Thursday, May 7, 2020

Reflections From Roma #07

Felicitations From Fairhope #07
07 May 2020

Hello there… Rodger French here.

We’re another month into The Trump Virus and I thought I’d check in. A.J. and I are doing well. Baldwin County, Alabama is relatively unscathed and folks here are pretty considerate about  “social distancing,” a term that I have come to detest almost as much as “at the end of the day” and “jaw dropping.” Anyway, we’ve been moving and sorting all our worldly goods, so our social life consists mainly of trips to (a) the grocery, (b) the gas station, and (c) Lowe’s Home Improvement, which is apparently where Lower Alabamians go now instead of church.

We count ourselves as fortunate indeed, since we have the ability to be safe and no choice but to stay busy. We have also caught an enormous break with the weather, as this spring has been just wonderful: Fine and dry days, cool nights, and - thank Dog - low humidity. It’s made the trauma of moving more bearable, and I think we’ve got a shot at being fully sorted out (including the guest room) before the inevitable heinous summer weather sets in.

[Musical Sidebar - I look forward to one day resuming practice on my beautiful red, Italian accordion, which perches gloriously in my studio/man cave, mocking my musical aspirations without mercy.]

Speaking of… As you may remember, I left Roma early for the ATL in order to participate in a production of “Indecent” at The Theatrical Outfit. I’ve been looking for an opportunity to say something about the experience and this is as good a time as any. As the great Oscar Levant once remarked, that’s like “trying to create a concise nebula from a dispersed confusion.” Nevertheless...

It’s fair to say that theatrical opportunities this meaningful are few and far between for accordionists, so it was an honor to be part of this one. “Indecent” is a terrific, demanding play (our director referred to it as “a beast”) that requires an absurd level of talent, sensitivity, and effort. Frankly, I’m still amazed that it all came together, but theatre magic really does work. 

Everyone - cast, crew, designers, administrators - brought their A game, with powerful and magnificent results. The cast became a tight, almost familial unit, delivering performances that were resonant with passion, heartache, humor, and joy. Coming to the theatre and performing onstage - as a member of this troupe telling this story - felt less like going to a gig and more akin to an act of devotion, such as attending church. Or, in this case, temple. We laughed a lot, we cried every night, and we made great theatre.

Then, one week into the run, we cancelled. It was, of course, the responsible thing to do, and it broke our hearts. But what we created lives within us and all the people who came to see the show. And a lot of us are keeping in touch, and that will just have to do for now.

[Administrative Mensch Sidebar - Hats off to The Theatrical Outfit for honoring contracts in spite of having to close “Indecent” two weeks early and, in the process, losing a ton of money. Well done.]

Now, in other news…

I have finally finished Happy To Be Here - Vol. 5: Reflections From Roma, the fifth and final collection of postings from my career as a State Dept. wingman and occasional employee. It is available on the evil amazon.com at a very reasonable price.

And finally…

I have just received a new shipment of Loose Endz CDs. If you do not have a copy and are interested, please contact me and we’ll make all appropriate arrangements.

I guess that does it for now. Thanks, and keep staying alive.

Onward.

Rodger

Sunday, April 5, 2020

Felicitations From Fairhope #06

Felicitations From Fairhope #06
06 April 2020

[Squaring the Circle Sidebar - This series of postings - six in total - was completed before we were all engulfed by the advent of The Virus. Here is the final one…]

Six Postings on Five Continents (cont.)

MUSICAL OPPORTUNITIES

Accra – Surprisingly good. Caught a major break when I became chummy with the French Ambassador, who invited me to his residence now and then to play with guest musicians, local and imported. I also led a community choir, performed for the President of Ghana, and made it on YouTube playing with Rachel Barton-Pine, a wonderful violinist.

Pretoria – Pretty dismal. Although Anne’s excellent boss did invite me to play at some of her excellent parties, which was very cool. I also put together a second solo CD and had some fun playing amplified accordion with other Embassy musicians in a pickup Blues band. 

Washington, DC – Somewhat frustrating, since double-dipping military musicians had a virtual lock on local accordion gigs. But I played a little jazz in coffee houses with friends and even had a couple of students. Also performed with the Washington Balalaika Orchestra, practicing diligently in order to develop some reasonable proficiency with Russian music.

Buenos Aires – Amazing. I had great support from folks in the Public Affairs Section at the Embassy, which gave me opportunities to perform, and even managed to produce a house concert on my own. I also had the pleasure of attending concerts by accordionists Chango Spasiuk and the incomparable Raúl Barboza. 

But, most importantly, studying with the great bandoneonist, composer, and arranger Rodolfo Mederos caused me to begin to reinvent myself as a musician. And at Torquato Tasso, the best Tango listening room on the planet, I had the privilege of hearing Rodolfo with his trio and orquesta tipica on numerous occasions. It was glorious and it changed my life. (Maestro, nunca puedo agradecerle lo suficiente.)

Yangon – Unexpectedly satisfying. The Shang had a meeting room that residents could book, so I put together a couple of pretty successful house concerts. I also connected with some Burmese musicians through my work with the Orchestra for Myanmar, and even did an accordion workshop at the Gitameit Music Institute in Yangon. And I recorded my third solo album - consisting entirely of Tangos - in a Burmese recording studio.

Rome – A disappointment. I concede that age and a lack of motivation on my part were factors, but there just didn’t seem to be any sort of meaningful musical outlet for me. (Although I did have a nice exchange with Alessandro, one of the guys in Facilities Maintenance, who is a terrific chromatic accordion player.) So, once again, I went to work on a new solo album, my fourth (and probably last), recorded in Verbania at the home of members of our famiglia italiana. It’s called “Loose Endz,” and it’s not bad. Not bad at all.

AND THAT’S A WRAP

We have been unbelievably fortunate to have led this life for the past 13.5 years. Thanks to all the wonderful local people we’ve met and worked with for their generous hospitality and gracious patience. We are inestimably indebted to them. We are also most grateful for the good friends we have made within the diplomatic community and hope to see them all again further on up the road.

Finally, a shout-out and big love to Anne, without whom none of this would have been possible. It has been my singular honor to be her wingman on this journey and I am immensely proud of her and her many accomplishments. Taxpayer money wisely spent… well done, A.J.

We love you all madly.

[Trump Virus Sidebar Update - Yeah, I know. The Moron-in-Chief is not directly responsible for the creation of COVID-19, but since (a) his response to the pandemic has been, to be charitable, disastrously incompetent and (b) he revels in having shit named after himself, “The Trump Virus” it is. Sue me.

Anne and I are in Fairhope, trying to get our home renovations completed to the point where we can actually move in before the apocalypse engulfs the state of Alabama. With a bit of luck, we may actually pull it off. Meanwhile, we are healthy, washing our hands (like 80 times a day), and trying to stay in touch with our friends. I plan to keep posting as time permits and motivation persists.

I sincerely appreciate all of you faithful correspondents who have gone to the trouble of actually reading these things and, on many occasions, responding kindly to them. I am honored that you have chosen to keep me out of your Spam folder. Please be advised: You may not be rid of me yet.]

Onward.

Rodger

Thursday, April 2, 2020

Felicitations From Fairhope #05

Follow-up From Fairhope #05
02 April 2020

[Lowered Expectations Sidebar - This series of postings - six in total - was completed before we were all engulfed by the advent of The Virus. We now live in a time when having competent elected officials deliver some actual leadership is literally a matter of life or death. I am not entirely sanguine about the possibilities, but your local results may vary…]

Six Postings on Five Continents (cont.)

THE EMBASSY

Accra - When we first arrived, the Embassy was scattered in buildings all over Accra, making it complicated to get things done. But we eventually moved into a new facility on a standard “cookie cutter” compound, one designed/built in the wake of the embassy bombings in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam. Besides improving security, the new arrangement brought people together and resulted in a more cohesive Mission.

Pretoria - The building is somewhat older, but decent enough, although parking was an issue, since all the Americans had cars out of necessity. The cafeteria was not very good, but fortunately Harrie’s Pancakes (featuring sweet and savory selections) was just across the street.

Washington, DC - N/A

Buenos Aires - The Embassy building in BsAs looks like an unprepossessing bunker, and is grievously overcrowded and not at all healthy. Fortunately, the Ambassador’s Residence in nearby Bosch Palace had excellent facilities for socializing and, for added entertainment, the park across the street was a haven for flocks of voluble parakeets.

Yangon - Housed in another standard compound, but one featuring great art, an outstanding local staff, and a terrific cafeteria. And, IMHO, the best Front Office (Ambassador and DCM) of all our assignments. A very good place to work.

Rome - Tri-Mission Rome - encompassing the U.S. Embassy, Vatican Embassy, and United Nations Mission - is littered with ancient statuary and housed in several historic buildings that consume a city block of prime Roman real estate. Boatloads of people are constantly in and out of the place and it was difficult to establish any real communal spirit. But, shout out to the orientation office for helping new arrivals feel welcome.

DoS EMPLOYMENT

Accra - (Community Liaison Officer) After months waiting to get my Top Secret security clearance (it didn’t help that my first set of fingerprints got misplaced), I actually began working. And, shortly after I started, the Embassy ceased being a scattered mess and relocated into a brand new facility, walking distance from our house. So, good gig.

Pretoria - (HR Temp Pool) The job was eclectic (I fancied myself as being like a utility infielder) and often interesting, and I even received several commendations, one of them in cash. Not too shabby.

Washington, DC - (N/A) Except for dropping A.J. off at work at “Main State” now and then, I avoided the State Department like the plague.

Buenos Aires - (WAE Rover Secretary) Had to reapply for a TS clearance, which took months… again. Did the eclectic thing… again, and was awarded a couple of commendations… no complaints.

Yangon - (RSO Security Escort) In addition to the usual escorting of workers who lacked sufficient clearance for certain “secret squirrel” areas, I also assisted with day-to-day stuff in the Regional Security Office and helped out at the biometrics window in Consular. No awards this go-round, but RSO was a fun group (“Hawaiian Shirt Fridays,” anyone?). 

Rome - (Facilities Security Escort) Good news: In 2016, DoS instituted a program enabling EFMs (Eligible Family members) to carry their security clearance from one post to the next, and about time, too. Bad news: In 2017, the Trump administration instituted an idiotic federal hiring freeze. When it was finally lifted, I applied for essentially the same job as the one I had previously held.

Imagine my surprise upon discovering that it came complete with a 40% pay cut. I went from banking actual savings to pocketing “walking around money.” But there was nothing to do except get on with it, so I became an underpaid member of a very good embassy facilities maintenance crew.

Bonus Professional Sidebar: Evaluating the Secretaries

Condoleezza Rice - She did support PEPFAR, the one truly worthwhile foreign policy initiative to come out of eight years of Cheney/Bush malfeasance. But Rice also presided over the elimination of Business Class tickets for diplomats flying over 14 hours to post. For which I will always hate her. 

Hillary Clinton - True story: Secretary Clinton visited South Africa and I was assigned to assist her as a kid wrangler at an Embassy family event. She was a real pro and great with the children. I can also report that during the entire time we worked the room, she never once made actual eye contact with me. I found that somewhat… disconcerting.

John Kerry – I’ve held Kerry in high esteem since his VVAW days, and he proved an enthusiastic and perfectly acceptable Secretary of State. And all those heartland Republican dumbshits who dishonored his patriotism - remember “Purple Heart Band-Aids?” - still owe apologies.

Rex Tillerson - Unqualified, unmotivated, and unmissed. Although he did presciently, if rudely, elucidate that President Trump is a “fucking moron,” so, props for that.

Mike Pompeo – Simply. The. Worst. Smug, self-righteous, and belligerent, Pompeo is a dangerous religious fanatic and a godawful Secretary of State. His hackish sycophancy to Trump always takes precedent over the needs of the Foreign Service, resulting in systemic failure to support honest-to-goodness diplomats trying to do their damned jobs. He occasionally talks a good game, but it’s all bullshit: Mike Pompeo does not have your back.

To be continued…

Monday, March 30, 2020

Felicitations From Fairhope #04

Felicitations From Fairhope #04
30 March 2020

[Productive Sideline Sidebar - This series of postings - six in total - was completed before we were all engulfed by the advent of The Virus. We now live in a time when learning to make a protective facemask may soon count as extra credit on a citizenship exam. We can only hope…]

Six Postings on Five Continents (cont.)

TOURISM

Accra - Tourist opportunities were a bit limited, although the horrific slave forts at Cape Coast and Elmina deservedly draw a lot of visitors. The Ghanaians were working hard, however, to improve their tourist service infrastructure and I think it would be interesting to return and see the changes. Countries visited: Ghana, Benin, Poland (for CLO training), Senegal, Togo, Uganda. 

Pretoria - Completely off the hook. Southern Africa absolutely abounds with wonderful places to visit and we still have an unfinished list. Countries visited: South Africa, Botswana, Mozambique, Namibia, Swaziland (now known as eSwatini), Zimbabwe. 

Washington, DC – In the USA, air travel is unbearable, the highways invite sudden death, and the passenger railroad system is lame to the point of embarrassment. But, WTF. It’s a big country and DC has a lot of great stuff to see.

Buenos Aires - Argentina, like South Africa, was outstanding for gringo tourists. Another unfinished list. Countries visited: Argentina, Chile, Ecuador, Peru, Uruguay.

Yangon - I have a photo of a sign written in English and Burmese: “Warmly Welcome and Take Care of Tourists.” We enjoyed travelling in Myanmar and SE Asia, although tourist infrastructure varies in its development and in some places the hustle is a bit much. Countries visited: Myanmar (still known officially as Burma), Australia, Cambodia, Malaysia, Singapore, Thailand, Vietnam.

Rome - Are you kidding? Countries visited: Italy, Austria, Malta, Norway, Portugal.

[Travel Clarification Sidebar – Countries listed do not include those visited solo by A.J. as part of her job. Now THAT is an interesting list.]

SOCIAL LIFE

[Note: This category is based on day-to-day experiences. It is worth mentioning that both of us worked, so late nights were not habitual occurrences. In addition, the CLO (Community Liaison Officer) at each post routinely organized events for embassy personnel and their families. And, obviously, the arrival of visitors tended to reorder things a bit.]

Accra - Once the Embassy relocated to the fabulous Cantonments neighborhood, the quality of social interaction improved markedly (e.g.: “Movie Night at The Hamptons”). Our compound often had community parties and the Embassy, including the Marine House (aka, party central), was a short walk away. In addition, the American and French ambassadors regularly held soirees at their substantial cribs.

Pretoria - Redeemed by the fact that Anne’s excellent boss, who employed an excellent cook, loved to throw excellent parties. Also, the Ambassador was very generous about opening his doors to events for Embassy staff. And the Rosebank Sunday Market in Joburg was a dependably great outing.

Washington, DC – Pretty much what you’d expect. It was also very nice to be able to visit family and friends on a more regular basis.

Buenos Aires - A.J.’s boss, who lived in a killer high-rise apartment, was a fine hostess and the Ambassador’s residence, which is literally a palace, has a lovely outdoor venue for events. We also went to art exhibits, a few movies, and numerous concerts featuring great music in historic theatres with horrible seats.

Yangon - The exemplary staff at “The Shang” went out of their way to plan activities for the residents, and going out to eat, especially Sunday Brunch at The Shangri-La Hotel, was a thing. Events at the Ambassador and DCM (Deputy Chief of Mission) residences were very nice, although getting there in Yangon traffic was an adventure.

Rome - There were the normal plethora of options (museums, galleries, churches, scenic ruins, etc.), but going out at night, especially school nights, was not all that convenient for us, although we did make it to the opera and ballet a few times. The Embassy hosted the usual line-up of family events, but the Ambassador’s residence was, in contrast to previous postings, largely inaccessible to the hoi polloi. 

To be continued…

Saturday, March 28, 2020

Felicitations From Fairhope #03

Felicitations From Fairhope #03
28 March 2020

[Mental Health Sidebar - This series of postings - six in total - was completed before we were all engulfed by the advent of The Virus. We now live in a time where the general operating principle is “… and then it gets worse.” That may well be, but in constant vigilance lurks madness, so…]

Six Postings on Five Continents (cont.)

HOUSING

Accra - Pretty nice. Lived in a new compound of five duplexes known, rather enchantingly, as “The Hamptons.” Decent housing with intermittent water issues and Third World Internet. Security included a casually-staffed gatehouse, an electronic alarm system that we never used, and a massive steel grate for the front door that was simply too much.

Pretoria - Acceptable. A stand-alone located in a very scenic subdivision that used to be a farm. Lovely for evening walks. The house was nothing special, but security was over the top: A gatehouse, electronic alarm system (complicated to the point of uselessness), hourly drive-by security patrols, and 22 actual locking doors/grates.

Washington, DC - Acceptable. We considered DC something of a “hardship post,” primarily due to housing costs. Our place was small, comfortable, convenient, and heinously expensive. Naturally, DC was our only posting at which DoS had zero concern about security.

Buenos Aires - Excellent. Lovely 9th floor apartment on a 10-lane thoroughfare, with a security guard and portero (building superintendent). Also, a wonderful balcony with a view of the Southern Cross. The only drawback to the place was the mutant all-in-one washer/dryer. Whoever came up with that design needs to find another line of work. Also, another posting, another unused alarm system. The door was solid, it locked, and we felt quite safe.

Yangon - Excellent. The Shangri-La Residences is basically a self-contained hotel. The rooms were furnished (although the furniture was a bit clunky), we had housekeeping service every day, and the staff could not have been more helpful. We also had a very large and delightful saltwater swimming pool. We really – really - miss that. Security was tight, primarily at the entrance gate, and there was staff everywhere. No alarm system, not that we would have used it.

Rome - Acceptable. A decent, typical Roman apartment: high ceilings, no closets, weird Italian plumbing, and a very amenable Sri Lankan portiere. We had to furnish it ourselves, but it was in a safe, conveniently located neighborhood. Our apartment security consisted of a very serious front door lock and… that’s it.

TRANSPORTATION

Accra - Unreliable public transportation, so we needed a car to get to work until the Embassy relocated close to our residence. Having a vehicle was a real pain-in-the-ass. Going out at night was not advisable, since many local drivers would not turn on their headlights in order to conserve their batteries. (?) Taxis were surprisingly easy to find and usually acceptable. Walking options: Limited.

Pretoria - Public transportation was chaotic and getting a taxi was not easy, so we had to have a vehicle. It was a nice saloon car (sedan), but if I had it to do over, I would have opted for something larger with very tough, pothole-resistant tires. A Defender, perhaps? (I wish.) Walking options: Terrible.

Washington, DC - Our trusty Honda Element, a.k.a. “The Toaster,” was waiting for us. Man, I loved that vehicle. Except for occasionally taking Anne to work at Main State, however, I avoided driving (much less parking) in DC as much as possible. But the METRO was close and worked well enough. Walking options: Excellent

Buenos Aires - I sold the Element before we left DC (sigh), so we had no personal vehicle in BsAs. Which was great. We took taxis and buses everywhere and if we wanted to go somewhere further afield, we’d hire a car and driver. Walking options: Excellent.

Yangon - No car, no reliable public transportation, no problem. We counted on cheap taxis and had good drivers whom we used on a regular basis. Walking options: Limited.

Rome - No car, but no place to park one anyway, so… Rome has a moderately dependable public transportation system, convenient (though expensive) taxis, and, when you want to get out of town, trains. We love trains. Walking options: Excellent.

To be continued…

Thursday, March 26, 2020

Felicitations From Fairhope #02

Follow-up From Fairhope #02
01 April 2020

[Ongoing Viral Sidebar - This series of postings - six in total - was completed before we were all engulfed by the advent of The Virus. We now live in a time where almost everything not health-related seems somehow frivolous. That may well be, but the world spins on and so I might as well get these out the door.] 

Six Postings on Five Continents (cont.)

FOOD

Accra - Rich, spicy, and cooked with deliciously bad-for-you-and-the-environment palm oil.
- Banku (fermented maize and cassava dough) with goat stew
- Jollof rice
- Kenkey (boiled maize dough) with fried fish
- Red-red (cowpeas served with fried plantains)

Pretoria - ZA food was great and very eclectic.
- Boerewors (sausage, grilled on the braai)
- Bobotie (spiced minced meat with an egg and milk topping, baked)
- Potjiekos (meat, potatoes, veggies cooked in a pot)
- Biltong (jerky made from an astounding variety of mammals)
- Savory pancakes
- Springbok carpaccio
- Very fine wines

Washington, DC - There is a wide variety of really good food available in DC, from the familiarly exotic (Ethiopian) to the deliciously dangerous (Ben’s Chili Bowl.)

Buenos Aires - There is less variety in BsAs than one might expect, but the big deal is, of course, meat. Except for burgers (which we made at home), we made a point of going out to a local parillia whenever we had a craving for it.
- Lomo (tenderloin, medium rare) 
- Patagonian lamb (grilled over an asado)
- Empanadas (ubiquitous)

[Frozen Confection Sidebar - Two blocks from our apartment was a gelato shoppe that had a Monday Special: 2-for-1 kilos of ice cream. OMG.]

Yangon - After Argentina, Myanmar was a serious change of pace. Rice, rice, and more rice, so we ate virtually no red meat for two years. Which was just fine.
- Mohinga (rice noodles covered in a fish soup, served for breakfast)
- Nan Gyi Thoke (thick rice noodles with chicken curry, garnished with onions, chilies, crispy noodles, hard-boiled egg, and lime)
- Shan noodles
- Fish curry

[SE Asian Culinary Sidebar - We spent a few days in and out of Hanoi, and it bears repeating: Vietnamese food is among the Top 5 cuisines on the planet.]

Rome – The best part of living in Rome, culinarily speaking, is the ready availability of fresh fruits and veggies, interesting cured meats and cheeses, and – most importantly – really good bread. Like, everywhere. (Finding really good bread in Alabama can be a challenge.)

[Italian Culinary Heresy Sidebar - While pizza dough should be delicious, it exists to serve as a delivery system for tasty toppings, which are, after all, the point. This is why New Haven pizza, to site one example, is better than Roman pizza. Also, you’d be amazed at how often Italian restaurants undercook their pasta. I’m pretty good with pasta, and “al dente” does not mean “crunchy.”]

LANGUAGE

Accra - Colonized by Great Britain, so English is widely spoken. I am not good with languages and had no chance whatsoever with the local dialects.

Pretoria - 11 official languages, from Afrikaans to Zulu; including English, of course.

Washington, DC - Again with the Brits.

Buenos Aires - Yep, them again; but Spanish prevails. In three years, I attained the proficiency of a not terribly dim 5-year old. I make no apologies.

Yangon – Yet more British influence, which is lucky for me, since Burmese is impossible. Although it is a beautiful written language. Looks like bubbles.

Rome - As lame as my Spanish is, my Italian is worse. I kept trying, but still tended to panic and default to español, which resulted in much Roman amusement. Fortunately, most urban Italians speak some English and, of course, hand gestures are always appropriate and even helpful.

To be continued…

Sunday, March 22, 2020

Felicitations From Fairhope #01

Felicitations From Fairhope #01
22 March 2020

Hello there… Rodger French here.

[Important Caveat Sidebar - This series of postings - six in total - was completed before we were all engulfed by the advent of The Virus. We now live in a time where almost everything not health-related seems somehow frivolous. That may well be, but the world spins on and sometimes all we can do is try to stand our ground and tell our stories. So, in that spirit, onward.]

Six posting on five continents… 

2006-08: Accra, Ghana
2008-10: Pretoria, South Africa
2010-12: Washington, DC
2012-15: Buenos Aires, Argentina
2015-17: Yangon, Myanmar
2017-20: Rome, Italy

Not bad, not bad at all. And now, thanks to mandatory retirement, our State Department career had come to its conclusion. Not that we aren’t ready. Schlepping all your stuff around the world every two or three years never gets any easier, but we are moving one last time into a very nice house in a very nice place (Fairhope), on the eastern shore of Mobile Bay (a.k.a. the nice part of Alabama).

[Demographic Sidebar - I have no particular homesteading attachment to any specific place in the U.S., but Anne considers Fairhope her real home, and since my home is wherever she is, I have become a citizen of the state of Alabama.]

This being a development of some import, I submit that a reasonably concise evaluation of our DoS assignments is called for. Long-time readers will recognize that a great deal - well, practically all - of this has been covered in some detail over the years. But in the interest of perspective, posterity, and why-the-hell-not, here we go.

I’ve elected to break this down into categories and then summarize (and occasionally rank) each posting accordingly. These categories are:

Climate / People / Food / Language / Housing / Transportation Tourism / Social Life / The Embassy / DoS Employment Musical Opportunities

Alrighty, then. Let’s get to it.

CLIMATE

Accra - Hot all the time, except during the Harmattan, when a northeasterly trade wind blows in from the Sahel, bringing dust from the Sahara, temporarily reducing sunshine, and creating what Ghanaians call “European weather.” That is, less hot.

Pretoria - Pretty much perfect year round, not unlike the central California coast, only without the wildfires.

Washington, DC - Heinous summers (although living in Arlington, VA lifted us above the swamp), intermittently hard winters. Otherwise, very nice.

Buenos Aires - Summer (like, around Christmas) brings brief periods of purely heinous heat, but the constant breezes (“buenos aires”) make this a fundamentally pleasant city in which to live.

Yangon - Basically, three seasons: hot and humid, hot and dry, and monsoon. To be fair, there is a short, but brief period of pleasantly cool weather as well, when the locals put on jackets and the expats don’t.

Rome - Quite decent, notwithstanding the somewhat miserable summers, when everyone unconnected to the ZOTA™ skips town. E ottobre a Roma è la perfezione.

PEOPLE

Accra - Ghanaians are overwhelmingly very friendly, hospitable people and we felt most welcome there.

Pretoria - South Africa is strange. Our interactions with most folks were perfectly OK, but the residual vibe of the hideous system of apartheid permeates everything. Crime and outrageous economic inequality are immense problems, although there are glimmers of hope, especially when the Springboks win the Rugby World Cup.

Washington, DC - Exactly what we expected.

Buenos Aires - Porteños are like most people who live in large cities: busy and self-absorbed, but also basically decent and helpful. That said, ne’re-do-wells made several (unsuccessful) attempts to scam us ¡Cuidado con la Gente Mostaza!

Yangon - The (mostly) Burmese people could not have been nicer to us. But it hurts my heart to see such hatred directed at the Rohingya. I simply do not understand nor know how to come to terms with that.

Rome - Romans are alright, though I am of the opinion that they have basically adopted the mindset of the city itself: Rome is over 2700 years old and has earned to right to not give a shit. I respect that.

To be continued…

Thursday, February 6, 2020

Reflections From Roma #21

Reflections From Roma #21
07 febbraio 2020

Hello there… Rodger French here.

Well, this is it. Our two-and-a-half years in Roma have passed with inevitable and ridiculous alacrity. So, it is time for the customary short, yet superficial summation of various day-to-day things we will - and will not - miss about this particular posting. Here we go.

Will miss…

The light of the morning sun on the Aurelian Wall and the dome of the Excelsior Hotel.

Fresh Italian bread.

Morning cappuccino. And a toasted sandwich – prosciutto cotto, formaggio e julienne di zucchine pizzetta (ham, cheese, and shredded zucchini on pizza bread) - served at the Elephant Bar, the Embassy café.

Mozzarella di Bufala (fresh buffalo milk cheese) and Burrata (fresh cow milk cheese made with mozzarella and cream). I despair that finding anything remotely like these formaggi fantastici in Alabama will be impossible. At best.

Roma, seen from the roof of the Embassy. With the city to the south and the mountains to the north, on dramatic weather days the view is downright cinematic. The roof is also an ideal place to observe seagulls perched on the heads of defenseless statues.

Roman seagulls. They are big, they are beautiful, and they perch wherever they damn well please. Respect.

Will not miss…

Garbage. We live in Parioli, which is described as a “posh” neighborhood, although our building, “ La Fondiaria” (according to a weathered plaque by the entrance), is decidedly not swankish. Anyway, there are large garbage bins positioned all over the place and most of the time they are full to overflowing. This is a very serious problem for the entire city.

Traffic. As one sagacious taxi driver remarked: “Roma has had traffic jams for 2000 years and we’re still using the same roads.”

Roman buses. A sizeable number of which are evidently manufactured with no suspension systems whatsoever. I keep looking for one to rattle itself completely apart, like some raggedy-ass jalopy in a Buster Keaton movie.

Roman dust. There are only two domestic chores that I utterly detest: Trimming the yard and dusting. Fortunately, we have no yard. But the “dust” that settles in our apartment is pretty nasty stuff - grimy and relentless.

Roman water. There’s nothing, like, poisonous about it, but it is absolutely lousy with calcium that leaves a mineral residue on sinks and utensils. And one’s kidneys.

Noisy neighbors. Between the constant crying of an unfortunate child in the apartment below us and what-sounds-like the moving of furniture late at night by people wearing wooden clogs and stiletto heels in the apartment above… Basta! already.

The ZOTA™. The Zombie Tourist Apocalypse rages on, unstoppable, although gratefully avoidable. That said… fist fights over selfie rights at la fontana di Trevi? Molto divertente.

Will miss…

Trains! We took a bunch of train trips to a bunch of interesting places and, although we experienced a few frustrations (delays, breakdowns, wildcat strikes, etc.), the overall level of service was actually respectable.

Firenze. What a fascinating place. The knowledge that this unique city is a mere hour and a half away by train is somehow reassuring. And the bookstore at Le Gallerie degli Uffizi is fabu.
Winter outerwear. When the weather turns even slightly cool, Romans immediately break out their quilted puffy jackets and coats. Imagine the Michelin Man, but considerably more stylish. I find it strangely adorable.

Church bells. Italia is, of course, supremely fraught with churches and campanili, so bells are a regular and welcome accompaniment to the soundtrack of daily life. But the extravagant cacophony they create in celebration of major religious occasions is both surreal and exalting.

Our famiglia italiana. We’ve known and occasionally visited these wonderful people for many years, but living in their country and having frequent opportunities to see them has been a cherished gift. Such friendships are unyielding to the rigors of time and distance. Now, if we can just get them back to the States…

Next up: “Follow-up From Fairhope,” a multi-part evaluation of our DoS assignments: Six postings on five continents. Should be fun.

Arrivederci, Roma. Onward.

Rodger

Sunday, December 29, 2019

Reflections From Roma #20

Reflections From Roma #20
31 dicembre 2019

Photo Update Alert:
www.photos.google.com

Hello there… Rodger French here.

Winter tourism in Italia is a tricky business. On the one hand, the ZOTA™ tapers off a bit, so there is less heinous crowding. The weather, however, can be cold, wet, and unpredictable. In any case, we decided to take a Christmas excursion by rail to two of the cities on our endless “must see” checklist: Verona and Venezia (Venice).

Verona- Verona is a picturesque city on the Adige River, with an ancient Roman arena, still used for opera productions, and a very cool and imposing medieval fortress called the Castelvecchio. And, naturally, there are the churches, several of which are both ancient and magnificent. Good sightseeing, even in the drizzle, although, alas, not a lot of photographic opportunities.

For what it’s worth, William Shakespeare, who apparently never visited the place, set not one, but two plays there (“The Two Gentlemen of Verona” and “Romeo and Juliet”). There actually exists a “Juliet’s Balcony,” which is (a) a huge tourist attraction and (b) totally bogus.

In spite of the inclement weather, many people turned out for the Christmas markets and everyone seemed to have a fine time. Verona is a lovely place and we enjoyed it very much.

Venezia- One of the most famous, treasured, and endangered cities on the planet, Venezia has inspired artists and tourists for hundreds of years. The notion of a city with waterways instead of streets is impossibly romantic, but quotidian reality demands diligent tide monitoring. High tides may necessitate the wearing of very serious rubber footwear, which most visitors do not own, and during exceptional tide peaks known as “acqua alta,” tourism becomes a water sport.

Tourist numbers are off about 50% this winter due to the catastrophic flooding of last November. This is, of course, terrible for those who rely on the tourism industry for a living. The upside, if it may be called thus, is that on this Christmas week, Venezia was merely crowded, rather than inundated, with visitors.

Fortunately, Venetians have had over 1000 years to learn how to live with the Adriatic Sea. To accommodate tourists during the acqua alta, the city erects sturdy pedestrian walkways (about three feet high, three-to-five feet wide, with no handrails) across flooded areas. Traffic flows both ways, and caution is essential to insure that you don’t take a header onto an unforgiving surface covered in dirty water.

[Boardwalk Etiquette Sidebar- (1.) Stay to the right, except when - and only with utmost caution and courtesy - passing. (2.) If you’re wearing high-water boots, get your sorry ass off the walkways and into the water. That’s the point of the boots, fool. (3.) Keep moving. Unless there’s an emergency, which taking a stupid selfie is decidedly not. (Selfies are second only to cruise ships on the list of Satan’s contributions to global tourism.)]

But, aside from the inevitable ZOTA™ aggravations, Venezia is absolutely worth the time, effort, and expense (it is not cheap). Time and tide prevented us from seeing all we wanted, but I enthusiastically recommend visiting the Gallerie dell'Accademia and the Palazzo Ducale. And especially the Scuola Grande di San Rocco (named after San Roch, protector against the plague and patron saint of dogs), which is home to dozens of large and fabulous paintings by Tintoretto. 

I also commend to you the light. We sprang for a great hotel room with a spectacular view, and, at dawn and dusk in particular, the city looks like an enormous watercolour. Bellissima. Venezia is an exceptional place with a fascinating history and we’re very fortunate to have had the opportunity to spend some time there.

And thus concludes our major travels in Italia/Europa. A.J. and I have a day trip to Firenze and a weekend in Verbania on our calendar, but that’s it. Which is somewhat stunning, but, as always, the tempus, it has fugited. I’ll be sending one more posting from Roma, just to wrap things up. But don’t imagine that’s the last of it. There’s still an evaluation of our State Department assignments in the works, so stay tuned.

Felice anno nuovo. Onward.

Rodger

Wednesday, November 20, 2019

Reflections From Roma #19

Reflections From Roma #19
22 novembre 2019

Photo Update Alert:
“Puglia”

Hello there… Rodger French here.

As our tour in Italia winds down, and we are busily scheduling all the travel we can possibly get away with, I’m pleased to report that our most recent trip, a week in Puglia in October, was molto successo. Fine weather, great food, and - grazie alle stelle - no ZOTA™. 

LecceFive and a half hours from Roma by train, Lecce is located in the Apuglia region at the “heel” of the Italian Peninsula. It is over 2000 years old and has, of course, been occupied by an assortment of conquerors. It is a beautiful city, sometimes called “The Florence of the South,” with ancient Roman ruins and beautiful Baroque churches and monuments, many of which are constructed with leccisu (“Lecce stone”), a locally quarried limestone famous for its malleability and beautiful color.

MonopoliRiding the rails, Monopoli is located on the Adriatic coast, a short distance from Leece. The centro storico (old town) is small and a safe place to lose your sense of direction as you wander about in search of the perfect seafood restaurant. Lots of churches, all closed, but none seemed to be in actual use. The waterfront was modest and picturesque, with fishing boats coming and going, fishermen mending their nets, and groups of old Italian ragazzi (guys) haggling over the day’s catch.

AlberobelloThis is one of the “must see” sites in Puglia, renowned for its trulli, hundreds of whitewashed stone huts with conical roofs. We had to engage a car to take us there/back from Monopoli, and an English-speaking tour guide as well. The whole arrangement was a bit expensive, but worth it. Of particular interest is the fact that the houses were built without mortar so that they could be easily disassembled, in order to avoid taxes levied by the Spanish viceroy of the Kingdom of Naples. From tax dodge to UNESCO World Heritage site… not bad at all.

Bari- The capital of Apuglia and a major port city, Bari was quite a change of pace. The city has changed hands numerous times in 2000 years, suffering through the usual appalling and inevitable cruelties of conquest. The centro storico is extensive, very lived-in, and a bit seedy. Primo tourist sights include the Hohenstaufen Castle built for Frederick II (and rebuilt several times), and a couple of truly impressive churches.

The most famous of these is the Basilica di San Nicola. Consecrated in 1197, it attracted both Roman Catholics and Orthodox Christian pilgrims whose well-being became central to Bari’s economy. (The Basilica remains an important pilgrim destination.) Inside are interred the remains (hijacked by sailors from a church in what is now Turkey) of Saint Nicholas, alleged hometown boy and patron saint of, among other things, children, sailors, and thieves.

Bari also has a beautiful lungomare (waterfront) and we enjoyed strolling along the strand as we searched for the perfect fish sandwich joint.

Trani- This lovely port, 45 minutes from Bari by train, was a charming place to spend a day. Trani has a rather impressive history for such a small city. During the Crusades in the 11thcentury, it was the most important port on the Adriatic. Indeed, the West’s oldest surviving maritime law code was written there in 1063. Trani also played an important role in Medieval Jewish history. And, of course, there was the inevitable imposing cathedral that, of course, was closed.

FWIW, we’re going to be spending the next few weekends traipsing around Roma, looking at new things. In December, it’s off to Verona and Venizia (assuming it doesn’t get washed away) for the Christmas holiday. Then, in January one more trip to Verbania to see our famiglia italiana. After that, Stateside and retirement beckons. Stay tuned.

Onward.

Rodger