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

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

Saturday, May 13, 2017

Farewell to Mexico: Part Two

Look closely at Mexico's flag and you'll see an eagle clutching a snake. I don't usually liken myself or my family to serpents but that emblazoned image represents some of our sentiments about the country. Mexico, symbolized by the eagle, really sunk its claws into us too. Don't be alarmed. I mean that in a good way.

It was bittersweet saying goodbye on March 1 to all our fond friends, familiar faces, and food fixes. My son cried at his school's touching farewell and our nanny was teary to see us (and our dog) go. Our last supper that night was at our favorite hole-in-the-wall taco joint. We left on a high note.

It's taken me until now to give Mexico a proper (and mushy) farewell. I don't have an excuse for my procrastination. I did recently complete a photo album of our two years spent there so that labor of love surely provided some sense of closure and motivation to reflect. All the pictures of beach trips also reminded me how good we had it. DC seems like a hardship post in comparison. 

The transition back to life in America has been relatively smooth. We moved into an apartment precisely two floors below where we were previously lived and enrolled the boys in the same public school they left two years prior. Three days later DiploMom was in Arabic class and I was in functional training for my next job. We quickly reconnected with old friends and made new ones in the kid-friendly confines of Oakwood housing. We had instantaneous access to hundreds of English-language channels (for better and worse) and all the comforts of home.

Yet we often reminisce about our former lives in Mexico City, sometimes lamenting an over-priced meal eating out, other times just out of the blue. We went to an authentic Mexican restaurant several weeks ago and the boys ordered beef tongue tacos without a second thought. The older son then proceeded to speak in Spanish for the whole meal. You can take the boy out of Mexico, but you can't take the Mexico out of the boy.

All this nostalgia is somewhat surprising considering Mexico was just supposed to be our "visa tour," a way station between coveted in-cone postings. Living by the Mediterranean and working on high-profile issues in Israel was a tough act to follow. And landing tandem gigs in Oman, the hidden jewel of Arabia, was a coup in itself. There's just something about Mexico though.     

One thing I learned very well during my 25,000-plus visa adjudications in Mexico City was how to ascertain ties to the country as grounds for approving or refusing a visa applicant. It's safe to say that any one of my former consular colleagues would have issued visas to us. Although we are full-blooded Americans, a piece of our heart will always be in Mexico.

Hasta pronto!    

Monday, February 20, 2017

Farewell to Mexico (Part 1)

Our time in Mexico is coming to a close so it's best that I take some time to reflect on what a wonderful two years it has been. Sorry to gloat and gush again.

Adjudicating over twenty thousand visas has sapped all abilities to churn out witty prose so I'm going to rely on some of my favorite photos. One of the things on my to-do list to make an album to preserve some memories. I'll add more context in the next part to this blog.

I'm going to begin with the food since eating in such a culinary capital was a highlight of the tour.

Mexico City was a sight in itself with towering buildings set aside iconic monuments and public plazas that boggled the mind.


Along with history and haute culture, came Mexico's popular past time known as "Lucha Libre." Words really can't describe the spectacle as it's really something left best to experience.

Pre-Colombian history also added to the mystique of Mexico. One of the world's largest pyramids sits right outside the city and other ruins are scattered across the country.

Next comes the beaches--which everyone knows about--but only when you live in Mexico do you get to sample a variety and decide which you like best: all-inclusive hedonism, secluded getaway, colonial charm, and underwater odyssey.


The public markets in Mexico are a feast for the eyes.

Our favorite holiday was Dia de los Muertos, during which time the whole country is awash with color and festivities.

The was no shortage of churches and other architectural wonders upon which to gaze and gawk.

One of the most memorable trips was to visit the winter home of millions of monarch butterflies.

This was just a sampling of the experiences we had in Mexico. There are so many pictures to post so I'll leave it here for now as we bid a fond farewell to our home for the past two years.

Wednesday, August 10, 2016

Tour Two Sweet Spot

I started this blog post back in May but lost the motivation to see it through. I'd like to think the title still applies so I'm picking it up a few months later. Don't expect anything that will join the pantheon of all-time blog posts as I can't really say that I have some newfound inspiration. Just wanted to do something productive on a sick day. With that I'll set the bar low and aim for mediocrity. 

Today marks 17 months since we arrived in Mexico City and we have a little less than seven months to go. We've settled into life in the big bustling metropolis and we don't have to get ready to pack up and leave anytime soon (though DiploWife has recently been feeling the urge to purge). We've learned the ropes in our jobs and are enjoying a normal workday routine. We already have our next assignment and won't be consumed by all the stress of bidding over the coming months. Our plans for next year in DC (March-July), Colorado (early August) and Oman (late August) are also starting to take some shape. In short, we're enjoying a period of relative stability and complacency in a lifestyle replete with change and uncertainty.

Adding to that, Mexico City has really grown on us as a fantastic place to live, quite possibly topping the list of big cities we have called home for more than one year. True it has its fair share of annoyances but it also has its own special character and redeeming qualities. Sunday morning runs or bike rides down the leafy downtown promenade almost makes one forget about battling weekday traffic through the concrete jungle. The vibrant informal street markets mask some of the eye sores of overpopulation and underemployment. Cultural activities ranging from the folkloric ballet to lucha libre wrestling are a spectacle in and of themselves. All this and I haven't even mentioned the food.   

The DiploBoys are also happy and doing well in their small bilingual school, which offers a feeling of close community. Their friendships have expanded our own social circles beyond the usual Embassy and expat crowd. They seem to have grasped everyday Spanish and they relish pointing out and mimicking our gringo accents. That said, they have gotten a healthy dose of (Norte)Americana over the past six weeks, spending ample time with grandparents, cousins and relatives in Colorado. It's been a win-win summer for everyone, including the DiploParents who have taken advantage of their utter lack of responsibility to visit boring museums, take long road trips, and eat in front of the TV as much as possible. Life returns to some sense of normalcy next week when the kids are back and we resume our god-given rights of parental nagging. 

The momentary convergence of wellness in these circles of work, life and family leads me to believe we have found our sweet spot for this tour. We'll surely look back fondly on this carefree time in the coming months and years. Just need a nostalgic song to remind us. Cue the "Time of My Life" from Pitbull (I had to look that up on YouTube) or from the Dirty Dancing soundtrack (for all my fellow Gen Xers).

P.S. Well, this blog post didn't turn out too bad. I'm glad I made myself sit down and do it. I've feared this blog going dark like so many Foreign Service blogs do. At the very least this post relieves the guilt for a couple months. We'll see what kind of spot we are in next. 

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!