Bucharest Time Pacific Time Washington, DC

Sunday, February 1, 2015

Home Leave 101

 After nearly four years in the Foreign Service, we're now enjoying our first home leave.

So first, a definition:
The purpose of home leave is to ensure that employees who live abroad for an extended period undergo reorientation and re-exposure in the United States on a regular basis.  

You can read the entire description, definition and all sorts of regulations and exceptions in the link above, but the gist is that after coming from a posting abroad (yes, being five miles from the Texas border is still considered being abroad), we're mandated to take a minimum of 20 business days on U.S. soil. "U.S. soil" includes all 50 states plus Commonwealths (Puerto Rico and the Northern Marianas), Possessions, and Territories (Guam, American Samoa and the U.S. Virgin Islands), but please don't ask me what the difference is between these last three categories.  When you're hired, you choose a home leave address of record, which can really be wherever you like from that list. Uncle Sam will generously pay to send you from your posting abroad to your listed home leave location. If you choose to go somewhere else, say to spend this month re-Americanizing yourself in the U.S. Virgin Islands instead, some fancy calculation is done to compare the cost of getting you (and family) to your island paradise vs. to your parents' house in Hoboken, NJ (for example).  You are then responsible for paying any overage between the two costs. This is called a "cost construct."

Seattle, WA is our home leave address, but as we've had a stable renter in our house there whom we don't want to evict for just one month, plus our home leave will take place in late January and February - not generally considered the best months in the Pacific Northwest - we opted to go to Florida and cost construct instead. 

Nearly one year ago, with our departure date from Juarez fixed, and the starting date of Romanian training known, we did heaps of research and finally chose to rent a house in northern Florida's Gulf Coast, thereby joining thousands of retired Canadian and Great Lakes residents as part of the great snow bird migration.  Coming off-season as we did, is not only less expensive, but also less crowded and finding a house available for the entire month was not too difficult. 

So here we are, and I gotta' say it's pretty cool.  

First of all, when was the last time you had one calendar month in which nothing more was expected of you other than remaining in the U.S.?  I think I was 15. Truly, other than basic personal hygiene, not crossing an international border is our only responsibility. Home leave is different from vacation because of the luxurious lack of expectations or lingering responsibilities.  When you go on vacation, that pile of stuff on the kitchen table will still be there to greet you when you return. Your inbox will continue to accept messages which will require your attention and action at some point, and you will still have to weed the garden, deal with that tiresome coworker and fight that horrible traffic wherever you live when the rosy glow of your vacation has worn off.  

In contrast, home leave, by definition taking place at the END of an assignment, comes without that mental baggage.  I have no further responsibilities to my job nor our house - loved them as I did - in Juarez. I have no expectations from my assignment in Bucharest yet either, and unlike in AP English in 11th grade - there is no required summer reading list for Romanian language training.  Oh I suppose I could try to be a real go-getter and find some language tapes to get a head start, but it's not at all expected and frankly would be just a bit more than annoying to come to class on the first day all full of little phrases I learned to (mis)pronounce during home leave. Yeah, instead I'm just going to unplug and let my brain rest this entire month. 

We've now been on home leave (which does not include the three travel days it took to get us and the Tabbies to Florida in the car - more on that later) for just over a week.  We're getting acquainted with the new environment and have already chosen our favorite grocery store and have located the PetSmart (I'm already on the second box of cat litter). We've walked on the beach each day, even if that meant we were wearing sweaters and hoods a few of those days.  We've completed a very complex 1000 piece puzzle; have had my husband's brother and sister-in-law visit for four days; have dug into new books and crossword puzzles; and have begun to catch up on a bunch of bad TV and too many morning news shows.  Really, all the stuff you WOULD do if you had the time - which is all we have now.  

Coming from a border posting, we're fortunate to have our car with us already.  But the great majority of folks coming back for home leave will do so in a plane, and therefore will not only have no home, but also no car.  This is why many of us refer to it as "homeless leave," that month of couch-surfing and relying on the kindness of friends and family.  Some of my younger coworkers have told me that returning to their parents' home, sometimes even to their childhood bedrooms, can be fun for the first week, but just awkward thereafter.  Because we're allowed to drive our cars to and from post, many leaving border assignments choose to do lengthy road trips and have filled their Facebook pages with pictures from National Parks throughout the American west. As we have the Tabbies to tow, spending more time on the road did NOT sound like a viable nor enjoyable option.  So we're staying in one place and letting friends, family and adventure come to us instead. 

Besides being the dead of winter and not wanting to spend our month stuck inside to escape the drear, we chose Florida as we're also "trying out" the region to see if some day we may want to live here. Next home leave will be during summer and so we may be renting a house in Oregon or along a lake somewhere.  But that's just our decision, and in my free time I've been thinking of other things that people could do on home leave. Here are a few ideas:
  • Rent an apartment or house in that region of the U.S. that has always intrigued you.
  • Schedule the minor surgery or dental work you've been putting off.
  • Rent a cabin in the woods and finally get started on the Great American Novel.
  • Take a course in something you've always wanted to learn, like French cooking, watercolor painting, Tai-Chi or playing the harmonica.
  • Use the time to buy a house or to remodel one you already own. 
  • Put all the bureaucracy of life in order: Wills; Insurance policies; Documents in your safe deposit box.
  • Hike all/part of the Appalachian or Pacific Crest trails. 
  • Work on your tennis, golf or poker game obsessively. 
  • Binge re-watch entire seasons of your favorite TV shows or Cary Grant's life work.
  • Actually put together your wedding photo album before your 15th anniversary comes around.
  • Staying in DC? Try to visit a different Smithsonian museum each day.
  • Buy a box of books from the Goodwill and see how many you can get through.
The Tabbies have continued to adjust to our mobile lifestyle and took to three days on the road exceptionally well.  Naturally, they prefer being settled now and are especially liking that we're home all day (i.e. available to tend to their needs). Toby spends a lot of time watching the neighborhood go by outside his screen door and sniffing the new smell of salt air.  My husband has kitted himself out with a fishing license and tackle and is determined to pull something out of the water.  I discovered Ancestry.com and have gotten back to the late 1700s on one side of the family. And we've barely cracked Week Two.

Once again, I will leave you with a few pictures of our move east and where we've landed:

Daphne in the crow's nest perch. 
Dodger watches west Texas slip from view. 
Toby found my lap in San Antonio and didn't give it up until we hit northern Florida.

Toby didn't take well to leaving the hotel rooms each morning. "No really, it's small, but it's cozy! We'll be fine here; we don't need to leave!"

But once we got to the new house - well, he got pretty comfy. 
Finally here!

We've been getting to know the locals...

fighting the crowds...

and generally just finding a good spot to rest for a bit.

Monday, January 19, 2015

Adios Juarez

It's finally here.

I don't mean "finally" as in Christmas morning, but rather "finally" as in that dreaded dental appointment. 

The last work day, the last hug goodbye, the last look around our house and garden, the last time we turn the car north and head for the border, the last crossing over the big sandy depression that is the Rio Bravo/Grande, the last chat with CBP and then we're away and into Texas.

Time is such a mercurial, fickle friend and sometimes enemy.  Time has both flown and crept since our February 2013 arrival. May to January slipped by in a blink, and yet it seems as if I've been aware of the passing of every hour in our last week. Yesterday we drove by the El Paso hotel where in Feb 2013 we spent the last night of our road trip south before meeting our social sponsor and heading across the border for the first time.  I saw the window of the hotel room where we stayed and remembered what I had been thinking as I looked out over the twin cities that would be our home. During the day it was all very beige (very beige!), and at night Juarez spread out beneath El Paso in a rolling, twinkling blanket of lights.  But the skies were so crisp blue (they still are) with the widest and brightest horizon I'd ever seen.  I think that horizon was emblematic of my time here: broad and full of possibilities. 

Professionally, this assignment could not have been better suited to me. Back in Bogota when I was an OMS and hoping to be a Consular Officer, I got some advice from one of the Consular managers that, should I make it to A-100, I should seriously consider going to the border for everything I could learn there.  (Sorry Canada, but when we say "border post," we're usually talking about the southern border.)  I'm sure I smiled and nodded, tucking away her advice, all the while privately thinking that I wanted to go somewhere far more exotic.  But she was right. Cutting one's teeth in arguably one of the most complex immigrant visa sections in the world has been an incredible learning experience for me. 

Personally, our time here has been equally satisfying.  That's such a milquetoast word, "satisfying," for something so meaningful.  The most important elements to a successful tour are often completely unrelated to the actual job. Is your family happy? Do they like their jobs/schools? Are the pets safe and comfortable? How do you like your house/apartment? Do you like the local food? What is the weather like? Are there fun things to do outside of work and friends to share them with?  Everything has come our way in each of those categories.  In fact, I'm a bit worried that we've used up all our Foreign Service luck in that respect. 

I think I've made my point that I've loved it here. And that's why it's so sad to see that the time has come to close the doors on this experience and move forward.  And why I feel so guilty thinking that time is now my enemy, barely crawling by when I just want to get it over with and go. This is by far the hardest part of a Foreign Service life: the departures. Not the technical pain-in-the-butt stuff like pack-out and writing EERs, but the "it's not goodbye, it's see you later" when you're pretty sure it really is goodbye. 

So I'm just going to leave you with a really snappy song and video about our dusty, ole' city and a few pictures that I hope show this place off. It's not a beautiful city, but the soul of the place and the people here make it as warm as it is hot. Our Consul General, in giving a going away speech for a few of us, said that there are some posts worldwide that are "snakebit," meaning that no matter how lovely the setting - they're just full of bad juju that persists year after year. He didn't know what the opposite of that was to describe this consulate, sunkissed perhaps, but he's right.  Through all the tragedy the city and post have endured, the soul and spirit continues to welcome. I'm proud to have been a little part of it all.

With that...

Ciudad Juarez es Numero Uno! Just try to get this song out of your head afterwards. 

A blanket of lights on both sides of the border

Amazing skies and Juarez's mountains to the west.

Best sunsets!

The Equis (X) at the crossing of countries and cultures

La bandera grande, slowly waving in the sun rays
Thank you for everything my friends. It's time to head north.

Sunday, January 4, 2015

Oh the Glamour of Being a Diplomat

There is a cliche complaint in the Foreign Service world, but frequently cliches got their start in some good, old-fashioned truth:

Pack-out sucks.

There, I've said it. 

Yes, this also sounds like a true first-world complaint so if this doesn't garner any sympathy - I can understand that.  My goal in writing this is to offer warning to anyone thinking of joining the Foreign Service and imagining the glamorous life of a diplomat, dashing hither and yon around the world between cocktail parties and Serious Work.

Let me dash that image first and lower your expectations a tad.  Instead, imagine the life of a postal employee who has to reevaluate all their worldly possessions every two years, pack them up and move somewhere else. For this post, I'm going to get into the details of that last bit.

We're less than three weeks from leaving post. In this time frame we're expected to pack-out so that our belongings can clear customs while we're still here in the country, or something like that. Meanwhile we get to live out of the "welcome kit" for our final weeks (provided one has remembered to request it from the warehouse that is).  Some folks don't remember this and are left waving goodbye to the moving crew in a completely empty house. 

What all does pack-out entail? This year, it meant that for three solid days my husband and I have touched every single belonging of ours and had to designate each item one of to the following categories:

  1. Will never use again = give away to charity, friends, housekeeper, co-workers
  2. May use again, but not at the next post, maybe because of space restrictions in new housing, electricity changes in new country or wrong climate = long term storage
  3. Will use again, but not in the near future (ie holiday decorations, wrong-season clothing, camping gear etc...) = Household Effects aka HHE to arrive approx 3 months after arrival at next post
  4. Will need to use within one month/shortly after arriving at training or at new post = Unaccompanied Air Baggage aka UAB, still takes about a month to arrive even though the "A" in the name seems to infer AIR travel to the destination
  5. Must use on a regular basis = stuff into luggage/car and hide from movers so they don't pack it into long-term storage by tragic accident
Each category now has to be moved into a separate physical space in our house so as not to get mixed up with the other categories.  The Tabbies and category five will be hiding in our bedroom while the swarm of bees moving crew goes about their work wrapping and boxing everything up tomorrow.  We've packed-out five times in fewer than four years now and so far have had only one broken tea tray (we glued it back together) and one plastic frame (we got a new one). Not a bad record, the credit going completely to the various moving crews who have done all the heavy lifting (pun intended). 

The Foreign Service hiring process should include evaluation on the elements of the pack-out process, which draw more on logistics and planning skills than anything else. It is not for the faint of heart, the pack-rat nor the procrastinators among us. Having pets or children only complicates matters, as it requires imagining exactly what arriving at wherever will look like, and what will be needed vs. what will be available. This year, we're heading to home leave first, so we need to plan for litter boxes, cat food bowls, climate-correct clothing, books, and other things to keep us occupied for one month.  And all that must fit into our car.

Arriving for training at the Foreign Service Institute, we have to have a supply of business-casual clothing for the Northern Virginia climate, plus paperwork and files for travel/ transfer orders and vouchers, Department ID badges that we haven't used in two years, and any language materials we may have picked up along the way. 

Arriving at post, we need fancy meet-the-Ambassador clothes, appropriate work clothes which will completely depend on your post and assignment and climate, extra photos for the obligatory country ID cards, PLUS the same lengthy list and quantity of survival equipment for pets and family members who will now be stuck alone in new house or apartment while we head off to work.  

ALL this needs to be completely planned in the few days before pack-out!

Now do you see why I'm complaining?  

In 24 hours the brunt of it all will be over for us and we will be enjoying the comforts of our scraped-bare home and the contents of the welcome kit.  The thoughtfully provided sugar bowl and creamer set will complement the cup of tea I will boil up in the single cooking pot. We can dish out fruit cocktail or sorbet from the small carved glass bowls offered for such occasions, but then we'll retire to bed under the single, fleece throw blanket and coverlet offered to warm us in our over-the-garage bedroom (ie no insulation) in January's sub-freezing temps. Ahh... I shouldn't fuss, the welcome kit did provide us with four of each plate, bowl and piece of silverware, cleaning tools, an ironing board and iron, and very thoughtfully, a TV and an ashtray for late nights of stress relief after the whole ordeal. 

To illustrate my little rant, I offer the following glimpses into our real-life example:

No, No! Not another pack-out and move! Wake me when it's all over.

Advice: Separate all items into UAB, HHE, Storage and Luggage.
This was our living room, now is our UAB room. Can you judge what 450 lbs looks like?

Just leave us a bit of space, please. It's a simple request.

For HHE. And why do we have so many pillows?

Last year's welcome kit sheets were turquoise zebra print. This year we're more muted with beige stripes, gray blanket and chocolate and strawberry pillow cases. Any guesses whose side of the bed is whose?

Saturday, December 27, 2014

Tabbies In Snow

Welcome to the end of the year from Juarez!
I haven't been able to write in a while as the last months here have been a slippery slide towards our inevitable departure. We're now in the final month, and in accordance with the "Life Cycle of a FS Assignment,"  we're visiting our favorite places for the last time, relishing the food we will have pangs for when we're thousands of miles away and are now facing the dreaded EER and pack-out time. 

But first... the holidays!

Christmas morning was simply gray, offering the perfect excuse to stay inside and not feel guilty at all about it. But the next day was quite a surprise; I'll let one of the Tabbies demonstrate what he found in the yard after breakfast:

Tabbies in Snow! First flakes we've seen in four years.
Snow in Juarez!  Big, slushy flakes that did not amuse Dodger as he quickly darted back inside the house, to be fluffed dry with the traditional "wet paws" towel that I haven't had to break out since about 2011 when we left the Pacific Northwest.  I can't say that the snow stuck on the lawn (it didn't), but it lightly frosted the mountains in the backdrop of El Paso/Juarez and made it feel like real winter. 

By the next afternoon the skies were already clearing and returning were the crisp winter sunshine and china-blue skies that are my favorite part of this region.  Here are a few more holiday scenes from our travels with visiting family:

Ciudad Juarez Municipal Palace and city Christmas Tree

Gate decoration at a lovely estancia near where we live. 

Church in Mesilla, NM old town plaza 

Organ Mountains outside of Las Cruces, NM under clearing winter skies

Showing family around the region was a nice way to run through our Favorite Last Places tour. But looming on Monday comes the heavy lifting of preparing for our pack-out just one more week away: 
What will we put into long-term storage? (Will we need garden tools in a Soviet-style apartment in Bucharest? Hmmm....) 
What will we need immediately that can fit in the car to drive to our home leave house? (It HAS to fit in the car, as we drive away two weeks after the packers leave.)  
What will we need at FSI, but not immediately? (Winter, spring and summer clothes, plus the first month of work clothing at our new post.) 
What does Goodwill get? (Really? But I love that sweater!) 
What does the housekeeper get? (Do you think she'd use a coffee grinder?) 
What can we pawn off on coworkers? (Anyone need large potted plants?) 

Ahhh... the decisions!  It's enough to make a minimalist of anyone.  We now eyeball any grocery store purchases with "Can we eat/drink/use all that within three weeks?" and we're not buying any green bananas or full gallons of milk. 

Besides the holidays, pack-out and getting sentimental about my "last times," the God of Stressful Things added an EER (annual employee review) that needs to be written (by three people), edited, fussed over, edited again, worried about, and finally, officially submitted before our last day arrives.  For all untenured officers, EERs are due on the anniversary of our arrival at post, which is also our departure date, making this last month extra stressful.   And then when we're tenured - the EER is due on April 15th - does that date ring a bell for anything else important on the annual To-Do List? Yeah, I don't know how that date got selected either.

So, that's what the final month at post is like.  Oh, and I should mention that they sent me on a last minute, two-week TDY to help out the Consulate in Guadalajara just before Christmas.  Sigh. 

Coming next: the final drive north. 

Saturday, November 22, 2014

Recon on Future Assignments?

Sub-title: Vacation to Argentina!

It would be nice if, as someone who has to move to a different country every two to three years for their work, I could deduct vacations scouting trips to new countries from our federal taxes.  Without too much stretching of the truth, I think a reasonable argument could be made for this expense: visiting the Embassy, the neighborhoods and typical housing, checking the transportation system, trying out the language, and seeing what the local economy is like are all truly job-related activities, no? 

Therefore under this pretext, my husband and I just returned from a purely job-related vacation week in Buenos Aires. It had absolutely nothing to do with the fact that we had enough frequent flier miles saved up to cash in on nearly-free plane tickets. Nope. And heading south of the equator in late November when we'd be stepping into early summer with jacaranda trees, gardenia bushes and rose gardens in full bloom under blue skies was also complete happenstance. 

Further, in my attempt to keep this blog related to life in the Foreign Service, it is now the appropriate time to mention something endemic among my colleagues: rampant travel. I don't know of any other profession where people pop off to Greece, Belize or Fiji "just because" for a week.  Is it because by nature we're the type of people who love foreign places (if not, we've made a grave career error)? Is it because we probably have A-100 classmates or former coworkers with spare bedrooms in travel magazine destinations? Are we returning to places where we served internships or studied abroad? Or are we just taking advantage of regional travel, "while we're here" at our current assignments? As with just about everything, I'm certain that the truth lies in all of the above. I've heard all these reasons from friends about their travels and one coworker recently popped off to Russia just to check it out before he had to bid on his next post. Quite a trip from northern Mexico, but he reports that at least now all his romantic notions of a Soviet life have been squashed. 

My husband and I tend to do weekend trips, mostly because of the Tabbies, and then save up our vacation time for one big trip every year or two, and this was it.  The rest of this posting will change tone and become more of a travelogue about Buenos Aires and environs. If you're considering a trip to South America, all I can say is don't miss Argentina!  So here you go:

First, find a little pied a terre in a great neighborhood. We always use Vacation Rental By Owner and have had only positive experiences with houses or apartments (knock wood) in a variety of countries.  This one was no exception and for about $100 less per night than a single hotel room, we got a cute apartment in the tony neighborhood of Recoleta.  Having an apartment means we can have a kitchen, which means we don't have to eat out three times a day and lets me pad down the hall in my jammies to brew my peppermint tea in something other than a hotel-room coffee pot, which no matter how much hot water you flush through it, still tastes like coffee. Also, having an apartment lets us experience what life in that city is like, instead of just being a tourist in a hotel.  Our apartment came with an owner who met us the morning we arrived, gave us great suggestions for places to visit, transportation, restaurants etc... and was willing to let us check in at 9 am and check out when we needed. Check it out here: Our Recoleta Apartment.  We'd go there again, for sure.

Stunning statues

View from our apartment

First impression of the city was that it was more like Paris or New York than any Latin American city I've ever visited. Admittedly, that is not a long list, but the difference was striking. Not only in the architecture, but in the faces of the "portenos" (Buenos Aires residents) who defend this fact by stating that they're NOT Latin, but completely European.  This makes for a great mixture of food, too, as the Italian influences are overt and the broad tree-lined avenues, parks and gardens made us feel like we were in France or London instead of just a stone's throw from Bolivia and the Amazon. The fashion is also so NOT Latina! And by that, I mean not super tight and sexy everything and spiked heels. Quite the contrary, Portenas are wearing chunky all-terrain platform shoes, flowery maxi dresses and loose tropical-print pants.  Frankly, it wasn't my style, but I had to give them props for not bowing to the torture of fashion, especially in such a cobbled and walkable city. Perhaps they are on to something (hint hint Colombia, Venezuela, Mexico)? 

I'd definitely wear that dress!

...But not with those shoes, popular as they are.

Our next step was to figure out the timing of meals in our new city.  My husband and I have spent many a vacation eating in empty restaurants and annoying waiters who want to leave/just arrived at work.  We were forewarned by our apartment owner that dinner starts at 10 pm, and to arrive before 9 pm would be *awkward.*  Further, if we wanted to go out to a club, we should plan to get there no earlier than 2 am (we didn't).  When asked directly, with unflinching eye contact on my behalf, Argentinians were unable to give me a clear answer as to just HOW everyone got up the next day to go to work if they finished dinner at 11:30 on a Tuesday night?! Stutter, blank look, "It's just what we do," was the best answer they could come up with.  Coming from a region that necessitates car-only movement, we were relieved to be in such a walking and taxi-friendly city and struck out in different directions each evening for dinner.  Arriving only minutes before 9 pm each night was accidentally a great strategy. We were seated right away and only had to endure the cold stares of locals as they arrived fashionably at 10 pm to find THEIR table taken by THOSE PEOPLE (emphasis added but not exaggerated).  On about the third night of eating at this hour, we noticed we were always and only in the company of senior citizens, and therefore were dining at the equivalent of the 4:30 pm "early bird special" seating. Ah well. 

Our favorite local restaurant Pichi Huasi, notice that it's before 9:30 as you can still get a table.

Because at 10:30 - this is what the other places look like.

Need flowers or a coffee at 11 pm - no problem!

Each day took us a different direction in either the city or the region. The first two days were over the weekend and demanded our attention to the various markets (of the antique, artisan and flea varieties) of Buenos Aires. In San Telmo, we found not just one city plaza, but one city plaza plus about ten linear miles of pedestrian-only streets crammed with vendors' stalls. To prepare a weekly market of this size certainly required an incredible amount of planning and set-up, even harder to imagine when you remember that everyone got home at 3:00 am the night before! There were impromptu bursts of tango (both the music and the dance), a zillion stalls selling mate (as in yerba mate) materials, an incredible selection of antiques from around the world, gaucho-inspired knick-knacks and art and roaming empanada and tarta salespeople.   

Antiques shopping in San Telmo

Mate mate everywhere and not a drop to drink

Market lunch stand for tartas and empanadas

Impromptu bursts of tango

There were also three day trips, each taking us to a destination completely different from the previous. First was to the town of Tigre and the  Paraná Delta, which is an area of islands and intersecting rivers (Plata, Saramiento to name the only two I recall - but there are a ton more) where people live either full-time or in weekend and summer homes. Transportation is purely via the water in boat taxis, ferries or private watercraft of all sizes and descriptions, including a darling water school bus we passed delivering the students to little docks where their parents met them and walked them home on island sidewalks to their stilt-raised homes. 

Tigre town boat station

Home, home on the Delta...

Water bus service for locals

Next was the UNESCO World Heritage site town of Colonia de Sacramento across the "river" and into Uruguay.  I say "river" in quotes because it looks too wide to be just a river, took us an hour in a high-speed catamaran to cross, and really feels more like an ocean inlet. But I guess technically it has been designated as a river by people who know these things, so I'll stick with that label.  We left from the port of Buenos Aires at noon, going through the official immigration process that required being stamped out of Argentina and, next-window-please, stamped into Uruguay on both ends of the trip.  Our return boat was scheduled to leave at 9:45 pm which concerned me as to how we'd pass so many hours wandering an old town and made me imagine napping on park benches to kill time. But as it turned out, we could have easily passed another few hours there. Between meandering cobbled lanes that were simply dripping with photo-opp charm (crumbling stone doorways, flowered windowsills, rambling roses on garden gates - OH MY!), the river shore beaches, the lighthouse, harbors, restaurants, wine stores, ancient double-spired churches, tiny touristy shops and gelatto stores - who could be in a hurry to leave? Okay, it would have sucked in the rain, but that's the only thing that would have put the damper on our day (or intestinal distress which frankly ruins anything).  And we got a glimpse into a very relaxed, socially-progressive and peaceful country that seems to fly under the political world radar, i.e. a great spot for a future assignment (Monte Video the capital is just a short bit away from Colonia and Buenos Aires). 

Town square shaded by brilliant jacaranda trees

Calle de Los Suspiros, Colonia de Sacramento

Rows of Colonia shops

Colonia town cathedral

Our final day on the southern continent was spent in the countryside at an estancia (rancho in Mexican Spanish, finca in Colombian Spanish).  We chose Estancia Dos Hermanos near San Antonio de Areco , the muy-gaucho town just outside of Buenos Aires. As a lifetime horseperson, I wanted to ride the llanos (plains) of Argentina and eat the famous grilled Argentine beef from the parilla, and we did.  It was a Thursday, so we got lucky and had the place to ourselves with our gaucho/guide Felipe, the owner Pancho and their driver/cook/guy Friday Andres who picked us up at our apartment and later deposited us in front of American Airlines for our late-night flight home.  We spent a day being far more pampered than we're accustomed to, from the door-to-door transportation, to the breakfast, lunch and tea that was served outside on the estancia lawn, to the nearly four hours in the sheepskin-covered saddle.  Felipe politely endured our (and by "our" I mean "my") endless questions: "And what bird is that? And is this tree native? And how many people come out to stay usually? And when is the rainy season? And is it usual for the horses to not need shoes here? And, and, and..."  as we rode across the meadows, hock-deep in daisies and other local flowers that I'm sure Felipe told me the names of.  We got to herd in the herd of horses at the end of the day, giving us the feeling of being somewhat useful, and my husband who hasn't ridden in a number of years was able to canter his horse "Laguna" easily across the fields.  While we were on our post-breakfast ride, Andres was busy preparing our not-for-the-faint-of-heart lunch of grilled beef ribs, beef and pork chorizo, salad, sweet potatoes, onions, sliced baguette, water or lemonade? beer or wine? tea or coffee? flan? After gorging ourselves shamelessly and unbuttoning our jeans a bit, we then napped in hammocks to the sound of very chatty wild parakeets for at least an hour. Then it was time to hop onto our horses again for the afternoon tour.  Once again, that Andres was up to his tricks, and upon returning from our ride and after trying to convince our horses that apples are indeed good horse treats (only one accepted), we had tea and fresh-made scones waiting for us.  We noticed that Felipe didn't partake in the scones, which was when Andres confessed that one of the estancia dogs "Truco" was "up to his tricks again" and had eaten all but two of the freshly-baked scones from the kitchen table. Although there were no witnesses, he was a repeat offender in baked-goods stealing and certainly guilty.  The owners kindly offered us an unoccupied guest cottage to shower in before tossing our bags into Andres' car and heading to the airport. It really couldn't have been a more lovely way to round out our Argentinian experience. 

Estancia Los Dos Hermanos

Parilla lunch!

You can stay at the estancia, too

Heading out

Final impressions? Argentina is an incredible country to visit of which we have only seen a wee corner.  Ditto Uruguay.  In keeping with the motivation for our trip, we'd gladly bid on a two or three year tour here and would recommend this itinerary as a vacation for anyone wanting a sample of South America. 

Saturday, November 1, 2014

Reaching Out: On a Mission in Mission Mexico

(A quick note before I start: my husband truly bristles to hear me, or anyone, use the phrase "reaching out" when the speaker really means that they are going to talk to, write to or in any other way CONTACT another person.  So just to tease him, I titled this posting as I did.)

I am a Consular Officer by cone, but my actual job is that of a Foreign Service Officer Generalist, which means we're all supposed to be able to wear any/many hats when needed.  Lately I've been wearing the Public Diplomacy hat as part of the Immigrant Visa Mexico Outreach team.  The team consists of three officers and two local staff members who divide into teams of two with the goal of visiting each consulate and the embassy in Mission Mexico.  There are ten in total, so this means lots of travelling for our little crew. 

All the immigrant visas (IV) for Mexico are processed in Ciudad Juarez.  The Embassy in Mexico City used to process a small slice of the IV pie, but as of very recently that is all being transferred to Juarez to be housed under one roof.  The other consulates and the Embassy, in terms of visas, process only non-immigrant (NIV) visas (for tourism, students, temporary workers etc...).  Therefore someone smart figured out that it would be great if people trained in the processing of IVs would familiarize the NIV staff throughout the country on the topic of IV and how to better respond to people who have immigrant visa-related questions.  Also, there are thousands of potential petitioners and applicants for immigrant visas here in Mexico, and so much misunderstanding about the complex process, therefore community outreach is more than just a good idea, it's really a necessity. 

So that's how I found myself on a couch next to the beautiful, young morning talk show hostess in her shorty-short dress, stilettos and long, Sofia Vegara hair in Merida, Mexico last week.  And on air with Senor Suave the mustachioed veteran radio and TV host in Tijuana last month. And in front of an indigenous community group serving the Mayan population of the Yucatan. And typing as fast as we could to answer the questions pouring in via a couple of live Facebook chats.  

It's all in the name of reaching out, errrr, contacting people who want to learn about the immigrant visa process, the process in which people can enter the US lawfully and apply to become Legal Permanent Residents.  As Mexico (namely Juarez) processes approximately 19-20% of the world's immigrant visas, there is a big crowd of people who want to learn more about the topic.  

With less than three months to go before we leave post, I feel I'm finally becoming more fluent in the topic and am ready to take on new challenges. Trust me, being on-camera live was a VERY new challenge. I have new-found appreciation for how talk show or radio hosts can really make a guest feel comfortable (or the opposite), how they can make smooth transitions between questions and responses on topics they previously knew nothing about (from "how to make the best banana bread!" yesterday to "how to petition for your wife and kids to come to the US!" today) and can help their guests deliver the desired message. We got lucky with some very good hosts, which helps build confidence poco a poco.

I think we did a decent job; at least there were no questions about US involvement in Middle East conflicts (or any similar nightmare) like we were trained to handle during the "Composure Under Fire" portion of A-100. I know I made grammatical errors in my Spanish (oh, yeah, did I mention this was all in Spanish? Just adds to the fun, right?) and I wished I could have rephrased quite a few answers given a Groundhog Day opportunity to do it over again, but no international incidents were caused and perhaps we even helped a few folks. 

Live! Coming to another Mexican border city near you - your immigrant visa outreach crew!

Sunday, September 14, 2014

The Life Cycle of a Foreign Service Posting

Just the other night, my husband and I were sitting outside in our back yard, no doubt I was chatting about the weather and probably he was sipping a beer and listening, and I commented on how the feeling of fall was in the air already.  Although it's still warm here, even hot in relation to other parts of the country, there's a distinct feeling of a different sort of warmth, a different angle to the sunlight and a different smell in the air that says "winding down" instead of "heating up."  The roses are looking tired instead of ostentatious; the trees are starting to drop their leaves and some days even start out overcast - which would never happen in April, May or June.  I notice fewer hummingbirds zipping by and I half-expect to see our cardinal friend return to over-winter with us. 

All this reminds me that time is passing and that we won't see another summer in Juarez. We've had the last of our 108 degree days.  This then causes me to think about the life cycle of a Foreign Service posting in general, because like the seasons or like a real lifetime, it has a distinct pattern to it.

It all starts with Flag Day for a first tour, or the day an assignment is confirmed via email for all subsequent postings.  I equate this to the day one learns about a pregnancy: some people are jubilant, some are scared, some are taken by surprise, and some have been working to make this come true for years.  Either way, knowing one's assignment is an equal mix of excitement and trepidation - especially the first time, much like knowing that a baby coming.  

Then, also like a pregnancy, there are months and months of preparation before the big day arrives. In the FS, we call this language training, and it often comes with as much anxiety and morning sickness as having baby on board.  During this time, especially if you're assigned to a "consumables-allowed" post, you'll start buying copious amounts of things in preparation for the move/birth and preparing the pets and other kids for How Life Is Going To Change. (Consumables are the hundreds of pounds of STUFF that you can pre-buy because you won't be able to find it where you're going - like Kraft Mac-n-Cheese, toilet paper that isn't waxed, laundry detergent, ibuprofen etc...) And if you happen to really be pregnant AND going off to a consumable post - you'll have to estimate how many diapers an infant will use in the next six months.  Just in case, I recommend tossing in a few extra. But I digress.

About a week or two prior to departure/delivery day comes pack-out. This is the day(s) when the movers come to take away all your worldly possessions and leave you sleeping on an air mattress or on your sister's couch.  In keeping with my pregnancy analogy, hopefully you won't be on someone's couch, but perhaps you will be packing your go-bag for the hospital. 

D-Day: Departure
Tears, well wishes and a taxi to the airport/hospital.  The cats say, "I knew it!" in the realization that they were right about the bad omen they felt when their beds and scratcher were packed up by those bad men. The other kids are left with a sitter.

The most exciting day when you finally get to see what your new city, and more important, what your housing assignment is like.  Or, the day when you look into the little one's eyes for the first time. 10 fingers and toes and does she/he look like you or your spouse equates to: How many bathrooms? Closet space? Is there a yard or a balcony? What about air conditioning?  These can be make-or-break issues to a happy assignment (but I think you're supposed to love the kid regardless of how it comes out). 

First Day at Work
Absolutely no different than your first day in kindergarten.  Someone takes you in to work/walks you to the school bus; you don't know your way around; you're nervous; you hope your boss/teacher/the other kids are nice; you don't know when or where you're supposed to have lunch; and you hope you picked out the right outfit.  

First Month at Work
You're going through training and are starting to figure out what's expected of you.  
With luck you have a good teacher/trainer and the other kids are still nice.  You know your way to the cafeteria and bathroom by now. You know your way home or which shuttle to get on, but still get lost trying to find the front office/principal's office and do so with equal amounts of trepidation.  You're eager and you want to meet new friends and you're starting to figure out which kids you like to hang out with. 

Month Three
Like the start of sixth grade, you know your way around the playground and your friends and life outside of work/school are becoming more important.  Now comes the beginning of the awkward adolescence where you want to prove yourself as capable, and are starting to take on more responsibilities, but are still just the new kid. You want to be included in all the after school/work activities, and in fact probably feel pretty slighted on Monday when you see on Facebook that there was some fun party or weekend outing that you didn't get invited to, but you're also beginning to gravitate towards a like-minded set of friends.  Even though my husband and I generally have little interest in the whoop-it-up parties that last until 0300 that our 20-something coworkers put together, we still want at least to be invited, to be thought of as someone they'd like to have present.  In the early months, not being included stings, whether or not you wanted to go. 

Month Six
You've made it to high school! But this time offers a mix of confidence and that awkwardness as you cross from being the senior "new kid" to the junior "she/he has been here long enough to know better" employee.  About this time you're feeling more secure with your responsibilities, maybe are even ready to lend a hand to those who arrived after you. Perhaps you're considering volunteering for a new assignment, like a rotation into a different section or a TDY?  You have a routine of favorite restaurants, bars and neighborhoods in your still-new city and are seeing the seasons come and go for the first time.  This is the period of enough confidence to make you feel good, but yet still the newness enough to not be bored or jaded. 

The One Year Anniversary
Top of your game! You're fluent, proficient, have seen everything once and calmly work your way through new challenges.  In real life, this could be your senior year in college. While you're still full of energy and enthusiasm for what you're doing now, the turn of the one-year mark changes the mental calendar from one of counting up, to one of counting down.  You're playing the back nine now.  You're getting your first annual employee review/college degree, and there is still a lot of time left to really spread your wings, to make your mark, to figure out what you'll be remembered for. People come to you for advice now and you're already looking ahead and are bidding on your next assignment. 

Month 18
Mid-career professional now, you're well-established and know your strengths and weaknesses.  You have a strong set of friends and are no longer bothered by not being invited out by those you may not have really had that much in common with anyway. And it's okay like that.  Your reputation is already set and nothing short of sparking an international incident or initiating a productive peace dialog between warring nations will really change that reputation.  You know where you're going next and are taking leadership roles in your current position.  All is good. 

Month 21
Okay, now you're getting tired and it's time for retirement.  You're checking off all those places you wanted to visit from your bucket/before we leave this continent list and frankly, already have one foot out the door. Sure, you're still healthy and all, but your work ethic may be slipping a bit, or just propped up by the knowledge that you still want a good final annual review/chance to get into heaven. 

Month 23
People start suggesting that you all get together for one last time to see that favorite place or eat at that great restaurant "before you go."  Your best friends are also leaving one by one and are being replaced by bright, shiny new faces that you just don't seem to have as much energy to be excited about anymore. After all, you're not going to be around long enough to really know them anyway, so maybe your good manners slip some and the real you comes out more than before.  Every day is casual Friday.

Month 23 and Two Weeks
Day by day, you're just going through the motions until the day comes when they finally come pack up all your stuff.  You're living in the borrowed "welcome kit" of household items that aren't yours; your house isn't the same and the kids and pets are getting that sinking feeling again.  Nobody expects anything of you at work except that you leave your affairs in order.  Basically, you're in hospice now and just waiting.  

Departure Day
One final sad set of goodbyes and tears.  Last hugs with whichever close friends are still around, and promises that this isn't really goodbye, but rather see you later.  You take one last look around, close the door and give back the keys/your Blackberry.  
Your work here is done and it's time for the long journey home. 

Reincarnation (For those who believe in this sort of thing.)
WooHoo! Now you're on your one month vacation called Home Leave/heaven where you are briefly reunited with all the friends and family you can manage before heading back to FSI to start all over again. 

Scroll to top of page and repeat.

And the cycle repeats itself as we move through the larger cycle that is a life itself in a Foreign Service career.

Enjoy it.