Thursday, July 9, 2015

The Epic July 4th week

Among the many fun things we do as U.S. diplomats overseas is host the annual Independence Day celebration for all the post’s local and foreign contacts. As far as I know, this is done by every single Embassy, consulate or whatever else diplomatic presence overseas we have (unless it isn’t, in which case I don’t know what I am talking about). Generally, each foreign mission abroad tends to celebrate their national day, whatever that might be and it is considered to be the mission’s main representational event for the year, where everyone goes all out and tries to throw a nice party to show just how cool their country is. One of my favorites ever remains Bangladesh’s Independence Day hosted in Beirut, which I attended while I was there on TDY, because they had all the awesome Bangladeshi food I was missing, all cooked by the Bangladeshi Navy cooks, whose ship was docked in Beirut that week.

In the U.S. missions, the super event is frequently organized and managed by a whole team of people, often lead by a hapless entry-level officer or two. In a fit of patriotism and misguided dreams of becoming an event-planner, this year I volunteered to spearhead and organize the July 4th celebration in Rio de Janeiro. This is one of those examples of the proverb that the road to hell is filled with good intentions.

Now, you should know that those events are never organized with taxpayer money. Relax, my dear U.S. taxpayer, why should it be so easy for us? Instead, all these events, all around the world, depend 100% on donations by U.S. companies overseas. We are always at the mercy of the generosity of corporate donations, Pete bless them! and the way this fun process works is like this: only direct hire Americans are permitted to solicit donations by our internal regulations. Thusly, depending on the size of the post, frequently the enviable task of cold-calling sponsors falls on the shoulders of the bright-eyed entry-level officers. You know, some people love fund raising. Some people, in fact, are excellent at it and even get a rush. Some people are born fundraisers and thrive on it. Some people are also tremendous figure-skater and lion-tamers. I am not one of either of those. I love party planning. No one told me, however, that I had to organize also the entire fund-raising amazingness. But it had to be done.

So, my very first task was to ask for valiant volunteers among my splendid colleagues and bless their hearts, they came through. In the meantime, another volunteer from the consulate decided to co-organize the party with me and we were also soon joined by the Diplomat who wanted to hone his management skills. With money in hand, the three of us began to search for a venue to hold over 500 people for virtually no money in Rio de Janeiro. Shockingly, we were not immediately successful until the Diplomat, in a fit of later-recognized genius, suggested we hold the shindig on the soccer field of the American School. Horrified, I objected strongly – I had visualized an elegant affair in black tie in one of Rio’s old palaces. Except that we could not afford them palaces. Soon, all Consulate leadership embraced the idea enthusiastically and so, grudgingly, I had to go with it. Luckily for the Diplomat, when the decision was made, I was still in Lebanon, otherwise I am afraid he would have suffered from my wrath. Once I came back and was ready to deal with him, he promptly disappeared on a TDY to India and left me and my other co-coordinator to deal with the planning.

Having a massive event at a soccer field far, far from the Consulate and the business downtown rather than in a smaller, contained space used to catering large events meant that we had to think of everything ourselves instead. Think of an outdoor wedding for 500, and you will get the idea. We also had to find a way to bus all of the employees there, find a band and procure food and drinks, all for very little money (well, as far as event planning in Rio goes, I suppose). In the end, we ended up with not one, not two but three bands (granted, the last one was comprised of folks form the Consulate and they made sure they played after all of the invited guests were gone), and incredibly generous catering provided for free by various donors. It was an affair to remember, if I may say so myself. After the party, our highly esteemed guests commented that it was possibly the best one ever organized by Consulate Rio. Well, why, thank you! And truth be told, despite the weeks of planning and frustrations, several nights of actual nightmares, a week of solid rain immediately preceding the day of the party and constant last minute changes, I loved doing it!

Loved it or not, I was most definitely July 4th-ed out and needed a break from work after it was all done. Son had left the week before with Grandma for his usual summer stint in Bulgaria, and with the Diplomat in India, I found myself going on a small vacation all by myself for the first time in my entire life. I knew I wanted a warm place (it is winter here and temperatures drop to 70 in Rio, brrrr!!), on the ocean, with a fabulous hotel with a pool and a spa, which was also easy and cheap to fly to and I had not been to before. Recife it is! I left on a grimy Friday, and giddily announced my little vacation on Facebook (oh, what, like you don’t do the same??) as I was waiting at the airport. Suddenly, I got a message from a friend on a TDY to Recife saying that we should get together once I get there, and by the way, Consulate Recife’s 4th of July party was on Saturday, would I be interested to go to it? It also did happen to be in the same hotel I was staying. I laughed so hard that my eyes teared. So, I got to celebrate our independence twice this year. I can tell you that being a guest at such an awesome party, however, is way more fun that being the organizer of it.

I have become one very irritated flyer lately. As I write this, I am on a plane on my way back from Recife and my neighbor is a young dude who apparently seems to think that this particular plane ride is the best place to watch the most recent Terminator movie. I agree, it is a boring 3-hour ride. I also agree that the Terminator is one heck of a great way to spend your time. What with all the loud explosions, chases, screaming and shootings and all kinds of Oscar-winning sound effects. What I disagree with is that one should watch said super loud movie without headphones. Dude, seriously!

This recent trend of watching loud crap on the plane, where a bunch of people are crammed particularly closely together in increasingly smaller and smaller spaces is simply driving me insane. On the way to Recife, across the aisle from me was sitting a family with a 5-year old who apparently could not possibly breathe without his iPad. That is fine as far as I am concerned - Son has also been known to enjoy extra computer time on long flights. The problem here was that the stupid contraption was set on the highest possible volume and the kid was playing a horribly inane game, learning the names of animals with loud voices and various obnoxious chimes. Neither his father nor mother seemed to think anything was wrong with this scenario. At takeoff, after we were asked to turn off electronic devices, dad tried to take it away from him. Holy crap, you’d think they were taking away life-sustaining care from him. His screams went on for about 20 mins as we were going up, and then the exhausted little menace fell asleep and we all breathed a collective sigh of relief. Sadly, shortly thereafter, the stewardess came to distribute drinks and he woke up. A minute later, and we were all back in the land of loud iPad infant gaming coupled with his delighted and unbridled screaming as he whacked his mom on the head with the iPad ever now and then. She appeared to think it was all adorable. Unable to sleep or read, I finally asked politely if they could lower the volume. Mom gave me a murderous look and told me she is trying (she wasn’t!). Then she did actually try and the kid gave such a blood-curdling scream that I picked up my stuff and moved at the very front of the plane. Which wasn’t particularly helpful since the portly lady behind me was happily watching some loud recording of a wedding party on her iPhone. Damn you, modern technology!!!

So, this is my plea for consideration – folks, please, PLEASE use headphones on the plane (and any other place where there are other people around you). THERE ARE OTHER PEOPLE AROUND YOU IN THIS WORLD!!!!! Shockingly, you are not the center of the universe. At least not the universe of your fellow passengers. Please, be considerate. Ugh.