mid-level bidding

A lot of the people who read this blog are friends and family who really just want to see pictures of the kids and make sure we haven’t fallen off the grid. But we were reminded of something a few weeks ago by our neighbors, who, possibly in a slight exaggeration, said that our blog was the reason they joined the foreign service (hi guys! Sorry about the sorry state of our lawn. We’ll totally clean it up soon). Some other visitors to this site are here to learn more about what it’s like to be in the Foreign Service. We know blogs were really important to us when we were going through the process to join. With this in mind, I wanted to write a post about mid-level bidding (that is, bidding for your third tour and beyond).

While there are some differences between bidding on your first tour and on your second, the process is largely the same: you get a list of available positions, you rank them in order along with a brief explanation of your overall goals, and then you send it to HR back in Washington. Then, over the period of a couple of weeks, somewhere in an office deep beneath Foggy Bottom (we assume), HR makes the assignments based on your preferences, the preferences of your fellow officers, and the needs of the Service. Then they tell you where you’re going. You’re either happy with it or you’re not (and most people are), but the process is relatively short and uncomplicated.

Bidding on your third tour is a different beast. You still have a list of available positions, but that’s where the similarities to entry-level bidding end. Instead of sending a list to HR who will make a decision, you basically job hunt: you create a resume, reach out to decision makers at each post, lobby individual bureaus, and create a list of references who will vouch that you’re a good officer and that you’d be a great addition to any office. Leading up to the day that official offers can be made (knows as handshakes), posts may contact you strongly hinting that they want to offer you a job (known as a wink) and asking if maybe you like them enough to consider accepting a hypothetical offer. If you wink back, then all you have to do is wait until handshake day to get your official offer and then post the news to Facebook.

But what if you don’t get a handshake? Don’t worry. Nobody is left without a job. You’re allowed to continue bidding on leftover positions or positions that get unexpectedly added to the list for several months before you’re eventually just assigned to go somewhere by HR (this last option rarely happens). We know officers who have gotten great assignments after handshake day and we know others who avoid most of this and only begin bidding once the first round of handshakes come out.

As a tandem, we not only had to go through all of those steps listed above, but we also had to make sure that everyone knew we were a package deal. We’d only accept offers if we both got them.

If this all sounds complicated, that’s because it is. And the State Department has started a new initiative to find ways to simplify and shorten the process while still meeting the needs of the service and allowing officers some degree of agency in their assignments.

Bidding worked out well for us this time, with both of us getting jobs in our cones at the same place. But we can’t help but look back fondly on the days when all we had to do was send HR a list and wait our assignment to appear in our inboxes.

Posted in FS Life, Tandem Issues | Tagged , | 6 Comments

onward to india

Not so fast! We do still have more than half a year left in Guadalajara. But, bidding ended in November, and despite all the craziness and frustration and stress, things actually turned out fine for us. We managed to achieve what we have come to think of as the triple crown of tandem bidding: two jobs in our respective cones (management for Andy, public diplomacy for me), at the same post, and in a place we are excited to discover.

Off to India we’ll go! Chennai specifically.

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According to the Interwebs, Chennai is known as the Detroit of India, so it’s probably destiny really. Andy’s going to have to take a bit of time away from his cheering for the Tigers, though, to learn enough cricket so as not to embarrass himself. Or me. Mostly me.

Have you even heard of Chennai? Probably not. Even though we have been talking about it for months, my mom still keeps accidentally calling Chennai China, which leads me to believe it’s not a place people most people know. We might not have heard it either if a family previously posted in Chennai hadn’t recently arrived in Guadalajara.

Well, let’s see. Chennai is India’s fourth largest city with 4.9 million people, making it larger than Los Angeles. It’s home to the world’s second largest urban beach. Tamil is the primary language spoken around town, although we won’t receive language training as most people also speak English. It’s located in a predominantly Hindu region, and thus is largely vegetarian.

Chennai is not as well-known or tourist friendly as someplace like Mumbai or New Delhi, but we were sold by the breathable air (a rarity these days in India), the great travel options both within India and throughout the region (cheap, direct flights to the Maldives, Bangkok, Dubai, Sri Lanka, Singapore, Malaysia and more), the prospect of doing our jobs in a language we feel mostly competent in (English), and the fact that by all accounts Chennai is both an interesting and a family friendly place to be.

We won’t know specifics about our housing for a quite a while, but we’ll likely be in a nice home with a large yard, in an area with a reasonable commute to the consulate. The school where Flynn will start kindergarten is supposedly great — although Andy is having trouble coming to terms with the fact that the tuition at his son’s elementary school is higher than his college’s. We don’t like to think of ourselves as those people. But, who are we kidding? We are going to be working two demanding jobs in a place with affordable household help, so we are already having conversations about how to structure the schedules of our A and B shift nannies. We probably became those people a long time ago.

Despite the benefits of this job and lifestyle, there are challenges too. For instance, as happy as we are to have wound up with India, as much as we’re looking forwarding to our jobs and all the curry we can eat,  I feel compelled to mention that it’s not what we originally sought. Since I know a lot of folks considering signing on to the Foreign Service peruse blogs like this one, I think it’s important to be honest about what worldwide availability really means. We originally wanted to stay in Latin America for the sake of our kids’ Spanish skills and to be closer to our families in the U.S. But two jobs that worked for us both weren’t easy to come by. And we’re worldwide available, after all. We get some say in where we wind up, but only so much.

During the course of bidding, we found ourselves asking questions like… Can we justify taking our kids to a critical crime post… somewhere armed muggings and in-home invasions are the norm? Is that a risk we’re willing to take in order to allow them to maintain their Spanish? Or would a sleepy, safe post somewhere else in the world be better, even though there they would have to take malaria meds with unknown long-term consequences? What about a lively, bustling city that we would surely enjoy, but with air pollution so bad that the kids could develop asthma or worse? These are the kinds of things we Foreign Service Officers weigh, not whether we would prefer waffles in Belgium or baguettes in Paris.

People hear that we’re diplomats and sometimes assume we are going to fancy functions in Vienna or Prague, but the reality is that there are many, many, many more countries in the world than those in Western Europe. And, usually, the diplomats who end up in Western Europe served somewhere like Pakistan or Iraq first, something that Andy or I could do too if we wanted, but that would involve living away from our children for a year — a sacrifice we are not willing at this point to make. But some people are. Because we Foreign Service Officers (and families) all do make sacrifices… it’s just a question of which ones.

To be sure, there are perks to our jobs — like the nannies, like Flynn’s expensive kindergarten, like being paid to do work that’s meaningful and interesting — but there are always sacrifices and hardships too. This time around, we are sacrificing our kids’ Spanish skills and proximity to the U.S. in order to serve our country in a place that is safe, with good medical care and no major health hazards.

Speaking of hardships — hardships far worse than any we know — if you’ve been paying attention to the news lately, you have probably seen that Chennai is currently being attacked by the worst flooding in 100 years. Please keep the people of Chennai in your thoughts.

Posted in FS Life, Personal, Public Diplomacy, Tandem Issues | 1 Comment

chivas

With Flynn officially part of his own soccer team (or Mexican Football, as he calls it), I had been thinking it was time I took him to a soccer game. Then, while sitting at home one Sunday morning, trying to figure out what to do with the kids that day, I decided to see if Guadalajara’s most famous soccer club, las Chivas, were in town. As luck would have it, not only were they in town, but kids got in free that night. So I headed down to the stadium and bought tickets.

on our way!
on our way!

Even though Flynn was initially disappointed that the “surprise” I came home with didn’t involve chocolate, he eventually got excited (especially when I told him there might be chocolate things to buy at the game). I’ve taken Flynn to a few baseball games and even a high school hockey game, so I knew that the keys to making sure he had a good time were to get seats where he could see and to keep the snacks coming. With that in mind, we set out to the game, both decked out in Chivas red.

Chivas plays a new, modern stadium on the outskirts of Guadalajara that’s only a short drive from our house. I’d been there earlier that morning to buy the tickets, but Flynn was excited to see a soccer field that was even bigger than the one where he played, and even bigger than a house.

not exactly a chivas jersey, but it's the best we could do
not exactly a chivas jersey, but it’s the best we could do

The game was exciting and Flynn paid more attention than ever. He stood up and cheered when Chivas scored. He liked looking at the section where everyone was waiving flags and he told me that the goalies were wearing different shirts so no one would kick them when they went to pick up the ball.

Much to Flynn’s disappointment, Mexico, or at least Estadio Omnilife, has not quite caught on to the trend in American stadiums to offer as many different kinds of foods as possible. There was pizza and hot dogs, popcorn and chips, but not much else. Especially not the ice cream I promised Flynn.

somehow he survived
somehow he survived

The wonderful thing about soccer games is that from start to finish, they are over in two hours. This is especially great when you’re with a four year old. The game was winding down at just about the time that Flynn decided to lay down on the seats. We grabbed a taxi and headed home, Flynn happily spilling his potato chips in the back of the cab, and me determining that I was going to buy Flynn a real Chivas jersey one day.

Posted in Kids, Mexico | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

vallarta vacation

When we found out we were coming to Guadalajara, I had visions of jetting off to Puerto Vallarta on a pretty regular basis. It looks so close on a map, after all! And it will be so close once the currently under construction super highway is completed, but in the meantime, the trip involves quite a ways on a windy, one lane mountain road where getting stuck behind a truck can turn your 4.5 hour drive into a 7.5 hour one. Seeing as how we have young children and thus car trips aren’t particularly enjoyable, and seeing as how Andy grows increasingly curmudgeonly with each additional minute we are stuck behind said aforementioned truck(s), we pushed off our Vallarta vacation again and again and again. But you can’t be in Guadalajara and not make it to Vallarta, you know? So, finally, we went.

Flynn discovered a love of boogie boarding.

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And giant water slides.

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We soaked in some street scenes.

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In the interest of full disclosure, I must admit that I bribed Flynn with cotton candy to let me take this shot. (Worth it.)

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There is no greater joy than a two year old about a throw a fist full of sand.

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We searched for seashells by the seashore.
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Jonah tired of my photo taking.

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We met baby sea turtles and then watched them being released out into the sea.

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We embarked on a pirate ship.

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And met crazy creatures.

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And went on a treasure hunt.

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And of course, spent time on the beach.

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We even shared our ice cream!

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And came home with loads of seashells.

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Will we return again during our stay in Guadalajara? Honestly, probably not. Manzanillo is just way easier.

Posted in Kids, Mexico, Travel | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

yep, still alive

Where has the time gone? In the last — what, six months? — since our last post, we have:

Dropped the kids in Ohio for an adults only trip to the Yucatan.

Tulum!
Tulum!

Explored the colorful colonial town of San Miguel de Allende.

Smiles in San Miguel.
Smiles in San Miguel.

Celebrated America’s birthday on a Mexican beach.

Lucky little boys.
Lucky little boys.

Turned two (Jonah).

I'm two!
I’m two!

Turned four (Flynn).

Pinatas!
Pinatas!

Entertained some guests.

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Taken a Mom and Flynn only trip to Connecticut and New York City.

Future Yalie.
Future Yalie.

And much more!

Mostly, we’ve just been living the good life here in Guadalajara and counting our blessings for what we still think is the nicest Foreign Service posting we’ll ever see.

(Can you tell bidding season and all its related stress and pessimism is upon on? More about that later.)

Anything here you want to know more about? Let us know in the comments. Otherwise, we’ll try to resume regular glimpses into life in Guadalajara soon.

 

Posted in FS Life, Mexico, Travel | 1 Comment

five good, five bad (guadalajara version)

In anticipation of summer bidding and transfer season, here’s our contribution to the latest ‘five good, five bad” series by Foreign Service bloggers posted around the globe. You may remember our prior post about Cotonou. Now, here’s our take on Guadalajara.

The Good

1. Living is easy: The weather is pleasant year-round. Housing is good. Commute times are reasonable (20-30 minutes). Mexicans are pleasant and generally like Americans. There are Wal-Marts, Costcos, malls, etc., making it fairly simple to find just about anything you would need. Internet is fast. There are movie theaters, museums, a zoo and things to do galore. This isn’t America, but it’s in no way a hardship post. It’s got much of the culture you’d find in Mexico City, but the city is a more manageable size.

2. Good food is plentiful: Mexican food is of course delicious. I’m partial to fish tacos and street churros. But, there are also plenty of American chains and lots of international options. And there’s a pretty well developed foodie culture, meaning you can have a fancy meal for far less than you would in a major American city. Your palate won’t suffer here.

3. Household help is affordable: Despite having most of the comforts of America, household help is also very reasonable. You can employ a full-time nanny for $600-$800/month, for instance.

4. Travel is easy and cheap: There are direct flights to a number of major American cities (Atlanta, Chicago, Dallas and Portland, to name just a few) and other international vacation spots at well (think Cabo, Cancun, Panama). If you’re willing to transfer once, you can fly just about anywhere. It’s also safe to drive to a number of weekend and day trip spots: Lake Chapala, the mountain town of Tapalpa, the lovely European-like city of Guanajuato and more.

5. Kids are king: This is seriously  the most kid-friendly place I think I’ve ever been. Even teenage boys and grandfatherly men coo at babies on the street. Most restaurants have play areas for kids and some even have on-site nannies. Kids aren’t seen as a nuisance when you’re out and about as they sometimes are in the U.S.

 The Not Quite as Good

1. Outdoor playground options aren’t quite up to snuff: Let me preface this by saying that in Benin, we would have been thrilled to have any one of the dozens and dozens of play options available to us here in Guadalajara. There are mall playgrounds. There are parks with bouncy castles and trampolines. There are amusement parks. There are Chuck E. Cheese like establishments. And there ARE outdoor playgrounds, it’s just that most seem leftover from the 1970s when metal structures with cement bases were for some reason the norm. I miss padded American playgrounds where my clumsy toddlers can run and fall without scraping themselves up too badly.

2. The beach is a little too far: When we bid on Guadalajara, I had visions of spending every weekend in Puerto Vallarta. Turns out it’s a good six-hour drive away. It’s really too far for a weekend trip; we haven’t yet been there. There are some other beach options a bit closer (Chacala, Manzanillo, Sayulita, etc.), but nothing closer than four hours away which is hard to do on a regular weekend with little kids. Not a real hardship, I know, but still a small gripe.

3. It’s hard to escape Americana: It’s a little too easy to live in an American bubble here, hanging out at the pool in your neighborhood, shopping at Wal-Mart, going out to dinner at Outback. Mexican culture is out there, and it’s completely our own fault when we don’t take advantage of it, but sometimes I wish so many temptations didn’t exist.

4. It’s hard to break into Mexican social circles: Our experience, and that of pretty much everyone else we know, has been that while our Mexican neighbors are friendly and will say hello as we pass them on the street, and sometimes stop to chat for a bit, they won’t invite us over for dinner; they have no interest in a closer friendship. Mexicans, at least in Guadalajara, spend weekends with extended family and friends they’ve had since childhood. Seeing as how our two countries are already so close, we’re not novelties as Americans; they’re not really that interested in investing time in people who will be leaving after two or three years. That leaves us to socialize pretty much exclusively with other expats. That’s not entirely bad either. It’s pretty cool that Flynn’s BFF is from Japan. But still, we wish we had more Mexican friends.

5. The lack of seasons: Of course, we knew this going in. I’m really stretching to come up with cons here — can you tell? Guadalajara is seriously a great post! But, we do really miss fall and winter. Guadalajara cools down enough that you’ll wear long sleeves and jeans for a bit, but you’ll never break out a winter coat. You’ll never see snow.

Of course, this is just one family’s take after our first nine months. Take it for what it’s worth.

Let the bidding begin!

Posted in FS Life, Kids, Personal, Travel | 3 Comments

some thoughts on mexico city

I’ve been working in Mexico City for the past three weeks. To be honest, I’d never really thought much about Mexico City before. I never thought to vacation there because… who vacations there rather than Playa del Carmen? I’d never thought to live there because… I don’t know; I just didn’t. But now, it’s pretty much my dream post. I’d rather go to Mexico City than any of the big western European capitals. Really.

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Why? Well, there’s as much culture and development as in those places, but it’s all way more accessible. My morning bus ride cost less than 10 cents. A 15-minute taxi ride was about $3. Sure, you can go to high-end clothing stores or super fancy restaurants and spend what you’d spend in Madrid, all that exists in Mexico City too, but you don’t have to. And you can have full-time household help for the same price as in Guadalajara — with kids, that’s key.

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Guadalajara is a great post and a great place to live, but I came away from my stay in Mexico City thinking that Guadalajara is Atlanta to Mexico City’s NYC. Guadalajara is preppy. Mexico City is hipster. In Guadalajara, outdoor playgrounds are substandard because it’s just not much of an outdoor playground sort of culture. Mall playgrounds are way better because you get in your car and go to malls; that’s just what people do. The wealthy live in gated communities, whereas in Mexico City they live in brownstones or swanky apartments. People walk in Mexico City. There are sideway cafes to walk to. There’s also a thriving public transportation system and parks and playgrounds galore (better than most in the U.S., actually).

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Anyway, keep Mexico City in mind next time you bid. It really is a hidden gem. Or don’t. Actually, it’s awful. Definitely don’t bid on it. Then our odds of getting ourselves posted there will be better. :)

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Posted in Mexico, Travel, Welcome | 3 Comments

scenes from the europe of mexico

Nearly a month after our trip to Guanajuato, I still haven’t uploaded all of our photos. But it’s now or never, so here’s a taste of the place I can only describe as the closest to Europe you’re going to find in Mexico. Cobblestone streets. Quaint alleyways. Squares bustling with mariachi singers and outdoor diners. I’d honestly never heard of the place, so I was surprised to overhear so much American English being spoken around town. A hidden gem, no more. But not yet a tourist trap either. Go quick!

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Posted in FS Life, Mexico, Travel | Leave a comment

our mexican digs

We were leaving our first post when I realized I’d never gotten around to really decorating. We were kind of busy those years. I blame the baby in our house, and then one in my belly. I blame our long medevac and then the fact that my husband moved back stateside early. But still, I swore I’d never do that again. It’s important that a home feels like a home, especially in this lifestyle.

I did a passable job of accomplishing this during our stint in DC, in a house we bought, with furniture we bought, but now we’re at post once again, six months in actually, and have I gotten things set up in a way I’m happy with yet? Nope.

I kept waiting to share scenes from our home with you three loyal blog readers until I did consider the place finished, but finally I’ve accepted that this probably isn’t going to ever happen. So, without further ado, scenes from our somewhat homely home…

Welcome.
Welcome.

 

The entryway, again.
The entryway, again.

 

Living room.
Living room.

 

The play room.
The downstairs play room.
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Dining room.
The kitchen.
The kitchen.

 

Upstairs landing.

 

Flynn's room.
Flynn’s room.

 

More of Flynn's room.
More of Flynn’s room. 
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Master bedroom.

 

Master closet, which is actually even bigger than it appears.
Master closet, which is actually even bigger than it appears.
Master bathroom.
Master bathroom.
Mom's bedroom.
Mom’s bedroom.

 

Jonah's bedroom.
Jonah’s bedroom.

Not pictured: maid’s quarter, many bathrooms and small backyard. But you get the idea.

Posted in House, Mexico, Personal | 7 Comments