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.)


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.]


[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.)


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…