Last week I spent more time than usual at the United Nations headquarters at a session for a commission with a long name, which you can read about here. It was an illuminating week. Here’s what I learned:

The UN really only operates from 9 to 4—or at least, all the people who do things like answer pressing questions or give you your press credentials only operate until 4 p.m. I’m not sure how the UN gets anything done on such a generous schedule. They are very lucky to only work six hours a day, while the rest of the world works until 5 or 6 p.m., or 3 a.m. (like when I am writing this journal).

People at the UN are never really sure what is going on at the rest of the UN. There are always about 5 million vital international matters being decided at once, so if you call up “Information” at 4:05 p.m. (because everyone else has left by 4) and you ask, say, for directions to your own pressing international matter, no one will know what you’re talking about. So they will transfer you multiple times until someone makes something up, and then he will repay you for the inconvenience you have caused an august international body by acting very affronted if you ask for a cross-street. (It’s all true.)

The UN also has a lot of free food, which I did not know was a perk, but it is delightful. I wasn’t sure if it was really for journalists but there was a long line and no one was kicking out the non-diplomats, and they had pesto salad, so I indulged. The next day there was no food downstairs, but I discovered a food fair upstairs where each nationality served traditional dishes with beaming smiles.

Which brings me to another thing: People in the UN are unfailingly polite. They start every speech with encomiums on Madam Chairperson’s grace and diplomacy, how nice her nationality is, how fetching her hairstyle looks, how privileged her very goldfish must feel to be fed by her hands, and what a commendable job she’s done pulling so many groups of competing interests and dubious virtue together. Then they proceed to disagree with everything anyone’s said up to now. They’re like people in Jane Austen novels, who delicately stab everyone in the back.

But underneath all the potlucks and politeness, of course, there is roiling drama. Every phrase in every document counts, and sometimes they mean different things than they seem to on the surface. Sometimes people are unsure quite what they mean, so they refuse to approve them. Everything is staid on the surface but underneath, it’s not all straightforward.

Not straightforward at all. In fact, sort of like asking an august international body for directions at 4:05 p.m.

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