Friday, November 22, 2019

Mid-Level Manager: Consular

That's me now, a mid-level consular manager.  The title doesn't inspire much awe, does it? In fact, it sounds downright cog-in-a-wheel-ish. 

I'll start by backing up a bit.  I actually became a mid-level officer in 2017 upon leaving Bucharest and starting my Washington assignment.  Mid-level describes the bulk of time one spends after being an Entry Level Officer (the first two directed assignments) and before being promoted into the Senior Foreign Service, should one get that far. There is a lot of range there, and even among the same rank (mid-level is FS 04 through FS 01, counting down as the ranks get higher) there is a lot of difference in the types of work one does depending on where you're assigned. You can be one of over 50, as it was for me in Juarez, or one of one.  From my A-100, I had two classmates who were shipped off to small posts to become sole consular officers to completely run the show with just the basic training under their belts (and hopefully well-seasoned local staff at the ready, but that's not always the case).  Thank God that wasn't me, lemme' tell you.  I'm not a jump-onto-thin-ice-and-figure-it-out-when-I-get-there kind of girl.  There are areas of risk where others might cringe where I'm more comfortable (public speaking - I'm on it), but being tossed into a leadership role with zero prior experience in the subject and I'm silently praying someone more ambitious next to me's hand shoots up to volunteer.  
Guess which one I am:

However, for this assignment - I feel decently prepared by having two adjudicating tours in very different environments and two years in Consular Affairs headquarters under my belt. I wouldn't have bid on the position if it felt like tooooo long of a stretch. Even so, there's a big difference between being a consular adjudicator and being the manager, and that's where I'm feeling the stretch. 

First of all, 8:00 am doesn't find me raising the blind in an adjudicating window and asking for someone's passport. That line snaking through the waiting room and out along the sidewalk isn't for me to work through anymore. And the nice folks with their arms full of folders and documents aren't popping their adorably-dressed kids onto the counter in front of me, daring me to refuse such a face. 

I miss it.  

I also miss not speaking the language every day to every type of person for at least four hours straight.  Hearing what life is like for the farmer, the student, the professional, the truck driver, the family of five, or the person hoping I won't notice that criminal history s/he failed to mention in their application.  

Yeah, I do miss it.

Instead, the morning starts in my office, greeting my coworkers, chatting (in English) about the weather or someone's breakfast as I log into the computer and start the day... managing. It's time to manage.  What does that MEAN? Delegating tasks? Being decisive? Being motivational? Guiding and correcting? Being the subject matter expert? Having vision? Signing papers they put in front of you? Or simply not screwing things up? 

I'm learning it means all of the above.  The hardest part, however, is that at the end of the day, there isn't always a tangible result to managing. Sure, you can look around the room and point to the fact that folks didn't quit en masse, work got done, and maybe there was some good conversations about things we should do, sometime, in the future.  But there's nothing as satisfying as seeing an empty waiting room where there once was a mob of activity and faces. Or hearing your colleagues down the line dropping their window shades and knowing that you all just adjudicated 600 applicants and survived the morning.

It's an adjustment to understand that the satisfyingly empty waiting room has been replaced by just getting through half of my daily to-do list. It's busy in a non-physical way, which is odd for me. It's keeping a lot of notes from a lot of meetings and wishing there was more time to actually DO the things that you've just written down.

Overall, it's moving the needle just a skosh - and having to be okay with that. 

While there are times when I feel kinda' like this:

When you're told you have to fill in at a meeting for someone three rungs up the ladder from you in a subject you have to Google first.
  Little by little, there are also times when, even if for just a moment, I feel like this:

Oh yeah, there are only 80 unread messages in my inbox!

Sunday, September 15, 2019

El Salvador: Getting a Better Look

Walking through the neighborhood yesterday afternoon, I noticed a stand of trees with the first tinges of red and orange in their leaves.  I smiled thinking about fall being in the air -finally!- especially after suffering through such an incredibly hot Virginia summer. But my sentimental wanderings about the changing of the seasons and looking forward to crisp evenings and mornings were rudely interrupted by a noisy flock of little green parakeets flying overhead.

Oh, right. 
Fall isn't in the air. Fall is never going to be in the air. 
You don't live in the northern hemisphere anymore. The foreseeable handful of years will contain just two seasons: the wet season and the dry season. 

To be fair, these seasons are referred to as winter and summer here. Regardless of what the calendar says, in El Salvador now (September) we're in "winter."  Sure, if we were located south of the equator where the seasons are reversed, I could accept June through September being "winter."  But we're not.  As I understand it, the six months from May to November are winter because that's when it rains, not because it's cold. In fact, winter is the hot season.  Starting in November, we'll enter "summer" because that's when it's dry, even though these are also the cooler months.  So I guess that means what I'm feeling is... spring in the air?   

But here we are in Central America, so I'd better get used to it. The tinges of red and yellow on the leaves of the tree I saw are likely its regular colors, as everything is also more colorful down here. Two weeks in and all I can say is: so far, so great.  I can't say this was a pleasant surprise, however, because it wasn't a surprise. As soon as we got this assignment last summer November, we were hit with a flood of positive reviews about the country, city, embassy, neighborhood where we'd live, local staff colleagues and particularly the general morale at post.  Families love the place and those who can, often extend their assignments here. I'm starting to see why.  

Let me stop talking and show you what we've discovered so far and let you all see for yourselves:

First priority: Our new house gets a stamp of approval from Bridget and Seamus.

They proclaim the ant hunting here to be "superior" and have a courtyard dedicated to the sport. 

The coast is known for its excellent surfing (not my thing), but I can certainly see myself in THESE waves!

And no, we didn't arrive early to beat the crowds.  This was a Saturday mid-day, just 70 minutes from the capital city.  

Interesting flowers in the gardens.
Interesting creatures on the ground. (R.O.U.S.?) 

Interesting creatures in the trees.

Besides seeing the beach, we've gotten out into the countryside a bit, too. Within 90 minutes, we were nearly across the width of the country, which - by the way - is only 88 miles wide and 168 miles long, or just a bit bigger than Massachusetts.  Heading north towards the Honduran border, we visited the town of Suchitoto recently. Native son Alejandro Cotto (cinematographer and cultural "visionary" per local press) inspired and insisted upon the resurrection and preservation of the town's colonial architecture and cultural scene, thus creating a tourist destination and seemingly solid local economy. His home is now a museum to his legacy and the town theater he brought back from near rubble carries his name. While we didn't visit the theater, we did tour his house and grounds which gave weight, in my opinion, to the exaltive adjectives the town applies to his name.  The town also just happens to be situated overlooking the huge man-made reservoir Lago Suchitlan - so that helps attract folks, too. Suchitoto, in native Nahuat means flower-bird, or land of both, and that is certainly not an exaggeration. 

The landscape surrounding Lago Suchitlan

Lunch spot view over the lake and distant mountains towards the Honduran border. 

Alejandro Cotto's house and grounds. This picture shows about five percent of his courtyard, garden and water feature system. The man knew how to cobble a patio!

Kitchen covered in azulejos (tiles).

One of the many, oh 80 foot tall, trees shading Cotto's patios and gardens. 
Interior courtyard of house and museum.  Each room is separate and fronts this courtyard. 

Santa Lucia Church on the central plaza.

Obligatory gold-painted guy who comes to life for some change.

Local crafts and souvenirs. This town is crazy for cobbles; wear only flats, ladies. 

Pop into a cafe showing off its colonial architecture with high ceilings and a courtyard to the right. 

Or stop along the plaza for a cold drink or warm eat. 

Artisan and souvenir shop and cafe.
Before I leave you with only the rosiest of images, it shouldn't be overlooked that over ninety percent of the country is under continual menace by criminal gangs.  I'm still learning what this amounts to for the average Salvadoran, but so far it's clear that the level of threat one feels depends on where you live and what you do. This is still a predominantly rural country with a big section of the population living in great poverty.  My saying we have a comfortable and relatively secure life in San Salvador is like someone in Beverly Hills telling you how crime-free Los Angeles is. It's the reality for only a small sliver of the pie, for sure.  My goal is to show you that El Salvador is more than the headline-making refugees and gangs. The spirit del pueblo is strong, resilient and with time and effort - will get through this period.  I look forward to seeing at least three more years of such progress as we get to know the people and places. 

I hope to do a whole series just on murals and this is a prime example of the artistic spirit we see everywhere. 

Working lady heading home. 

Sunday, August 25, 2019

Language Learning and Childbirth: More in Common Than You'd Think

A few weeks ago, likely at 3:30 a.m. when instead of sleeping, I lay awake in bed obsessively constructing complex sentences in Spanish, I had a sudden realization. This realization then kept me up for the next few hours, or until minutes before my alarm rang. What dawned on me was that learning a foreign language and having a baby are essentially the same process, and neither are to be undertaken lightly or without serious consideration of the consequences. 

Fairly bold statement, eh? Well after completing my fourth language training and testing stint at the Foreign Service Institute (FSI), I feel confident making it.

Before going further, it's only fair that I acknowledge my experience in both categories: 

             Language tests: Eight
             Children: Zero  

Now you may be wondering if I'm qualified to draw this conclusion. I understand. Just consider that I know folks with kids. I've had expectant sisters and friends and, being generally nosy, I've asked them heaps of questions about the whole pregnancy and childbirth thing. Sometimes even without squishing up my face and saying, "Whoa, better you than me!" But not often.

Let me lay out the line of reasoning that brings me to this controversial conclusion. My motivation is not so much to sway anyone from having kids - that's a personal decision - but perhaps to save a colleague from making the life-altering decision of tackling a new language at FSI. After all, it's bidding season and I've seen that twinkle in your eyes as you scan that Projected Vacancy List. But now I deplore you to direct your attention to that far right column, you know which one I mean, where the language requirement and training times are listed for each assignment.  See that 3/3 in Vietnamese?  Before you add Ho Chi Minh City to your bid list, swirl it around in the glass for a minute and appreciate the color.  Note the full-bodied complexity of a tonal language. Visualize the delicate nuances of deciphering -for example - written Georgian, an alphabet so lovely it should be a decorative wall border. Then, as the tannin hits your tongue, spit out that bitter liquid before it's too late. Please hear me out and consider the following before making any rash decisions.  This is what I've learned and how I see it all going down:

Phase One: The Romance of the Idea
With romantic images of a baby of your own - you begin to consider the idea.  Maybe you've always wanted one, or perhaps the idea developed over time, it doesn't matter, you find yourself looking at pregnant women and picturing that rosy glow in your own cheeks. You talk it over with your partner (or not - whichever) and come to a conclusion that yes, it'll be a tough for a while, but we'll get through it and it will all be worth it. You start thinking about names and maybe even mentally carve out a space for a nursery in your house or apartment. Bringing a new life into the world - what a noble pursuit!

With romantic images of speaking French/Japanese/Amharic with the locals, sharing a joke with the taxi driver, ordering confidently from the menu, or diving into the economic pages of the Sunday paper to untangle the complexity of the host-country market conditions - you consider a language-designated assignment.  You talk it over with your partner (or not - whichever) and come to a conclusion that yes, it'll be tough for a while, but you'll get through it and it will all be worth it in the end to live in that place. You cruise through a few YouTube videos in the language, chuckle at yourself for not picking out a single familiar word and imagine the time when you'll be discussing climate change among classmates. You think it'd be nice to have 6-10 months, heck even two whole years in some cases, dedicated to just studying a language. What a noble pursuit!

Phase Two: The Commitment
It's official - you/your partner are pregnant! You receive congratulations from friends and family and are relishing the honeymoon period of baby showers, setting up a nursery, trying out names for girls and boys, and buying maternity clothes.  It's all fun and new so far, and strangers stop you in the grocery store to wish you well with "your little miracle." Sure, there is some morning sickness, but you know what's causing it and suffer through it as part of this whole beautiful process. Your new doctor is great; there's good chemistry between you two and she's been so supportive and informative - you're feeling really confident about your choice. Life is good. 

It's official - you/your partner are back at FSI! It's fun to be back, seeing former colleagues in the hallways and catching up over over-priced lunches in the back room of the cafeteria (it's quieter there). With a fresh notebook and new textbook, you grab a picnic table in a shady corner of the campus and start conjugating simple verbs or learning the alphabet.  It's all fun and new at this time and with so many months ahead of you, you're excited about your nascent progress. Despite some morning headaches about making it to class on time or staying up late with homework, you suffer through it and proudly tell folks what you're undertaking. Your new teacher is great; there's really good chemistry between you and the your classmates and your learning consultant has been so supportive and informative - you're feeling really confident about your choice. Life is good.

Phase Three: In The Midst
Ooh, it's getting harder to get up the stairs these days, and damn - sometimes near impossible to pick up that dropped candy bar wrapper.  Your doctor has you on this exercise and diet regime that's supposed to help with some of your complaints, but really, you just need a solid night's sleep!  She just doesn't seem to understand that. Sometimes what you really want is just some sympathy, and puhleeze, no more stories from friends about how their pregnancies were such a breeze, especially their second/third/fourth one. Ha, as if! You're not dumb enough to go through THIS again. Finally, you secretly wish these last few months would be over and done with. What were we thinking?

Ooh, it's getting harder to summon up the energy to get to the language lab these days. And you know you're supposed to spend three hours in self-study each day, but when that early-release day comes around - just getting to the shuttle so you can crash by the pool for a mid-afternoon nap is all you can muster.  Your teacher has assigned a ton of homework, but you know that what would really help you learn this ridiculously complex, one-country language would just be a decent night's sleep.  He just doesn't understand that. Heck he already speaks the language, how could he? Oh, and puhleeze, you can't stomach another story about that friend-of-a-friend who listened to some great podcast each day and magically got a 4/4. Ha, as if! You secretly wish you had bid on an English-speaking post instead.  What were we thinking?

Phase Four: Bringing It Home
It's getting near the end. The ladies in your prenatal class have been heading to the hospital one by one, but you've still got a few weeks left.  Sometimes they bring their little bundles of joy back to the class to show off and gloat so the group can ooh and ahh. They give you the, "I just know you'll be fine!" rah-rah that only one who is on the other side of a horrible event such as childbirth can give. Don't they realize you still have to push this damn thing out, and frankly, you're kind of freaked out about it all? Bitches. You want to change places with that nice doctor's office receptionist; at least she can tie her own shoes. Why didn't we just adopt?

It's getting near the end. The other students in your class have been heading up to the language testing suite one by one, but you've still got a few weeks left.  Sometimes they come by the classroom after their exams to show off and gloat  share the good news about their passing scores. They give you the "I just know you'll do well, too!" rah-rah that only one who is on the other side of a horrible event like an End of Training Language Exam can give. Don't they realize that you still have to get through the "speaking at length" part (and they KNOW you have a phobia about that), plus what if you get a poem or a fairy tale to interpret?! You don't even understand those IN ENGLISH! Frankly, you're kind of freaked out about it all. Bitches. You see the cafeteria lady, all smiles and no worries and wonder if you could just have her job instead?

Phase Five: It's All Over
Life is beautiful.  You and your bundle of joy, love and life are home.  Yeah, you're tired - bone tired - but each midnight wake-up brings you closer to your little one.  Everything was worth it, but wait - what are you even talking about - you can't even remember the moans and groans of the whole pregnancy and birth thing.  Yeah, simple trips to the bathroom remind you, but showing to the world the most beautiful newborn your friends and family have ever seen is salve on the wound. You even find time to graciously stop by to see those supportive friends at your Prenatal Class - won't they be excited for you in their final weeks! Ah, they'll do great...

Life is beautiful.  Not only is the exam OVER, but you've waited the requisite 24-30 hours to receive your results. And what beautiful results they are, the culmination of your months of selfless toiling towards this goal. Everything was worth it: the endless hours each evening of homework, the two-inch stack of rubber-banded flashcards, the movies with the subtitles turned off (for the first half hour at least). You did it. You even find time to graciously stop by your classroom to lend helpful encouragement to that last classmate still studying away.  Won't she be excited to hear your results! Ah, she'll do great...  

Phase Six: One Year Later
The little one is crawling easily across the living room floor and knows - so confidently- how to say "No!" and "Uh-oh!"  Stretch marks have faded and developmental milestones are being checked off one by one and parenting, sure it's tiring, but it's also a daily joy. The thoughts of another little one, ya' know because YOU loved having siblings, starts crossing your mind. Wouldn't it be great if it were a boy/girl to make a set? You could even go back to that great Prenatal Class! Doesn't hurt to consider it, right...?

You're doing well at your post, and confidently greet your neighbor in the elevator in that language and can even handle that awkward chit-chat with the market cashier. You've tossed out your flashcards and linguistic milestones are being checked off one by one. Sure it can be tiring, and it's a relief to break into English when you can, but you're getting by. You've even had that interesting conversation with more than one taxi driver.  Bidding season starts in a few months and you've been eyeing the Projected Vacancies List.  Wow, lots of options! None using the language you've learned, but hey, wouldn't it be cool to live in Armenia/Cambodia/Bolivia?  Ah, time at FSI again to catch up with old colleagues and enjoy the campus. I hope that nice cafeteria lady is there still. Doesn't hurt to consider it, right...?

Sunday, June 02, 2019

We Come From Away

To "come from away" = To be not from Newfoundland

With just eight vacation days between ending my last assignment and starting Spanish training, we needed to get away.  It was too few days for the tiresome lateral travel across time zones, and we weren't in the mood for tropical weather as we've got three years of 80+ degrees days ahead of us.  Given those restrictions, we chose to head north, even further than Nova Scotia and Cape Breton we loved so much last year.  

We're now preparing for take-off on our third and final northbound flight to reach our destination.  The young man who just loaded our bags into the slim belly of the Beechcraft 1900, attached the staircase for us to board, and gave us the quick safety chat, also just pulled a headset out of his jacket pocket, plugged it into the flight console and took the co-pilot's seat. We're heading for the opposite of El Salvador in every respect: Deer Lake, Newfoundland, Canada.  There are about ten of us on board the one hour flight from the provincial capital St. John's to the western hub town of Deer Lake. Take your pick: every seat's a window and every seat's an aisle.  The three guys hoping to continue on to Goose Bay, Labrador were told not to board as the pilot scheduled to take them on the final leg from Deer Lake was feeling sick and they'd cancelled that segment until... maybe tomorrow.  Air Canada would put them up in a hotel in St. John's for the night, but the desk agent wasn't sure about reimbursing their lost wages. Many Newfoundlanders work in some of the toughest jobs in Canada: in Alberta in the Athabasca oil sands, in Northwest Territories in the diamond minds, in Labrador in the iron ore mines, and of course, in the North Atlantic fisheries.  So one pilot's flu could mean a loss of a lot of wages; I understood why they were asking. 

The flight took us east to west across the length of the island nicknamed "The Rock."  In a plane that size, the engine and propellers provided a loud, constant, vibrating hum that lulled me into a nap with my head against the window.  By dozing off, I didn't miss out on any views, as although the calendar said late May - it was more like late February down below.  And besides, the heavy cloud cover hid what would've been my first good look at the province.  But even if it were clear skies - as we'd learn the next day in our long drive halfway back across the island - the interior of Newfoundland is rather, how should I say it... homogeneous.  Through the windshield we saw only spruce, birch, bog, spruce, birch, lake, spruce, birch, river, spruce, birch, rock.  



But that's okay, we weren't planning to stay in the interior anyway.  Our first destination was Fogo Island, an hour's ferry ride into the Atlantic from the north-central coast.  Waiting for the ferry in the dock town of Farewell, we figured we'd walk through the town, maybe pop into a somewhere for a something warm to eat/drink/put on. We figured wrong.  There was in fact no town, just a few cars parked in the ferry line alongside a quiet inlet dotted with icebergs.  Yes, icebergs.  This northern coast of Newfoundland receives a veritable parade of icebergs coming from the northern Atlantic at this time of year. Those few that drifted into the inlet were destined to simply bob along until they beached themselves somewhere and melted.  We took advantage of our early arrival to the ferry line to park the car and go for a walk along the stony shoreline to check out the 'bergs. 

The ferry arrived exactly on time, one of multiple runs per day, and we parked on the car deck and took the stairs up to the passenger deck. Immediately, I couldn't help but notice our fellow passengers. First, they weren't interested at all in looking out the windows, moving excitedly from port to starboard to take in the scenery like the family dog on its first road trip (that'd be me). Instead, they grabbed coffees from the lady at the snack counter and settled into comfortable chairs for the trip.  Next, I noticed they were all BIG, even the small ones: hearty, hardy, solid folks of Irish root stock. The men wore camo somewhere, contrasting with hunter/road safety-reflective striping somewhere else on a jacket or work pants, leaving me confused about whether they wanted to be seen or not.  They had moustaches, big bellies and meaty hands that proclaimed, "I'm just after fellin' an 'ewing a 'hacre of logs an' buildin' me own 'ouse!"  The over-40 women had weathered skin, thin lips, and super-short highly highlighted and layered hairstyles, giving them a birdlike appearance. This look was astonishingly consistent, so much so that my husband and I couldn't tell if we were just seeing the same woman everywhere we went.  The under-40 women preferred dyed-black straight hair and, were this ten years ago, would've certainly been in acid-washed jeans.  Regardless of age, the women were as rugged and no-nonsense as their men, ready to pick berries and jar rabbit in the summer, and in winter care for their own three kids plus their sisters' three while everyone was away working on the "mainland" (i.e. the rest of Canada). 

We'd heard about the Newfie dialect before arriving by watching some YouTube videos (which I'm thankful for).  We learned it's not "New-fun-lund", but "Newfin'-LAND."  We learned that H's disappear from where they're supposed to be and reappear where they have no business, like starting all words that normally begin with vowels.  Verbs are all conjugated in the third person, and "th" is replaced with "d." 

"I's goes h'over dere an' sees dis fella comin' an' I says, luh! I'm just after tinkin' 'bout 'im an 'ere 'e is!"  

This is all said without a space between any of the words.  I was instantly mesmerized and lingered within earshot of any conversation, no matter how mundane, just to listen. 

After driving off the ferry, we headed about 20 minutes to the far northwest corner of the island, to Fogo Island town where we'd rented "Nan's House" for a few days.  I thought "Nan" was someone's name, but it was clear after arriving that "Nan" meant grandma. Duh.  
Cozy and authentic, just as grandma left it it.  We had a few years' supply of "Down Home" magazines to work through (the Newfoundland and Labrador homemaker's Reader's Digest, with cover stories ranging from "Saved from the Sea: Our Most Dramatic Rescue Stories!" to "Our Favorite Puddings: Steamed, Broiled and Baked!") and a great collection of "I'm watchin' da' grandkids dis month" videos: Strawberry Shortcake, Barney, The Care Bears, Cheaper by the Dozen 2, and inexplicably, Carmen Electra's Aerobic Striptease Workout.  Finally, it's a good thing my husband is 6'0", because at 6'1" he wouldn't have been able to stand up straight in the kitchen.  

My choice of teapots!
But it was lovely that we had the whole place to ourselves: a full kitchen with all of Nan's spices still in the cupboard from before she... well, I'm not sure what happened, a sitting room, a bathroom with lovely view of the harbor, and two upstairs bedrooms with beds piled with quilts and sloped dormer ceilings.  The place had been warmed up for our arrival and, according to the guest book, it seemed we were the first guests of the season.  And really, we still weren't in "the season" which wouldn't begin until late June.  Seeing as it was 36 degrees outside and blowing hard - this was understandable.  Normally we prefer traveling off-season but at times it has its downsides.  The weather isn't always ideal and often the restaurants or stores  - those that are even open - will be open only limited hours.  We had this fact working against us combined with our Sunday evening arrival on Canada's 3-day Victoria Day weekend.  So it was a very good thing we'd stopped at the grocery store in Deer Lake to stock up before leaving the main island or we'd be having toothpaste for dinner.  

Actually, we lucked out even more in that one restaurant (of the four in town) was open.  Naturally, it was the Chinese restaurant.  Although we were the only patrons, we had a good feeling about it after being greeted by the Cantonese owner/waitress/cook.  She offered an extensive menu of Chinese favorites and my husband and I ordered two completely different dishes.  I was a bit puzzled when, while taking our order, she paused for a good long beat to think before jotting down our choices on her notepad, as if trying to remember how to spell something.  We realized when our plates arrived that she must've been doing a mental inventory of her larder, because as you can see here - we clearly ordered two vastly different dishes.  Ah well, it was good enough regardless of what the menu may have described.

Okay, one was a bit spicier. 
I was up early the following morning, giving me some time to walk around the town in the morning light, which had been streaming in through the windows fresh across the Atlantic since 5:15 a.m.  Fogo Island town is just as charming and authentic as could be, with two protected harbors, tall-spired churches, traditional salt-box architecture houses, rugged, rocky tundra-covered landscape, and lobster traps stacked on the piers.  

Now THAT'S an iceberg!

Lobster traps and other fishing accoutrement. 

An hour or so later, I returned from my reconnaissance walk to find my husband up and having breakfast. After getting a full belly of tea myself, I got dressed for our day hike to the top of Brimstone Head, just a few minutes' drive from our house.  I put on my long underwear top and bottoms, fleece-lined winter leggings, wool cable-knit sweater, down vest, wind and rain-proof coat, gloves and Andean wool cap. NOW I was ready to go back out again. 

Hmmm... a two bedroom house that has ten coat hooks.  What does that say?
We were excited to see Brimstone Head as it'd been designated one of the four corners of the earth by the Flat Earth Society, which coincidentally had an office and (until recently) a museum on Fogo Island.  I couldn't wait to see what the edge looked like.

The path to the edge.  The local Lions Club does a great job of maintaining the trails and boardwalks on Fogo. 

Beautiful autumn-colored tuckamore, peat and heather. 

Final staircase to the top. 

Did I mention it was a wee bit windy?
At just above freezing and facing winds as strong as I've ever felt in my life (do I still have eyebrows?), we made our way up the perfectly maintained paths and stairs to the top of Brimstone Head. The effort was well worth it. However, I gotta' say I'd pictured one corner of the earth to be a bit more.... square?  I mean we could still see the neighboring islands and icebergs slowly drifting by and all. Disappointed as I am to say this, I'm not entirely convinced that we were really on the edge of anything more than a hunk of rock in the north Atlantic Ocean.  Sorry Flat Earth society, but I don't think you'll be getting our membership paperwork this year. 

The next day we took off to the east side of Fogo Island and the towns of Joe Batt's Arm and Tilting. (Oh side note here: Newfoundland has THE BEST names for places!  Among my favorites are: Random Island, Ireland's Eye, Tickle Cove, Seldom Seen, Heart's Delight and Heart's Content.) The Fogo Island Inn in Joe Batt's Arm, just 20 minutes' drive from Fogo Island town, was what had originally attracted me to come up here to begin with.  While searching for places to visit online, I came upon photographs of the inn and knew I had to see it for myself.  And see it we did. Equal parts sculpture and building, it perches out over the cliff like an occupiable, wooden Moby Dick on stilts (personal interpretation).  The inn isn't just a tourist destination, it's also a concept.  Sure it has rooms and a restaurant, but it also serves as a way to reinvigorate investment into the Fogo community, as their website boasts. I was contemplating splurging on a night or two at the inn... until I saw the room rates which START at $1500 per night. So instead of a month's salary for the weekend, we settled for a brisk walk around the grounds like celebrity wedding crashers, as staff greeted us and politely asked, "Tell me your name again, please? I just don't remember..." certainly code for "You're not supposed to be here, are you?" I snapped some pictures and we hopped into the car before they could run us off the property.  But check out the place and read about their raison d'etre for yourself here. 

The great beast of the Fogo Island Inn seen through the mist. 

Sculptural workshop of sorts at the Inn. I snuck in to take a peek; it was pretty cool. 

Just a few minutes' further to the east we found the community of Tilting, recognized for the preservation of its Irish heritage.  We stopped for a cup of tea and some conversation at a cafe (after narrowly escaping an impromptu acoustic sing-along of "Hotel California" we were told) and later had a cliff-side walk and sandwich lunch in a protected spot on the rocks, tucked between the tuckamore and the crashing surf. We later learned that "tuckamore" is the Newfoundland word for the stunted, tangled stands of spruce and fir trees that cling to cliff edges like Canadian bonsai. 

The omnipresent net/boat/fishing shed.  We never figured out what the dots meant, but they're on nearly every door. 

Classic saltbox style house surrounded by tuckamore and heather.

A surprisingly abundant amount of grass considering the general lack of topsoil in which to grow it.
Our final day on Fogo brought the sunshine and we climbed Fogo Head for a last look around before heading back west across Newfoundland to our next stop.

We learned icebergs can be very dangerous to approach as unseen parts can below the surface can break off and shoot to the surface, because don't forget that we only see the tip of the... well, you get it. 

We were happy to find the craft and quilting shop open and a friendly couple working there to chat with.

Typical Newfoundland crafts: quilts, hooked rugs and miniature lobster traps.  This fella' helps in the shop and works overnights at the fish processing plant in town, one of three on the island and a huge source of income for locals.

The path to the top of Fogo Head.

A last look at Fogo, finally in the sunshine.
We left the sunshine behind and spent nearly all of the next day driving back west to Deer Lake in the slushy rain (spruce, birch, lake...). But then continued a bit further to Norris Point, a small town surrounded by the incredible Gros Morne National Park, a UNESCO heritage site.  Besides wanting to see the park's fjords and snowy peaks, we chose Norris Point as it was hosting its annual Trails, Tales and Tunes festival, timed to kick off the summer tourist season.  (See weather commentary above about whether or not the chosen festival dates may still have been a bit, errr, premature.)  And really - how could I resist a festival dedicated to just about all my favorite things: outdoorsy activities, storytelling and music.  If it was the Trails, Tales, Tunes, Tea and Cat Appreciation festival I'd have been apoplectic. 

"Downtown" Norris Point: the Marine Research Center in the middle and the Cat Stop pub on the right in blue. 

Colorful Newfoundland houses with the Tablelands as the backdrop.

We'd rented a cottage from Big Garden Cottages along Neddy Harbour, one of the many scallops of Bonne Bay, a fjord-like inlet off the Gulf of St. Lawrence.  The festival was in its sixth day by the time we arrived, offering organized hikes into the park and along the coastline each morning, and music featuring Newfoundland and Labradorean (or at least Canadian) acts at various venues each mid-day and evening.  The "tales" part was mixed into the above schedule. We spent our second evening listening to stories of the (now-defunct) Newfoundland railway system: the folks who built 'er, the "wreck-house" winds which frequently derailed 'er, and the songs to accompany it all. 

Oh Canada, once again you spoil us with your perfectly maintained trails. Roofing tiles on the boardwalk - what will they think of next?

A duo performs at the "Cat Stop" pub venue in Norris Point.  I was sad to discover that the "cat" in the title was short for the catamaran that docks there.  Ah well. 
The forecast improved each day, and we woke up one day to a thinly-overcast sky that looked like it just might burn off and turn blue.  By 10:00 a.m. it did not disappoint, and we joined one of the festival's organized walks out to Cow Head under sunny skies.

Gros Morne panorama.

Hiking companions.

Ya' gotta' have a sense of whimsy in such an extreme environment.

Our final day hit the low 60s, which may not sound like much - but after a week of topping out in the 40s - it felt like Malibu.  I scampered around the town re-taking pictures of the landscape and houses now bathed in flattering sunlight.  

Gros Morne National Park's Tablelands. The mountaintops are made of the earth's mantle (look it up - I can't explain it well) which is one of the reasons the park is a UNESCO Heritage Site. 

View of Neddy Harbour, the Tablelands and Norris Point from our cottage. 

Fisherman's shack. 

Before turning the car back to Deer Lake, we joined one last festival event: the Lion's Club Market Day featuring live music, crafts and baked goods for sale, and the main event - a Fisherman's Brewis lunch.  We'd been hearing about this local delicacy since our arrival in Newfoundland and my husband was excited to try it.  Always frightened by the word "delicacy" and not much of an experimental eater (okay not an experimental eater AT ALL) - I wasn't so confident.  But who could resist a big scoop of minced fish, piled on a mountain of reconstituted hard tack, loaded on a hill o' mashed potatoes, smothered in a simmering broth of melting scrunchins and topped - if yas' like - with drawn butter?  Sign me up! Especially when we learned that "scrunchins" are minced salt pork - i.e. pure fat.  For $7.50 we joined the line and filled our bellies with a week's worth of calories and a lifetime of cholesterol.  I felt I could, and probably should, go row a boat across the ocean afterwards. By myself. In winter. While dragging a net full of writhing cod. 

Folks digging into their Fisherman's Brewis while enjoying some music. 

Spoiler alert on your Christmas presents.

But our trip had to come to an end and so we packed up the car and drove an hour back to Deer Lake from where we'd catch the flight back home at the crack of dawn the next morning.  It was a spectacular day - nearly 65 degrees - and families were out enjoying the first day at the lake.  The water was probably close to 45 degrees, but as we learned - that's nothing to a true Newfoundlander. 

The father on the right reported that while this WAS his first day of the year with no shirt on, it' wasn't his first day in his shorts and flip flops.

We were happy to report to Budget Rent a Car that this did NOT happen to us.