiation might still exist within these things, it’s no doubt in the trees and grasses which grow there, and it follows that if there is a brush or forest fire there, any leftover radiation will most certainly also be rising with the smoke from that fire.  Not exactly a comforting site to have smoke billowing in the background behind the remaining structures and memorial for the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant.

Now, Lyudmila had spent the better part of our tour chattering about how the authorities in 1986 were negligent in their responsibilities to inform the public of what was happening, how they bore the bulk of the responsibility for the cause of the accident, the deaths and illnesses, and the problems and concerns that existed long after the fires and destruction were over.  This attitude is not really surprising.

So it was rather darkly ironic that, after calling the authorities to check on this fire, she hung up and declared cheerfully to the group “Nothing to worry about!  The authorities say everything is alright,” and then turned on her heel to explain the gory details about the massive hole in the ground created under Reactor #4 when the explosion occurred lo those many years ago.

Smoke in the distance behind the new steel dome which
was recently moved over the top of the old concrete
sarcophagus covering Reactor #4.

Nope, nothing to see here.

Perhaps it goes without saying that despite this little misadventure, everything worked out ok, we saw what we wanted to see, learned what we wanted to learn, and returned without further incident to Kiev for a hot shower, a change of clothes and a very nice dinner.

After Sophie returned to Minnesota for school, I had that workshop in Rome for federal benefits administration, and then met Kate in Florence for a very nice weekend away.  Typically we visit a place and, like most tourists to a place for the first time, try to hit all the highlights during a short visit.  This leaves little time to do unusual or unique things, so if or when you return to an interesting place you have the chance to do those unusual or unique things.

We met at the train station and made our way to a nice little hotel near the Uffizi, as always one recommended by Rick Steves.  We did some of the usual things you do when in Florence, such as visiting the Uffizi and the Accademia, and generally enjoyed wandering, eating pasta and drinking wine at various restaurants around the town.

Our second day I had arranged for us to take a bike tour of the city, which always sounded like a fun idea before, but it typically requires at least half of a day, and if you only have two or three days it’s hard to fit it into the schedule with so much to see. 

We arrived at the appointed time, and it was only then that Kate realized it wasn’t bicycles we would be using to tour Florence, but Vespas.  We had so much fun!  The outfit rents little Fiats as well as Vespas, and the tour was arranged in such a way that the ten or twelve of us followed the guide driving his Fiat around town to various sites, headed out into the countryside a bit through the rolling hills, vineyards and through a few villages.  We then stopped at their property on the outskirts of town for a wonderful pasta lunch before we returned to the city.  It was a fun way to see Florence and a little of the countryside, and of course while a bit challenging in the Florentine traffic, we highly recommend it, if you have the time. 

Kate doing her Audrey Hepburn impression, except with
a helmet and in Florence, not Rome.

The next day we followed the same pattern, seeing some old favorites and wandering the streets, taking breaks in beautiful little piazzas, enjoying a coffee or glass of wine while resting after walking through the narrow streets of this beautiful historic city.  Our evening was free and we were having that typical traveler conversation about what to do next.  Kate hit on the fun idea of a cooking class or something like that, and so we pulled out the iPad, did a quick search and booked a pizza making class for later that evening. 

Giuseppe (yes, that was his name – or at least that’s what he told us, anyway) led us through the city from the meeting point to the industrial kitchen where we spent a great couple of hours kneading the dough, chatting with table-mates, slathering our crust with sauce and toppings, enjoying a nice bottle of red wine, and, of course, eating our own creations.  Another fun way to spend a few hours that we would absolutely recommend!

October was a busy month for us.  Since my birthday was going to fall over my upcoming R&R in November, we decided to host a party for friends and colleagues a bit earlier at a local winery. (Because when you live and work in a wine country, that’s of course what you do.)  We had a great time with about 50 or so people at Asconi Winery, about 30 minutes outside of town.  Heavy appetizers, personalized tours and lots of wine made for a very good time. 

Then we took a half-day off one Friday and drove to Transylvania.  In October.  Which coincided with a full moon.  Yup, tempting fate we were.  We do like to live life on the edge, after all.  We visited several interesting castles, stayed in a beautiful inn nestled in the Southern Carpathian Mountains, and enjoyed the picturesque countryside. 

Moonrise over the Carpathians in Transylvania, Romania.

Peles Castle in Sinaia, Romania.

Rasnov Citadel in Brasov, Romania.

In late October I took my first R&R, which included a week back in Washington, a week in Jamaica and a week in Minnesota.  We’ve had our share of travel in our 18 months in Moldova, but I had yet to take an actual vacation, other than adding a couple days at the end of training or a normal weekend away.  I had been waiting for this for a long time.

Tommy’s tour in the Navy recently had him move from Pensacola, Florida to Fort George Meade, outside of Baltimore, where he’ll be stationed until 2019.  I took the week in DC to meet up with him (I hadn’t seen him in a YEAR!), met with my new team in the Bureau of Education and Cultural Affairs in Washington, and reveled in the historic World Series victory by the Cubbies.  Kate and Sophie joined in the fun for three or four days, and Team Panetti had a great time together visiting Skyline Drive in Shenandoah National Park, dining at Del Ray Pizza in Alexandria, and generally just being together, since it had been so long.

Kate and I then flew to Jamaica to meet up with good friends from back home in Bloomington.  We had a week together doing a whole lot of nothing.  We had rented a place in Montego Bay that had five bedrooms with private bathrooms, a pool, and a small staff to cook and clean.  Mostly we hung out at the pool, drank wine and Red Stripe, and laughed more than I recall laughing.  My birthday fell mid-week, and I think this was the best way to celebrate, and was actually the best birthday I can remember.  We visited a couple of beaches, played cards, smoked a few cigars, watched Election Day returns, and ate and laughed and drank and drank and ate and laughed some more.  It was very relaxing.

The whole Bloomington crew in Montego Bay.

My last week of R&R was a quiet one spent back home in Minnesota.  Kate had to return to Moldova so I was there by myself, but I had the usual things to attend to such as doctor’s appointments and the like.  I also spent a fun day back at Prior Lake High School as a guest speaker, which was a lot of fun, and met up with friends most evenings for dinner.  Three weeks sounds like a lot, but it went by very fast.

Most recently Kate and I took a weekend in early December to visit Vienna and the Christmas markets.  Clean, orderly, interesting, beautiful and friendly, Vienna has quickly become a favorite for us.  We stayed in the city center, and walked to six or seven Christmas markets scattered throughout this lovely and pedestrian friendly world capital, where we drank our fill of glühwein, that warm mulled wine made famous at Christmas markets throughout central Europe.  What a great tradition.

Rathaus of Vienna and the Christmas Market.

Our last travel of 2016 brought us home to Minnesota once again.  It has been wonderful to be home for Christmas, to see friends and to have time with the kids, our parents and at least some of the family.  Of course it would have been great to have more time in the US, to visit my brother and family in Milwaukee and Kate’s brother and family in Chicago.  But with an upcoming tour in Washington starting next summer, I anticipate we’ll have more visitors and more opportunities to be together than we’ve had during out time in Haiti and Moldova. 

As 2016 Draws to a Close:  Fear, and Elections
It’s not unreasonable to ask, given all of our recent travels and the seeming rash of cowardly terror attacks of this year, if we are not afraid.  Mark Twain famously wrote in Innocents Abroad that

Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people
need it sorely on these accounts.  Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and
things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all of
one’s lifetime.

Fear is a real thing, and it is not irrational to feel fear when doing something far out of your comfort zone.  I don’t really like to fly, but it’s the price I have to pay if I want to see the world (and, you know, do this job).  When Sophie was just a little girl, she was sorely afraid of bees.  I used to tell her that it’s ok to be afraid, because fear can help keep you safe and alive, and assist you in avoiding dangerous people, places or situations, just so long as you don’t allow fear to paralyze you.  It would be stupid to charge headlong into dangerous places without having prepared to the best of your ability or planned for difficult, hazardous situations.  Acts of terror are not new to 2016, but allowing these relatively rare, cowardly acts to paralyze us keeps us from seeing the world, learning about it, and from experiencing great things and meeting wonderful people.  The world is in a much better, safer place today, at the end of 2016, than at any time in human history. 

This might seem counter-intuitive, but it is not disputable, and despite the stories of crime and violence permeating US society – which are justifiably frightening – the United States is no different.  Consider this, from Steven Pinker in an interview earlier in December 2016:
The rate of violent crime is lower now than it was at any time between 1966
and 2009.  Immigrants have a lower rate of violent crime than American
citizens.  Terrorists kill just three-tenths of one percent of all American
homicide victims.  The rate of death from terrorism in the United States
was higher in the early 1970s than it is today.  And since 2002, more Americans
have been killed by right-wing American terrorists than by Islamic terrorists.

In several interviews, commentaries and books, Pinker continues to outline how rates of violence and unrest around the world have been trending down in recent decades.  There are more democracies today than at any time in human history, and in fact a majority of the countries of the world are, in some form, democratic, while at the same time autocracies are in decline.  As airline prices continue to fall, perhaps there is no better time than 2017 to visit the world.

In the end, it’s my belief that, when you sit down at the kitchen table together with those who are different, break bread and enjoy a nice red wine together, you tend to be less likely to want to kill one another.

German Embassy in Chisinau the week after the
Christmas Market attack, and about 100 yards
from the US Embassy.

We’re doing our part – both personally and professionally – and intend to continue.  We will not let fear paralyze us.

Finally, fall elections demanded a lot of the world’s attention in 2016.  Moldova had a two-stage election, and their new president Igor Dodon, a Socialist who favors closer ties with Russia, was inaugurated in late December.  Not a positive trend from an American perspective, but nonetheless the election generally reflected the will of the people.  (Side note:  for round one of the elections, Kate was an International Election Observer.  How cool is that?)  Moldova has some significant issues to work on (who among us doesn’t?), and so we will continue the work of the American people, developed over the 25 years since Moldova’s independence, to build stronger partnerships for the safety, security and development of both countries.

Back home, the implications of our national election are a lot less theoretical than they used to be in my old life.  However, despite the ugly twins of euphoria and despair across the nation and world on November 9th, I have a lot of confidence in the robust nature of our democracy to withstand any or all internal legal and social vacillations.  Some will win, some will lose, just as it has always been, and the Republic will stand.  But in the end, for me and my 8000 Foreign Service Officer and 6000 Foreign Service Specialist colleagues, we serve but one master.  My job lives and dies with the oath I took in September 2011:

            I, David Panetti, do solemnly swear that I will support and defend the
Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic;
that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same; that I take this obligation
freely, without any mental reservation or purpose of evasion; and the I will
well and faithfully discharge the duties of the office on which I am about to enter.
So help me God.

Счастливого Рождества, Счастливого Хануки, Счастливого Кванзы и С Новым Годом!
Merry Christmas, Happy Hanukkah, Happy Kwanzaa and Happy New Year!

Life for us is good, overall 2016 was a good year, and we're looking forward to a great 2017.  We hope you can say the same, and wish you all the very best in the New Year.

Happy 2017 everyone.

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