Thursday, June 15, 2017

June Notes

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

Привет из Молдовы! / Priv-yet eez Mol-do-vye! / Greetings from Moldova!
Hello once again from our sunny little corner of Europe.  One of my favorite seasons is upon us, as spring has most definitely sprung here.  Our trees are dripping with cherries, and soon the other fruits (plums, apples, quinces, pears and strawberries) in our yard will be ripening as well.  It is indeed a beautiful time to be here in Moldova.

One of the many cherry trees
in our backyard

Just as in many parts of North America, however, springtime can also be quite fickle.  In a testament to Mother Nature’s tempestuousness, she sent a small snowstorm our way back in late April.  And when I say “small” I mean really big.  On Monday of that week, I saw a report forecasting snow for Thursday in the 12-20 centimeter range, or about 4.5-8 inches.  That’s quite a storm for this late in the spring, but the weather up until then had included many beautiful days in the 50s and 60s (upper teens and 20s Celsius), lawns were greening up everywhere, and in fact ours had already been cut once.  Flowers were in bloom all over Chisinau, and the trees had all started to leaf out.  I’m not sure many people believed it would snow at all, much less that much. 

Well, the snow started Thursday morning, and didn’t stop until Friday evening.  And it was a doozy, dumping at least 20 inches (more than 50 cm) on parts of the city and surrounding region (only an hour north of the city it was completely dry).  The United Nations Development Programme reported 400 local villages were without power, and the City Council in Chisinau declared a state of emergency after more than 3000 city trees came down, blocking streets and sidewalks, and knocking out power in many areas.  Emergency funds from the UNDP helped to provide generators, chain saws, fuel and other equipment to help clear the damage and restore access to power and water.  The embassy suspended operations as well, which is exceedingly rare.  (We never really close, exactly, as someone is always available somewhere, somehow, just in case.)

"But I can't help!  I don't have
opposable thumbs!"

 And then it warmed up.  By Monday afternoon, the vast majority of the snow had already melted, causing a host of other problems as a result.  For one insignificant example, the lowest point in our house is the wine cellar, and the massive and rapid snowmelt caused it to fill up with almost 8 inches of water.  Spring snows can be really helpful to agriculture of course, even that late in the spring, but I’m not sure local farmers were necessarily all that enamored with Mother Nature at the moment.

It was quite a storm.

PCSing and Home Leave
But alas, while summer is fast approaching, so as well is my departure from this quiet, peaceful country.  The end of my two-year tour is nearly upon us already.

When we State Department folks depart our current post as members of the Foreign Service, we often refer to the process as “PCSing.”  While not exactly grammatically correct, this stands for an upcoming “Permanent Change of Station,” and as you might imagine can be a complex process involving the move of not just little ol’ me, but also all of our stuff (including our car) and any family members present at post (including the dog), the wrapping up of projects in the office, preparations for the transfer from one Officer to another, and dozens of emails and phone calls and paper-pushing in order to move my little tanker-ship-of-a-family.  And this is done hundreds of times all over the world every year, for every permutation of family structure you can imagine (from singles to families with five or six – or more – kids).  While not always a seamless process, it’s quite amazing, honestly, that more doesn’t go wrong.

And in fact Kate has already returned to the US with Riley the Wonder Dog.  She departed post on May 20th, and spent a very long day wringing her hands and stressing out about the health and safety of our little pooch, tucked away in the cargo hold of the plane and going through a transfer himself in Istanbul.  It’s stressful enough to fly, but doing so with a pet seems exponentially tougher, especially when traveling such a long distance. (More on that later.)

My departure is not imminent, but rather will occur later this summer.  As you both might recall, I will be working in Washington in the Office of Global Education starting in September.  I depart post in early August, shortly after my replacement arrives, and will then spend the month of August in Minnesota and Wisconsin for Congressionally mandated Home Leave.

The Foreign Service Act of 1980, as amended, requires that Foreign Service employees take a specific kind of leave (called Home Leave) after the completion of a posting abroad and before starting the next tour of duty.  There are some exceptions within the law, based on circumstances, but generally speaking this is not an option.  The idea is that we represent the United States, and after serving abroad for two-plus years, we need to reacquaint ourselves with our own country in order to better serve it once overseas again.  Since it’s required by law, the State Department pays for our transportation back to the US.  Other than incidental travel in or through another country (as long as it does not include an overnight stay), Home Leave must be taken within the United States or its territories.  At first glance this sounds awesome, right?  A required vacation with tickets home paid for, all well still getting full salary and benefits?  Pretty sweet.  And it is, although like many, many things, it’s not always quite as simple or as “sweet” as it seems on the surface.

Quite often, those of us in the Foreign Service return home to the United States after a tour with no “home” to return to (many colleagues either sold or never owned one in the first place), and so rely on the good will and lumpy basement couches of family and friends, or spend lots of money on hotel stays.  Often we have no cars, and so have to borrow transport or rent.  If one has no home in which to prepare meals, lots of cash is spent on eating out.  Visiting family who live hundreds or thousands of miles apart can be problematic, not just in terms of travel time and cost but in terms of fitting in the visits while also needing to prepare for the next tour and taking care of necessities like doctor and dentist appointments.  And with regard to preparing for the next tour, sometimes wardrobes need updating or replacing (needs are different in Pacific or Caribbean islands than they are in Scandinavia, Yekaterinburg or Vladivostok, for example), and one needs a place to collect the new wardrobe before shipping it out to the next post.  And we also tend to spend hundreds or even thousands of dollars stocking up on consumable supplies for use during our follow-on tour, often astonishing onlookers by filling shopping carts with a year’s supply (or more) of non-perishable items like one’s favorite peanut butter, salsa, breakfast cereal or local delicacies unavailable at the next post. 

So after about 20-40 work days of Home Leave, we have often maxed out our credit cards, traveled in a frenzied manner to see everyone who wanted to see us while we were back in the US, slept irregularly and have gained a few extra pounds in the process.  Imagine this process for a single person in their 30s, and then compare to a family of six.  Yes the tickets home are paid for and salary and benefits continue, but it can be a strain on emotions and the family budget.  We are very fortunate to have kept our home in Minnesota and so have fewer of these pressures and concerns.

I can’t wait!

In the meantime, we’re busy looking for an apartment or house to rent in the greater DC area, and are excited about the prospect of living and working in Washington the next two years, even though we’re suffering from a bit of real estate sticker shock (housing is not a covered expense as it is at overseas posts).  Most people in the Foreign Service aren’t very enthused about moving back to DC because of the financial hit, and while we also will take that hit, we are thrilled to be there since Tommy is posted at Fort George Meade, outside of Baltimore and about 45 minutes from Washington, until 2019, and Sophie may join us in DC after her graduation from Gustavus.  The job in DC wasn’t our first choice, but it is the right choice at the right time, and we’re also looking forward to lots of visitors – so fix up the Family Truckster and get ready for the Panetti Personalized Capital Experience!

The process of preparing to move back to the US started months ago, mostly in small bits here and there as we began sorting things and deciding what could go and what would return with us.  We also had a wine cellar full of beer and wine, and a fair amount of consumables to either use up, sell or give away.  To that end, we hosted a Sexto de Mayo-themed party (yes, yes, I know it’s called Cinco de Mayo, but it was on the 6th, ok??) at the house, and combined it with a going away party for Kate and her work partner Kristina.  Nothing like having 60 or more people over for a party on a nice spring evening to make a sizable dent in the supply of booze!

The bigger concern, however, was Riley the Wonder Dog.  We debated a long time, but decided ultimately that Kate and Riley would head back to America a little early, and on our own dime, as it’s safer to fly with a pet when the air temperatures are not so hot.  Many airlines won’t fly a pet when temps are too high (or cold) as they can sit on the tarmac for some time before loading into the climate-controlled hold of the plane, and that can be dangerous.  (Little dogs can fly in their crate and can be seated with their owners, so many of our concerns wouldn’t apply to them.)  This kind of traveling with pets can be really stressful, even though it’s likely they sleep most of the time (or so we’re told) while in the airplane.  It can also get very expensive, as (understandably) the State Department doesn’t pay for these kind of expenses. 

Colleagues from Moldova (well, I met them only once the evening before they departed post, which happened to be about two hours after I arrived in-country), had a very large dog (or small pony, to hear some tell) which weighed in at 200+ pounds, and stood at least 5 ½ feet tall.  (It’s possible I may have exaggerated the height there, but not the weight.)  Reportedly, they spent $20,000 to ship their dog from Moldova back to the US and then to their onward post, as the dog had to be shipped using a private shipping company as he’s way too big to carry in the hold of an airliner.  That’s a lot of milk bones!

Fortunately, the Wonder Dog weighs in it at just a shade under 100 pounds when including his crate, and so qualifies to be shipped via most airlines as “excess baggage,” the canine equivalent of extra suitcases.  As such, his “ticket” was less than $300 to go from Moldova to Istanbul and then on to Chicago.  Of course, he’s not a very demanding passenger, having no need for in-flight movies, mini-pretzels or soggy cheese sandwiches.

Complicating travel plans with the dog were his vaccinations.  Moldova is not part of the European Union and is a high rabies country, and when traveling into the EU he needs to have everything up-to-date.  In and of itself this isn’t a problem, as he gets regular tune-ups and would meet EU rules without too much trouble.  So we thought.  The easiest flight plan would have been from Chisinau to Bucharest, then on to Amsterdam and home directly to Minneapolis.  However, despite having a three-year validity on his rabies shot from the US, the EU requires that he have a titer blood test prior to entry into the EU, and that he enter the EU no sooner than 30 days after that test.  We had the titer done in Moldova, but only about two weeks before his departure, and so according to these EU rules he could be turned around in Romania and returned to Moldova, if a customs officer decided to check his papers and then enforce this rule.  (By the way, having black diplomatic passports would not allow us to get around this – or really any – rules.)

And so as a result, the route through Turkey was determined in order to avoid this EU complication, and we purchased tickets out-of-pocket for Kate and the woofer (whereas on the other route Kate’s ticket would have been paid for by State), and she and the International Dog of Mystery flew Turkish Airlines from Chisinau through Istanbul to Chicago.  She rented a car and drove the final leg to Minneapolis in order to avoid one more airline transfer and flight for him, and now our loving doggy is adjusting to his newly renewed status as a Domestic Dog of Leisure. 

Racking Up the Miles
It’s been quite a year, for both Moldova and Team Panetti, and we’re only just now in June.

As you might have noticed over the last year-and-a-half or so, living in Europe has afforded us quite a few interesting travel opportunities.  Just this year we’ve had five international European trips between January and April!

In January, Kate and I flew to Paris, rented a little car and drove to the coast of Normandy.  The winter weather was most definitely cool and windy, and yet the Norman coast was still surprisingly green and beautiful.  As an added bonus it was very quiet in the region, and we were often among just a few people visiting such sacred locations as Omaha Beach, Pont du Hoc and the Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial.  I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again:  Everyone – American or not – should visit such sites.  

Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial

Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial

Omaha Beach

Pont du Hoc

Mont Saint Michel

(Interested in more on this, check out my page of photos from January 2017.)

A short time after our return from France, Kate met Sophie in Amsterdam for a weeklong visit during Sophie’s winter break between semesters.  While there they went to the Rijksmuseum, took a canal tour, and visited the Heineken Brewery and the Anne Frank house.  They had a great time in this beautiful city and staying with good friends from Haiti who are now at the Embassy there.


Kinda self-explanatory

February saw Kate visit the island of Cyprus to meet with some other good friends from Haiti, now stationed there.  Even more friends from Haiti flew in from London where they are currently posted, and they all had a week of fun, hiking, good food, loads of laughs and reminiscing, and the making of new memories. 

Church-cum-mosque in Cyprus

Sophie had Spring Break in March, and off flew my girls once again for a great mother-daughter trip to London and Scotland.  They had a pint with their chips and meat pie, visited Edinburgh castle and city, and enjoyed a bus trip to the Scottish Highlands where they saw Stirling Castle (childhood home of Mary Queen of Scots), walked the ruins of Urquhart Castle (which played a role in the Wars for Scottish Independence) and the Culloden Battlefield (important for some reason), and toured the Dalwhinnie whisky distillery and Roslin Chapel (made famous in recent times from the Da Vinci Code).

Edinburgh castle

Urquhart Castle

At the Culloden Battlefield site

Roslin Chapel

I was feeling a little left out after all that travel by the ladies (not really), and so in April Kate and I flew to Italy for a short trip to Bologna. 

Rick Steves’ says that Bologna isn’t really worth a stop, but on this point – and so far on only this point – we disagree with Our Man Rick.  We quite enjoyed our time there, and had perfect spring weather for walking around this beautiful old city.

Of course Bologna isn’t Florence, Rome or Venice, but there is quite a bit to see there for a long weekend.  We enjoyed walking the narrow streets of the Quadrilatero, an area of several city blocks near the main piazza in the city center, which was once the ancient mercato of butchers, fishmongers, goldsmiths and jewelers hawking their wares.  Today it’s still filled with shops and fruit sellers and restaurants, as well as the sights, sounds and smells of the old center of trade.

The Basilica di San Petronio is an imposing structure on the edge of the main square (Piazza Maggiore), is the largest church built of bricks in the world, contains 22 separate chapels within, and boasts of a long meridian line inlaid in the floor dating from 1655, which is highlighted by sunlight coming from a small portal in the dome. 

Basilica di San Petronio (right)

We visited other beautiful sites, including the Santuario di Santo Stefano (a massive complex of seven churches, many nooks and crannies, and several peaceful courtyards); the two towers – le due torri – of Bologna (both of which have an obvious lean, are the symbol of Bologna, and which we did not climb); the Saturday market of trinkets, cheap electronic goods and clothing for sale; and we joined a crowd of locals in the Cattedrale di San Pietro (just across from our lovely hotel) for part of an evening service on Holy Saturday.  And of course there was an abundance of tasty wine and delicious food!

Santuario di Santo Stefano

Santuario di Santo Stefano

Santuario di Santo Stefano

Le due torri of Bologna

Saturday morning we ate a hearty breakfast at the hotel and set off on foot to visit the Sanctuario di Madonna di San Luca (built in 1723), a bit more than five kilometers from the city center.  It was Holy Saturday, after all, and so we thought it would do us well to reflect on life a bit as we hoofed our way under one of the world’s longest porticos (a roofed arcade with 666 arches), passing the Stations of the Cross along the way, ending at this holy site.  (Although the current building is not quite 300 years old, a church or chapel has been on the site for a thousand years.)  I’m certainly glad that I had that extra chocolate croissant for breakfast, for about two hours into our walk we realized this was no easy little walk in the park, for it’s not just a nice, flat 5k walk to get there; it turns out the last two kilometers or so is a rather steep climb of almost 300 meters in elevation along a winding path, all still under the portico.  Periodically I’d stop to wipe the sweat from my brow and, in between large inhalations of much needed oxygen, gape at my loving wife with that look which says “What in the world have we done??”  As we schlepped our way up the hill, marveling at the bicyclists and runners passing us as if we were standing still (well, maybe we were, actually), we would notice a blind corner up ahead, and, like a mirage in the desert, hope that just around it would be the sanctuary.  After being disappointed five or six times at each corner, we finally arrived at the church, sweaty and out of breath but ultimately no worse for the wear. 

Was it worth it, you ask?  Yes, certainly it was.  Although there was precisely zero chance I was going to pay 5 euros for a ticket to climb to the top of the sanctuary itself.  That was waaaaaaaay too steep a price to pay.

Will it never end??

A Station of the Cross

Sanctuario di Madonna di San Luca

Beyond Bologna, we set off in our rented orange Jeep Renegade to explore the countryside.  The picturesque town of Ravenna is not to be missed, if you’re ever in the region.  From the 5th to the 7th centuries CE, Ravenna was the center of Western civilization during the decline and after the fall of the Roman Empire.  Featuring a small and eminently walkable city center and beautiful Roman and Byzantine architecture as well as the tomb of Dante Alighieri, we spent the day taking in several of the eight UN World Heritage Sites located there.  Clear skies greeted us and the sun warmed our shoulders as we spent a quiet and enjoyable Easter Sunday visiting many sights of ancient Christianity and Byzantium. Highlights included the historic, 1400 year old Basilica di San Vitale and its fantastic mosaics, dating from the time of Justinian the Great.  On the same site is the Mausoleum of Galla Placidia, which – like many of these ancient structures – sports a deceivingly plain exterior.  The mausoleum has three sarcophagi, but they are actually empty.  However, the interior has the most stunningly gorgeous mosaics, probably more beautiful than any we’ve ever seen. 

Basilica di San Vitale

Mausoleum of Galla Placidia

Mausoleum of Galla Placidia

Mosaic in the Mausoleum

Mosaic in the Mausoleum

We enjoyed a pleasant picnic lunch of bread, olives, sun-dried tomatoes, cheese, sausage and of course red wine (one of our favorite ways to take lunch) in the small but pleasant piazza Duomo facing the most ancient monument in the city, the Baptistery of Neon (also known as the Baptistery of the Orthodox, which dates from 400 CE) and the big, Baroque house of worship – the Duomo itself - and it’s Chapel of Sant’Andrea.


Our last stop for the day was the sixth-century Basilica di Sant’Apollinare Nuovo, built on the foundation of the palace church of Gothic King Theodoric around 500 CE.  Its features include a long hall bordered by columns and arches, both sides of which are topped with more fantastic mosaics of haloed virgins on one side and a solemn procession of martyrs on the other.  Quite something, really.

Basilica di Sant’Apollinare Nuovo

Basilica di Sant’Apollinare Nuovo

Haloed virgins in Basilica di Sant’Apollinare Nuovo

The three Magi in Basilica di Sant’Apollinare Nuovo

Our guide book to Italy is pretty dog-eared after five or six trips in the past two years.  But I’d go back again in a heartbeat.

Mr. Tom’s Big Year and a Pretty Big Day
So not only has this been quite a year of travel for us (let’s be honest, two fantastic years of travel), but there were several other major milestones reached by Team Panetti in 2017.

Back in the late fall or early winter, Number One Son began inquiring about the potential of an engagement proposal to the Number One Girlfriend.  Over the intervening months he asked us for some help in making arrangements, and managed to corner the parents of Number One Girlfriend in order to ask for her hand.  (Don’t you love that??  Perhaps not 100% modern, maybe, but still…)  They reluctantly acquiesced (not really), and then the planning began in earnest.  He bought a ring over the phone/Internet/mail from a goldsmith in Milwaukee who is an old family friend, and picked a date, which coincided with Spring Break for the girlfriend, as well as the National Cherry Blossom Festival in Washington. 

How to actually make the proposal in a fun yet meaningful way was a bit trickier, given his initial ideas.  So a call for help was put out, and the Team enlisted half-a-dozen experts to put in the field and lend a hand.  The reality is that I have a decent number of friends and colleagues currently living or working in the greater DC area, and when my request came, they answered the call.

So Tommy wrote out six notes to Jenna, and mailed them to each of my six Foreign Service colleagues the week before she flew out to visit him in Baltimore.  A seventh friend would be the photographer, following Tommy and Jenna incognito as they meandered along the Tidal Basin northward from the Jefferson Memorial. The Six were stationed in roughly equal intervals along the pathway, and at opportune moments each would approach them with some song-and-dance line such as “Hi! Are you Jenna?  I found this for you!” and then hand her a note.  The entire group gathered at the final station for a champagne toast, more pictures and a lot of laughs, and then all went their separate ways.

Like clockwork, and with Mother Nature smiling down on Tommy Panetti and his Grand Plan, everything came together perfectly.  Of course Jenna knew something was up, for Mr. Panetti the Younger evidently doesn’t have a very polished poker face.  But to top everything off, a TV crew in DC all the way from Japan witnessed the proposal and called them over for an interview!

And just like that (well, that’s how it feels to this old guy), they are engaged, Tommy rented a small apartment in Baltimore, Jenna graduated from college and just this week moved out to be with him and where she will soon start her new job as an accountant with PricewaterhouseCoopers. 

And of course, this is as it should be.

Tommy, Jenna and The Six (and Tim).  And two dogs.
You can never have enough dogs.
(Engagement photos credit:  Tim Bertocci)

The Dish
And Number One Daughter has had quite a year herself, if I might be permitted to brag a little more.

I’m not actually bragging though, when I say that she is one supercalifragilisticexpialidocious writer.  Several of her works were published throughout the year, and then in two literary journals this spring.  Her poems “Blackberry” (page 18) and “Love Song of Chernobyl” (page 86) were published in the spring edition of Firethorne, the literary and graphic arts journal of Gustavus Adolphus, and then her poems “Word Games” (page 10) and “Ash and Ember” (page 33) were published in the spring edition of Michigan State University’s Red Cedar Review.  Have a look at them and you will no doubt agree that she is one talented poet. (All are available if you click the hyperlinks above.)

Seemingly out of nowhere (well, to me anyway, since I live 5000 miles away and don’t see her nearly enough), she developed a couple of hidden talents by joining a hand bell choir and a cribbage club on campus.  Besides these creative outlets, she’s also been running for fitness over the past several years.  However, I don’t think she’s ever run a competitive race before, until this spring.  One weekend she ran a 5k in St. Peter, and the very next weekend she completed 10k in New Prague.

And then there’s, you know, college.  This year, again, she was named to the President’s Honor List, and as a result of her hard work over the past four years completed her college experience by graduating magna cum laude from Gustavus Adolphus College a couple of weeks ago.  She’s the complete package, this one:  Brains, beauty, compassion, wacky sense of humor and smarts.  Nope, we’re not proud of her at all.  Plus she’s now gone and got herself ordained and will officiate the wedding of two very good friends from high school later this summer.  Such a slacker. J

Sophie with one of her favorite professors

Thanks for Playing!
Well, you’ve come to the end of another edition of Notes.  I hope you’re still awake.

It’s been a busy several months for the Team, and in these final two months at post there is a bit more wine to drink, a few more sites to visit, and a few more events to attend.  Plus, you know, there’s that work thing.  I have to say, however, all of that is made much easier now that Moldova has officially made wine a food, and so I completely expect that I’ll be swamped with visitors in these next months.   

For us, life is good.  We hope you can say the same.

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

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