our picky eaters

We always envisioned that living overseas would open our kids’ minds to new experiences – and it has. They learned to speak fluent Spanish (even though they promptly forgot all of it as soon as we left Mexico). We’ve noticed Jonah using an Indian head shake on more than one occasion. Because he goes to an international school, Flynn knows the names of more countries than most teenagers in the US, not to mention their flags. (But let’s not talk about how many US states he knows. That number is just a bit low.)

The one area where living abroad hasn’t translated into more open minds is in their eating habits. They wouldn’t touch tacos in Mexico and haven’t seemed to develop a taste for biryani. In fact, the most foreign eating habit they have picked up was insisting on dipping their pizza in ketchup, which is both very common in Mexico and also quite gross. We thought they’d be eating American food forever, at least until a couple months ago. Mostly through peer pressure from his Japanese and Korean friends, Flynn has forced us to buy boxes and boxes of seaweed, which he happily eats as a snack. Jonah always tells us about all the chapati, curd rice, and beetroot he eats at school and is worried he won’t be able to find any in the US. Yesterday he was telling us about another food he had at school which sounded so exotic I had never even heard of it. Then I realized he was talking about tic tacs, but that’s another story.

Despite their sudden willingness to try new foods, we still find ourselves eating normal old American food most nights for dinner. It’s what we know how to cook. Tonight it was grilled chicken, carrots, and apples. Maybe tomorrow we’ll see if the kids will try that biryani, just as long as we have some PB&J and seaweed as a backup.

Posted in food, FS Life, India, Kids | Tagged , , | Comments Off on our picky eaters

where to now?

As I alluded to in my last post, we’re off to DC for our next tour. We’ll both depart next summer, hopefully at the same time, but probably not. As is always the case with tandems, our bidding this year was difficult. Alex was really competitive in places I wasn’t. I got really encouraging feedback from places where a job for Alex didn’t materialize. Ultimately we realized that our best bet this time was back in DC. Fortunately, we don’t feel like we’ve settled. Alex has a great job as a course instructor and I’ll be working as an assignments officer. No, I won’t decide who goes where, but I will learn the ins and outs of assignments, which will undoubtedly help us both down the road.

After four years abroad with little time between tours, going back to DC will also be a good opportunity to enjoy the US. No matter how great a tour is, we inevitably find ourselves missing the little things about home (Trader Joe’s is not a little thing, Alex would argue). While making dinner the other night, I thought about how great it would be to not have to shred my own cheese. I can make pot pies without also making the pie crust from scratch. I’m looking forward to running trails and not judging the seasons based primarily on how much rain there is.

We still have lots of time left in India and we plan to make the most of it. This is a big country and we still don’t feel like we know it as well as we’d like. As we learned from our last tour, a year can fly by so fast, especially when you start looking ahead to what’s next. We’re trying to focus on our time here and enjoy all the sights and sounds, but we have to admit, after getting home from a long day of work, we sure do miss having some Trader Joe’s meals in our freezer.

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buying pumpkin in july

Last summer, before we came to Chennai, we were at Target buying consumables (a shipment of goods like food and paper towels that we’re allowed to send if the local economy at post only has a limited selection). When got to the checkout, we noticed that the woman in front of us was wearing traditional west African prints and pushing a cart piled high with many of the same things we were buying. We made eye contact and we asked if she, too, was heading overseas. She laughed and said yes, then jokingly asked us how we could tell. Then she looked at our cart and said she had assumed the same thing about us. After all, why else would we be buying 12 cans of pumpkin in July?

Holidays in the Foreign Service can be hard. Not only are you away from extended family, but you’re also away from many of the small things that make the holidays what they are. That may include Thanksgiving day football games, neighborhood trick-or-treating, and, yes, the availability of canned pumpkin. One of the ways FSOs and their immediate families deal with this is by going all out and celebrating no matter how difficult is might be to recreate the scenes our extended families are enjoying back home.

This is especially true for those celebrations that are more uniquely American than others, like Halloween, Thanksgiving, or July 4th. Our first Halloween in the Foreign Service was spent in Cotonou where the holiday was practically unknown. Trick-or-treating in our neighborhood wouldn’t have yielded any candy for the kids and probably would have resulted in calls to the authorities. Undeterred, all of the parents and kids at post caravanned by car from one embassy house to the next, dressed in full costumes. When we pulled up to a traffic light, a group of gendarmes porting automatic rifles was standing on the sidewalk. I’ll never forget the confused look, then the laughs, as they peered into our cars to see groups of strange people dressed in even stranger costumes, from bananas to mummies. But we carried on. And back in the summer, we made sure to stock on up more pumpkin than I think we’ll ever use, just so we don’t risk missing out on pumpkin pie for Thanksgiving. We also paid a hefty premium for real Butterball turkeys when they were on sale from the commissary. It was worth it though. We had turkey and pumpkin pie (and pumpkin bread, and then pumpkin pancakes) for Thanksgiving.

We’re lucky that we’ve managed to spend our last few Thanksgivings at post with good friends. People support each other and come together to make the holidays happen. With turkey, cranberry sauce, and pumpkin everything, it felt like a real Thanksgiving even if it was 88 degrees outside and the kids still had school. I even made an effort to stay up to watch the Lions play (and failed; I was asleep before the 11:00 PM kickoff).

Next year we’ll be celebrating in the US as our next assignments will have us in Washington for two years. I’m sure we’ll still make that trip to Target to buy cans of pumpkin, but I doubt we’ll be thinking about it in July.

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hello there, india

We totally neglected to check in from DC. Sorry about that! Let’s just say that between multiple car accidents, an unanticipated surgery, receiving and sending shipments, many consumables shopping trips and more, we had a lot less free time than anticipated.

Still, the time stateside was nice. I reconnected with my good friends Target, TJ Maxx and Trader Joe’s (plus some actual good friends too). Andy went on long runs along the canal in Georgetown. Flynn started kindergarten and Jonah started preschool. Andy and the boys are still back in DC for another few weeks, actually, but as of a few days ago, I’m in India!

We are lucky to be assigned to the same post as a tandem couple. Actually traveling to that post at the same time would be too much to ask.

We thought about sending the boys with me but ultimately decided that me settling in and softening the landing for them later would be best for all–except perhaps for Andy who will be traveling across the world alone with two small children. If you see him, you might want to avoid asking his thoughts about that. Luckily for him, dads traveling with kids get treated like kings by everyone they encounter. You might want to remind Andy about that. I sure have been.

As for me, I’m three days in here in India and already have functional home Internet and a working iPhone–that’s definitely a record! I’ve met a lot of people but have remembered approximately zero names. I’ve successfully gotten myself places with Uber and an auto rickshaw but have not yet shaken this darn jet lag so have kept exploring to a minimum.

For now, here are some photos from a temple and area called Mylapore.

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This is a more historical area and honestly not what the rest of the city looks like–or at least what I’ve seen of it so far. It’s a lot calmer and leafier than I’d envisioned. The restaurants and stores look nicer than I’d expected. Apparently I can text a butcher my meat order and then he’ll show up at my house with it; organic produce can be delivered right to my door as well. I’ve hired a driver, housekeeper and nanny who all seem wonderful. The grocery store I visited even had Coke Zero and not just Diet Coke; these Coke Zeros even tasted like real Coke Zeros, not the flat and unsatisfying ones we found in Benin. That’s a big victory for our soda obsessed household.

Yep, I suspect we’ll like it here just fine.

Posted in India, Life in DC, Personal, Tandem Issues | 5 Comments

farewell

We were honored by the beautiful farewell party put together last weekend by Guadalajara friends who make it even harder for us to go!

Lovely Mexican paper flowers…

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More decorations…
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A churro stand churning out these fresh goodies to order…
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Saying goodbye is sad…

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But luckily for us, the fates have been working hard to help make us a tiny bit less sad about leaving Guadalajara.

How?

By making our last week as horrendous as can be.

For example: a car wreck three days before our car was supposed to ship! We’re fine, but the car is not. It’s in the shop now and likely won’t be fixed before we leave Guadalajara. So that will be fun to deal with from afar! Plus much, much more. We’ll tell you more if we ever manage to get to the other side of these next few days…

Posted in FS Life, Mexico, Tandem Issues | 2 Comments

family photos

Despite 98% grump from the kids during our recent attempt at a photo shoot, our friend Jose managed to capture some smiles!

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Posted in Kids, Mexico | Comments Off on family photos

living it up before leaving it behind

We’ve been continuing to ignore thinking about our upcoming departure as much as possible because, well, we’re happy in Guadalajara. We don’t really want to go. But now, we must finally accept that the end is near.

We must accept this because we finally have tickets for the plane that will take us away. One of our cars has already shipped off. The other is going soon too. We’ll be spending the weekend getting ourselves organized for our pack out next week (scheduled for the last possible day they would let us get away with).We aren’t replacing lightbulbs when they burn out. Flynn is done with school. We are scrounging through our refrigerator and cabinets to try to use up the last of our food. We are resisting the urge to even go to Costco. The milk we’re buying at the regular grocery store won’t expire until after we’ll be gone.

And also, we’ve taken our last trip.

Our last trip was over the Fourth of July weekend. Along with two other families (hello DiploDad!), we rented a private villa in the beach town of Manzanillo, about a 3.5 hour drive from Guadalajara.

Terrible view, eh?

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And did I mention the house came with a private chef?

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And lots of space for hanging out.
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And studying sea critters.

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And hanging out some more.
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As if the private chef and lovely home weren’t already enough, we also brought along our nanny. And so did the other two families. So we had nine adults looking after five children. Overkill? Nah.

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A good time was had by all. Except maybe that inflatable whale.

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Now, we’re back from vacation, and back to reality. Back to the reality that we’re leaving this place where we’ve been so happy. We’ve been so busy enjoying it all these last two years that we haven’t stopped by as often as we should have to tell you, our dear three loyal readers, all about it. Apologies for that. But trust us, Guadalajara is incredible. Come if you ever can!

The beauty about the Foreign Service lifestyle is that with every goodbye comes a hello. Much as we dread leaving Guadalajara, we’re looking forward to spending some time stateside. And we’re excited about discovering India too. We’re sad yet excited at the same time.

Well, most of us. Curiously, Flynn says he isn’t at all sad to leave Mexico, despite having carved a space for himself here perhaps better than any of the rest of us, fluent Spanish speaker that he now is and all.

“Not even a little bit sad?” I ask him.

“Nope,” he tells me.

“Why not?”

“Because every place we go will always be better,” he explains. “India will be better than Mexico, and where are we going after that?”

I tell him that we don’t know.

“Well, that place will be better too,” my five-year-old assures me.

I sure hope he’s right.

Posted in FS Life, Holiday, Kids, Mexico, Travel | 5 Comments

textiles, mole and more in oaxaca, mexico (with kids)

We spent a whirlwind three days recently in the lovely town of Oaxaca, Mexico, right before the teacher protests turned violent and the U.S. Department of State forbid us employees from going.

When we were there, we saw plenty of signs of non-violence protest: hundreds of teachers, supporters and their families camped out in tents on the Zocalo day after day; everyday Oaxacans reading the news for updates (like below); our taxi driver expressing his disappointment about the whole situation which had kept the community’s children out of school the past month; and more.

We’re sad to read about the turn the protests have taken in this wonderful small community. Our thoughts are with them all. But hopefully, peace will return for the community members, and you too can safely visit Oaxaca soon!

These shots are from Mercado 20 de Noviembre–a lovely indoor food stall spot for a quick lunch of tlayudas or whatever else. Quick, casual and delicious, so perfect for those traveling with kids!

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We chose to stay down by the Zocalo, thinking it was the center of town. It’s probably the center of the real Oaxaca, but if you’re looking to be more in the tourist heart of town, look a bit further north, near the Templo de Santo Domingo.

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Up there, there are lovely streets like these ones.
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And fancy galleries like this.

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But throughout Oaxaca, you’ll find lovely colors.

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And of course, carpets!

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One thing I wish I’d better understood before going, though, was that while there are some carpet shops in town, if you’re serious about Oaxacan textiles, you really need to travel the 45 minutes or so to the small rural community of Teotitlan del Valle, where all these carpets are made. It’s really incredible to see. Nearly every house you pass has a loom and a small display selling their goods.

I went twice: first with En Via, an amazing responsible tourism organization that uses tour funds for small loans for the women you visit. We got invited into several real homes to learn how the rug making magic happens. We had the chance to buy from these women, but not to really shop much more.

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IMG_5092So, I headed back to the town again in a private taxi. I looked into tour groups and vans, but since a private taxi arranged by my hotel was going to cost only $8/hour, that seemed like the better option. And indeed it was! My driver took me to private homes, small shops and larger operations too. I regret that I didn’t make any major purchases, but to be fair, I do already have a few Oaxacan rugs bought at expos in Guadalajara.

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Another must in Oaxaca is chocolate. There are stores all over making chocolate right before you. Mayordomo is the most famous. There are several branches, but this one has a play area in the back for kids–take note!

The chocolate is a little chalk-like to eat–it’s really meant more for drinks or cooking. Try the hot chocolate or the malt they can make for you on the spot, and buy some mole for the road!
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There are so many day trips you can take from Oaxaca. Because we were traveling with young children, we chose to stay fairly close and only went to see the ruins at Monte Alban, about a 20 minute drive away. Our trusty $8/hour taxi driver friend took us and waited around for our return.

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We took a popsicle break, of course.
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And shopped.

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And bought this.
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And explored.

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And of course, ate street food. Aside from the market already mentioned, the area around the Zocalo is your best bet for street food like this. Most stalls have little tables and stools set up even.

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It’s really a lovely small city.

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We aren’t big museum people, but we did find the free Museo to Textil to be worth a quick stop.

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Mostly, we just walked around and took photos.

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And ate well, very well. A great starting point for your mole exploration is Los Pacos, which has this sampler platter of all seven moles. This will help you find which you like most so you can focus on those the rest of your trip.

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I will leave you with one last lovely carpet.

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Posted in FS Life, Mexico, Travel | Comments Off on textiles, mole and more in oaxaca, mexico (with kids)

ripping off the band-aid

“It’s ok buddy,” I prodded Flynn. “Just jump in.”

We were in Playa del Carmen a few weeks ago and I was trying to get Flynn to play in the swimming pool at our hotel. “But it’s too cold,” he insisted.

“Don’t worry, it will feel warm if you just get in and wait a few minutes. You just have to jump in all at once, like ripping off a band-aid.” He looked at me skeptically. Ripping off a band-aid was a concept I had explained before, and one that I knew he understood, even if he didn’t quite believe it was true. He stood on the first step of the pool, trapped between his desire to go play on the pirate ship in the middle of the water and the comfort of the warm sun.

***

We’ve been in Guadalajara about 22 months. 22 months means that we’ve been here for two Christmases, two rainy seasons, two gritos, and two earthquakes. We were smart enough to ask in advance this year when the Mother’s Day breakfast would be at Flynn’s preschool, knowing they wouldn’t volunteer that information until the week before. We have favorite grocery stores and Flynn can be overheard saying “go Chivas!” when we are playing foosball and he gets to be the red team.

In short, we’re comfortable. And we like it here. We put Guadalajara at the very top of our list when we were bidding three years ago, but that was a last-minute change. Because we were bidding off of a special list for those posted in DC, we knew there was a good chance we were going to get our first choice. After ruling out all the places that didn’t have a job for both of us, we were left with about ten options. Instinctively, almost without thinking about it, we threw some of the more glamorous posts in the top few spots. Did we want Rio or Sao Paolo? Which one was closer to the beach again? Which one had hipper high rise apartments? Will we be there for the World Cup and the Olympics? In the end, cooler heads prevailed. We ultimately made our decision based on boring things like commute, proximity to the US, and what language we wanted to learn. The day before our bid list was due, Guadalajara found its way to the top.

When we got the official word that we were heading to Guadalajara, there was some disappointment. I guess we would have a shorter commute, but we weren’t going to the World Cup or the Olympics. Making practical decisions just feels so… practical. Nonetheless, we learned Spanish while also learning about mariachis and Mexican politics. We convinced Flynn that moving to Mexico would be exciting, while sort of trying to convince ourselves of the same thing.

Despite our initial buyer’s remorse, we soon felt at home in Guadalajara. Our housing is great. The city has a lot to offer. Our boys have a great nanny. Flynn is speaking Spanish like a pro. There’s delicious, affordable food. We’ve all made good friends. On top of all of this, though we had heard about the grind of consular work, we both really like our jobs. Without a doubt, we would stay another year if they would let us. We even hypothetically talked about what school we would send Flynn to next year.

But the fact is that we will not be staying another year. We have a new adventure waiting for us in a part of the world neither of us knows, but that we are both optimistic about. Transitions are a fact of life in the Foreign Service. They can be hard, even if you’re excited about what’s to come. Meanwhile, we still have a little over two months here in Guadalajara. We’re trying to enjoy the time we have left and not focus too much on our upcoming move. That’s becoming harder and harder as we plan our pack out, review our travel orders, and apply for our Indian visas. We make our grocery lists more carefully, knowing that buying two bottles of Coke Zero might be a good idea, but that three for one sale on jumbo peanut butter jars could be a waste. When a light bulb burns out, we are more inclined to just let it be (our bathroom is super dark now, Alex reminds me).

There is a big part of me that still thinks about the hypothetical school that Flynn would attend next year in Guadalajara and that tries not to dwell on the fact that my travel orders have my car being shipped to Belgium for some reason (I should probably look into that), or that I’ve probably been to my last Chivas game.

But there’s another, smaller part of me that wants to skip over the next two months, all the logistics and tying up of loose ends. Flynn’s best friend is moving away this week and we can already see how rough the slow procession goodbyes is going to be. Part of me doesn’t want to draw out the inevitable. This part says that when it is time to move on, then it is time to move on. This is the part of me that wants to just rip off the band-aid.

***

Flynn ultimately decided that “tomorrow” would be a better day to go play on the pirate ship. The water was too cold and the sun too warm and inviting. So instead we walked over to the small bar and grill near the pool and ordered a pair of sweet, frozen, chocolaty drinks, the same ones we ordered the day before. Later in the week, when he was ready, and when the water wasn’t as cold, Flynn had a blast pretending to be Captain Hook, steering his ship through Never Never Land, with Jonah at his side as Mr. Smee. But for that day, Flynn wasn’t quite ready to rip off the band-aid, and I can’t say that I blame him.

Posted in FS Life, India, Mexico | Tagged , , , , , | 2 Comments

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 , | 7 Comments