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I was watching a good movie last night, The Good Shepherd, about the origins of the CIA. Towards the end, there’s a scene in Congo, Leopoldville [now Democratic Republic of Congo, Kinshasa], where our spy hero is walking along a street near a market, wearing freshly pressed shirt and tie, carrying his jacket on his arm in what we suppose is searing heat and humidity. I immediately thought of a day on a Fund mission, when the staff member is walking casually around a new city, but what’s apparent too is it’s clearly understood by those locals around what he is: a foreigner. That’s not a hostile term, just an acknowledgement of being ‘not from here’. Hostility can wait. But, much can spin around that fact.

When I joined the Fund, staff were supplied with several ‘tools of the trade’: a black leather briefcase and a HP12c calculator.

These were like the army-supplied rifle and bayonet, canteen etc.

Mission travel was marked by the presence of people with black briefcases arriving at airports, being met by officials, then seen for about two weeks entering and leaving official buildings in business clothes, or at the weekends in casual clothes—always ‘armed’ with these ‘weapons’.

Mission meetings were marked by the presence of the calculators on desks or tables; team members, especially new ones, often tapped on them, frantically, as officials dripped numbers like pebbles from a cliff. Oddly, I never got an HP calculator when I joined 😦 I used a calculator I had from my Bank of England days. I never got one until I became a resident representative (res rep), after over 12 years; by then, I had graduated to a Casio, solar-powered—environmentally friendly before I knew it; I still have it. 🙂

But, the image of Fund staff working wasn’t what tripped my memories, it was the sight of someone walking in an area, trying to fathom what he could, while casually enjoying some air. I’ve lost count of where I’ve walked or maybe gone in a car just getting a feel for a place or just enjoying what a city or country could offer. Because most missions start with a long flight, often trans-Atlantic in my case, it was good to get the body reacclimatized to normal air and to time differences, so I often went from the hotel to get my bearings soon after checking in. Now, mission members don’t often travel as a team; individuals can have travel itineraries to suit themselves. I often took the opportunity of the permitted stopover each way to visit friends or relatives. It was great to keep home style contacts when away from home. I was lucky that, over the years, I’d made acquaintances and friends in many places. I often stopped in London and caught up with friends and relative. I stopped in Oslo often, with friends, the man had worked with me in Washington and I knew his wife and kids from when they were small. I ski and have gone straight from airport onto the snow, even having my first lesson skiing cross-country, and using my friend’s wife’s skis and salopettes to ski with 🙂 I would bring ‘gifts’ which way I was travelling.

As I related before, my first mission was to Ankara, Turkey, and I loved the hotel being on a busy street with lots of local things to see or and smell and gauge a little something about the place. Given that many Fund staff become hermits once on the road, I soon realized I was abnormal. 🙂 But, my style all comes from years of travel for personal pleasure. I get to hear people and try to understand how they handle money, their simple interactions with each other. These make for a little easier formal interaction later, if one’s observant. For instance, IMF mission briefings don’t touch on cultural practices; when I worked at the Bank of England, that was part of what people got to know, along with some background on key personalities. Not the Fund! Just jump in with hobnailed boots on and thrust the good old ‘now listen here!’ down their throats…not quite, but you get my point.

I also use time I have to decide what to do when and if I get more time to explore; that could be as little as 15 minutes or as long as a weekend. So, off I strolled in Ankara. Then, I did likewise in Kampala. You know how many people always want to know where the gym is in a hotel or the ice machine? No real difference. I found a street barber in Kampala and watched and thought…and the next weekend went for a trim. I discovered the hotel did massages 🙂 I knew where to get fresh bread and pastries in Moscow, even though I was in the swankiest hotel; my love of something local to snack on was satisfied.

In those places, I did not give much thought to how I might have stood out; I was in casual clothes. I am a black man, but Turkey and Uganda have seen and see black people often, without conflict because of colour. Ethnicity or tribal differences, are other issues. Language or accent usually mark you, though.

When I first went to Riga, I took note of a park near the hotel. I soon went there for a walk; the day was grey and cool, in autumn, but I knew Europe at that time of year, so it didn’t feel odd. I noticed the poplar trees, often seen in parks in London. Away, but homely. The cold was more severe and fur hat and boots and heavy gloves were soon part of my go-to gear.

Black people in Latvia are as common as dragons on the metro. 🙂 The former Soviet Union, really Russia, had some hostile attitudes towards people ‘of colour’. (For Russians, people from Chechnya, for instance, are called ‘black’.) Black students, often from Africa, tell torrid tales of their times studying in Moscow. But, I was a Fund official! Anyway, it was not an apparent issue, as I walked and watched people feed ducks.

What became a problem from day one of work was that no one spoke English! I had only recently started Russian lessons, so was not going to put weight on that crutch. So, my early meetings were in poor, old German (not my favourite tongue; my counterpart on the budget was fluent) or broken Russian and hand gestures and arithmetic (my counterpart on accounting was nothing if not willing to find some way for us to communicate; she was my teacher in the abstruse logic of Soviet finance). We got there, with a lot of difficulties and many cups of coffee and a little vodka 🙂

When you stay at Hotel Metropol, in Red Square, there’s no option, in my mind but to get to see the magnificent architecture in that one-time bastion of communist power and the oddly powerful juxtaposed St. Basil’s Cathedral. Arriving on a Sunday, I could join Muscovities strolling in the square, with the odd whispers (негръ (negr)—black man 🙂 ). It’s more fun when you can understand, and reply ‘Da’ (yes) and the eyes bulge.

So, I got to know some of Moscow well in my off-hours. So, too, in almost every city I visited.

I loved old cities, like Tallinn, with their medieval squares prominent; they are often great meeting places, and at the weekend, even in deep winter, can be where to see many people just ‘taking some air’. Once my language skills were better, I’d use such times to practice in the guise of seeking information, and hoping for more than just an ‘over there’ or ‘I dont know’. If the weather was nice, as in summer, then chilling at a cafe was in order. I love assimilation.

As I said, not everyone ventures out, but it’s nice to have some mission companion, especially when you can be the ‘guide’ at least because it’s not your first visit.

Things were always better, though, when the mission had a res rep in country, which was more the norm if a program was in place. They got to know the city and country inside out; that’s what excited me about my assignment when it came—to be that fountain of local knowledge of places, activity, customs and people. It’s funny, thinking back, how many people wanted to tell the res rep something 🙂

So, our res rep in Riga—a single woman from Latin America—lived in an enormous apartment in the city centre, really for four families, I guess: the Fund would make the residence fit its needs, within reason, mindful of things like access, security and communications. It was adjacent to the central bank, where she had her office. Our rep in Tallinn—an American man with a wife and young child—had a house on the outskirts of the city, and its best feature was a sauna, where the team could get a little different down time at the weekend. The rep in Moscow also lived in a ‘palace’ and the Fund’s office there was almost on a par with politburo standard, ironically sitting opposite one of bastions of Soviet power, it’s foreign ministry.

Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Russian Federation

The rep in Baku, Azerbaijan—an American man, with wife and young child—had a lovely apartment, in the city, and he’d become an expert in carpets, so his home was a splendid display of tapis, plus literature on them and their historical origins and significance. He taught me much about bargaining—I’d learned in Turkey (even mis-bidding in an auction), and Azeris are cousins. I learned that a nice rug rolls up well in a suitcase; just rearrange the documents that need to go to Washington. It was then that I learned not to carry documents back myself, but to ask the rep to put them in the ‘pouch’ to get to DC in a week or so. 🙂 Now, you’re talking!!! Our home now has the fruits of that not-so-laborious lesson.

So, when I became a rep, I paid it forward-backward and made sure mission members knew I’d happily send papers back from my office, so that they could put carvings or paintings into their luggage 🙂 But, it could also be a two-way street, as we could not get supplies from DC other than say ‘official stationery’, so missions knew to arrive with things like Pringles and coffee and biscuits 🙂 It was good for them also to bring things they enjoyed themselves, so that meetings would have a level of comfort that can be conducive to good rapport. The art was to pick up something interesting in-transit, so the international flair could show.

That said, not all reps are ready for their spaces to be ‘invaded’, especially their offices. I remember the scene when a mission chief had the temerity to take over the rep’s desk and chair! In the field, the rep can outrank the mission chief, not because of level of seniority or classification within the Fund, but because it’s his world—the position sit apart from those at HQ (and it’s full ambassador rank). I got those things clearly understood, early, and had no problems. Of course, we can renegotiate space etc. Same way with staff: the res rep’s staff are his resources, not the missions’: get the mission secretary to make copies and make binders. 🙂

I always tried to be generous, knowing that being far from home, tired, frustrated, angry etc all make for bad work. So, our home was always a refuge for missions, and our cook was ever ready to show off what he could do on the spur of the moment. If you want relaxed, just drop in. “Yes, you can play with the baby.” That humanizing aspect was always important to me.

But, working in the field is often not smooth sailing, and the arrival and departure are not just simple events, they can be when matters are shaped or broken. I have been in the VIP departure lounge with missions when the agreement with the authorities is not yet reached; the conversations could be tense, on matters of substance (eg actions that must be taken) or numbers (budget and financials that are not reconciled). Missions have to explain where they reached, once back at HQ, and cannot just spin around and get back on a plane to iron things out. It’s both matters of principle and money. Fortunately, the time between when missions leave and have to report to Management at the Fund can be about a week, and a lot can and has happened in that time…thank goodness.

Whatever happens, the res rep is often left ‘cleaning’ up and ‘clearing’ up after missions 😦 We may be the ones to explain to local media the facts and dispel rumours. Your media friends can be vital. The Fund used to be really secretive; now transparency and openness are part of our mantra. However, that doesn’t mean that one can blab about any and everything to those outside official circles.

Reps may not know how all the numbers are supposed to gel, in detail, and we are not single sector experts, anymore. The best thing is that the res rep normally doesn’t have to do ‘grunt’ work on spreadsheets. Yea! Even walking away and letting team members sort them out and send the file for review. Oh, blessings! We can also have no need to write from scratch, but become reviewers and editors. Oh, this is the life! That’s why many res reps return to HQ and have the worst of times with deadlines over numbers and texts.

Being in the field is the best. It’s why many res reps make a career out of filling such posts. Our man in Baku did about three postings back-to-back. If that doesn’t happen, then assignments with a little space in between can work, just fine.