Friday, September 23, 2016

The Olympics, Fat Cat does us a favor and we unpack in the U.S.A.

For the last year and a half, the Rio Consulate has been preparing for the influx of Americans for the Olympics and all the possible imaginable and unimaginable dramas that can come with that. Then the Games finally came and with them that enjoyable beast – the “official visit.” Now, every Foreign Service officer, at one point or another in their illustrious career, has had to deal with or, as we say, “work” an official visit of some type. It could be a CODEL (a Congressional Delegation), or a STAFFDEL (Staff Delegation), S visit (Secretary of State, our boss), a VPOTUS (the Vice President of the United States), POTUS (I will let you figure this one out), or even a FLOTUS visit (any guesses? No? Ok – First Lady of the US)(yeah, we have awesome acronyms in the State Department). These visits are meant to advance the interests of the United States in that country and our job at the numerous Embassies and Consulates around the world during said visit is to facilitate them in any way possible so that the visitors can concentrate on their mission.

So far, I have been lucky to work two S visits – of Secretary Clinton in Bangladesh and of Secretary Kerry in Rio. The first one lasted 23 very busy hours on a stifling Saturday. The second – 2 days, right before the opening of the Olympic Games in Rio. With about a ton of other heads of states and various important people from all over the world, in the midst of traffic and gazillion tourists, I am proud to say that Consulate Rio made sure that the S schedule went off without a hitch. Other than that, my work during the Olympics, thanks to all the great prep we had done, was rather unexciting apart from a visit to prison on my very last day of work to calm down an arrested American. It was a classy end to a fabulous tour.

We did manage to see some Olympic events in the meantime. Most sports were easy to get tickets for and we did enjoy some particularly riveting ping pong, badminton, and golf qualifiers. I went to see the rhythmic gymnastics finals (Bulgaria took bronze!) and even the basketball finals, where we saw the Dream Team destroy Serbia. A couple of days later, after an epic goodbye party at a friend’s gorgeous penthouse overlooking the ocean, we packed our bags and went to the airport to leave the stunning city of Rio de Janeiro and come back home. You’ll remember that at the time, Son was in Bulgaria with Grandma, and so it was just the Diplomat and I, plus a highly hostile Fat Cat.

For those of you traveling with pets around the world – this is yet another cautionary tale of how absurd travel can be with those beasts (whom we love, arguably). We booked our flights with the amazing American Airlines back to Washington, DC as we did not really have a choice of carrier. The government has contracts with all three US airlines, and wherever they have flights, we are obligated to fly with one of them if we are on official travel. So, AA it was. Once the tickets were booked, I called the airline to make sure we can take the cantankerous animal with us as checked luggage (as opposed to cargo, which is much more expensive, even though he’d travel in exactly the same place in the plane’s belly). I was told that I can and just to bring him in with us as we check in. So, armed with 4 suitcases, one carry-on, a large golf bag and a big cat carrier, the Diplomat and I presented ourselves brightly at the AA check-in counter at the Rio International Airport with only one thought in mind – how to upgrade ourselves to business class with miles! I handed the airline clerk our passports, smiled more obsequiously and broadly than a Cheshire cat and watched him as he began clacking on the keyboard completely expressionless for about 5 minutes. Then he said – “You cannot go on these flights.” Perplexed, and with an even bigger (admittedly, fairly fake) smile I asked him what he meant. Placidly and somewhat lethargically ven, he informed me that the connecting flight from Miami to DC was too small and would not accept cats.

People, what kind of a plane is too small for a bloody cat – are we going on a hang-glider, for Pete’s sake?? Perplexed, I asked him what exactly we were supposed to do and for the next 1 hour and 4 minutes the clerk and three of his head-scratching colleagues tried every single flight combo from Rio connecting to DC in order to re-book us. Additional complication was the summer heat rule, which says that if the average temperature on the tarmac on the day of arrival is above a certain temperature (say, 90F), a pet cannot land there. Since our original flight would land at 5 am, that was not going to be an issue. It was, however, a problem for the flights the rest of the day – the ones that would actually accept a portly cat aboard. Thusly, a feline Catch-22. Eventually, defeated and deflated and freezing (don’t get me started on Brazil’s obsession with the A/C), we were told that we were successfully rebooked on a NY flight that same night, from where we would fly to DC, Fat Cat in tow. Relieved, we immediately asked our burning upgrade question and the bleary-eyed clerk sent us to the Business Class lounge to sort it out, he was so sick of us. I like to think everything in life happens for a reason – once we got there, we learned that the Miami flight’s business class had been fully booked so if we had gone on it, we wouldn’t have been able to upgrade, but the NY was not – it had exactly two last seats left. Boom – champagne and warm nuts at take-off, score! Thank you, Fat Cat!

And we are back in the U.S.A! As every Foreign Service officer will tell you, the reality of living back home can be jarring and rather expensive. For starters, even though many of us have our previous furniture stored in some mysterious storage place in Maryland, after that gets delivered, one inevitably needs more crap to settle as we have acquired a lot more “ethnic” crap along our tours. And so begin the trips to IKEA and Home Depot (I have to say their legendary bad customer service has actually worsened, which is a feat in and of itself) and Target and Walmart, and then the countless hours putting all your new flimsy stuff together. Just when you think you have it all under control, the HHE arrives. For the uninitiated – when we move from post to post, our precious possessions get shipped to us in two distinct batches. One is called UAB, or the unaccompanied air baggage. That one is small, about 300-500 lbs (size depends on how many family members travel), travels on a plane and since it arrives fairly fast, folks generally pack their most important things there. The other one is called HHE, or household effects (I think?!) and that one goes on a ship. A real, big cargo ship, which moves at, you know, ship pace. Depending on where you are going, it might take up to 3 months to see your stuff, and usually when it finally makes it, you have almost forgotten what is in it. So, it is like a really bad Christmas where you get up to 7,200 lbs of your own old stuff, some of it moldy (depending on how long and where it has traveled), some you have hoped you had tossed away years ago and some you found delightedly (like a pair of brand new leather booties you had just bought before you moved to Rio, and then once you unpacked there, you never found them and thought they were lost). But it is all there, and all at the same time, all thousands of pounds of old clothes, books, forks and knives, ancient candles, your kids’ artwork from 2 years ago, broken Christmas toys, a large ornamental vase, which looked great in your living room in Guangzhou but screams kitsch in your 1950s Virginia town home, workout bench and two large bags of wine corks. We actually did not have that much stuff, and “only” had 138 boxes (trust me, that is not much compared to many others!). The issue was that all those 138 boxes got piled up in every nook and cranny of the house.

Our new house in Arlington has probably about a quarter of the closet space of our apartment in Rio, even if square-footage-wise it is much larger. That has made unpacking a challenge and at the same time rendered some decisions very easy – for example, to finally throw away a denim skirt I have not worn in 7 years but looks so damn cute, I was sure for all those 7 years that I would find a good occasion to wear it. I have not yet, and so the skirt has left the house. That said, I am not a hoarder and this lifestyle has been very conducive to regular purging of household effects. I even threw away a few pairs of shoes (collective gaps, I know, but they were fairly old and somewhat ruined by Rio’s salty air). Overall, progress has been made and almost all has been unpacked. Now all we need to do is register the car in the august state of Virginia and fight off the slugs in the yard, who keep eating the newly planted lettuce. Not sure which one is more challenging. Stay tuned!