Symphony & Pizza

On Saturday I spent the day at the Al-Rasheed Hotel, which is a
14-story Hotel located in the IZ. The landscaping is lovely, it's the most green I've seen here yet! The Iraqi National Symphony Orchestra put on a concert. It was an amazing afternoon. I have been spoiled with last minute tickets to the Kennedy center so often you forget that there are places where cultural events are few and far between.

This was a monumental day for Iraqis and Americans to enjoy the symphony on a Saturday afternoon. Something I have really taken for granted.

There is great shopping at the Al-Rasheed, jewelry, nick-knacks, rugs and artwork. I've set my heart on a few pieces of art that I plan on haggling for over the next 6 months so I come home with the best price!

(Love this picture of me, it reminded me of the outside walkway by the Marshall Center at USF, which is one of my favorite spots in the world.)

Then, I was invited to the Italian Embassy for a pizza party! Whew! This Embassy knows how to party! They've built a brick oven in the middle of the entrance way, so they can eat authentic Italian pizza. There was a DJ spinning on the balcony, and an occasional guy would hose everyone off down below because not only was it 100 degrees outside, but the oven was flamin' and OH, MAN, THE PIZZA WAS GOOD. There is one guy kneading the dough and he passes it on and one guy puts on the toppings and one guy mans the oven. I immediately made friends with the toppings guy and ordered up a mushroom and green pepper pizza which they promptly made. I stayed at the party about an hour and they cooked pizza continuously the entire time. When you want a piece of pizza you get in line, you're passed a plate and as soon as it comes out, it's cut and passed out and you basically take what you get. I had a piece of pizza with tuna, (I took a bite and gave it away, it was OK, but it was still tuna on pizza) and a pepper & shroom slice and a cheese less piece that tasted like bruschetta. The pizza is light on the cheese and sauce and the crust is thin. Delish! Even the tuna~surprisingly. Had I not been so exhausted I would have probably stayed for hours, next time I will know to rest up.

I walked home with my friend and it was the first time I walked through the IZ and it was dark. It was fine, we were unscathed, but we both had that feeling like, uh, is this a good idea. My mom got me a cute, hot pink, 3 inch mag light that I've been carrying everywhere with my whistle and this was the first night I did not have it in my bag! The night I decide to walk in the dark! ha! It would have been much easier to see the potholes. I took a few trips on my way home. (pun intended, hehehe)

However, the mag did come in handy yesterday when the power went out in the Embassy for an hour. My computer was still running for the first 30 minutes in the dark but then everything went down and the whole palace played a gigantic game of hide and go seek.

... not really, but I wanted to, how fun would that have been!?! ...maybe next time. Apparently the power shutting out is normal in August because it's so hot and the AC is on overdrive. Good thing I've got a stylish mag to tote around jic!

I have a lot of fun pictures which I plan to post soon. I'm still not a pro at this whole blogging yet, though I hope you are enjoying my stories.

THANK YOU for the emails and notes! I received 4 letters & 2 care packages in the mail yesterday and had about a dozen emails to read it was the best day here yet! (I especially love the post cards, since you know I collect them to live vicariously through you as if I've been to the locations you have traveled) Thank you! I shed some happy tears to hear from you at home, it's an indescribable emotion to know I have so many people thinking about me. Thanks again for your thoughts and prayers. I am so grateful. Sorry for the delay in my response, but expect replies soon.

Also, my dog bite is almost better. It's still pretty disgusting, but I figure it's the closet trauma I'm going to get to a war story, so I'm pretty confident you are happy to get an update.

Who let the dog out?!

I got bit by a dog yesterday. Yes totally traumatic. After I went into shock my boss took me to the med unit where I was bandaged up and slightly sedated. My friend offered me movies and I took the afternoon off to recoup.

Recuperation: The Princess Bride, mac & cheese from the DFAC delivered right to my door by my bff in Baghdad, Days of Thunder and a great night sleep.

Rest was much needed after this past week. I will try to fill you in on the highlights.

Yes, I did meet Obama. He was charismatic and treated like a rockstar. There were a lot of people from IL that were glad to meet their Senator ...

I admired the entrance the Senators made when they arrived. No one complained about the heat or how tired I imagine they were. Their staff staggered in hot, sweaty and looking unkept, but the Senators were engaging until I told them I left WHO 3 weeks ago and I was immediately disengaged. ha! (I'm actually proud of that)

I am not privy to meeting details so I don't know how the talks were though he did conduct himself very presidential like. Obama was a friendly and seemed to be the same guy you see on TV.
His codel stayed overnight which impressed me more than the Reps that came last week and stayed for 8 hrs. *Now, I'm not claiming that I can see and comprehend this mission within the IZ in 6 months, but I am confident that a substantial opinion cannot be formed in 8hrs of meetings, even if you are in Baghdad* So his codel stayed overnight and the next morning my friend and I went to the DFAC for a 6AM bfast. I rolled out of bed and threw on a hat planning to hit the gym after I ate since I would be up earlier than I have been in the last 3 weeks.

It was timed perfectly. As we walked it was like he was waiting for us. My friend got a great picture and he remembered me by name (even dressed down covered by a hat) and asked how my workout was. I told him, the workout was after breakfast. He looked at me like I was joking and said, "Eat and then workout?" and I said, "Yeah, gotta carb up." To which he laughed, agreed and thanked me for my help on his trip.

Following bfast, I did haul myself to the gym and followed my workout with a dip in the palace pool...what a life, eh?

This week I also stumbled upon a toppled Sadam head. You can see me giving him a knuckle sandwhich.

Saturday Night Live

July ….

I know it’s Saturday, but I’ve already begun to lose track of the days. The weeks are marked on a dry erase board in our office that lists the days in a rolling sequence. As soon as the day is over you erase the number and replace it with the next numeral. This makes it extremely hard to think further than the hand in front of your face.

However, I do know it’s Saturday. Tomorrow is the beginning of the week, though the feeling of a weekend mushes together due to the fact that I had and 8 am meeting today and buzzed around until after 6:30 pm.

What do you do on a Saturday night in Baghdad? Well, I came home from work, passed out for an hour woke up at 7:54 and realized that dinner service at the DFAC stops at 8 pm, so I threw on some flops and flipped my way to grab a carry out box.

I decided I would use my stove tonight, so I grabbed 2 pieces of bread, 2 pieces of cheese and a butter packet and let my mouth water at the thought of a home made grilled cheese. I got back to my apartment and turned the stove burner on to my chagrin, it does not work.

Too tired to venture out for anything and amused at the fact that fate would not have me cook, I popped the cork in this weeks special delivery of Chateau St. Michelle Riesling and grabbed the book I started reading en route to this final destination. It’s a mystery that takes place in Hawaii. I was intrigued at the book’s back only because I am soo looking forward to visiting Liz in HI!!

I put on some Ray LaMontagne as a background and slid between my satin sheets (one of my favorite comforts I am so glad I carried on my back from the states). As I sipped my sweet wine, trying to figure out whodunit, I relaxed and for a moment relished living alone across the world. I will only have this time for a fleeting season, and I’m really enjoying myself.

For about 5 minutes tonight a few tears slipped into my pillow and I really missed my friends and lost loves. Sleep overtook the loneliness and left me where I am writing to you now.

A quick recap on this week would take an entire novel. It has been intense, and I realize that does not really fill you in on much. So let’s see … I’ve had a few wonderful morning wake up calls from my friend going to sleep late in DC, I’ve had a few head butts with the Chief of Protocol this week, but managed to keep cool, calm and collected (which at times I am sure pisses her off even more!) I’ve made a few new friends, including a lovely lady, Thérèsa, who will be my new roommate. She is a linguist and I don’t know much about her except that she is also a Scorpio and as clean as I am J We’ll get along just fine, I have peace in my spirit.

She came into the Protocol office to borrow some candles for a going away party for a few of her office mates and we got to talking and by the end of the conversation mutually decided we’d make great room mates.

The party she threw was Thursday night and so much fun! It was poolside at the palace pool and you know me and a pool party, I wore my black, Lands End bathing suit with a black pashmina that I turned pinned around my waist as a makeshift sarong. I got many compliments on my “black dress” (How very conservative, huh? JZ, my bathing suit looks like a dress) “Oh, I love your dress! I wish I would’ve packed a classic black dress!” “Beth, you look lovely tonight, that’s a very nice dress.” Ha! If there is a black tie affair here, I know my bathing suit and pashmina turn into a very formal outfit.

Anyways, the pool is fun. There is a huge deck, a 3 meter diving platform, ping pong and pool tables, a concert stage and a huge pavilion area where the going away party was happening. After a few hours of swimming in the pool and me racing anyone and everyone (yes I did win swimming the farthest with no breaths against all the boys including a marine) I ran around the palace finally taking pictures of where I work.

I had the day off on Friday (which is the typically Saturday) and not knowing what to do with myself without going into work, I met some friends for lunch. We walked to a local Iraqi restaurant in the IZ for some authentic, fresh, Middle Eastern food. I had chicken tikah and some bites of lamb tikah and minced lamb.

This restaurant is fresh! As soon as you order they either go out and kill the chicken or the lamb … I’m slightly exaggerating, but it does take a while b/c all the meat is made to order. Typically it would’ve been nice to enjoy my time, but was soon as we placed our order the power went out and w/o the AC or fans the restaurant turned into a sauna. Soaked to my seat (I’m pretty sure I left a butt print) I enjoyed the food and shopping around at the random antiques for sale in the restaurant. I bought my first piece of art for $22. A sunset scene of Iraq along the Kuwait boarder, which is semi circular row of palm trees as the orange sun slips from the sky. It adds a little something extra to my room and will always be a memory for me.

Now today: there was a codel (a congressional delegation) visiting the IZ. The 8 am meeting did not start until 9:30 am, so getting to work at 7 am gave me plenty of time to prepare for the day. General Petraeus was in attendance at the meeting along with the Ambassador. We had quite a bit of time waiting for the members to arrive and I was introduced to the General!

I was intent on fixing the standing air conditioner in the room (which did not happen) but he came over to help me and we got to talking as he tried to aid with no avail and then I was formally introduced by my friend, and ADPi sister, Maria.

On many a West Wing tours I would tell the story of the day I was waiting for a cup of coffee at the Mess and a voice behind me ordered a cup of coffee to which the Naval Officer asked, “Can I get your last name, sir?” and the voice replied in deep, powerful voice, “Petraeus.” I did a slow turn to the right and directly behind me was the General. I was a deer in headlights, smiling ear to ear. As a slowly turned back around, I noticed Secretary Chao (Secy of Labor) standing to my right and my smile grew even bigger. Typically, I am not at loss for words, but I was star struck. I turned back around to see if he was for real, and he was standing there decked out in uniform and I was… just smiling. Secy Chao did not miss the opportunity to introduce herself, and introduced herself to me and as I turned around to smile at the General one last time, he reached out his hand and said, “I’m David” All I could get out was a nod, smile still beaming. I took my coffee and tried not to trip over myself up the stairs.

This morning, I was not star struck, just humbled to be fumbling at a broken air conditioner with the General, trying to get the meeting room as comfortable a possible for the participants. Maria gave me an impressive introduction, telling the story of how I attacked her the moment she walked into my old office to enthusiastically tell her I wanted to come to Iraq and help.

It was a very cool start to the day. And now as the day winds down with a glass of wine and a good book, I’m content and eager to turn the page and finish this chapter. Good night.

Just another Manic Monday

Monday, July 14
The weekend here is Friday and Saturday and Sunday begins the work week. So…I’ve already started into high gear and the weeks events are rolling along. My job description is written as the days go by, but I am the Deputy Chief of Protocol for The Ambassador and Deputy Chief of Mission (like the Chief of Staff). Our staff is 3 people: the Chief of Protocol, the Deputy (yours truly) and our assistant. (Praise the Lord I’ve climbed the rung on the ladder to have an assistant. It is fabulous! Last week, the copier was jammed and it was someone else’s job to crawl around looking for the mis-fed sheet)

I coordinate the logistics of the Ambassador and DCM’s meetings and events. I handle the arrival and departure of foreign Ambassadors, ensuring they have access to the compound, food and refreshments at meetings and lunches, invitations to events, smiling a lot and anything else that could be included in the planning and execution of an event or anything and everything that could make the Ambassador and DCM’s personal lives more comfortable for representational purposes. (you got that? Yeah….I’m still figuring it out too, but I have the smiling a lot part down to a T :)

The weekend is Thursday night to Saturday, but most civilians here work 7 days a week, we just get to sleep in on Fridays and Saturdays. I enjoyed sleeping in, but then when I got into work this weekend, and had 2 less hours to work and I couldn’t get everything done, so it’s a double edged sword. It would be very easy to become a work-a-holic here, which may be why I am so comfortable. The pace is reminiscent of DC and I’ve met a few former hill staffers and one WHO veteran. There are also a lot of Americans from Texas, Florida and Western Maryland!

So, let me tell you about the Palace. It’s beautiful! I can barely imagine having this whole place to myself! But actually, I can imagine it; it would be the life of a Queen. I feel like the princess who pretends to be the Queen whenever she’s not around, parading the Ambassador and leaders through the palace like the hostess of the millennia.

There are a lot of amenities here, I will tell you about them as I get try them out. I have been to the gym and indoor swimming pool. The food is never ending so I never have to cook, which I really like, though one day my future husband and children will wish their mother had learned to cook more than 20 min microwaveable meals…for now it’s me and the DFAC followed by the gym.

In training one of the pearls of wisdom imparted to us was that civilians that come here either return to the states a hunk, a chunk, a monk, a skunk or a drunk.

I’m aiming for balance.

Thursday: The start of the weekend

Thursday July 7

Happy Birthday Liz!
Happy Birthday Dot!

Tonight I left work after the sun set. I know what it feels like to work sun up to sun down, but in the summer—even this was a new length for me.

I went for a walk outside tonight. I took a friend to protect me. As we walked in this strange serenity I could not help asking “We’re safe, aren’t we?”
“We’re in the safest place we could be! Look around.” He replied.
I look and see the basketball and tennis courts surrounded by high cement walls topped by chicken wire, but it’s not what I can see that threatens me. I look at my friend and make the uncalled for motion of an incoming above us and sound “kaboooom” like an explosion as my eyes quickly note the nearest take cover. “Yeah,” my friend says and banishes my trepidation just as quickly, “I’m not going to be scared until I have a reason.” And we walk into the night—albeit 10 feet until we are in the next light of the street lamp.

It’s hot, it’s dusty, but it is just another place. A part of the world where I believe is affected positively by our presence and I am here for my course.

Write me soon
APO AE 09316

Home sweet home

Sunday July 6
Today has been a whirlwind. I haven’t stopped moving long enough for my surroundings to sink in and I am trying to rush myself to sleep before I begin to feel the 6,000 miles between my family and friends.

I left DC in the afternoon on the 4th of July. American Airlines took me to JFK where I window shopped and grabbed some dinner before boarding Royal Jordanian Air for my 12 hour flight to Amman.

I popped 2 Dramamine and slept the entire way. I had wanted to see the Earth from the sky, but my aisle seat prohibited my view, so sleep was second best. I will catch the aerial view of the Mediterranean on the way home.

I had a friend of a friend greet me at the airport in Amman and see me to my hotel. I had schawarma for dinner—a Jordanian style soft taco of sorts.

I can usually take in stride the hurry up and wait that ensues working for the US government, but I wasn’t laughing when the night before I had no time confirmation for my military flight to Baghdad.

I arrived at the airport a few hours early and after a quick panic seeing no Americans of Military, I met a friend who would be on the same flight! We practiced my Arabic and chatted about what I should expect when we landed in Baghdad.

Though I’d been briefed on the climate and the worst case scenarios, nothing could have prepared me for the emotion when my foot hit the pavement de-boarding at Biap.

As I de-boarded the C-17, I watched my right foot hit the pavement. I sucked in a breath of heat and in an instant every emotion known to man cascaded through my toes up to my head ricocheting back down through my heart and into my left leg which moved instinctively behind my right.

It is a war zone. A secured off section by concrete and chicken wire is the US military area.

I proceeded for a quick debrief and was rushed through the base to grab my bullet proof vest and helmet and immediately turned to board my helo to the IZ. (IZ is the International Zone, or the Green Zone)

I have had guardian angels sent to me so far in each step of this adventure. A friend to pick me up from the airport, a helicopter to pick me up from Biap (Baghdad International Air Port) The happen chance meeting of 2 men who work in the office adjacent to me to escort me into the Palace to see my new home away from home: the protocol office.

T-one week

Sunday June 29 8pm
I walked by the Iraqi Embassy near Dupont Circle where I’ve been crashing with friends for the past month. I stared at the Arabic until my eyes glazed over letting the reality set in that in a mere week I will be on the flip side: in the US Embassy in Iraq.

I take a bite of Mr. Yogato—that and TangySweet have become one of my favorite evening American pleasures—and squeeze my friend’s hand soaking in the support of my family and friends that seems to conduct through his palm.

I am so blessed to be covered in prayers and anointing for this contract assignment.

Today was a much needed decompression. The past week was FACT training, Foreign Affairs Counter Threat Course, conducted at a West Virginia raceway. I was certified in evasive driving, gun familiarization, surveillance and medical training.

I was assigned to a crown vic with an instructor and 2 other students. Exercises included basic driving maneuvers such as gunning the car to 80mph and slamming on the breaks, swerving through cones in an S formation driving forwards and in reverse at high speed. Skid pad scenarios where we would skid out of control & regain composure quickly without doing doughnuts. The best time on the skip pad was in an armored suburban. Many, many walks down West Exec I wondered what it would be like to get one of those suburbans on a skid pad. Yes, it’s awesome.

I also drove a humvee & learned ramming! Should a car sit in front of me as a road block and throwing the car in reverse and backing away at 40mph is not an option, by God, I’m ramming that car out of my way!

It’s a fairly simple driving maneuver, done at low speed as to not cause massive damage to my own vehicle. I was volunteered by an instructor to go first. As I buckled into my crash car—and old blue Cadillac with custom Dallas Cowboys interior—I put the car in Drive and begin moving towards the vehicle perpendicular to my own ride. “RAM!” I hear the instructor yell. I gas & the car spins 180º & I am driving on the other side, away from the blocked road.

The car is pushed back into a position blocking the road, the “RAM!” Command comes before I am ready, I throw the car in reverse, gun the gas & the blockade spins 180º out of my way and I am back to the starting line. Presenting my driving certificate can apparently offer an auto insurance discount when I get back to the states.

Adrenaline high our class headed into the classroom for explosive familiarization. We see an actual car blown up using 8 ounces of explosive. To put 8 ounces in perspective, ½ lb. of explosive powder can fit in a cigarette pack.

It was a sobering firework display.

Cultural training was informative and covered basic conversational language phrases. I can say hello, goodbye, introduce myself & Praise God!

My instructor was extremely knowledgeable, however, the tone of the class---think of the most monotone professor you learned from in college, that was Jerry. Eight hours a day for 4 days. I absorbed as much of Iraqi history from 790 AD to present as possible catching my head at the startling weight of my head realizing omg! I just dosed off about 100 times a day. (And this is why law school is still on the backburner)

I feel totally prepared for worst case scenarios, though 'In Sha' Allah! (God Willing) I will not be caught in the midst of any exploding cars or Sunni Shi’a brawls.

Will fill you in on my first week in the IZ soon.