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

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

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.

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

The Pros and Pros of My Onward Assignment


The envelope please...And the location of my next tour goes to...Mexico City!

I know it's not so momentous when the news is two weeks old. Many readers of this blog already learned of the winner when Mrs. DiploDad broke the news on her Facebook page. Saying I got scooped is an understatement. But what seems like laziness is actually caginess on my part. I couldn't just put out some knee-jerk reaction. I had to process the news and this blog needed time to age like a fine wine...or like that jar of salsa with the blooming white mold that I forgot in the fridge.    

Don't worry. I'm very happy about getting Mexico City. Truth be told, I ranked it numero uno among several dozen other viable spots on my bid list. While I didn't devise a complex algorithm for weighing all the pros and cons of the various locations, there was one factor that stood out: it offers the best chance of Mrs. DiploDad and I serving together. This is our top priority moving forward as a tandem couple in the Foreign Service. More on that later.

I've heard a lot of good things about living and working in Mexico City based on the numerous post reports I read. Food and culture appear to top the list. Finally mastering Spanish is also a big plus. I am hoping that my two young kids will also achieve some level of fluency since their minds are still considerably more supple than mine at this point in life.  Not to be overlooked, Mexico City will be a relatively short 3.5 hour direct fight to home for occasional holidays and long weekends.

Mexico City obviously comes with some drawbacks. I'd rather not invite any second guessing by listing them here. Besides those kinds of lists tend to lead to problems. Remember that episode of Friends when Ross made up the list of pros and cons about Rachel? Wait, did I really just use a 90s sitcom as rationale? That scene was probably the fifth most cheesiest one I have provided a link to in this blog. Please tell my wife to block me and my 7-year-old son from random YouTube searches, especially the ones that involve poorly choreographed flash mobs.

For this reason, I am going to continue to bask in the positives of my onward assignment, at least until it comes time to actually pack up and move. That brings me to the emerging plan for Mr. and Mrs. DiploDad. It will likely entail some time apart but we hope it will be minimal.

In July 2014, the Mrs. will hopefully return to the U.S. to begin her A-100 orientation class, assuming the federal government is still operating and the State Department is still hiring. At that time she will also hopefully receive a bid list with Mexico City on it. The chances are good it will be, but we won't know for sure if we are both going to Mexico City or somewhere else until her Flag Day later in August. By that time, I will be back in the States on home leave and will be one of the nervous spouses sitting in the audience when she receives her assignment. We also need a bit more luck as timing is important too. If all goes according to plan, we both will do a 24-week course of Spanish. I'll then take a consular training course and will depart for Mexico City  towards the end of March, hopefully around the same time as the rest of the family. We'll see...

This is all a long ways off and it's best not to dwell too much on all the hypotheticals. For now, I am just focused on my work and life in Tel Aviv, which will be one year as of tomorrow. It's been a great first tour and I think my second tour will also be rewarding. Until then, viva la Mexico!

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Cure for Bad Blogger Syndrome: Bidding Season!

Guilty as charged. I won't even try to offer a good excuse. Yeah, I was a little busy when President Obama was here--two months ago. Nothing good to blog about? Spring break in Austria. Nice try. Malaise? An utterly fascinating political environment which I cover. Next. Writer's block? Perhaps, but I compose plenty of prose every day so surely the English language doesn't escape me once I leave the office. Lazy? Getting closer. My wife and I do love us some Netflix. Lack of discipline? Perhaps. 

I think I just need to come to grips that I will never be a serial blogger. I've noticed too many other blogs go dark after a period of time. I need to accept that my blog fell victim to the daily routine. Is it bad that I want to spend time with my family and decompress when I'm not at work. Now this blog is starting to sound like some kind of therapy. As the cast of video game characters say in this clip from Wreck it Ralph, "I'm bad, and that's good. I will never be good and that's not bad."

Luckily, I have found a cure, at least temporarily, for my bad blogger syndrome: the yuletide season of Foreign Service bidding has arrived! I felt like a kid on Christmas morning several weeks ago when the summer bid list came out. Sugar plum assignments in exotic locations danced in my head and at last I could begin plotting my strategy for where I will end up for my second tour. Before I go any further, I will provide a brief run-down of the process.

The new list had over 500 open positions from seemingly every place in the world. I now must rank order 30 positions and send my list off to an all-powerful career development officer who will determine my next assignment. 

Stop right here before you start thinking about visiting me in Paris between 2014 and 2016. Not gonna happen. For starters, I must serve in a consular position for my next job so that pretty much cuts the list in half. My time in training is also limited for my next assignment so I won't be spending a year learning a hard language. Sayonara, Japan. The real kicker though is timing. Every position on the list has a TED, or time of estimated departure. I have to bid on positions that fall within a certain one or two month window. As you can surmise, the list has winnowed down considerably. 

That's not all. The order of bidding is done according to what is known as equity, or the degree of hardship one experienced in his or her first post. It's only fair that fellow first-tour officers who didn't have a cushy post like Tel Aviv should get to bid before me. I do serve in a rough neighborhood and last year's bout of missiles has earned me some hardship "cred" though. Nonetheless, I have to wait until a second round before I can bid. In a few days, I should receive the revised list and will finally be able to assemble my bid list.

I believe my expectations are realistic and I think I will be quite pleased with what is still available. I won't mention any possibilities now because I don't want to jinx myself. I will, however, surely announce the outcome when I know in late June or early July. Then comes the next blog in which I will try to explain how I will align my second tour with the first tour of Mrs. DiploDad, who will officially become a Foreign Service Officer in her own right very soon.

So, I guess there is plenty to blog about. Stay tuned!  


Saturday, November 24, 2012

"Keep Calm and Carry On"


That was the motto my wife and I adopted during Israel's mini-war with Gaza last week. It seemed to suit our predicament pretty well. Even though the occasional air raid sirens and booms were rather unnerving, we knew the chances of a rocket hitting us were minuscule. We also knew that we couldn't hide in our basement and just hope that it would all go away. So we found ways to cope the best we could and make light of the situation. Here's how we kept calm and carried on.

The morning after Israel launched the military operation, a colleague was riding into work with an Israeli driver who was, of course, listening to the news in Hebrew.  Our colleague asked him what the newscaster was saying.  The driver didn't know how to translate into English the name being given to the operation, so he translated it as Pole of Clouds.  (He meant Pillar of Cloud, which according to the Torah guided the Israelites during the exodus to Egypt.)  So, when things looked pretty grim for a few days, we'd try to remember that really it's all just a Pole of Clouds.  That seemed to soften it a bit, or at least made us giggle.

What really made us laugh last week was our two boys lip-syncing various songs in our living room the one day they stayed home from school. Unfortunately, they got hooked on the song "Gangnam Style," or as they call it Gum-Gum Style. I'm happy the Korean rap scene has apparently taken off but for the love of Yahweh, Mohammed and Jesus, I really don't want to hear my 4-year-old say "Hey, sexy lady" to his mom any more.

Another thing we did to clear our heads was get outside. Yes, even though the country was technically at war and rockets were raining down in the south and the miraculous Iron Dome system was intercepting rockets above major cities, we were fairly removed from all the action in our townhouse 30 minutes to the north of Tel Aviv. Life was actually absurdly normal around where we lived. Throughout the week, I saw people sitting at cafes sipping cappuccinos and even observed a sea kayaking class one day. 

As "non-essential" staff, we were home for most of the week while the boys happily trudged off to school further up north. Although we were busy checking our blackberries for the latest information and reporting tidbits to our overworked colleagues, we basically had the better part of the week all to ourselves. I won't sugar coat the "stay-cation" too much though. The tension was there. The unknowns. The "what ifs." On a purely selfish level, I was also sullen that this war had overtaken the national agenda. I yearned for my issues to be back on the table. Well, I got my wish late last week and work is back in full swing now. 

Looking back, I'd like to think that this experience made us stronger, at least from the standpoint of getting more exercise than usual. Running on the beach one day got me thinking of this training scene from Rocky III. I too imagined myself "getting stronger" both mentally and physically. Don't ask me where Apollo Creed or Mr. T fit in. Just allow me to indulge in my movie fantasies through this blog. Can I at least get a shout out from other 80s aficionados out there? 

Sunday, October 28, 2012

My "wake-up call" from Gordon Gekko


The movie "Wall Street" remains one of my all-time favorites. If you don't recall, it was Oliver Stone's cinematic portrayal of 1980s excess and get-rich-quick schemes. The plot centered around a young stockbroker who becomes infatuated with power and money personified by a ruthless corporate raider named Gordon Gekko who cooly delivered the memorable "greed is good" line. Throw in some sex and, as a pre-pubescent at the time, I was very impressionable to the movie's themes. While I didn't aspire to become a business tycoon or even a guy who deals with money for a living, the movie did make me want to be close to the action and feel influential one day.  

Fast forward a quarter century and here I am working as a political officer in one of the most strategically important embassies in the world. I won't deny that this job bestows quite a sense of self-importance but it doesn't mean I haven't felt insecure. You see, for a while I wasn't exactly sure what I was supposed to be doing. I've already described some of my growing pains in a previous blog. But now after a solid three months on the job, I am beginning to figure it out in part by relating my day-to-day work with the movie's main character, Bud Fox, who was played by a then relatively normal Charlie Sheen. 

Just as a Wall Street stockbroker obsessively watches the prices of stocks rise and fall, I've learned how to follow the ups and downs of political actors in Israel. I too identify and forecast trends, but in a political market, and the clients to whom I "sell" certain commodities are in the U.S. Embassy and State Department. What kind of commodities might you ask? According to Gordon Gekko, the most valuable commodity is information, which he means as inside information. Now it's getting juicy. 

In the movie, Bud Fox compromises his integrity to enrich himself and Gordon Gekko. He spies. He lies. He cheats. Spoiler alert: don't worry about where I'm going with this. I haven't sold U.S. national security for a shekel. I merely mention it because the information Bud Fox and I seek doesn't show up on the front page of the Wall Street Journal or Jerusalem Post. The information is often an informed perspective, a candid opinion or an illuminating remark. But the difference is we have to go get it. 

Fortunately, shmoozing at cocktail parties isn't the main part of the job for an introvert like me. Instead, I've learned the more delicate art of building connections with people in the know, carefully cultivating a relationship with them and asking them targeted questions when appropriate. The first step almost always involves patient persistence in getting my foot in the door. That's why I like the scene when Bud Fox's lands his first financial transaction with Gekko and shouts triumphantly "I just bagged the elephant!" In recent weeks, I have felt the same surge of adrenaline after getting a meeting or quote from a desirable source. 

My newfound trade craft will certainly be utilized with Israeli elections coming up in January and shifting electoral alliances in full bloom. Who will be the winners and losers? What does will it mean for U.S. interests? These are the questions that literally keep me up at night. 

One of my other favorite scenes from the movie is the phone call Bud Fox receives from Gordon Gekko. "Money never sleeps, pal," Gekko begins while standing on the beach with an obscenely large mobile phone. "You know how the game works now," Gekko continues and then admonishes "This your wake-up call. Time to go to work." The haunting music then comes in as Gekko hangs up to watch the sunrise.

Israeli politics never sleep either. Indeed, time for me to go to work. (I just won't sell my soul doing it.)

Sunday, September 30, 2012

Good Life: Part 2


Last summer as I embarked on the start of my Foreign Service career, I blogged about the good life I had enjoyed and how blessed I was to have a wonderful family who supported me. More than a year later, the same feeling remains. I'm still livin' the dream. 

The past month was another chapter of the good life. Two of the highlights that immediately come to mind were a weekend getaway to Istanbul and a brief visit to Jerusalem. Over Rosh Hashanah a quick two hour plane brought us to the amazing sights of the Ottoman empire. We saw magnificent mosques and toured decadent palaces. My kids didn't appreciate the architectural marvels and ornate aesthetics as much but were mostly content throughout the trip. The previous weekend the family also made its first pilgrimage to Jerusalem. We were able to tour the Western Wall complex and stroll through the Old City before returning home late that afternoon. We will be back many more times to see .    

These were trips of a lifetime but a number of everyday experiences have left a more indelible mark on my spirits. Weekend excursions to beautiful nearby beaches have reminded me of boyhood vacations at my grandparents' in South Florida. Biking to and from work with my wife along the Mediterranean has become a pleasant diversion from the normal commute. Visiting my kids' classrooms has left me feeling very positive about their education. Coming home to a clean house and home cooked meal has reassured me that we made a good choice for our domestic help.

The good life in Israel is almost all encompassing. J and I were actually hard pressed the other night to come up with a major drawback of being posted here. We suppose the prices could be cheaper. It's still hard to swallow paying at least $150 in groceries every week and gas costs more than $8 per gallon. The kids' bus ride is also long and an early morning pickup means I have to drag them out of bed every morning. But that's really about it. I can't complain too much.

I'd like to think that the honeymoon stage of my first tour has passed and that these feelings will not wear off anytime soon. I'm sure our remaining twenty-one months will have their share of ups and downs. We do feel homesick once and a while but then there's always another sunset behind the palm tree in our back yard. Life is good.