Monday, February 18, 2013
The CODEL and a Party Philosophy
The last weeks have been so hectic that I can hardly believe it has only been 2 weeks since I last wrote. In fact, it got a little too much even for me and I fell sick and missed tennis tonight. Sigh. Part of the craziness is clearly self-inflicted. For the past 2 weeks, I MC-ed 2 fashion shows, one Mardi Gras party of 175, went to 4 receptions (one with Dr. Yunus of Grameen Bank fame!), squeezed in some private dinners, worked an American Chamber of Commerce in Dhaka trade show (with all of its welcome dinners, welcome receptions, and good-bye dinners), met a CODEL, even double-booked a few nights (which I dearly regretted afterwards). After one such double-booked night about 10 days ago, which involved an Australian National Day and a lavish appreciation dinner with an endless stream of cheap white wine, I pretty much quit drinking for a week.
Now, my uninitiated friends always remark that all I do is go to parties, wear pretty dresses and have fun. They have no appreciation for the seriousness of my job and mission. People, receptions are work! Think about it. As the witty Jerome K. Jerome once wisely remarked, trying to convince people to do something on an empty stomach is a rather laborious and bothersome proposition. However, give them a good steak and a solid glass of red wine, and they become like a putty in your hands, for “[h]ow good one feels when one is full -- how satisfied with ourselves and with the world!”* Therein lays the secret of the good reception, in my humble opinion.
Say you need someone to agree to give you something they’re not so hot on giving. Try to convince them on an empty stomach. You’ll get a polite nod and “Let’s see what we can do” which is usually nothing. Let’s suppose now that you take that person to a reception, feed them a bunch of random finger foods, which are usually awesome (if only because receptions are usually right after work and everyone is starving), and add to that a couple of neat two glasses of champagne. Now you are facing a much happier, content person who is perfectly disposed to give you anything you ever wanted. And then you ask. So see – work! Twist my arm.
Another kind of glamorous work that we Foreign Service officers do is serve our country by hosting scores of venerable Congressional members, those faithful representatives of our beloved nation. The Congressional delegation that arrives at post – an event lovingly called a “CODEL” – sends shivers down the spine of every entry-level officer, whether from excitement or fear, no one dares to admit. A CODEL visit, or any other VIP visitor from the US for that matter, is like making a cake for the first time ever. You have read the recipe, it all looks straightforward, you start doing it and realize somewhere down the road that it is much more involved; you run for more supplies; call in the neighbors for support; call a bunch of people including your mama on the phone; watch a video or two online for instructions and eventually end up buying new appliances for next time.
Same with the VIP visit. It starts off innocently enough with a simple request for a visit from the U.S., describing what seems like an easy and straightforward agenda. A week later, 10 more people have been added to the CODEL, which have added their own staffers (aaaaah, the staffers – WHAT a venerable bunch, eh?). The agenda has tripled, and so have the resources you have mobilized. Next thing you know, you are roping in more and more hapless first and second-tour officers who have been blinded by the glitz of the VIP and gladly accept the glamorous tasks given to them. Like – be responsible for the VIP luggage. Or take their spouses carpet shopping. Or stand-by during an event in case anyone needs water. Or babysit the press at some obscure event. Or spend 3 whole days going to potential sites of interest to the visitors, like orphanages or factories, preparing an elaborate welcome program for them, only to learn a day later that the visit has been dropped off the program. Or procuring a piano for some event and carrying it to the event and then carrying it back (yup, that happened). The “luckier” ones get to be note-takers at important meetings with local politicians. Which also means, of course, that the moment the meeting is over (usually 10 pm), they have to run back to the Embassy and fervently write a meaningful cable about it all night long, to be cleared by 8 people in the next 2 days, and in the end they won’t even recognize the damned cable.
Oh yes, working a CODEL is glam. I worked one last week. It was fabulous. I was “baggage and passports.” You can only fantasize about the amazing things I had to do. I’ll tell you one thing though – if the CODEL happens to come on a Mil plane, rather than fly commercial, that means that as “luggage and passports” you get to walk on the tarmac. The plane security guys (cryptically called “ravens”) may even let you on the plane to see it inside where the pilot will give you a tour! That is some plane, ladies and gentleman! I also got to meet a couple of the security guys who worked with the CODEL and they were wonderful. All in all, a VIP visit is a circus but is also quite entertaining; you meet some really nice and cool people; you get to see how policy and diplomacy are shaped in action; and you definitely begin dreaming about being important and flying on a mil plane. Plus, you rack a whole bunch of overtime. Can’t wait for my next one.
*Jerome K Jerome, Three Men in a Boat