Sunday, December 22, 2013

Winter Coats and Sunglasses: It's Christmastime in Juarez!

Now that the excitement of getting our new assignment has quieted down, it's back to focusing on life in the present instead of the future. 

Speaking of presents: it's Christmastime in the borderlands! 
While Juarez can't compete with Bogota's lighted wonderland of city parks with their fake snow machines and nightime bike riding on the cyclovia, Mexico does have some awesome traditions that we've been learning about.

Two weeks ago it started with our first posada, which is like the Colombian novena where people gather with friends and family in the evenings during the weeks leading up to Christmas.  Two weeks ago we went to our first posada, invited by a neat guy who works in the Consulate's warehouse.  He gave us rather vague directions involving going to a particular landmark bar where nearby we'd see a road and a private house. After a half-dozen u-turns on a busy avenue, looking for the nondescript road and private house, we finally called him and were directed down a scary, dark, narrow dirt lane that dead-ended in a dirt parking area in front of a cluster of tiny houses and the posada well underway.  It was a terribly cold night, so there were bonfires going from trash barrels and people warming up in the small three-room house in front of huge pots of pozole.  Pozole is a spicy soup made of broth with hunks of pork and/or chicken stewing away with hominy and then garnished to taste with fresh lime juice, sliced radishes and chopped onion. It was delicious!  After having our fill of pozole, we went outside into the dirt lane to see our host's family perform as dancing matachines.  You can take a quick look at this link, or just picture what looks like a Native American dance, complete with dancers of all ages and both genders in headdresses, beaded and fringed pants and skirts and a nearly trance-like devotion by the dancers to keep up with the rhythm of the heavy drum section.  The Mexican twist is that it's done in devotion to the Virgin de Guadalupe in a representation of paganism vs. Christianity.  El mal (evil) was represented by what looked like a guy dressed in a Halloween hobo costume who is apparently defeated by good in the end - no big surprise there.  Three families of matachines came in one after another, and after watching for nearly an hour, the drumming and dancing still hadn't missed a beat. The cold finally got to us and we left with the festivities still in full swing.

The next night, our neighborhood had its third and final party of the year in the park in front of our house.  Besides pozole, tamales are also Mexican Christmas traditions and there was a huge table full of trays of red, green and sweet tamales.  It seems that many Latin American countries claim to have the first, the best, or the only kind of tamales and we certainly saw the Colombian version wrapped in banana leaves with whole hunks (sometimes with bones) of chicken.  But here we have a version that is more familiar to me, wrapped in corn husks and full of shredded beef. There are red and green ones depending on the chiles used, and the sweet ones were stuffed with raisins and some kind of sweet-tart filling.  After the eating came the music until the early hours of the morning. We were warm in bed by that time and only catching strains of karaoke drifting from across the street.  

Finally we had our own Second Annual "Why did I put THAT in my HHE?" white elephant gift exchange with a big group of friends and coworkers. HHE = household effects, i.e. the stuff that we start dragging around the world, growing in size like a snowball through the years. Our first party was in Bogota, and we had such a fun time we decided to do it again.  People really got into the spirit of getting rid of things they'd been packing around for a while, including among many other things: a 3-foot hookah from Tunisia, many small kitchen appliances that seemed useful at the time, a much-coveted set of Super Hero glasses, a 4-DVD set of the Andy Griffith Show (now on our shelf), a 2004 DreamWeaver user's manual, a bird feeder and pounds of bird seed (which were actually from different people, but married up in the end) and a 10-pound stone molcajete (guacamole grinder) - among other things.  My husband made pots of Mexican hot chocolate and mulled wine and we shared plates of Christmas cookies and a giant San Francisco sourdough loaf of bread shaped like a snowman.   There was lots of cheering each other on in stealing presents and I think we've started a tradition to carry on to our future posts. 

Meanwhile, it's crisp and cold outside and our garden has gone dormant with the last leaves of our pretty umbrella trees finally hitting the ground. We have a gorgeous red male cardinal visiting us and about eight ring-neck doves fluffed up to keep warm in the garden each morning


Next week will be our first Christmas in Mexico.
Feliz Navidad everyone!

Sunday, December 8, 2013

Flag Day - Part Three!

I'm not sure if I can officially call this a "Flag Day" as there were really no flags, no ceremony, no auditorium, and no family watching and holding their breath. But to me receiving an onward assignment will always be Flag Day, and is probably in the top three reasons why I joined the Foreign Service to begin with: the thrill of wondering, waiting, imagining and finally knowing where the adventure will take us next.

On Monday we hadn't heard any news. That's to be expected after a long holiday weekend, we all said. "We all" refers to the eight other winter bidders with me here in Juarez.  When Tuesday morning rolled around, we'd already deflated our expectations of hearing until maybe Wednesday and were back to concentrating only on our interviews.  Until 10:00 a.m., that is. I don't know how Washington does it, but the CDOs (Career Development Officers) have some magical way of simultaneously sending hundred(s) of individual assignment emails.  They don't send the messages one at a time, or in one message with a long list that one has to frantically scroll and scan through.  Instead, in the same instant we all get our personal messages. I had already planned with my husband that as soon as I saw the message from my CDO come into the inbox, I would forward it to him and then walk over to his section where we could open it together.  Luckily I had just finished an interview and was about to pick a new case up when I saw the message arrive. I opened my Outlook to send it to my husband and in the process, my eyes dropped to the one single line at the top of the message announcing our new assignment.  I gasped (just a little), smiled, and then leaned back in my chair to see my coworker at the next window with the same little smile. Very quietly (we're the only two winter bidders in our interviewing section) we gave each other our news and a hug. 

I then went to find my husband to read the message with him.  Unfortunately, I found him rushing to get to a meeting, so I just had to tell him in one word that, guess what honey, we're going to....

BUCHAREST!
I'm super excited about it!  It was our number two and three choice (there were more than one position in Bucharest on our bid list), so I must admit it wasn't a total shocker as I felt I'd stacked the deck heavily in that direction.  But one never knows until the know, and so I also had images of us getting a really low bid and going somewhere we really kinda' would rather not go.  It happens all the time; in the Foreign Service we're all taught just to not believe something until you have your travel orders, or better yet, are actually AT your new post.  In fact, the ink won't dry on the assignments for a few months yet, as a panel has to meet to grant the positions. This is what gives the employee their official notification. But chances are more than good that it will stick. Things that come up to change it could be that the person I'm due to replace suddenly curtails and the new post doesn't want to wait for my arrival. Or the post decides to cut that position, or to change the position to a higher/lower level that doesn't match my level. That stuff happens all the time, so we just learn from the start not to count any chickens.

But still... I'm excited. I will be a Consular Officer again for the full two years and I will have to/get to learn Romanian to a 3/3 level in speaking and reading. That's the same level I have now in Spanish. Of course, I came to FSI with three years of high school Spanish still rattling around in my memory. Even without this prior experience, being in the US just about everyone should have some familiarity with Spanish from reading packaging, going on Mexican vacations, watching Sabado Gigante now and again on TV etc... But Romanian? Yeah, Nadia Comaneci is the extent of my knowledge on the subject of the Romanian language and I'm pretty sure it's a proper name, not a verb conjugation. 

Part of our bidding strategy was to learn a new multi-country language, and preferably a "world language" like French, Russian or Portuguese that could be useful in a long list of interesting countries. But our list, once whittled down for timing, spousal work options, cat travel etc... offered us lots of really cool places with lots of, shall we say, "boutique" languages that would carry us to only one post. Now that the doing is done, I can tell you that we also bid high on positions in Vietnam, Thailand and Japan which would have given us a new language, albeit a super hard one. As much as I was thinking how awesome it would be to live in one of those places, I'm secretly relieved I don't have to learn a tonal language. My Vietnamese-speaking friend told me, "Oh don't worry, speaking Vietnamese is like singing, just practice Karaoke!"  Right. In finding something similar that I have zero talent for, she may as well have said, "Oh, it's just like flying a jet. Or free climbing Half Dome. Or salsa dancing!"

Our number one and four spots were Casablanca, Morocco and Montreal, Canada specifically for the opportunity to learn French, a language in which my husband already has a strong base. Bucharest ended up in spots number two and three because we figured, hopefully, that at least Romanian is one of the five Romance languages and therefore would be more familiar  to us than say Bulgarian, Serbo-Croatian or Hungarian - all options also high on our list. And although I've never been there, I'm told it's a beautiful country where we'll have four true seasons, amazing mountain scenery (my favorite), inexpensive living, super regional travel opportunities and the Black Sea coast just a few hours' drive away.  It's a medium-sized Embassy and with what I'd call a "healthy-sized" Consular Section. It's going to be great. I will leave you with a few nice pictures of Romania, all shamelessly copied from Google images. Thank you nice people in internetlandia for sharing these with us.

Yup, there's an Arcul de Triumf there, too. (There's also one in Juarez, btw)

What's Europe without a fairy tale castle or two?

One of the world's largest buildings

Northern Romanian countryside

And a handy map for those of you too embarrassed to ask where Romania is.

PS The Tabbies were a bit upset to learn that they will be "pisici" (or "pisica" in singular). They think that looks too much like "swimming pool" in French. They hate swimming pools.

PPS We were a bit disappointed to see that our new flag for our collection looks too much like our last flag.  We'll let you all be the judge. Do you know which is Colombia and which is Romania? No fair scrolling up to compare.