Sunday, May 28, 2006


Having an opinion has become hard work.

It used to be easy. When I was in school, I had opinions about everything. Teachers unions are the most reactionary faction in U.S. politics! The fall of the Soviet empire was the most important event in the second half of the twentieth century! Somewhere in the 1990s, Rob Reiner totally lost it!

Once I was in the workplace, my having an opinion on any outside topic became inappropriate and a potential career impediment. The argument can certainly be made that the voicing of extraneous political opinions is a distraction best kept out of the office. But, in reality, the expression of left-leaning opinions was always accorded some leeway. A picture with a Clinton on the shelf. A gay rights bumper sticker. Hosting a fundraiser for a Democratic candidate. These expressions all occurred without comment. I doubt corporate culture would have been so accepting if I hung a portrait of Ronald Reagan behind my desk.

So I kept quiet. Sometimes, the reticence was simple diplomacy. If your client in a pharmacy merger is a substantial donor to the Welsh nationalist party, you don’t start yammering about your admiration for Tony Blair. It’s irrelevant.

But the reticence was often for career protection. If one of the vice presidents at your company occasionally drops a disparaging remark about Republicans, you shut up – even if everyone else is engaged in a lively political debate. There is no percentage in having an opinion.

But now that I am away from the workaday world, I am surprised to discover that I am still reluctant to voice opinions. The habits of profession are hard to break. Every potential opinion is subject to a cost-benefit calculus – despite the fact that, as a former writer taking a year off to travel and re-learn how to write, opinions should be part of my stock in trade.

Maybe I’ll start small. Customer service representatives seem somewhat under-trained! Then work my way up to more sweeping opinions on important issues of the day. The tabloids are attempting to conflate Eva Longoria’s actual personality with that of her bitchy TV character!

Then I’d be ready for politics again. President Bush spends too much! The resignation of Prime Minster Thaksin Shinawatra was a blow to Thai democracy! Rob Reiner has totally lost it!

New Word: Demarche

A demarche is an official communication between governments which attempts to persuade the recipient government to adopt a particular policy.

Pronounced "de-marsh." From the French for “march.”

Here is a demarche from the European Union to the United States arguing for the abolition of the death penalty:

Since the death penalty is, in practice, almost wholly a creature of state law, the efficacy of the EU's demarche to the federal government is questionable.

Sunday, May 21, 2006

Banking Day

A warm Southern California afternoon, with blue sky and sunshine, and my plan was to deposit all funds, pay some bills and fine-tune the budget for the six weeks until I depart.

I drove to my bank’s branch in Studio City and parked in the lot behind the building. The lot is large by the standards of the neighborhood. It can accommodate more than 50 cars, and at least half the spaces were empty.

I walked around the bank to the ATMs at the front of the building. Two activists, a man and a woman, were standing on the sidewalk, just on the other side of the property line.

“Don’t let them export our steel industry,” the male activist said as I inserted my card. “That ATM is made of steel. Machines made your clothes.” I ignored them. It’s easy to filter people out on a calm summer day.

I walked back to my car and started to drive out of the parking lot. The drive-through ATM lane was closed, so I used the remaining single lane to reach the street. Except that the Jeep Grand Cherokee in front of me wasn’t moving. The turn signal wasn’t blinking. No one appeared to be inside.

“Someone did not just park their car in the only lane out of here,” I thought. But I got out of my car – as a black sedan driven by a balding man stopped behind me, also trapped – and saw that the Jeep was empty.

I walked toward the two activists and asked, “Is that your Grand Cherokee?”

“No, it’s mine,” said a thin, brown-haired woman in her 30s, standing in front of an ATM. “I was just –“

“That is an active driveway!” I bellowed. “You are blocking everyone in the parking lot, you inconsiderate, thoughtless moron!”

The woman looked at me blankly. Through the corner of my eye, I saw one of the steel activists jumping back away from me. “What?” the woman said.

“Move your Jeep, you rude, selfish idiot!” I yelled. Pedestrians on Ventura Boulevard stopped to stare. People across the street were pointing at me.

“There’s something the matter with you,” the woman said. “I’m calling the police.”

“Go right ahead!” I yelled.

“Those shoes were made with machines,” the male steel activist interjected.

The woman walked toward her Jeep. In the driveway, at least eight cars were backed up, the line circling around the bank.

“Look at all the people you are blocking!” I screamed, waving at all of the cars and then pointing accusingly at her. The balding man in the black sedan nodded. The woman got into her Jeep and drove away.

* * *

What the hell was that about?

In my defense, I did not threaten her with my words or my posture. I stayed at least four feet away from her during the entire incident. I did not shout any profanity or sexist language.

Instead, I unloaded six-and-half years of frustration with my job on this stupid woman. She was rude and selfish. She was inconsiderate and thoughtless. She probably didn’t deserve to have a strange man castigate her loudly in public.

But she will never park in an active driveway again.

Friday, May 19, 2006

Counsel on Consuls

Outside of a capital city, a foreign nation’s interests are represented by two very different types of officials, the consuls general and the honorary consuls.

A consul general is a member of his or her nation’s diplomatic corps and works in the Consulate General, a government facility. A consul general usually has the same authority to approve visas as the embassy staff in the capital city, but the details differ per country.

An honorary consul is a member of the private sector, usually a lawyer or businessman operating out of his office, who has been granted the diplomatic position as a political favor. An honorary consul sometimes has the authority to grant visas, with the particulars varying widely by country.

From the point of view of the would-be traveler, the key difference is outlook. When you apply for a visa, the consul general looks at you as a potential security risk. If you enter the country on one of his visas and throw a pie at the Defence Minister, you torpedo his bureaucratic career and consign him to a decade of double-checking import levies in Brazzaville. But an honorary consul looks at you as a potential client or contact, and what better way to make a new friend than to issue you that five-year, multi-entry non-resident visa?

So, in travel as with almost everything else, the choice between the public sector and the private sector is clear.