A Day in the Life

Della Mae members Courtney Hartman and Kimber Ludiker make a new friend in Khiva. (U.S. Embassy photo)

Frequently people ask me what it was like to be a public diplomacy officer in the Foreign Service of the U.S. Department of State. “Hard,” is my off-the-cuff answer. My job as Information Officer, colloquially known as press attaché, included a number of key responsibilities:

  • Daily press briefings with the Ambassador and senior staff
  • Drafting press guidance and talking points on a variety of issues
  • Managing the Embassy’s social media strategy, important in a country with press restrictions
  • Identifying speakers for weekly outreach programs
  • Working with libraries and librarians to fund English-language materials
  • Traveling with the Ambassador on site visits throughout the country
  • Coordinating press events such as monthly press conferences and exclusive interviews with the Secretary of State
  • Creating media plans to promote educational and cultural programs in a country with press restrictions
  • Monitoring the on-the-ground situation for working journalists
  • Promoting information about the services of the Embassy’s consular section, including American Citizen Services and visa services for local citizens

There’s definitely more to the job, but that’s a pretty good start. As you can imagine, on any given day I might have other things come up, such as unconfirmed reports that the President of the country had a massive heart attack!

 

 

When I think back on my favorite aspects of the job, they definitely relate to promoting the cultural programs we worked so hard to present for the Uzbek public. During my time in Uzbekistan we had photographers, poets, basketball players, musicians, and dancers come to Tashkent and other cities for master classes, performances, competitions, and more. I had an amazing time traveling with our cultural envoys and coming up with interesting ways to share their work with the citizens of Uzbekistan.

 

The talented students of the Urgench arts kolej perform for arts envoy and photographer Frank Ward.

 

One of my most memorable experiences was the tour of bluegrass group Della Mae, an all-female bluegrass band that spent about a week in Uzbekistan. Della Mae came to Uzbekistan as part of the American Music Abroad program which is “designed to communicate America’s rich musical contributions to the global music scene as it fosters cross-cultural communication and people-to-people connection to global audiences.” Their openness to working with local musicians led to the spontaneous creation of a bluegrass/Uzbek folk fusion that we started calling “Blue-Uz-Grass.” They sang, gave master classes, jammed with local musicians, and performed a fantastic sold-out concert at one of Tashkent’s premier music halls. I had the pleasure of traveling with the group to the great Silk Road city of Khiva and to nearby Urgench where there’s an incredible performing arts high school, known locally as a kolej.

 

[youtube]https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=At9mDNHLW3g&list=TLFHU2Ny2uffM[/youtube]

 

My role with Della Mae’s visit was to coordinate social and traditional media coverage, put together a press conference and press preview performance, and to travel with the group to the kolej in Urgench where we’d had successful arts envoy programs in the past. We did a number of things to promote Della Mae on social media, from tweeting to posting tons of photos on Facebook, and sharing videos such as the one above through YouTube and the local video sharing site Mover.uz. The video you see above was posted to the Embassy’s YouTube channel–and it’s received over 400 views, despite the fact that YouTube is banned in Uzbekistan.

We live tweeted the event in three languages: English, Uzbek, and Russian:

 

We had a great team at the Embassy supporting this visit: the cultural affairs officer and cultural assistant did all the advanced planning to set up the program and supported the band while in country; our multi-tasking staff ran around with cameras to multiple sites to document all the fun (and work!); our  press assistants worked on media releases, interviews, and the press event; and our social media team collaborated to keep our Facebook and twitter communities involved in real time. All along the way we had a staffer from American Music Abroad offering even more social media amplification of the visit.

It was an exhausting week, but worth it in so many ways. I’ll leave you with one of the several Facebook albums we created to share Della Mae’s tour with a larger audience. Our roving photographers followed the band throughout their tour, capturing behind-the-scenes shots of the band working with other musicians, with students, and performing in master classes. This is just a snapshot of what they saw. You can see more if you “like” the U.S. Embassy’s Facebook page!

 

[fbalbum url=https://www.facebook.com/media/set/?set=a.10151495806909186.581651.9631659185&type=3]

A Father’s Day Grilled Feast

It’s barely mid-June, but deep in the heart of Texas it’s hot everyday and the locally-grown fruits and vegetables are rolling into the markets, tables groaning under the bounty of summer. With Father’s Day upon us, it was time to pick up corn, peppers, squash, tomatoes, and ‘shrooms and fire up the grill. We mighta’ sneaked a few chunks of chicken in there, too.

Grilling is nearly a state religion in Texas but, in my opinion, there’s no one way to do it rightly or wrongly. It takes a few decisions, a few key tools, a little bit of creativity, and an apron with a built-in bottle opener and koozie to keep you cool when facing the flames.

First decision: gas or charcoal. Down and dirty grillmasters and -mistresses swear by charcoal. For the last two years I grilled only on charcoal and it does have benefits, such as superior heat control and hot spots exactly where you want them. But all my recent grilling has been on gas, and what you give up in control is a trade-off for easier cleanup and possibly fewer carcinogens launched into the atmosphere.

Second decision: what to grill. I know folks swear by steaks and burgers as their grilling favorites, and while it’s hard to beat a beautifully caramelized piece of grilled flesh, vegetables take on a wholly new character when they come off the fire, delicately charred and bursting with flavor. Marinate them or not before sliding them over the flames, but do give a judicious coating of olive oil, salt, and pepper to minimize sticking and guarantee great flavor.

Third decision: direct or indirect heat. I’m definitely no expert on the benefits of direct and indirect heat for grilling meats, but when it comes to veggies I think that medium direct heat is best, and keep the grill lid closed! Not only will the food cook more efficiently, but you’ll also be rewarded with luscious grill marks and that smoky char. Place your larger, sturdier vegetables over the hottest spots of the grill, which tend to be right between two burners.

Fourth decision: skewers or not. When grilling vegetables I’m agnostic about skewers. Metal skewers do a bang-up job when grilling meat kabobs, since they conduct the heat through the center and help it to cook evenly. Mixed veggie kabobs look amazing, but they are difficult to manage because the vegetables cook at different rates–tomatoes will split before the zukes have even realized they’re getting warm. I think that nice big hunks of veggies cook more evenly when placed directly over the heat, but that it’s worth using skewers for mushrooms and tomatoes, or any other small vegetables likely to break up on the grill. Screw bamboo. Politely, of course.

Arm yourself with a long pair of tongs and a spatula and dinner is yours in about 15 minutes. Your ol’ dad will love it, too.