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.)


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.


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.)


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.”]


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.


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.


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.


Sunday, December 29, 2019

Reflections From Roma #20

Reflections From Roma #20
31 dicembre 2019

Photo Update Alert:

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.


Wednesday, November 20, 2019

Reflections From Roma #19

Reflections From Roma #19
22 novembre 2019

Photo Update Alert:

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.



Thursday, September 12, 2019

Reflections From Roma #18

Reflections From Roma #18
12 settembre 2019

Photo Update Alert:

Hello there… Rodger French here.

This is our third September in Roma, and the weather is just as beautiful as when we arrived in 2017: Sunny and fine by day, cool at night, less humidity and rain, and lovely breezes. After a typically hot Roman summer, it’s good to be cool(ish) again.

With the change of seasons, and only six months left in the Foreign Service before A.J.’s retirement (five in my case; more on that later), we’re slotting our dance card with Italian excursions. Cue the highlight reel:

Bologna-The seventh largest city in Italia and capital of the Emilia-Romagna region is an easy train trip from Roma. It has the customary scenic piazzas, cathedrals, and museums, as well as something like 40 km of covered arcades (nice). But the big feature is the food. Bologna is regularly touted as having the nation’s finest cuisine.

We arranged to join a small group on a food tour, led by Benedetta, a very knowledgeable young woman, which featured many tasty items, among them mortadella (that’s baloney for grownups), fresh tagliatelle with ragu, and homemade peach/rosemary gelato. Having thus gained critical intel as to where the good stuff was, over the course of the next few days we consumed a reasonably immense amount of meat and fish - cooked, cured, and tartared - and more fresh pasta. Eating well may not be the best revenge, but it is indisputably time well spent.

RavennaFormer capital of the Western Roman Empire (402-476), subsequently ruled by the Ostrogoths, Byzantines, and Lombards, and now home to a UNESCO World Heritage Site, Ravenna is renowned for Byzantine mosaics dating from the 5thand 6thcentury. Situated only 69 km from Bologna, it was the perfect destination for a couple of day trippers. We arrived by an early train in order to avoid the ZOTA™, and so had no difficulty spending some quality time amongst the splendor.

The mosaics, located in various baptistries, mausoleums, and basilicas are simply beautiful (see photo link above). In particular, the panels of Emperor Justinian I and Empress Theodora in the Basilica of San Vitale are, like, National Geographic-ly famous. Ravenna is worth further exploration, but our time was what it was, so we got what we got. We have no complaints.

[Literary Sidebar- Ravenna is also the resting place of Dante Alighieri (1265-1321), poet and author of Divina Comedia(Divine Comedy), which I have actually read. In it’s entirety. Anyway, Dante was Florentine, but naturally there was the requisite dramma italiano, and so he ended up exiled and died in Ravenna. Reportedly, Firenze would like his remains repatriated. (Not going to happen.)]

Capuchin Crypt - Closer to home, indeed, a few moments’ walk from the U.S. Embassy, is this. And, since I really can’t do better, take it away, Wikipedia:

“The Capuchin Crypt is a small space comprising several tiny chapels located beneath the church of Santa Maria della Concezione dei Cappuccini on the Via Veneto near Piazza Barberini in Rome. It contains the skeletal remains of 3,700 bodies believed to be Capuchin friars buried by their order.The Catholic order insists that the display is not meant to be macabre, but a silent reminder of the swift passage of life on Earth and our own mortality.”

Reactions to this sort of exhibit vary dramatically. For my part, I did not have a clear idea of what to expect and so was rather unprepared for what awaited.

The Capuchin Crypt is one of the most compelling places I have ever visited, and moved me to weep openly. To my eyes, the great care and respect that went into creating this work of art from the bones of the dead was obvious and altogether praiseworthy. I am still somewhat taken aback by the depth of my response. Still processing… which is, of course, the point.

Next stop: Puglia, by train, in October.



Sunday, August 11, 2019

Reflections From Roma #17

Reflections From Roma #17
11 agosto 2019

Hello there… Rodger French here.

In case you haven’t seen this latest Italian news item (no, not the one about the imminent - and utterly predictable - collapse of the current coalition government), the city of Rome has decided to crack down on unruly tourists, “including a ban on ‘messy eating’ by monuments, wandering around bare-chested, jumping into fountains, and dragging wheeled suitcases and pushchairs down historic staircases.” Not unreasonable, but…

The new regs also include the possibility of a €250 ($280) fine for sitting on the Spanish Steps. Which is completely ridiculous. Roma is an exhausting place to be a tourist and the picturesque streets of paving stones are a podiatric nightmare, especially for the elderly. A few minutes of respite on some monumental staircase seems entirely acceptable (What, you think the ancient Romans didn’t sit their asses down?), as long as you don’t make a damned mess. This is especially true in the heat of summer.

Personally, I have never found the concept of “summer vacation” particularly satisfying. That’s not to say that, as a kid, I was unhappy to be finished with school for a few months each year. But, while it might have made sense when society was mostly rural and the kiddos were needed to help out with harvesting and other backbreaking farm labor, summer vacation always seemed like something of a cheat to me.

My mother was a school lunchroom manager, so when school was out, she was basically unemployed until after Labor Day. My father, a railroad man, worked 50 weeks straight, with two weeks off for vacation - a brutal business model, in my view. Both my folks worked very hard and deserved a real break, not a frantic fortnight wrangling three aggravating boys into a massive station wagon (with no seatbelts, no A/C, no power features of any kind) and heading down the road to either the “country” or the beach, both of which featured miserable heat, cancerous sunburn, and pestilent insects.

[Nostalgia Sidebar- To be fair, there were many good moments; e.g., playing horseshoes with the grownups behind Lawler’s General Store in Munfordville, KY. Also, walking down the railroad tracks to watch the L&N drop off the mailbag as it rumbled past the depot was a fun daily ritual. And Virginia Beach was much more pleasant when “angels” (cumulus clouds) appeared, bringing shade and blessed relief. That, and more seafood than I could ever seem to get in Louisville.]

But even as a kid, I remember thinking that this ubiquitous leisure system was messed up. What in the world was wrong with vacationing during spring or fall, seasons that are generally cool and comfortable and much more pleasant? And why is the deck stacked liked this? And do I want to let this be the template for my life?

I consider myself most fortunate. Due to a motley synthesis of some actual design and a boatload of dumb luck, I have, for most of my adult life, been able to travel and vacation when I feel like it, more or less. Sometimes you get what you plan on, sometimes you get more than you bargained for, and sometimes you simply get what you get. But it is a gift to be able to see and experience the world on your own terms, più o meno. And if that includes Roma in the summer (FYI, today’s high temperature: 101°F), well, buona fortuna.

And should you feel the need, by all means take a load off your feet. Roma is 2700 years old. Roma does not mind.



Thursday, July 18, 2019

Reflections From Roma #16

Reflections From Roma #16
18 julio 2019

Hello there… Rodger French here.

Once again I come to you in supplication, to apologize for my lack of diligence as a foreign correspondent. And, once again, I can offer only that my life is – for the moment, at least – pretty boring and not worth cluttering your inbox with. True, we’re still living in Roma, but even that becomes routine after a couple of years. I do not, however, expect this to remain so indefinitely. Indeed, we have some pretty cool excursion prospects, and then there’s the whole matter of A.J.’s imminent retirement in March 2020. But, for now, it’s just another summer in the Eternal City.

Which, as I probably observed last year, is not without its charms. Although it gets very hot during the day, Roman mornings are quite often beguiling masterpieces of bright blue skies and moderate temperatures, with the occasional whisper of light winds. And as we get closer to August 15 and the Ferragosto holiday, Roma becomes increasingly devoid of actual Romans, and the city – ZOTA™ notwithstanding – becomes molto tranquillo. So we go about our business, do our jobs, and endeavor to minimize our exposure to Il Duce americano Benito Cheeto, the idiota tossico in the White House.

What else… I recently viewed “Amazing Grace,” a documentary film about the recording of the best-selling live gospel double LP by Aretha Franklin, with Rev. James Cleveland and the Southern California Community Choir, in January 1972 at the New Temple Missionary Baptist Church in Los Angeles. Writers more erudite than I have reviewed both the music and the film, so I will add only this: While the film is a bit of a mess, Ms. Franklin is gloriously not. She is magnificent, a queen in her prime, bringing her majestic musical gifts humbly before the Lord. One need not be a religious person to be moved by that. Behold and rejoice.

[Past Life Sidebar– My first broadcasting gig (1973) was at WGRI-AM, a country music station in Griffin, GA. I worked Sunday mornings from 06:00–12:00; a timeslot devoted to religious programming, some recorded, but mostly live. My duties included announcing, playing tapes and commercials, setting up the studio for local performers (nearly all of whom were Black), and collecting money from them for airtime ($8/15 min., $15/30 min.).

I became friendly with the musicians and was, on several occasions, invited to come to a “Gospel Soul Train,” usually at a rural AME church. These shows featured the people I worked with as well as a “big name” or two. Hundreds of Black folks would come out, sanctified and ready to bring the funk in the name of Jesus, and I was always warmly welcomed. I also had a certain amount of street cred, since I brought a tape recorder and managed to get decent recordings that I would edit, copy, and give to performers for use as demos. These were righteous experiences and I am honored to have had them.

[Breaking MusicalSidebar: I am going to record a fourth solo accordion album. (Pause for dramatic effect.) “Loose Endz” will be an eclectic collection of 12 pieces that have been in the repertoire for years, decades even. My cunning plan is to record/mix sometime this fall at Casa della Musica, a picturesque B&B operated by our famiglia italiana in Vignone, near Lago Maggiore. Haven’t worked out the details concerning mastering, but I do have an album engineer, designer, and photographer lined up, and will be printing a smallish number of CDs in addition to making the recordings available online. For free. Obviously, this scheme is fully half-baked and confidence is high. I will… keep you posted.]



Wednesday, May 1, 2019

Reflections From Roma #15

Reflections From Roma #15
01 maggio 2019

Hello there… Rodger French here.

Even as an admittedly low-level Department of State employee, I consider it my patriotic duty to periodically alert unsuspecting readers to recent department news of a non-classified nature. It is, after all, our tax dollars paying for this and I think you have a right to know what gives with your diplomatic corps.

Therefore, behold: The newly designed, recently promulgated, and very unclassified DoS Ethos (in italicsboldface in the original), presented along with some low-level personal observations.

United States Department of State Professional Ethos 

- I am a champion of American diplomacy.

         [Champion? OK, I see where this may be interpreted as simply an extension of Secretary Mike Pompeo’s fixation with the concept of “getting our swagger back.” But, having been bombarded with fundamental Baptist teachings as a kid, I also understand that the word “champion” is commonly used to exhort the faithful; e.g., “Prayer Champion” or “Champion for Christ.”

It is worth remembering that Pompeo is a fundamentalist Christian zealot, one who believes devoutly in the Rapture, followed by the Second Coming of Christ. All of which, incidentally, is predicated upon (a) the destruction of the Al-Aqsa Mosque (only the third holiest site in Islam) and (b) the subsequent rebuilding of the Temple of Solomon in Jerusalem.

Therefore, question: Is it irresponsible to speculate that the Secretary might, on any level, conflate “champion of American diplomacy” with his belief in an apocalyptic cult nightmare? I submit that it would be irresponsible not to.]

- My colleagues and I proudly serve the United States and the American people at the Department of State, America’s first executive department.

         [That, we do.]

-We support and defend the Constitution of the United States.

         [This is the only damned thing we DoS employees are SWORN BY SACRED OATH to do, and I am more than a little disheartened to see it assigned third position in this or any “Ethos.”]

-We protect the American people and promote their interests and values around the world by leading our nation’s foreign policy.

         [A worthy goal, but undermined on a daily basis by the fact that our “nation’s foreign policy” is ultimately determined by a willfully ignorant man-child who obsessively seeks information and validation from a mendacious and deeply reactionary cable news channel.]

-As a member of this team, I serve with unfailing professionalism in both my demeanor and my actions, even in the face of adversity.

         [This, we also do. Go on…]

-I act with uncompromising personal and professional integrity. I take ownership of and responsibility for my actions and decisions.

         [Acting like a grownup is laudable in a diplomat. But don’t expect any actual leadership in this area from the Champion-in-Chief, who, while “leading our nation’s foreign policy,” dissembles the way infants poop.]

-And I show unstinting respect in word and deed for my colleagues and all who serve alongside me.

         [Unstinting? OK… although if someone wears a MAGA hat to work, all bets are off. To be fair, however, that sort of uncivilized behavior simply does not happen at State.]

- Together, we are the United States Department of State.

         [Big Finish: Cue inspirational patriotic music - possibly unlicensed - and… you’re welcome.]