Sunday, December 17, 2023

Paris, Visits, Holiday Cheer

Well initially my thought was that I was going to update this blog every month but things got away from me! I see that in my last post I highlighted that I didn't have any plans to travel in all of Autumn, but that ended up changing. After the crisis in Israel and Gaza started, the State Department, and specifically Consular Affairs, put out a call for volunteers who would be willing to go on TDY--that is, on a temporary duty assignment--to support the crisis response. I signed up, saying I would be willing to go anywhere, and before long I got an email letting me know that they wanted me to go to... Paris?

Obviously I was excited, and glad to be able to contribute, but I was a little confused! It turns out that two of Paris's consular officers had TDYed to Cairo, Egypt to directly support the evacuation of U.S. citizens from Gaza. Why not just send me to do that, rather than sending me to backfill for them? Well, they both had prior evacuation and American Citizen Services (ACS) experience, and I don't. So, them to Cairo, me to Paris.

It was a lot of work--some days I was on the visa line until 2:30 PM, having skipped lunch. The visas section isn't huge in Paris, just six officers, and a few of the officers who weren't in Cairo had pre-scheduled leave, or were sick, so some days we were doing six officers' worth of appointments with just three or four of us. The numbers weren't so high, but with Paris being such an international city, you see people from all nationalities, in all visa classes, doing all kinds of interesting things in the U.S., that have hyper-specific requirements and things you need to mention in your case notes. It was a real challenge adjudicating those cases, but interesting and satisfying work.

And then after work, I was in Paris! I did walking tours, went to the Louvre, the Paris Sewer Museum, the Musee d'Orsay, and the Musee Quai Branly. I took day trips to Chartres and Reims to see the cathedrals there and try some champagne. I handed out candy at the Embassy's Halloween party and went to a movie, something I've missed in Abidjan (there are theaters here, but the only English language showings tend to be Monday or Tuesday nights, not very convenient). I went to the Place de la Concorde free watch party of the Rugby World Cup, happening in Paris, and cheered the South African Springboks on to victory over the New Zealand All Blacks (although I think the haka they do is so dang cool that I'm always kind of on the All Blacks' side, even when I watched the movie Invictus). By luck, I'd met a Parisian who works as an English-French simultaneous interpreter at the African Development Bank at a friend's house party just days before I went to Paris, and she kindly sent me a very long list of vegetarian-friendly restaurants that she recommended, so I worked through as many of those as was practical. And I also hung out with the Paris consular officers--they're a great group, many of them in their second tours having used their high equity from serving in places like Mali, Senegal, or Haiti to get to Paris. All in all, I have to say I enjoyed my time in the Abidjan of Europe.

I neglected to take many pictures, but some things that stand out in my memory are:

  • The delightful profusion of accents at the Rugby World Cup watch party.
  • Getting to see Kehinde Wiley's show of portraits of African presidents in person at the Musee Quai Branly; I'd read about it in the New York Times before knowing there was any chance I might be able to see it in person, and his work definitely benefits from being seen live.
  • By coincidence ending up at the Musee d'Orsay on a night when they had live musical performers scattered throughout the museum (and getting to see some Van Goghs for the second time, having already seen certain key pieces when they were on display at the Detroit Institute of art last winter).
  • Being the only Spanish speaker on the consular line and getting the Spanish-speaking applicants directed my way; adding a third language into the mix was an interesting challenge and it was good to see that I haven't forgotten everything!
  • Having Mexican food and Tex-Mex (other than my own attempts) for the first time in a while.
  • Going to an English language book store.
  • Running along the Seine--the crisp fall weather was perfect for it, and the running trail was completely separated from traffic and satisfyingly well-populated day and night.
  • Going to the Louvre with a consular colleague and finding out that her guest pass wouldn't get me in--but having a nice entry attendant give us the inside scoop that we could get into a side exhibit, and that we'd have the opportunity to get into the rest of the Louvre when we exited that.
Akan artifacts on display at the Musee Quai Branly. Akan culture includes ethnic groups in modern-day Ghana and Cote d'Ivoire.

The Musee Quai Branly had an exhibit on the cultural importance of "Fancy" fabric, a cheaper printed alternative to wax pagne prints which is often used to make fabric commemorating political events, membership in social or religious groups, etc. Some interesting examples from Cote d'Ivoire (and Cameroon)!

Sewer access example at the Museum of the Paris Sewers.

Restaurant in Reims.

There weren't many disappointments, but I will say that the gift shop at the Museum of the Paris Sewers was decidedly underwhelming! Every other aspect of Paris tourism feels like it's designed by five marketing PhDs, and yet the one place where I wanted to find weird and kitschy postcards and poop emoji plushes and whatever else I'm sure I can't even think of, it was just a bunch of stuff with their logo on it (or without their logo even, just generic Paris merch). Missed opportunity!

I was in Paris two and a half weeks in total. After getting back, I was acting consular chief for two weeks (which was pretty quiet, although I did end up getting pulled into an interesting external meeting that I usually wouldn't have gotten to attend), and then had one week back in my normal job but still with an additional responsibility. We had many officials from D.C. visiting in late November/early December to get their visits in before the holiday season, so unusually, the responsibility of being control officer for a visitor and his three-person team fell to me. I've been control officer in Monterrey, but this was the first time I'd done it in Abidjan, so it was a lot of work as I learned how to navigate the different system here, pull together paper, set meetings. The team was incredibly friendly and easy-going, and were very effective at conveying the importance of the issues they discussed to our counterparts. It was just a one day visit, but even so, with all of the preparation it took, it ended up making me feel like I'd been go-go-go from my time in Paris through their departure.

A few other notables:
  • I was duty officer for the first time here, and fortunately got no calls.
  • I watched my supervisor's dog for one of the weeks she was out, Cam's a good boy who seemed to enjoy getting to explore my apartment complex and getting attention from kids.
  • I was social sponsor to a new arrival who seems to be settling in well.
  • On Thanksgiving I participated in the Embassy-wide festivities, including a 5k, a HIIT class, and a touch football game. I scored the game-winning touchdown!
Me and Anne, who convinced me to play.

  • There have been lots of formal and informal Christmas/holiday get togethers, starting even in late November as people try to make sure they catch as many people as possible before everyone's on their way out for the season. I also went to a Christmas market, which was a lot of fun, although there were so many stalls that it was overwhelming and I didn't end up being able to decide on anything.
The past couple of weeks have been a bit quieter, which has been nice, but all-in-all it's been a little more eventful than I anticipated. I'll go on leave soon for the holiday season, and I'm looking forward to taking it easy!

(Gosh it's been so long that I hadn't realized, but at the beginning of October, before I even went on TDY, I went to Assinie, a local beach town, with three colleagues. I chose the absolute worst possible weekend, it rained the ENTIRE time--I was the instigator of the trip and I felt so bad! But everyone was nice about it and we ended up having a good time just relaxing at hotel restaurants and our AirBNB, even if we couldn't enjoy the beach as intended.)

Me and the crew in Assinie on day one! When we still had a feeble hope that the sun would come out.

I didn't mention this anywhere in the rest of this post, but this was from a weekend event at the Embassy Annex where SOME people ran 5k every hour on the hour from 5-8 AM; I ended up joining only for the last 5k, but more power to the people who did the full 20!

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