My Adventures as a U.S. Diplomat and Family Man

First Stop: Tel Aviv, Israel (July 2012)!

Sunday, January 3, 2016

Top 15 of 2015

Shh...My dirty little secret is that none of my blogs are totally original. Something I read or saw (like a movie re-run from the 80s) usually inspires them. Such is the case with this "best of" entry, which I actually did in 2013, one-and-a-half years into my tour in Israel. I had a lot of highlights that year, personally and professionally, but I think 2015 stacks up pretty well after just 9 months in Mexico. Aside from an easily avoidable bike accident that resulted in a broken arm for DiploSon, the year was marked by good fortune and good signs for the years to come. Here's a recap of the top 15 experiences, not necessarily in order, but with some semblance of logic:

15. Visits and Visitors: I'll start with this first since we are currently enjoying the good company (and babysitting) of DiploGrandma and it's always shrewd to be in the good graces of the DiploMother-in-Law. My dad also visited us in November for a short but jam-packed week in which we toured the city and visited the picturesque town of San Miguel de Allende. Not to be forgotten, old high school friends made the pilgrimage to Mexico City for two separate visits. More visitors are welcome!  

14. New Homeowners: Just days before departing for Mexico in March, we closed on a new home in the Washington suburb of Fairfax, Virginia. We do intend to live there, most likely during the boys' high school years, but for now we are content to collect rent from tenants. We had an agent who had worked with other Foreign Service people and we felt the time was right to buy. Watching homebuyer shows on HGTV during the winter doldrums also played a role.

13. Great Wolf Lodge: One of our favorite getaways from Washington is an indoor water theme park that also doubles as a hotel. For last year's Christmas present, my aunt treated us to a night stay so we could splash around the clock. The irony was the boys' taking to MagiQuest, a fantasy-themed scavenger hunt that has nothing to do with water. They still have their interactive magic wands and we will undoubtedly visit again so they can become Magi Masters.    

12. Tandem Timing: The DiploWife and I pulled off a rare feat in Foreign Service tandem hood by arriving at post on the exact same date in March. And boy did we hit the ground running. We finalized the hiring of a nanny that afternoon; the boys were sent off to a bilingual school the following day; and the DiploParents began the check-in process at the embassy. All has worked out well so far. The nanny has our utmost trust, the boys are picking up Spanish and we are both still gainfully employed.

11. Fraud Prevention: Through another fortuitous feat of good timing, I landed a coveted 9-month rotation in the Embassy's Fraud Prevention Unit. This is the analytical arm of the consular section and my job mainly entailed lending support to a local staff of investigators who would crack cases involving visa fraud and break down the bogus claims of visa applicants. My tenure is coming to an end in February and I have a long haul ahead of me adjudicating visas but I am thankful for the opportunity.  

10. Xbox One: Acquiring this game system surely was a highlight for the boys and is quickly becoming one for me too. They diligently saved and pooled their allowance for more than six months in able to purchase it. Now they are well on their way to becoming gamers, for better or worse. Since I grew up with Texas Instruments video games, I figure it's only natural that I should sample some Xbox One games to see how much they have evolved.

9. Sushi, the Dog: Who can resist petting puppies in a pet store? But that doesn't mean you should walk out with one. Well, that's what we did on June 6. We had discussed getting a dog in Mexico but it still felt like an impulse buy when we came home with a Shih Tzu that day. The DiploSons named her Sushi and to them she is the cutest thing to walk on God's green Earth. For the DiploParents, we endured some rough patches of sleep deprivation and house training but she has grown on us too.

8. Riding Bikes: The boys finally reached a major milestone in mastering how to ride a bike and this city is one of the best places for bike enthusiasts or those who just like an occasional jaunt. Every Sunday the main downtown drag of La Reforma is shut down for bicyclists, runners and walkers. The wide, tree-lined boulevard passes by Mexico City's version of Central Park, museums and other attractions. The near perfect year-round weather makes bike riding here that much more enjoyable.

7. Tacos, Tacos and More Tacos: Another thing Mexico City has going for it is food and chilangos (Mexico City residents) are passionate about tacos. These ain't your hard shell tacos with ground beef and processed cheese. I'm talking about almost every mouth-watering combination imaginable of fresh meat, vegetables and spices. One of my best experiences was going on a taco eating tour with a local guide who shared where some of the city's best tacos are.

6. Dia de los Muertos: Besides being off work for Mexican holidays, we've also enjoyed the festivities surrounding the various dates. One of our favorites was the "Day of the Dead" commemoration that proceeds Halloween and is a focus of celebration and remembrance for Mexicans. We journeyed to a town a few hours outside Mexico City and it seemed like the whole country was awash with colorful marigold flowers used to decorate the alters of recently deceased loved ones.  

5. Trip Planning: The Lonely Planet Mexico guidebook sits on my nightstand and is one of my favorite pastimes. I sometime wonder if I like planning the trips more than the trip itself. Nonetheless, long weekend getaways and day trips have been nice breaks from the daily grind of work and Mexico City traffic. We are currently spending New Year's holiday weekend in Oaxaca and I'm looking forward several upcoming trips in early 2016. As for 2015, the trip of the year award goes to...

4. Club Med: I never fashioned myself as the all-inclusive type but after just a few days at Club Med, I'm a true believer. We rolled the dice on a bargain deal during the height of the rainy, hurricane season in September but the weather cooperated and we had an amazing three-day weekend along the Pacific coast in Ixtapa. The DiploSons rediscovered the unbridled fun of playing in the surf and we all enjoyed a hassle-free vacation that featured an open bar and buffet with delicious food.
 
3. Next Assignment…Oman: This really should take the number one slot because, in addition to keeping our family together for at least another 5 years, our next posting will dictate the top events of 2017-2020. DiploMom had already been assigned to Oman so it all boiled down to me getting an available job there. Fortunately, I was selected for the highly competitive position after a byzantine bidding ritual lasting several months with almost daily ups and downs.

2. Arabic Test: Just a month later, I received a passing score on an Arabic test that exempts me from additional language study before my next tour. This was somewhat surprising since it had been five years since I last tested and I thought much of the Arabic had been crowded out of my middle-aged brain by Spanish and Hebre. I'm still sorting out the timing but am excited that I will be able to gain some practical experience working in the State Department in between Mexico and Oman.

1. "Muy Amable": I constantly hear this from Mexicans, even from visa applicants whom I refuse. The common refrain is roughly translated as "very friendly" but more often is a reflection of gratitude and marks the overall friendliness we have encountered from random Mexicans. The best part of this best of list is that Mexicans will almost surely keep on being friendly into 2016 and beyond (no matter what Donald Trump has to say about them!).

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

Summer Daze

Is it August already? Facebook friends are posting back-to-school photos so it must be so. I frankly don't know where the summer went. The cool rainy season in Mexico City probably had a lot to do with it. The hot sunny days along with the accompanying tan lines around my kids' waistlines were largely absent. Before heading back to Colorado two weeks ago for vacation, they were actually looking pretty pale, evidence of being cooped up too much in our apartment. I can't complain too much about the mild weather but I must admit that I did miss a little of the summer vibe.

Another big reason why the summer seems to have passed me by is because a series of life events overtook it. For the past two months, I've neglected to announce that we have had a new member of the family--by which I mean a Shi Tzu puppy named Sushi. I literally grew up next to a dog kennel and haven't had the desire to revisit the sights and smells of dog ownership until recently.

What changed? Part was the observation that Mexico City is extremely dog-friendly and realization that we wouldn't need to go through the stress and hassle of importing a dog if we got one here. More likely was DiploBoy's June birthday and the feeling he and his older brother needed some constant in the nomadic lifestyle we have subjected them to.

Whatever you want to call it, prudence or guilt, we have been dog owners since June 6. Ironically, that date happens to be D-Day, which in the case of Sushi's new parents, stands for Deprivation of Sleep Day. Puppies are devastatingly cute in the pet store but some fawning customers (like us) fail to fully grasp how much hell they can put new owners through during the nighttime hours.

Sushi's sleeping habits have improved markedly over the past month. But June was a haze, a foggy recollection of multiple wake-ups and early morning movie watching. The DiploBoys, on the other hand, somehow managed to sleep blissfully through all the whining and barking. Now that we are getting some decent sleep again, we're more forgiving when Sushi pees on the floor and nips at our heels. The pictures below show how much the boys adore her. How could such a little bundle of cuteness be such pure evil during the early morning hours?


 

The addition of Sushi wasn't the only news. On a more somber note, this summer was also overtaken by the loss of a family member. My father-in-law passed away in the beginning of July after a steady decline in health. It's tough to think that he is gone but I'm thankful that the boys and I were able to spend some quality time with him last August on home leave. I'm also glad that my wife was able to travel home to be with him in his final days.

As you can see, a lot has gone on this summer and I haven't even mentioned work (or the visit of a high school friend that coincided with a perfect storm of heavy rain, sleep deprivation and emergency travel). DiploMom and I have logged over five months at the mammoth headquarters of Mission Mexico. Consular work has been interesting to say the least. We are both doing our rotations outside the visa section and get to see what happens when people get themselves in all kinds of predicaments.  The never ending stream of cases keeps us busy and always provides fodder for conversation on the car ride home.

Outside of the office, Mexico City has so much to offer and we've only just scratched the surface. Just this past weekend, I joined a food tour and sampled some of the best regional varieties of tacos in the city. I've developing a serious taco addiction. On the following day, I unexpectedly joined a 57-kilometer urban expedition with a few thousand of my closest friends on bicycles. I saw parts of the city I would never have gone on foot or in car. As a family, we've taken a few day and weekend trips to areas outside the City and I'm looking forward to more in the near future.

The next few months should be less chaotic but one never knows. My current preoccupation is bidding on my next assignment and hopes of being posted to the same location as DiploMom.  That uncertainty will undoubtedly produce a few more sleepless nights, apart from the soft cries of Sushi at 4am.

Sunday, April 26, 2015

Please don't burst my bubble

I remember before high school soccer games my coach would make the team pick up some trash around the stadium because it was "good karma." As one of the pubescent self-centered boys who participated, I couldn't quite grasp the significance beyond the fact that girls didn't notice and we never won a state championship. The memory came back to me many years later when my wife and I traveled around the world together for a full year and no great harm (besides a few gastrointestinal bouts) ever befell us. Now more than a month into our second tour of the Foreign Service, DiploMom and I periodically remind ourselves how good we've got it. All thanks to Coach Fifer and some garbage bags. Things have a funny way of working out for us.

Fast forward to the present. After about a year of hand wringing about being separated for an extended period of time at post, we managed to pass Spanish language tests and landed together in Mexico City on March 10, a rare feat in Foreign Service tandem hood. Since we arrived in the middle of the week and school year, we had to hit the ground running. Within 24 hours, we hired a nanny, whisked the boys off to their new school and begun our own check-in process at the U.S. Embassy. As to be expected, there have been a few bumps in the road along the way, but we have begun to settle in nicely to our new lives-- for the next year and a half or so at least.

For starters, we have a spacious apartment in the heart of the city. We live around the corner from a nice grocery store and a few blocks away is a well-to-do health club we've joined that definitely lives up to its billing as an urban oasis. The one downside to our housing is that it is tucked away in the farthest corner of the expat enclave and we aren't particularly close to other embassy families, especially ones with English-speaking boys that could be playmates for our kids. My oldest son is slowly morphing into a xenophobic homebody not seen since the likes of Archie Bunker.

All in all though, we feel lucky to live in such a trendy, happening place of the city and urban living has been treating us well so far. One of our favorite things about Mexico so far has been the food, which blends the best of spicy, salty and, oh yes, pork galore! In fact, Mexico City has a serious foodie subculture and we have found no shortage of options around work and home. This ain't your faux Tex-Mex from Chili's (though I confess we have eaten at one close to our place). We're talking some serious cosmopolitan haute cuisine in addition to cheap but tasty street fare. Tacos with marinated meat and fresh guacamole have more than replaced our staple diet of falafel and hummus from Israel.  

Another great thing about living in a big, bustling city is that there is tons to do and we've only just scratched the surface. During our four day Easter holiday, we visited the city's world-renowned Anthropology Museum, which contained jaw dropping Aztec artifacts and an impressive array of other cultural displays. Last weekend, we enjoyed an outdoor jazz concert in a nearby neighborhood that hands down rivals Georgetown's leafy streets. We also feel lucky to work in the heart of the downtown area, which is actually quite green and well laid out despite the city's unchecked sprawl.

Simply put, Mexico City gets serious props for livability and really is a hidden gem for tourists. It certainly should be a top choice for Foreign Service bidders, as pointed out by a fellow blogger who was recently posted here on a temporary assignment. Mexico City, at least where we live and work, is NOT what you may think of Mexico. This place is seriously happening. Come visit and we'll prove it to you.

All this makes me thankful we live here but also a bit nervous that our good fortune has to eventually run out. We (at least DiploMom for now) already have a great follow-on assignment in Oman to look forward to but I feel like the other shoe has to drop sometime. The recent earthquake in Nepal made me think how susceptible we could be to a similar natural disaster here, god forbid.

But for now we're content living in our blissful bubble, just like the dipsy denizens of The Lego Movie. Taco Tuesday or something not quite like the end of the world may be in our future but until then I'll just keep eating the yummy tacos and telling myself: "EVERYTHING IS AWESOME!"      

Saturday, November 22, 2014

Our next assignment…already?

First things first. I've got some explainin' to do. How can we know where we will be posted three years from now when we haven't even started the preceding tour, let alone finished training for it? The short version to a long story is that the State Department works in mysterious ways. Since the Foreign Service assignment process befuddles many, including many of us Foreign Service Officers, allow me to explain briefly.

Just a few months after the drama, exhilaration and relief that was Flag Day, DiploMom received an unceremonious but just as exciting email with her onward assignment after Mexico City. Since she joined the Foreign Service with an Arabic proficiency, like me, she is required to serve one of her first two tours in the Middle East. Over the past month, she was promptly ushered through a special bidding process, presumably to assure she receives a job in the region before the powers-that-be move on to assign hundreds of other squeaky cogs in the bureaucratic machinery.

This process can be perilous since these eager beavers receive a narrow list of available jobs and have less forbearance on what posts may be more or less desirable 2-3 years down the road. I would have loved to be posted in Syria in 2010. Not so much anymore. Knowing that she was highly unlikely to be assigned to a current hot spot in the Middle East but uncertain about a range of other factors, including whether I would be able to get a job there, DiploMom and I spent a solid week practicing the skills of diplomacy to negotiate a rank-ordered list based on other preferences such as timing, quality of schools, and a desirable job in her cone (public diplomacy). We've been anxiously awaiting the news for the past three weeks.

Got it? Are you wondering when I'm going to divulge where she was assigned? I understand if you stopped reading this to check an incoming text or to preempt a meltdown by a kid, spouse, boss or unnamed other. We are living in an ADD world (and I am an ADD boy) after all.  

I am happy to announce that we will be headed to Muscat, Oman in August 2017! Muscat was one of our top choices, and we are very satisfied as it meets all of our aforementioned preferences and then some. DiploMom has been keen to tell family and friends who are understandably unfamiliar with this sleepy backwater post in the Southwest Arabian Peninsula that tourists actually do go there. Check out this five-minute National Geographic Channel clip if you don't believe me. Beware. You might just want to visit us after watching it!

I've been intrigued about visiting Oman for a long time, and the more I hear about it as a diplomatic posting, the more I can see ourselves living and working happily there.  Me getting a job there is a whole other ball of beeswax so I'm going to save that for another blog. The DiploBoys are getting into the idea of moving to Mexico City in March, so we are also going to hold off on telling them about the following post. All in due time.

For the immediate future, we are going to bask in the glow of being assigned to an exotic corner of the world and having our future planned out for the next five years (probably equal to about 20 years for non-Diplomats). Things have worked out splendidly for us so far and I continue to believe this DiploTandem is leading a charmed life. We can't spend too much time anticipating and daydreaming though. In the meantime, we've got the not-so-small duty of becoming proficient in Spanish and adjudicating tens of thousands of visa applications in Embassy Mexico City. Que vida!  

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Transition Time

Here is a long overdue blog post. So much has happened over the past nine months that I don't know where to begin and I won't even try to chronicle all the comings and goings. I sure could use a ghost writer like all the big wigs. This brief recap penned by yours truly will have to suffice:

- During the first half of 2014, dots of important people visited Israel, which made my job challenging but also rewarding at times.
- In April, the family took a long-awaited Mediterranean cruise. Memorable ports of call included Venice, Santorini, Athens, Corfu and Dubrovnik.
- In June, Mrs. DiploDad joined the ranks of the Foreign Service and learned her first assignment will be Mexico City beginning in March 2015, shortly before I am scheduled to arrive (Yay!).
- After leaving Israel amidst rockets and an escalating war, I spent an utterly serene and uneventful month of August in Colorado for home leave. What's home leave? Read this humorous, yet accurate account by one of my colleagues.
- The first day of school for all four members of the household was on September 3. The boys seem to have adjusted well and are enjoying playing new sports.

As for me, I am back in the familiar routine of full-time language study: five hours of class a day followed by countless more hours of self-study. I have a total of 24 weeks to acquire a professional level of proficiency in Spanish but I am trying to be more disciplined at the outset than I was for Hebrew. So far my mindset has ranged between headiness (i.e. "holy crap, I rock for remembering that Spanish word from the 11th grade!) and fear (i.e. "holy crap, I have to speak a lot better Spanish than I did in the 11th grade!).

Those sentiments pretty much sum up the first two weeks of class. I was placed with a group of four other "non-beginners" who are actually quite advanced so I had to step up my game. Initially, I felt up to the challenge. Spanish spilled out of the dark recesses of my mind and reading a language without having to decipher a non-Romanized script was like running without 20-pound ankle weights. Last week was humbling when the focus turned to grammar though. My self-confidence was shaken but I am confidence I will recover soon. I can find some comfort that I still have plenty of time to master the fundamentals.

For the time being, the transition between the first and second posts is going smoothly. The kids are excited about new experiences in Mexico but they are enjoying a healthy dose of Americana. The DiploCouple are also holding up well, getting used to living together again after spending most of the summer apart.

Over the coming months, I'll try to reflect on the past year and share more about what lies ahead. I regret not being a better blogger. My trials and tribulations in Spanish may not be juicy material for my memoirs but I'll do something for the few people who still read this blog.              

Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Top 13 of 2013

What a year 2013 has been! It was our first full year living in Israel and we were able to enjoy the settled in feeling both at work and school. We also took advantage of many great travel opportunities in Israel and abroad. Here is a short rundown of the best of the best (with a few accompanying pictures) according to each member of the household.

13) Fancy hotel in Eilat (DiploBoy)- The kids weren't big fans of DiploDad's road trips but they did enjoy the destinations, especially the hotels he picked out. We splashed down on a four-star hotel when we went to Eilat in November. The hotel featured a jungle-themed swimming pool with a moat and a corkscrew water slide. DiploBoy also was fond of the video game room in the hotel lobby.

12) Star Wars Legos (DiploBoy)- Legos continue to be all the rage in this household. They've dominated the Christmas wish list for the past two years. Thankfully, Santa has come through big time (with a little help from DPO) in delivering the kids favorite Star Wars lego sets.

11) Birthday parties (DiploBoy)- Kids have a spoiled life here and parents do their fair share in spoiling them with extravagant birthday parties. Our checkbook was thankful that DiploBoy was content with a sleepover in April. Three of his best buddies came over for the hedonistic yet economical birthday bash.  DiploBoy was also invited to many birthday parties himself, including one at a mansion.




10) Riding camel in Petra (DiploBrother)- This is one of those once-in-a-lifetime experiences. Something tells me it won't be the first and last time for this jet-setting five-year-old. Our camel ride in Petra, Jordan in November was a highlight for the whole family!




9) Pajama party at school (DiploBrother)- Many parents don't exactly know what transpired at this party on the last day of the semester but something tells us it wasn't the most rigorous day of academic learning. I'm thinking the Embassy should do something similar.  

8) Preschool graduation (DiploBrother)- The younger sibling was oozing pride at this celebration back in May. His teachers noted his calm demeanor and adherence to class rules, and duly predicted that he would become a future Supreme Court justice.




7) Golan steaks (DiploMom)- Finally, a food experience cracks the list! There were actually many culinary highlights over the past year but one of the most tasty meals was at a steakhouse way up in the northernmost nook of Israel back in September. The bovine was divine!

6) Mom's visit (DiploMom)- The two-week visit in November was packed and went by oh-so-quickly. One of the highlights was a 4x4 jeep tour in the spectacular desert landscape of Wadi Rum, Jordan. There were a few bumps in the road (when there was one) both literally a figuratively but this visit meant a lot for all of us.




5) Seeing President Obama (DiploMom)- During the President's official visit in March, he took the time for an informal meet-and-greet of mission employees and family. DiploMom couldn't get close enough for a handshake but it was an unforgettable experience nevertheless.

4) R&R in Colorado (DiploDad)- We only had two weeks of vacation this past summer but we made the most of it. My parents graciously hosted us one of the weeks at this lake house in Grand Lake, Colorado. We also got our fill of Mexican food and shopping and were able to make a brief stopover in Raleigh to see more family.




3) Celebrating Sukkot (DiploDad)- One of things I will miss most from of our time in Israel are the festive Jewish holidays. The seven-day holiday holiday of sukkot is marked by gatherings in makeshift outdoor structures. In September I was on two occasions the invited guest of Israelis who embody the country's religious and political diversity.

2) Israeli Elections (DiploDad)- Reporting on the campaigns and January 22 elections were the ultimate for a political junkie like me. I relished this role and really made my mark on a series of cables that I produced. I couldn't think of a better start for my Foreign Service career.

1) Nimrod's Castle (DiploDad)- This wasn't the best thing from the last year but it was the first. Why not highlight the memorable trip to the Golan Heights that ushered in 2013? We spent New Year's Day exploring the ruins of this old Crusader-era castle on a picture perfect day.    




So, there's our baker's dozen from 2013. It was an amazing year on so many levels. It's hard to think that 2014 could top it but who knows. Happy New Year!

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

"Live in the Sunshine. Swim the Sea. Drink the Wild Air."

You're right, those aren't my words. They belong to the famous poet Ralph Waldo Emerson. I won't pretend to be so literary either. All it took was one quick Google search when I was thinking how to describe my Labor Day weekend. Here's a recap:

Saturday: Spent most of the day by the pool at the community rec center close to where we live. It felt more like our own private club though as our fellow embassy expats likely sought refuge indoors from the midday heat or missile strikes. Although the temperature has risen both literally and figuratively in this neck of the woods, we continue to live by our motto from last year's Gaza fracas: "Keep calm and carry on." Watching the kids frolic in the green grass was a nice way to spend the day.

(Imagine this scene with ten times less kids.) 


Sunday: I never picture myself living so close to a beach, let alone a premiere one along the Mediterranean Sea. I probably didn't imagine myself ever getting surfer rash either but I can now say I did from riding (and mostly crashing) some big waves on a boogie board. I also swam the sea for the first time without a hyper-cautious Israeli lifeguard blowing his whistle incessantly at me. Going to the beach on Sunday is positively blissful as most Israelis are back at work. But even when I'm at the office, I can still enjoy a beachfront view. My idyllic beach screensaver is right outside my window.
  
(Not my photo but you get the idea.)


Monday: Another precious gift from this past weekend was an incongruent holiday schedule, meaning the kids were at school while the DiploParents had the day off. So we packed our day with activities that our two boys would unquestionably complain and whine about if they were with us. We began with a three-hour hike in the rolling hills outside Jerusalem. After we washed down our quiche lunch of with gulps of the fresh, wild air. we visited a studio of a local artist. We are probably the farthest thing from art connoisseurs but that didn't stop us from leaving with an piece of Judaic art from Moshe.

(Moshe stands next to our newly acquired papercut of a Havdalah Spice Box Tower with Hebrew calligraphy inside. )
   
So, there you have it. I think Emerson's quote pretty much sums up the weekend. The best part is that we have an extended weekend getaway coming up for the Jewish New Year Holiday. I'll let you know what Google comes up with for that one.