This won’t be a travel piece. This will be a homage to two very special people in my life who left the planet in the fall of 2021. If you want to go on a short geographic excursion today, just skip right by this post. But if you’d like to take a deep dive into how I became who I am, if you want to learn how I have been emotionally and spiritually fueled through the decades, come with me as I take a moment to express, at least to myself and perhaps to you, what these two people meant and continue to mean to me.
About Janet (aka J) I have spoken here and there throughout this blog. My BFF; companion for wonderful times in Maine; keeper of all the deep dark secrets. But there aren’t super exciting adventures and Inst-worthy photos or TikTok-worthy videos to share in a medium like this. You have to picture two women of a certain age, still in their pajamas and robes and bedheads at 11:30 in the morning, still sipping lukewarm coffee and still just nattering the hours away like jaybirds in springtime. We never finished any conversation ever; rather topics were abandoned like fast food wrappers along the interstate when we either ran out of time or were distracted by another shiny object. The conversation was indeed the purest gold, and it never faltered. In that way, Janet was my rock and my salvation; she gave me the kind of unconditional support, interest, and encouragement one often gets from one’s parents.
About Jim I have spoken not at all in this context. Partly that is because the vast bulk of our relationship predated this blog and partly out of respect for his family (for whom I was a slightly controversial figure). But when I read yesterday that the dementia that had haunted him for decade had finally conquered him forever, I felt a need to express and describe how my life has been immeasurably enriched by his presence.
It all started here on a humid June day in the mid ’80s when I was sworn into the U.S Department of State Foreign Service. I’m on the left-hand side of the photo in a light linen suit with two mustachioed men behind me; Jim, the director of the A-100 orientation program, is on the far right.
A-100 is a “drinking from a fire-hose” introduction to the diplomatic profession. In the space of six weeks, we listened to innumerable lectures, visited innumerable government offices, were introduced to and practiced a variety of trade-craft skills (no poison pens and shoe-phones, sadly), read piles of background papers and made a variety of video-taped presentations. At the end of the class, in a rather tense and dramatic “commencement” celebration, we were named to our initial assignments and then either parceled off to months more training or immediately clapped on a plane and sent overseas.
Jim encouraged collegial socializing and was often a lively participant in Friday TGIFs. Just about the time I finished my months of training and departed for Copenhagen, Denmark, Jim and his family headed off to his next posting in Aukland, New Zealand where he had the unenviable task of trying to negotiate between a particularly bone-headed US government policy (that wanted American nuclear submarines in New Zealand harbors) and the Kiwi government (who definitely did not). I didn’t envy him that particular assignment. It was a no-win situation and after three years he ended up resigning from the Service, not long after I resigned as well, finding myself not well suited to some of the more vexing bureaucratic challenges and “big personalities” in my job.
And this is where the magic truly began. Because of his experience in training American diplomats, Jim was asked very early in his retirement life to take on the task of training other diplomats around the world. In the beginning, these trainings were in the islands of Micronesia, but they later extended to many of the newly created and emerging nations of the early 1990s. Jim ended up working and teaching as a State Department contractor in Albania, Bosnia, Kyrgyzstan, Macedonia, Moldova, Montenegro, Slovakia, Ukraine, and perhaps some other places as well.
And he asked me to be a part of these adventures. And of course, I said “YES!” just as often as I could.
Part of the reason for his invitations was that it’s pretty hard to teach a two-week all-day training program alone. Frankly, it’s exhausting. Part of the reason was that it’s lonely to teach a two-week all-day training program by yourself (there’s only so much socializing you want to do with the participants at the end of a long day). And of course, part of the reason was that he fancied me a bit, and while we drew a very sharp line in the sand, occasionally we danced nearby.
Because of Jim, I visited Palau, the Federated States of Micronesia, the Republic of the Marshall Islands, Guam, and Fiji, some of these places multiple times. Here we are with another training colleague Nancy in one of those far-flung island outposts – but to be perfectly honest I don’t remember which one:
It’s no easy feat to travel around in the Western Pacific. Just getting there from the US is a huge challenge. It’s five hours to Honolulu from the West Coast (longer from the East Coast) and then another nine hours to Guam. From Guam you get off the big birds and get on the little island hoppers that put-put their way from island to island to island, occasionally spending an extra 24 or 36 hours in a locale when a typhoon blows through. Thank goodness for great chilled Australian beer and the best and cheapest sushi I’ve ever had, although the natives actually preferred imported Spam.
Because of Jim I visited Bratislavia, Slovakia, making a weekend side trip to Nitra, Banska Bystrica, and Kosice. We laughed ourselves silly in a local restaurant where the menus were only in Slovakian and our translations of entrees made no sense (“Grilled Locksmith” and “Chimney Sweeper’s Balls” being two unforgettable options). We ended up pointing at something yummy-looking being carried by our table and were served shortly with Wild Boar Goulash, more than acceptable under the circumstances.
Here we are with members of the Slovakian Ministry of Foreign Affairs training class:
The redhead to Jim’s left had a rather casual view of professional attire, it seemed to me. “I didn’t need to know she was wearing a pink bra,” I said to Jim later that evening. “I didn’t need to know she didn’t match,” he replied.
Jim wasn’t fond of being photographed (neither am I). but I did manage to wheedle him into posing for me during one of our strolls around Brat. While later in life he devolved to a wardrobe that consisted mainly of Fisherman Casual with Baseball Cap, this picture epitomizes for me the sharp, suave, charming, intelligent, diplomat from Central Casting which Jim always played to a tee. (On the other hand, Bratislava was just starting its urban renovation efforts; I’m sincerely hoping the building behind him…looks a bit better today than it did then.)
Because of Jim, I saw Sarajevo in Bosnia, Dubrovnik and Cavtat in Croatia, Podgorica and Kotor in Montenegro, Skopje and Lake Ohrid in Macedonia, Sofia and Plovdiv in Bulgaria, Thessaloniki in Greece. Not in one trip, of course, but over multiple trips over many years. It felt at the time – and continues feels even more in retrospect – extraordinary. I have no words for my gratitude and appreciation.
One weekend in Brat we made a trip to Lake Bled in Slovenia. It’s one of the most magical places I’ve ever been:
The hotel we stayed at was, as so many Slovenian things are, a quirky blend of Austrian comfort, Italian charm, and Slavic eccentricity. There was an accordion player there who specialized in the Anton Karas music from the movie “The Third Man,” the Orson Wells classic from 1949 shot primarily in Vienna. That, plus an outstanding slivovitz, blazed a golden memory into my mind.
But if I were to tie Janet and Jim together, my personal roots and wings, it would be for the quality of the conversations we shared. Very different, of course, but both to a level that itched my mind and soul in the places that needed scratching. And with Jim, obvious enough from the pictures already shared, there was usually some adult libation involved. (The motto of the State Department is, after all, “I have only one liver to give for my country.”) So with a final salute, I give you a picture of Jim in paradise. We’re lunching in the restaurant patio of a great eco hotel called “The Village” in Pohnpei, FSM (since closed; a real shame) and we’re discussing Life and the Universe in grand style. Vale, Jim, safe travels, and save me a seat at the bar.