Sunday, September 23, 2018

Seven Years of Life

The other day I came home in a particularly stressed out, bad mood - blaming it 100% on my job. I'd spent the day going from meeting to meeting, talking about this project charter, and that working group, and hearing colleagues talk of "socializing ideas" with their supervisors for new projects that would inevitably just lead to more meetings. Taking one step sideways and three steps back.  The weeks lately have been devoid of that satisfactory feeling of taking something - anything! - from start to finish. Instead, it seems like I'm just spinning more and more plates. In short, I was pissy and longing for a job where I could just weed a pea patch somewhere for the next few years. I even spent the 35-minute bus ride home responding to emails on my work phone instead of reading the escapist novel I look forward to at the start and end of each day.   

Wah wah wah. 

That's the person I was when I arrived home.  What I wasn't expecting was that my husband would have dinner nearly in the oven, a favorite CD playing, and our digital photo frame on and flipping through the years of our lives, playing backdrop to the perfectly-set dining table. 

I decided not to be the grumpy bureaucrat and enjoy the evening instead. 
(But it was a hard decision.)

The following is how the night unfurled:  

After making our typical dinner table conversation about what we'd heard on NPR recently or how Paul Simon was one of our generation's best song writers - I turned my attention to the photo slide show playing on the sideboard.  We'd uploaded it with seven years' worth of photographs recently and it was displaying the pictures in a completely random order.

I started a game of "Can you remember where this photo was taken?" which got my husband to turn his chair around to face the screen and join in. As our normal dinner table is just the coffee table between the couch and TV at 7:30 when Jeopardy airs - this was a nice change of pace.  

It went something like this:

"Ooh - this was Bogota, our first Christmas when we realized that Colombia didn't do natural Christmas trees and the fake ones were too expensive and so we bought a landscape bush from the garden shop."  
"And decorated it!", topping it with the paper angel my step-daughter made years ago. We thumb-tacked a string of cardboard ornaments to the wall and called it our arbusto de navidad (Christmas bush).

Another glimpse of Christmas, this one from 2016 when we traveled to the far northern reaches of Romania, along the Ukraine border to see the traditional winter festival in the town of Sighetu Marmaţiei.  The colors of this rug covering the front steps of a modest farm house caught my eye as we drove by and I asked my husband to pull off the road so I could snap a picture.  This gorgeous cat, sitting on its own piece of carpet, seemed perfectly suited to the snowy landscape, its fluffy tail curled around its front paws to stay warm.  Seeing these rugs relegated to outdoor use made me imagine how beautiful the good rugs inside the house must be.

"Oh, this was last summer, on the Eastern Shore of Maryland for our home leave. Chestertown - down at the neighborhood beach at sunset, and you with your pipe."
This one was pretty obvious to guess, and it took me right back to that confusing time where I was equal parts sad and stubborn about leaving Romania and excited to be "home" in an American summer time.  Happy to be back; sad that only one Tabby, Toby, had made it with us. Shocked at the price of things; relieved to see familiar sights.

"Too easy! Juarez as viewed from El Paso."  
True - and I remember the exact evening I took this photograph.  It was our first night in El Paso, staying at a interstate motel, upon seeing the blanket of lights below that would be our new home city for the next two years: Ciudad Juarez.  I can't say we were afraid to be crossing over the next day; it felt more like a badge of honor that we were going to live and work in this most feared city the very next day.  Turns out, we had an incredible two years in the dusty, wind-blown y muy fea city that made all the headlines for its violence. Instead, we found only friendship and kindness from everyone we met.  You can see the border here illuminated by the bright white lights following the course of the dry Rio Grande river bed and the big fence they call the border wall. To the left = El Paso, to the right = Juarez and all the "scariness" that we never saw.

"That little bastard! He was biting me!"
I'm sorry, but I still laugh seeing these pictures taken of my husband on his trip to Leticia, deep into the tri-border area between Colombia, Peru and Brazil.  His guide had taken him to meet some friends and this was one of their adolescent monkeys who was quite the nippy little bugger, circling my husband's legs as he tried to swat him away and the onlookers laughing.  Still wish I could've seen this one first hand. 
Sorry honey, but it's pretty damn funny.  

"That little village we found on the island of Milos in Greece. What was it called again?"
We took this trip for my Big-eth birthday to an island we'd never even heard of before.  We'd taken a day-long boat trip around the island on our first day which gave us great ideas of where we wanted to return by car later.  This village of Klima broke out of the usual white-with-blue scheme that is so typical in the Cyclades.  Many of the colored doorways along the narrow sidewalk were open to catch the sea breezes off the small harbor, giving us a glimpse into daily life in Klima that we would've missed being seen only from the passing boat. 

"I think this is my favorite picture of Dodger: a ole' cat in his basket."  
I took it in Juarez, in a pool of omnipresent sunlight that streamed through our screened and barred garden doors to illuminate his face.  He was so regal, so happy living there where his bones were warmed by the desert heat. The kitties loved our garden, too, with its 10 foot stone walls enclosing the yard and keeping them safe from everything but the sunlight, hot winds and a few dozen doves who visited our bird feeder to fill up on seed and torment three old cats. 

"That village on the road between Sibiu and Sighişoara!" 
This one wasn't too hard to guess; the Romanian interior of Transylvania still looks like the 1800s.  Or the 1700s.  We'd headed into the rolling hills in early spring, hence the freshly blooming trees, and stumbled upon this tiny town.  Actually, we'd pulled off the "highway" (one lane each way) to find some castle ruins and from that purview, spied this postcard village beneath.  I didn't even notice the guy repairing the church steeple until after I'd snapped the picture.  Totally spontaneous, it became one of my happiest and most content days in Romania. I'm surprised still we're not there. 

"Aguirre Spring, New Mexico!"
I'll never forget experiencing this sunrise one morning as we camped outside of Las Cruces, New Mexico.  I woke up well before my husband to catch the sunrise over the flat horizon of the White Sands Missile Range to our east and was not disappointed. Sitting in the still-fresh morning air, I watched the sun change the sky from pitch black with just a small orange ball on the horizon, to the flaming waves seen here.  Behind me, these colors were reflected on the craggy peaks of the Organ Mountains, highlighting the dark shadows of the rocky outcroppings with a brandy-colored glow. 

"Cartagena! The fruit lady in the walled old city."
This was taken when I was sent as part of the Embassy team to assist with the 2012 Summit of the Americas, hosted by Colombia.  If I go back to Cartagena, and I'd love to, it will never be the same as it was that week.  Because 45 presidents, ministers and prime ministers from nearly all the countries in the western hemisphere were in attendance (including our own President and Secretary of State), and security had closed off the entire walled city to allow only credentialed guests and employees in. The city police even moved all "undesireables" outside the walls... for just a few days. But street vendors remained, and I loved seeing this fruit basket woman.  I'm pretty sure she made more in selling photo ops with her wide smile and floral skirt than with the actual cut fruit. 

Nothing says Virginia to me more than a cardinal in full color plumage. I remember spotting him in Falls Church when we had a late-season snow day in March 2015 that cancelled FSI classes.  My husband and I trudged through the small woods near our temporary apartment, savoring the silence that comes with a good few inches of snow dampening the urban noise.  

Naturally, not all the photographs were that easy to figure out, and some brought back no memory at all.  Take this one for example: 

Yeah, clearly it's water at a beach somewhere... but that's as far as I could figure. 
I'll just imagine we were having fun. 

These days it is far too easy to get caught up in the drama that is the 24-hour BREAKING NEWS cycle, the politics, the often nonsensical bureaucracy, the stress of everything we do being VERY IMPORTANT so don't mess it up! combined with the lack of time or training to actually do it correctly. ("You're a Foreign Service Officer; we hired you for your judgement. Figure it out!" comes to mind.)

There's the waiting and wondering about what the next job, boss, language, or country will be like, and lack full control over one's life.  Trust me, it's very easy to start romanticizing a stable home with a garden to tend and a few favorite restaurants to visit with friends or family on the weekends.  Home improvement projects! Watching the seasons (the same set of seasons) pass in their proper order! Not having to hem and haw, unsure of how to respond, when someone asks, "So where are you all from?"  

However, seeing these glimpses of the past seven years of our lives revitalized an (withering) appreciation for my job and its inseparable lifestyle.  Because if we'd chosen not to get on this carousel seven years ago - I wouldn't know what New Year's Eve in Colombia looked like or that you're supposed to eat twelve grapes, walk around the block carrying your suitcase and wearing yellow underwear at midnight. 

I wouldn't know that Romanians are crazy for pickling and make their own wine from the grape vines that keep their arbored gardens cool during the long, hot Bucharest summer. 

And I certainly wouldn't have known the incredible pleasure of biting into a Crisostomo burrito while sitting on a dusty road-side picnic bench in downtown Juarez. 

Sure, had we stayed put in 2011, those seven years would have been filled with other memories - no doubt many of them wonderful. But for the time being, I guess I'm still okay with a few more years on this merry-go-round.  It's just good to look around and appreciate why we're doing it once in a while. 

Saturday, September 08, 2018

31 Days in Buenos Aires: The Story of a TDY

The following recounts a month spent in Buenos Aires on TDY (Temporary Duty) as a visa adjudicator.  Posts worldwide often put out the call for assistance to Consular Affairs - usually during the summer transfer and vacation season - and consular employees are dispatched to help fill the gaps.  While my colleagues were assigned to India in the wretchedly hot summer months, I was assigned to Buenos Aires, Argentina in July, i.e. their January.  I still think I got the better deal, climatically speaking. This is what it looked like:

Day 1
Recoleta  Cemetery Recollections 

Nearly four years ago, my husband and I visited Buenos Aires for the first time.  Part of our explorations brought us to the famous Recoleta Cemetery (eternal home of Eva "Evita" Perrone) where we saw more than just tombs and memorials.  We also met cats.  One cat in particular was exceptionally friendly.

Today I returned to Recoleta with a friend now assigned to the embassy here.  I remembered the spot where the kitty was, sat down, and over he came.  He didn't even seem upset at having to wait so long to see me again.

Day 4
Making a Tea Connection

A few blocks from my hotel is The Tea Connection, a restaurant/tea emporium with recycled wood floors and wall paneling, an encyclopedic menu of teas and corresponding selection of Asian tea pots and mugs for sale, a cozy loft and a wonderful menu of healthy, nothing-artificial foods. With the Beatles' "Rubber Soul" playing in the background, I ordered a broccoli and brie "tarta" which is like a quiche, side salad and glass of Malbec.  As the waiter pours and pours the Malbec into the large tulip glass, I suddenly realize he's waiting for me to say "when!" and so I do just before he reaches the lip of the glass.  I look around the three cozy dining areas, including the loft above me, and see teens chatting over their individual pots of tea, and a solo woman reading, pen in hand, marking the pages as she goes. Maybe a teacher or maybe she's preparing for a meeting tomorrow? In the next room are two middle-aged men deep in discussion about something intelligent-seeming, and behind me are two couples in their (at least!) 70's enjoying a few beers and conversation. Seeing all this reminds me to not hurry, even though it's already nearly 8:30, and to take a breath between bites and sips and enjoy the life unfolding around me.  The restaurant motto posted on the back of the register is #MejorConSonrisa - "Better with a Smile" and I couldn't agree more. 

Day 5 Rear Window

My hotel is in the heart of the neighborhood Palermo, surrounded by multi-story apartment buildings. Please, don't think me creepy when I say, "Who needs telenovelas when you have neighbor-vision?"  After less than a week, I already feel I know the woman who lets her big yellow lap sleep on the couch, the family who fries up burgers at 10:00 pm, the couple with the big tabby who has its own round ottoman, and the woman in pink sweatpants who still can't get her pilot light to ignite.  
I might just miss them when I leave.

Day 6 Subte Surprise

The Subte is Buenos Aires' metro, short for "subterráneo" and I hopped on today to get across town.  It was a nice surprise to see each of the stations beautifully tiled in patterns, murals or mosaics.  

Day 8 - Family Dinner

My new favorite pasta place across the street from the hotel apparently doesn't even open for dinner until 8:00 pm on weekends, so when my hunger hit at 7:40 - I ended up at a new spot a block away.  I took a cozy back-room table and shortly thereafter was joined by two families at one long table: four parents and (count 'em) seven children between the ages of two and nine. 
I gotta' say... they behaved themselves quite well, chatting and playing with each other, even without any mobile devices to distract. When their plates of spaghetti and chicken milanese arrived, the sound of forks and knives rapidly slicing and dicing their dinners erupted as the mothers got to work prepping the food for the little ones.  And then... to my astonishment, ALL the kids fed themselves as the parents resumed their adult conversations at the other end of the table.  My favorite chica was the dark, curly-haried Lourdes, who at probably 3 years old, already has developed a penchant for spaghetti with parm.  Lots of parm, which she first spooned generously onto her pasta, and later just ate straight from the bowl.  Go Lourdes!

Day 8 - How You Can Tell You're Not in North America Anymore

When these are the birds in the park...

...and this is a tree...

...and this is a bush.

Day 14: San Telmo

There's nowhere as vibrantly full of activity and life as the neighborhood of San Telmo, with its weekend market taking over the streets and daily indoor market with stalls selling everything from toilet brushes to antique brooches and a nice lunch to boot (and some nice boots!). 

Street performer demonstrating a very windy day :-)

Day 15 La Rural!

Every July, Argentina's agricultural industry leaves their fertile plains (pampas) to gather in downtown Buenos Aires in the county fair to end all county fairs.  It's two weeks of gauchopalooza packed with animal judging, harvester selling, 4x4 testing, choripan eating, mate sipping and deal making between farmers, ranchers, equipment producers and artisans from not only Argentina, but all other continents as well.  It showcases the unique flavor of Argentina and it can't be understated: La Rural is a really big deal.  And fortunately for me - it's held directly alongside the Embassy. Here's what I saw:

Day 16 Bird Watching in Buenos Aires

While looking for fun things to do in close by that would get me outside instead of only shopping and eating - I stumbled onto the website BirdingBuenosAires offering bird watching tours within urban Buenos Aires and the surrounds.  I chose a full-day tour on a crisp Saturday with the completely bilingual and incredibly knowledgeable Marcelo, the business owner and sole guide (and really interesting and fun guy), including a picnic lunch and door-to-door pick-up. He brought a spotting scope and extra binoculars and we set out to Costanera Sur and Vicente Lopez ecologic reserves along the Rio Plata that forms Buenos Aires' northeastern coastline. Marcelo showed me at least two dozen new species of birds and taught me how to take pictures through his spotting scope.  
Here is a bit of what we saw:

We saw more than just birds. This mustachioed gentleman is a nutria.

Day-20-22 Iguazu Falls

In the far northern tri-border region between Argentina, Paraguay and Brazil is the world's largest waterfall system, with multiple falls ranging in height from 197 - 269 feet.  To celebrate a significant wedding anniversary, my husband made the long flight south to join me in Buenos Aires for a week including a weekend visiting Iguazu Falls.  While they can (and should) be viewed from both the Argentine and Brazilian sides, we chose to stay in Puerto Iguazu in Argentina. This small town is devoted to supporting tourists from all over the world with an airport, lodging from hostels to 5-star resorts and the Iguazu National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. 

The walkways in the National Park take you RIGHT OVER the lips of the falls.

The mischievous and naughty coati.

Capuchin monkeys galore!

Day 26 Walking Home from Work When a Parade Breaks Out Around You

We've all seen horses in parades, and military in parades, and bands in parades, but walking home from work one day, suddenly all three combined and passed by.  Just 'cause.

Beats me how they play AND control their horses!
A singing-along kind of horse.

Day 31: Time to Go Home

After a month of adjudicating over 2200 visas, getting to know a section full of new friends, learning something about the country, the politics, the food, the natural beauty and their quirky version of Spanish (Castellano) - it's time to go home. Back to a hot and steamy Virginia summer. Back to my regular life and job already in progress. This month has been a pleasant detour - both culturally and climatically - and I had to regularly remind myself that this wasn't my new tour; I still had a job to take care of elsewhere. However, Buenos Aires will be included on my bid list in the coming weeks, so who knows - maybe this expedition will prove to be the ultimate try-out (them of me and vice-versa) for our next assignment?  Until then, I just have to follow the signs and head north: