Wednesday, August 29, 2018

Drum Roll, Please: Where We're Going Next!

We're (finally) ready to announce where we're going after Kenya! Confession: we've known for a while but were waiting until we could finish telling family while we're home. We're going to Baghdad, Iraq!

Okay, if I want to be completely accurate, I should say: I'm definitely going to Baghdad. M is most likely going to Baghdad, but it's not confirmed yet. Baghdad is what's called an unaccompanied post, which means you can't bring family with you. The only way M can join me is if he gets a job at the Embassy, which we're very optimistic he'll be able to do (a lot of spouses aren't interested in going to Iraq or even can't go because of children or medical reasons).

Just to get it out of the way (and especially because so many have asked): yes, we wanted this. No, we are not being punished. You don't get sent to a PSP (Priority Staffing Post) in a conflict area like Iraq without volunteering for it. We had plenty of reasons for asking to serve there, and the benefits for places like Baghdad don't hurt, either. (At some point, I'll do a separate blog post about PSPs explaining some of these.)

So what will I do there? I'll be doing Consular work, which is currently a requirement for all Foreign Service Officers in either their first or second tour. Since I'm doing my first tour in Public Diplomacy, I knew my second tour had to be Consular. I don't really have a lot of information yet about what kind of Consular work I'll be doing, but chances are I'll be interviewing Iraqis all day, every day for visas to the United States.

One of the best parts about this job is that it's an Arabic one! Since I passed the language test last year, I get to go straight to Baghdad without language training. Those of you familiar with Arabic may be asking: wait, don't you at least get trained in the Iraqi dialect? And the answer is: nope! I think the Foreign Service is still trying to figure out how best to handle Arabic, and for now my score in Modern Standard Arabic is sufficient for me to go to Iraq. (Thankfully, my Distance Language Learning teacher is Iraqi and has already taught me a few crucial things, like "shako mako"!)

Our second tour will be a major shake-up from our first tour: we'll live in a tiny apartment on a massive compound where we will work, eat, live, sleep, exercise, and play. We're looking forward to the challenge and the opportunity to serve!

Wednesday, August 22, 2018

Feeling at Home in Shenandoah

One request I make every time I'm home in Virginia is to take a day trip to Shenandoah National Park. There's a road called Skyline Drive where you can experience the majesty of Virginia's natural beauty only a couple of hours from Washington, DC. The best time to go is in the fall (September-November), when the leaves are changing colors, but I've always found it worth visiting year-round.

So naturally, our first full day back in the United States we took the day trip to Shenandoah with my family. We were originally destined for Skyline Drive but decided to take a detour to Shenandoah River State Park instead. There were plenty of things to do, including tubing, zip lining, and camping, but we kept things simple with a drive to an overlook (pictured above), a bento box picnic, and a hike.

I had found a tick on me the previous day, so I was even more careful than usual in the forest. I wore long sleeves, avoided walking outside the marked trails, and checked thoroughly for ticks after we got home. I don't need any tick-borne diseases in my life - especially not Lyme disease. Thankfully, we didn't have any issues with ticks that day.

After enjoying the stunning views at the park, working up a sweat, and finishing our picnic, we headed back home. Along the way, there's an amazing place on the side of the road called The Apple House. Part souvenir shop, part Virginia pride store, and part restaurant, it's a must-see on your way to or from Shenandoah. I recommend everyone try the signature apple donuts coated in cinnamon sugar, served fresh and hot. My mouth is watering just remembering how delicious they were!

We rounded off the day at my mom's house making mandu: Korean dumplings. When I was young, my family would gather in the kitchen to make mandu together, which could take an entire afternoon. We'd cook and eat the early batches as we continued to make more - at least, until we ran out of either wrappers or filling. (Above, you can see the ones we were still making on the left and the boiled ones on the right.) This time, we filled our dumplings with a classic combination of pork, finely chopped napa cabbage, garlic, and crumbled tofu and dipped the finished product in a soy vinegar sauce. There are many ways to cook mandu (and I've found most prefer fried), but my favorite has always been boiled. We ate until all of our stomachs hurt and still had leftovers. There's something magical about coming together to make and enjoy food, especially when nostalgia comes into play! It was the perfect end to a pretty perfect first full day back home.

Sunday, August 19, 2018

A Day in Frankfurt: More than a Layover

We extended our layover in Frankfurt, Germany to 24 hours, visited some colleagues from my A-100, and enjoyed our first day of vacation. Some might ask, "Why would you choose to stay in Frankfurt?" Poor Frankfurt has a reputation as a boring city, only good as a transportation hub or bank headquarters. After this trip, we can't say we agree.

We started our day with a quick breakfast (see sausage roll, one of the very many tasty things we ate, above) and a 2.5-hour free walking tour of Frankfurt by a local student guide. The main attractions of the city were fairly concentrated, but the tour was full of great stories and humor so the time really flew. It was interesting learning about which buildings had been completely destroyed in World War II, which ones were partially destroyed, and which had remained intact. By the end of the tour, we were much better at telling by sight. The train station below was the largest building in Frankfurt that was spared at that time, a fact which our tour guide attributed to the foresight of Americans who wanted to leverage Frankfurt as a commerce hub in the future without having to rebuild the station.

Our guide then took us on a quick detour through the red light district. I didn't expect to see much considering it was 10am on a Friday, but we actually saw people buying drugs, clusters of drug users gathered together, some ethnic gang-managed clubs and restaurants, and a string of brothels. It was really bizarre for us as Americans to see so much of that in broad daylight, but our guide explained that prostitution is legal there, as is drug use at designated legal injection sites, where people can access clean needles and social services.

This is the result of a bundle of policies affectionately dubbed by locals "The Frankfurt Way" - a combination of policing drug dealers while tolerating and supporting users. Although the concept was a long way away from the policies we're more familiar with in the United States, it seems like public health advocates agree that The Frankfurt Way works. Frankfurt's number of drug users on the street dropped dramatically from about 3,000 to about 300 in a matter of years, and diseases have been more controlled. It's certainly possible that many more cities will be doing the same thing soon.

It wouldn't have been a proper German city tour without at least one reference to Goethe, so here we were admiring a Goethe statue. We also discussed his humanist ideals that informed not only German culture but even the German constitution, where the first article begins with: "Human dignity shall be inviolable."

There were delightful little moments sprinkled throughout our tour, too, like catching a wedding procession of a firefighter through an actual firehose:

And stumbling upon beautifully restored buildings and old churches:

The most unique experience we had in Frankfurt, though, was a "Dialogue in the Dark" tour at the DialogMuseum. For one full hour, a blind guide led us through four rooms of complete darkness - and when I say complete darkness, I mean there was literally no difference between having your eyes open or closed. We had to use all of our other senses (plus a cane they provided) to find our way around and experience the environment. It was insanely difficult for sighted people like us, but our blind guide was amazing. He not only navigated the rooms easily without a cane, but could tell just by the reverberations from our voices where each of the approximately ten of us on the tour were and where we needed to go. At the end, we got to a "Viennese coffee shop" where our guide became the bartender. He counted payment by feel and didn't even seem challenged satisfying a dizzying array of orders and options.

We were surprised to learn that they have locations all around the world, so you don't even necessarily have to go to Frankfurt for this experience. (You can see all their locations here. Sadly, there are none in the United States as of the drafting of this blog post.)

So if you pass through Frankfurt like we did, why not take the day and really enjoy it? At least for us, we found there's plenty to do, eat, see, and more to make your stay worthwhile.

Wednesday, August 15, 2018

Breathtaking Korean Photos at the Nairobi National Museum

Last weekend, I attended a Korean photography exhibit at the Nairobi National Museum* with my friend and colleague J. We had received invitations through work and volunteered to go represent the U.S. Embassy there. High-level diplomats naturally receive many event invitations, and they certainly cannot attend everything. Sometimes, the Embassy needs to decline attending the event entirely, but other times another representative can be sent in the invitee's place. In this case, J and I were the substitutes - and we feel lucky to have these kinds of opportunities even as entry-level officers.

The exhibit, titled "Korean Fantasy", featured three artists: Jaemoon Yang, B.T. Kim, and Chunho Won. The art was all beautiful, but our clear favorites were Jaemoon Yang's snapshots of Korean traditional dancers mid-performance. Luckily for us, he was actually there and we were able to grab a photo with him and his work!

Amazingly, all the visitors walked away with one free print from each featured artist. Both J and I agreed we'd be framing ours as soon as possible and hanging them in our homes. It was such a generous gift for those who came to show support for the exhibit launch!

The whole program was made possible by the Korean Embassy in Nairobi, and I've written about their skillful public diplomacy work before. They do a wonderful job of bringing Korean culture to people who might otherwise never encounter it. (As an aside, isn't the below piece stunning? I really thought it was a moon over the ocean at first, until I realized the "waves" were dancers.)

I was so obsessed with Jaemoon Yang's work, I didn't even realize until I got home that I failed to get sufficient pictures from the collections of the other two artists. B.T. Kim and Chunho Won had beautiful photos featuring city- and landscapes familiar to those who have spent any time in Korea - including snow, traditional architecture, and signature flora. Here is just a taste of those (almost all monochromatic in delightful contrast to the overwhelmingly vibrant colors of the other pictures I've shared):

Anyway, the Korea Fantasy exhibit will be running at the National Museum through August 2018, so I highly recommend it to all my friends living in or passing through Nairobi in the near future! If you make the time to go, you won't regret it.

*I'm embarrassed to admit this was my first time there even though I don't live far away. It's a lovely venue and I'm now determined to make the time to enjoy the main museum soon.

Saturday, August 11, 2018

20th Anniversary of August 7, 1998

This past week marked the 20th anniversary of the August 7, 1998 terror attacks on the U.S. Embassies in Nairobi, Kenya and Dar es Salaam, Tanzania. I posted about this last year, but this year was obviously hugely symbolic, as many reflected on the event 20 years on from the day.

In addition to commemoration events in Washington, DC and Dar es Salaam, we had a large official commemoration ceremony in downtown Nairobi at the August 7th Memorial Park, the former site of the Embassy and the attack. In the photo above, U.S. Ambassador to Kenya Robert F. Godec and Kenyan Special Envoy for Countering Violent Extremism Ambassador Dr. Martin Kimani lay wreaths with the colors of the U.S. and Kenyan flags in front of the memorial wall. I highly recommend a trip to the Memorial Park to anyone living in or even passing through Nairobi. It has an excellent, refurbished visitor center quite unlike anything else I've seen here. They've also just premiered a modern documentary with rare archival footage visitors to the park can see. Entrance to the park is free, they provide free wi-fi, and they only request donations.

This was a huge lift for my office, Public Affairs, and for me as acting Press Attaché (also known in the Department of State as "Information Officer") for the weeks leading up to the big day. Our phones were ringing off the hook with requests for interviews and invitations to cover the main event. At the end of the day, we hit every major local and international print, radio, and TV outlet present in Kenya. The Ambassador's excellent op-ed was carried in major newspapers and shared widely; you can read it in full here. We even got our hashtags #Aug7at20 and #iSurvived98 trending #1 and #4 across Kenyan Twitter.

Much more importantly, though, the 20th anniversary was an opportunity to remember the victims, heroes, survivors, and their families - as well as to look forward to the future. Even our own current Ambassador and his wife were actually serving in Kenya when the bombing happened. I was incredibly moved by the stories of personal courage and resilience I heard from those whose lives were changed forever on that day, especially because I was too young when it happened to remember anything myself.

We actually even found a responder who came from Fairfax County, Virginia (of all places) way back in 1998 to assist with the recovery mission who still works at the Fairfax County Fire and Rescue Department and brought him back to Nairobi for the commemoration. Even as an American, a Foreign Service Officer, and a Virginian, I knew so little about the amazing work done by DARTs (Disaster Assistance Response Teams) - in this case USAR (Urban Search and Rescue) - mobilized by the USAID (U.S. Agency for International Development) OFDA (Office of Foreign Disaster Assistance). (I know, that's a lot of acronyms.) You can read more about their extraordinary humanitarian service around the world here.

Needless to say, this event was one-of-a-kind. It was a somber occasion but also a reminder of the fact that, as the Ambassador said in his remarks, that the terrorists truly did fail in their efforts to divide us. The United States and Kenya stand together as steadfast partners, stronger than we've ever been, as a testament to not only our mutual interests but our continuing shared values. That is a message worth remembering.