Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Notes From the Field: Vientiane, Laos...

Notes from the Field time! And two little twists for you today...One is that we're getting the guest perspective of a spouse from the British Foreign Office - cheers to our neighbors and allies! The second is that this spouse's perspective is actually from a gentleman's point of view.  We so often assume that if someone is a spouse in diplomacy, it must be a housewife, no job, and probably wearing a Betty Draper apron.  Since I don't fit that mold much myself , I love finding others who buck the trend too.  So with that, please "meet" Denis Lejeune: writer and motorcycle enthusiast with a soft spot for fado.

He chronicles more of his adventures at LAO Confidential (how great is that name?), and his books (in English and French) can be found on Amazon.

Status: Trailing husband

Post: Vientiane (Laos)

Three words to describe your current post:
Hot... Limited... Zen.

Best thing about Vientiane:
Travel opportunities (in Laos itself and region-wide).

If you have visitors for the weekend, what would be on the plan?
Say my visitors arrive in the late Friday afternoon, I take them on a walk along the Mekong at sundown, looking across to Thailand. I would take them to a cool cinema afterwards... but there’s no cinema in the whole of Laos. Saturday morning starts with breakfast at Café Vanille, a French bakery that does very good galettes (savoury crêpes) and decent croissants. Then one or two temples in town, complete with robed monks and novices.

Lunch would depend on my visitors, but probably Lao Kitchen, the best Lao-cuisine-for-foreigners in the world. What this means is very fine and tasteful Lao food (no ‘phadek’ for instance, a homemade fermented fish sauce that makes Vietnamese ‘nuoc mam’ taste like a heavenly sirup).

In the afternoon? Well... Not a lot. Thing is, there’s not an awful lot to see or do in and directly around Vientiane, apart from the centre of town and its crumbling colonial and Asian art deco houses (lovely). The one thing visitors all have to see though is the Cope centre, an NGO helping victims of UXO deal with their handicap (via prosthetics, re-training and so on). Cope’s museum holds a permanent exhibition telling the state of affairs as regards UXO. Laos, I’ll have you know, is per capita the most heavily bombed country in the world. As a result, mine-clearing NGOs are aplenty in Laos. To round things off for this first day, a compulsory massage in one of our favourite parlours. An hour’s foot massage costs about 5 dollars and is amazing.

Dinner options are equally numerous. In fact, Vientiane is quite the gourmet city, with several very good French, Spanish, Italian, Japanese or even Korean restaurants.

Outings after that are more problematic. There’s a number of ‘Asian’ nightclubs, i-e run-of-the-mill RnB and no dancefloor (but high tables all over). As I said, no cinema, and cultural events can be counted on the fingers of one hand each year. So... not much on the town really.

These limitations put the emphasis on one’s social life, so I may have arranged some games at home with Vientiane friends.

The Sunday is a lazy day spent at Ban Thana, a private house with a beautiful garden and pool just outside of town where a lovely lunch can be booked in advance. You arrive in the late morning, swim, eat, swim, play pétanque and games and swim some more.

In Vientiane, you must try:
Coconut juice bought on the street; larp (dubbed ‘Lao salad’, a wonderful mix of herbs and meat or fish or tofu - raw or cooked - served with sticky rice); Lao massage (hard and stretchy); Rue de la Mission (the French embassy area, full of great colonial architecture); a ristretto at Naked Espresso, an Italian-level coffee-making café.

What are your go-to resources for events and other happenings?
Facebook pages (‘Vientiane Social’ and ‘Paisai’ especially); local knowledge (friends and colleagues); word of mouth. Re. culture: some long-time expats have written books about Laos and Lao culture. Robert Cooper is one. If you want to get deeper into the way Laos works and (partly) thinks, look no further than the ‘Doctor Siri’ series, detective stories centered about the good doctor set in the 70s-80s and written by Colin Cotterill .

Most difficult things about living in Vientiane?
The heat; the mozzies (I caught dengue last summer); the cultural desert (even if some embassies do try to organise events); the lack of interests within a two-hour drive radius; absence of a shopping mall (for a big air-conditioned space where you can walk and chill).

Biggest adventure at post:
Dengue fever, no doubt. We realised the paucity of Lao healthcare just by stepping (or crawling, for me) into the main hospital of the country. Dengue had already been diagnosed, but they treated me for a lack of fluorine... The hospital couldn’t even arrange an ambulance to a Thai hospital, so we had to call a colleague of my wife’s to drive us to the border bridge some 20k away, where a Thai ambulance was waiting to take me to a proper medical facility. How's that’s for a bad adventure?

But there are good adventures too... a motorbike ride up to Luang Prabang (north of the country) on the nearly finished new road - the scenery, alternating between sugar loaf peaks, Scottish-like plateaus, wooden villages, some traditional garment and pristine vegetation, is incredibly gorgeous. Discovering Champassak (tremendously charming town forgotten by time and so zen even monks can’t believe it) and Wat Phou (the biggest Kmer temple complex outside of Cambodia) in the south of the country.

When did you realize you were far from home?
After two months, when it occurred to me that I wanted to go to the cinema and go shopping.

What’s the most important thing about re-creating your home at post?
I’m a motorbike addict, and if you gave me good clean roads and dealerships, it could paper over lots of the cracks. Apart from that, books, our kitchen table and a few posters.

Three things you can’t live without at post:
Air-con in the lounge. Air-con in the bedroom. Air-con in the kitchen. If those count as one, Air-con, iPad to buy books easily and mineral water (water fountain water here is devoid of all minerals known to man).

One thing you thought you couldn’t live without but have had to:
Motorbike dealerships.

What’s the best advice someone ever gave you about the diplomatic life:
"There are many ways a posting can prove challenging."

Daily uniform:
Crocs, shorts and tee in the winter. Long sleeves and legs when dengue is roaming.

Guests on Saturday night...what’s on the menu?
Spring rolls, larp, and mango sticky rice, all of them pure delights.

What would be your dream post and why?
Probably Lisbon for great architecture and history, surfing, proper seasons, harsh beauty of the language, fado and great roads.

One thing I wish I’d been told before arriving:
There’s very little to do...

Any parting words?
Laos is a very, very beautiful country. Sadly Vientiane is right in the middle of the least attractive (well, downright featureless) part of it - a big big plain with nothing to give a third dimension to the town. Gorgeous Vang Vieng is the closest beauty spot and a 2.30 hours’ drive away. Beautiful country, but limiting in various ways, and it all depends on how you can cope.

Interested in sharing your own Notes from the Field ? Let us know at  - we'd love to hear from you!

Tuesday, August 26, 2014


In advance of our vacation a little earlier this summer, apparently the diplo-tot was telling everyone in her class about it since I started to field all these questions about the "Spanien Haliday" from students and teachers alike... Many expectations on this trip!

And they were all met...I'm just sorting through Spain pics so there will be a series of posts on the trip which I'll try to spread out so that you don't get "Spanien Overload"...and in the meantime, if there is one thing that we're missing (other than the warm sun, naturally), it's the loads of fresh fruit, almost yours for the taking at every the the street the restaurant.  The fruit never seemed to disappoint, and I'll tell you that in Copenhagen, there is no such thing as a 2 euro pineapple.  Maybe a 2 euro slice? But more to come on those adventures soon!

Monday, August 25, 2014

Cable Traffic n.11 ...

It's been awhile since we've done a little Cable Traffic, mostly due to my lack of photoshop recently, but we're back on this week with a few recent finds:

1. Generation Z : Generation who? Exactly...I was just getting the hang of millenials when it turns out there is a whole other group here coming into play.  Generation Z refers to those born after 1995 (um...born after 1995? how about was in high school in 1995?) and some of their key distinctions.  This is a group that really has never known life pre-internet.  Ponder that.  In addition to having short attention spans, many report to be entrepreneurial and less concerned with recognition, in difference to their millenial counterparts.  If you're hiring young'uns this year (or parenting them), this will give you lots of food for thought.

2.  Autumn in August: Seriously.  I don't know what happened here but I want my money back.  Once we flipped over to August, it almost immediately hit sixty degrees or lower here in Denmark.  I was still thinking we might get in a few local beach days but instead we're digging out the vests and scarves and getting a head start on fall.  J.Crew's fall ensembles are giving me a few ideas...

3.  Chantal Biya's Hair: He...he... With all the coverage of news stories that can literally make you cry on a daily basis, it was kind of refreshing to find one that made me laugh - in a good way.  First reported in the Washington Post for her creative hair styles, the First Lady of Cameroon's coifs have found their way onto their own tumblr.  Sometimes, diplomacy and state affairs can have a little fun too...

4.  Mountain Dew's Green Label Gallery: If you know me, you know that Diet Coke is my poison of choice (yes, even at these inflated prices), but I have an even more secret vice than that....Mountain Dew...from a fountain...on ice.  The best.  You don't see it as much anymore, but growing up in the midwest it was a thing  - and reminds me of summers at home when I could swing by the pretzel place at the mall.  A fresh salted pretzel and a Mountain Dew...sigh.  But that's beside the point.  They actually reached out to tell me about their summer gallery in Amsterdam, thinking I might be in the neighborhood.  But as I've been staying put the last few weeks, I'm bummed I will be missing their  Green Label Gallery, dedicated to street art, which opens August 31st.  But if street art is your thing, find out more about submitting to the collective gallery here so that you can be on display in Amsterdam - details here.

Friday, August 22, 2014

Recent Reads n.01...

One of the best parts of vacation - other than it's vacation - is that I usually finally have the time to really read... I love to read but I hate to do it in increments.  I've never been one of those people that can just read a chapter an evening. I hate being interrupted all the time, and believe that a big part of a story is how it's written and told in it's entirety. 
Consequently, I don't read much outside of the vacations unless I'm traveling on my own in long segments.  I just love being able to sit down and being done with a story a day or two later, and then really taking a bit of time to marinate on it.  Usually I end up picking up random books here and there and saving them all for a trip.  I'll read just about anything and I love stories of interesting lives so here's what was in my beach bag this last go around:

1.  Steve Jobs : I've been carrying this one around forever.  Obviously, it's a pretty fascinating life story.  As a manager, you can learn a lot about how not to treat employees from his style.  But as an innovator, his pursuit of design and the creation of product -  not in response to what people say they want but in uncovering what it is that people don't yet know that they need - is completely inspiring.

2.  When a Crocodile Eats the Sun: A Memoir of Africa: Loved this one.  I'm a huge fan of the book The Last Resort and I find memoirs or stories about Zimbabwe particularly fascinating, especially because the situation changed so quickly so many times.  Peter Godwin is a fantastic writer, but his parents are characters to the max.

3.  Civilian Warriors: The Inside Story of Blackwater and the Unsung Heroes of the War on Terror : I'll pick up a book just about anywhere, and this is one that my brother gave to my husband.  I never really followed along on the Blackwater thing but given the role they played both in a practical plus policy perspective - not to mention the fact the loss of life they also sustained - I thought it would be an interesting perspective to get their side of the story.  There can be some long sections of battle descriptions, but the fundamental question of what role does the non-military/former military have in our military conflicts, and how do we want to think about military conflict differently if we don't want that role to be played at all is certainly food for thought.

4.  The Railway Man: A POW's Searing Account of War, Brutality and Forgiveness : I haven't seen the movie yet, but the movie poster made me pick up this book a while back.  Ever since becoming a mom, I don't read that many WWII books anymore but when I visited Thailand several years ago, we visited Kanchanaburi.  It was one of the most moving WWII visits that I've done and have always wanted to know more.  Plus, I was intrigued by the element of forgiveness that's central to his story - of meeting a captor face to face.   This reminded me a lot of the South African Reconciliation Committee, and I believe I read they used Eric Lomax's experience as a model.  Also interesting to note was that Lomax actually wrote his book while he was recuperating from imprisonment and not many years after, so while the book was released later, it actually is written from recent memory, unlike most memoirs.

5.  A Room with a View : This is the only non life story I guess - straight novel.  Actually I read Passage to India on our last vacation so when I found another E.M. Forster laying around the hotel I thought I'd give it a go.  The stories and descriptions of Italy are amazing, but just like Passage to India, the turn of the century Victorian types drove me nuts.  The amount of stress and pettiness over minutiae (or at least, what appears to be minutiae to me) will definitely make you realize how much human interaction or free thought we take for granted these days.

6.  Z: A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald : I must be the only person that didn't like this book - still read it to the end though.  I felt it had a lot of possibilities but it just didn't do it for me - a lot of the anachronisms, especially in conversation, grated on me (plus, we're talking about the 20's here people, there was already so much out there in terms of great language and expressions). In the end, I just didn't find the Zelda character believable, and while it starts out strong, the book peters off just as the most interesting and tragic period of her life begins.  I might be too sympathetic to F. Scott Fitzgerald here...too much movable feast I suppose.  But still, I enjoyed the stories of Paris and a certain carefree approach to life that just wouldn't be possible today with all the technology we have following us around and reminding us of our obligations from finances, public, and life.

Thursday, August 21, 2014

Denmark Derby: Stevn's Klint...

I was going to say it's been awhile since I've done a Denmark Derby on the blog, but in all honestly, it's feels like it's been awhile since I've done much of anything.  This little announcement had me floored a little more than I expected and I ended up having to take it a bit easier these last couple of months just to get caught up with my own self it seems.  So as I result, I have tons of pictures to share with you from Denmark...but also Spain...and the Bahamas...and who knows where else.  I'll do my best to get caught up but in the meantime, I thought I would start with our drive to Stevn's Klint.

Believe it or not, this was back in the beginning of May, right when it seemed like spring was a real possibility in Denmark.  We then fast tracked to beautiful summer weather here but ever since getting back from London last week, its seems like Autumn arrived in August when somehow I wasn't looking.  What happened??? I almost have to look at all these spring pictures all over again to remind myself that while I think we're in it for the long haul with the rains and the winds and the drafts and the dark starting about now, it's still only temporary...

You might start to notice that Stevn's Klint looks a whole lot like Mons Klint.  It does...same kind of thing except for that this series of chalky cliffs is smaller in overall length and on the island of Zealand.  However, there are a couple of additional kickers.  On the more pre-historic side of things, this place is full of fossils just as they were in Mons Klint.  When you pick them up, you realize just how chalky it all is - which probably explains why a chunk of that church just flat out fell off into the ocean circa 1912....makes you a little nervous walking around, but viewing the church is completely worth it.

But for more post-war history buffs, the area was actually a top secret underground fortress in the cold war era, with plenty of ammo hidden around in case things came to ahead.  There's a full underground tunnel system, which apparently you can tour.  We unfortunately came a little late in the day for that but I'd easily go back since I have to admit I'm pretty curious as to how they got that whole system in there without anyone really knowing about it.

Around the area are some beautiful walks, and of course a picnic area (um, it's Denmark!) - and a little more official tourist information can be found on their dedicated site.

Curious about Denmark? Check out the other Denmark Derbys !