Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Buenos, Buenos, Buenos Aires!
We have just returned from a satiating 10 day trip to Argentina where we ate and drank our weight in steak and wine. The trip did not begin auspiciously at all. In fact, it started so badly that I thought for some time that it was a sign that we should not get on that plane to eat and drink and be merry in sunny Argentina.

Our flight was scheduled for 10 pm and I personally thought that we had all the time in the world to make it. It takes on average 45 mins from our apartment in Leblon to the Galeao international airport with a little traffic here and there. Since it was Friday night, I assumed a little heavier traffic. The website for the wonderful TAM airlines told me that boarding begins 2 hefty hours before the flight (?), so we had to be there in time to drop off luggage and clear security and passport control by 8 pm. Which meant we had to leave home by 7 sharp. We got home from work around 5.45 pm, then I had to finish packing, and the Diplomat for some reason made dinner. I kept thinking how much time we have. At 7, I was yelling at both men to put on their shoes. At 7.15pm, I was sweating that the cab wasn’t coming. At 7.22pm, we were finally on our way. 3 minutes later, and we dove into one of the thickest traffics I had ever seen in my life. Pure parking lot. I began to freak out gradually. The driver kept chattering in southern-Brazilian Portuguese to me, which meant I understood one in 25 words, and those were mostly connectors. He continued waving his arms around which I took to be a calming sign. The Diplomat also was going on and on about unimportant matters, ostensibly to keep my mind away from worrying. I just wanted to scream at everyone to start moving. Then the cabbie decided to take some crazy side road, which he claimed will help us move faster to the airport highway. Speechless and frankly, optionless, I agreed. I was following the route on my smartphone and I noticed that what he did was pretty much the equivalent of going from London to Dublin via Reykjavik. Thankfully, when I wasn’t fainting in the back seat, I was noticing through the cross streets that we were moving while the rest of the city was stuck, which was encouraging. At that moment I did not care anymore in which direction it was that we were moving. It was the fact of the motion that mattered mostly.

And then, miracle of miracles – we were on the highway to the airport, which was more or less smooth sailing.  By then it was already solid 8 pm and I kept telling myself that the 8 pm boarding time was excessive and perhaps a mistake. Plus, we were already checked in online so they should know we are coming. I could see the lights of the airport, I could practically smell the diesel fuel. Another 7 minutes according to the GPS and we would be there. Except that we weren’t - a mere one mile from the airport, traffic simply stopped. No one knew why. Taxis had pulled off the road, people were leaving their cars, meandering through the road. I was getting apoplectic. I had been waiting for this vacation for a long time and I was NOT going to miss it. The Diplomat was asking about the flight on the following day – if looks could burn, the man would have been incinerated by the deathly stare I gave him. It was pushing 8.30 pm. We were moving three inches an hour. And then, miracle of miracles, we slowly moved on and finally got deposited in front of the airport doors. I ran madly inside with Son while the Diplomat was unloading the luggage and fought with a smartly-looking printing machine to get the boarding passes. Then yelled at the line to drop your luggage that we were going to miss our plane, and were directed to an open desk, thus cutting the line. We were assured we had time – they were aware of the traffic and so were waiting a bit but we were cutting it very close. Breathing a nice sigh of relief, clutching the boarding passes, we ran for our lives towards the security area where we encountered a line with 4000 people waiting to pass their belongings through the X-ray machines. It was 9.15 by then and so both the Diplomat and I tried to tell some official looking people that we have a flight that we are about to miss. We got scolded for leaving the line. We decided to be patient and pray that all will be fine in the end.  Not that there was much else we could do anyway. Slowly but surely it was our turn, and we finally passed through the security check.
Then off to passport control, which is where we encountered another massive line. The time – 9.30 pm. I think it was at that point that my nerves gave up and I went into full hysterics/giddy mode – I found everything around me funny and went into maniacal laughter for no reason at all. It wasn’t helping that on the board showing departures our flight was alternatively showing as “Last Call” or “Ready to Board!” If you think there was anyone we could have told that we are currently in the process of missing our plane, you are a fool. The only option was to blatantly cut the line and hope not to get clubbed by a mob of irritated passengers. Which we did not, fearing aforementioned clubbing.

At some point, we noticed a tall, uniformed gay, who was calling any last people for a Delta flight (we were on TAM, the Brazilian airline). All he would do was go around an mutter, “delta? Delta? Delta?” I figured it was the line manager and several times eagerly tried to explain to him our predicament. And every time he would quizzically look back at me and say softly, “Delta??” It sounded like a Monthy Python movie, frankly. In the end, 15 mins before the damn flight, I went back to the guy in Delta trance and loudly explained what was going on. And then he responded, “Why are you telling ME this? I work for Delta!” Which made sense, especially given his massive Delta lanyard and his immense dedication to the Delta cause. Still, it proved to be useful, since he simply pointed out that we should get out of the line without paying attention to the rest of the people in it and get through passport control, and then run for the flight. Which we did. When we got to the gate with 5 minutes to departure, calm and happiness reigned. No one seemed to care that we were massively late. We boarded a bus to the plane, which then went in the wrong direction and for some time drove around the runways looking for the plane. Believe it or not, all was fine in the end and we landed in Buenos Aires around 1.30 am.

This is when Chapter 2 of the unnecessarily protracted trip occurred. You see, prior to leaving, we had procured diplomatic courtesy visas from the Argentinean consulate in Rio de Janeiro, which saved us a solid $160*3. The problem with that was that the courtesy visas are simply a stamp in your passport with handwritten info on them. Every time you show up to the border with those, the border officers gawk and stare at them and wonder what to do with them since they have never seen one like it. At 1.30 am, this exercise was not fun. It took 3 officers 20 minutes to figure out how to process us and let us in the lovely land of Argentina.  Finally, by 3 am, we were safely tucked in our beds in the lovely Sheraton Buenos Aires.

Stunning architecture
Friends! Let me tell you about Argentina! It is a wonderful land of beautiful architecture, nice people, fabulous food and unbelievable wine. All at minimal cost as the local peso is steadily devaluing against the dollar. Buenos Aires reminded me of old Europe. Intricate building facades, streetside cafes, eclectic neighborhoods, steak and Malbec. People – how did I live before (re)discovering Malbec? I know, I know, EVERYONE knows about Malbec but let me tell you – that wine has never tasted the way it does in Argentina. We drank a lot of wine during this trip.

The nuisance and Casa Rosada
Since we could not find a babysitter till our last night in Buenos Aires, we took Son with us to dinner everywhere and the honest child would watch a movie during dinner, and then announce he was sleepy and curl up on a chair next to me. I fondly remember doing the same as a child myself – babysitters did not exactly exist as a concept in 1980s Bulgaria. During the day, we would walk for hours exploring the beautiful city, with Son bored to tears and trying to find himself various entertainment along the way. After all, you can keep a child’s interest in ornate architecture only so much – rather, he’d run around the main square around said architecture, chasing the flocks of tame pigeons used to pottering around the hapless tourists. Or, try to block you from taking a picture by being a nuisance.

The Colors of El Caminito
Among the highlights of BA were Plaza de Mayo and Casa Rosada, or the Presidential Palace from whose balcony Juan Peron, Evita, Maradona and a smorgasbord of presidents have addressed the adoring crowds. The Palace is indeed pink, a color achieved by the intriguing method of mixing lime with ox blood. The second day we decided to visit the colorful La Boca since all online research said it was really pretty, fun and dangerous as it is full of robbers. It was logical then that we would choose to go. It was Sunday, and the streets of BA were filled with street fairs. La Boca, a small neighborhood in the farther south of BA, is a working class area, ostensibly avoided by middle-class porteños (porteño means Buenos-aireans, btw!).  The colorful El Caminito Lane runs through the beginning of La Boca and frankly, there is nothing scary or dangerous about it, especially on a sunny Sunday morning. El Caminito area is famous for its corrugated zinc walls and roofs, all painted in playful and loud blues, reds, yellows, greens, purples, pinks. Naturally, one needs to be smart about visiting La Boca and keep to the main tourist area because yes, just like Copacabana beach after dark, even the friendliest place turns into a heaven for robbers and the like.

From there, we crossed over to San Telmo, a delightful older neighborhood, home to the lively and elegant Plaza Dorrego, filled with cafes, restaurants, musicians, peddlers and everything else. Since it was Sunday, of course there was an antiques and leather fair. 
One of many bands in the San Telmo street fair

Plaza Dorrego and its crowded cafes
As a result, the streets were packed with people, but that still did not make it fill crowded or unpleasant. Even after we almost got pick pocketed. I carry my camera in sort of a special camera backpack, which is very convenient as it does not dangle from my side when I make pictures. I also use it to put my money and other interesting and useful things. In the throngs of San Telmo, hanging there from my back, it must have been an irresistible target. Imagine then my shock when, as we were walking slowly around the neighborhood, enjoying the colors and the noise, I turned back my head to take a look at something and noticed a pleasant-looking older lady with immaculately coiffed white hair and a cute plastic bag in her hand gently trying to unzip my backpack (little did she know that all my cash was in a secret pocket inside to which she wouldn't even know how to get). She immediately withdrew her hand, and, holding a nice elderly gentlemen under the arm, they quickly began devoting an excessive amount of time to what appeared to be a rather revolting collection of pink statues for sale while hastily moving further away from us in a side street. The Diplomat and I began pointed towards them as we wondered what to do, and noticed that they were frantically gesticulating to someone else. Soon, a group of about 5 younger people gathered around them, and all of them beat a hasty retreat in the side streets. So, if you think you are only going to be robbed at a knife or gunpoint by a group of young punks, think again – grandma had it DOWN and could run circles around Fagin and the Artful Dodger.

Undaunted, we continued our stroll in search of the elusive Parrilla de Freddy (parrilla basically means grill as well as a steakhouse), which was supposed to be a hole in the wall grill spot which amazing food. Problem was, I forgot exactly where it was located and had no ways to checking the internet to dig out the location. So, we just aimlessly roamed the streets until we literally passed by the place!
Bar El Federal - nuts and coffee cake on the house
 It was too early for lunch, so we sat down for coffee and wine at the classic Bar El Federal, which has been there since 1864 and still going strong. Slightly tipsy after a massive glass of Malbec, we went back to Freddy’s and consumed huge quantities of choripán (chorizo sausage sandwich), washed down with some home-made Malbec in a jar. It was time to go back to the hotel and sleep it all off.
Freddy himself at the grill
 The next couple of days were spent exploring Palermo and Palermo Soho, drinking more wine and eating our hearts out. Day 5, at the ungodly hour of 7 am, we boarded a plane to magical Mendoza.

Since this is turning into a kilometrical post, I will save Mendoza for my next post.

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Tenure, a birthday and expat cravings

Yes, I am aware that it has been well over a month since I have last written here. I have not given up. There were several contributing factors, some of them good and some – not so much. To begin with, I recently learned that I did not receive tenure. Now, for those of you uninitiated folks, tenure in the Foreign Service means that, unless you manage to offend the local government to the point of destroying our diplomatic relations with your host country and they refuse to visit the U.S. even for cheap shopping and to visit Disney, you cannot be fired. Just like in an academic setting. One becomes eligible for tenure on the third anniversary of entering the Foreign Service. There are tenuring boards, comprised of senior FS folks, who convene a couple of times during the year in some deep secret place, armed with stacks of entry level officers’ annual evaluations, coffee and stale donuts, and a week or so later re-emerge with decisions who gets tenured that time around. An officer gets 3 bites at the apple – each on the consecutive anniversaries of her entry to the Foreign Service. If you do not get tenured on the 3rd time (i.e., your 6th year as a FSO), as Heidi Klum would say, “you are out!” and your blissful FS career is over. Rumor has it that only about 5% of tenure-hopefuls do not end up getting it and as a result are back on the hopeless, barren non-governmental job streets.  For more on that, read the State Department’s own missive about this wholesome process.

Public FS lore indicates that typically about 40-60% of a given A100 class will get tenure during their very first review. The Diplomat’s class was a glorious testament to that.  It became a complete mystery then as to what exactly happened to my class as we learned that only about 20% or so of us got tenured last month. Granted, the folks who did get it were stars and did some pretty amazing things as first-tour officers. I didn’t. I did some fantastic things. I came up with awesome innovations, made things more efficient, outreached to anyone who’d listen in Bangladesh, networked like a banshee and spread the good American word. But I did not save people from burning buildings or serve as the acting Ambassador in my second month or bust a drug ring or TDY (temporary duty) to Kamchatka. I guess that’s what it takes.  So, I have been busy being amazing these days.

Lovely life in Brazil continues. I must say that Cariocas are probably the most relaxed, casual people I have seen in my life. Everyone feels amazingly free in their own skin and clothes (or lack thereof). It is an enviable attitude to life, I admit. And speaking of clothing, animal print is all the rage in Rio right now. Cheetah print is especially cherished. I have seen cheetah pants, cheetah shorts, cheetah tanktops, cheetah dresses, cheetah running shorts, cheetah running leggings and cheetah compression socks for the gym, cheetah skinny shorts, cheetah bags, cheetah bathing suits, cheetah skirts, scarves, cheetah jewelry, all spiced up by a sprinkle of snake skin overalls and shirts! It is the jungle out here in Rio and people relate to it naturally! The day I see a man wearing animal print, I promise to give up and buy my own leopard skinny pants.

Last week we also celebrated Son’s 6th birthday! And to think that I started this blog when he was about 6 months old. That is a LOT of time spent writing rather than doing something more productive, say – play with Son. At any rate, I decided to defy the Brazilian way and to actually host his birthday party in our home. Celebrating kid birthdays is an industry in Brazil, and folks go out of their way to throw their precious prodigy lavish and entertaining birthday parties. They rent big kid party rooms with all kinds of cool entertainment, hire magicians, clowns, what have you. Ever the dissenter (and being cheap), I decided that we were going to have Son’s birthday “American style.” Which meant at home, with me cooking and decorating and preparing party favors. In lieu of a clown, I offered Fat Cat. Sadly, one of Son’s little lady friends was a bit scared of the portly and reluctant entertainment so we locked him to away to his immense relief. Fat Cat does NOT enjoy children very much. I decided to make cupcakes instead of a big cake, something I have never baked in my life before. The thing is, it is one thing to choose to make red velvet cupcakes according to Martha Stewart and actually having the ingredients to do so. Like, for example, red food dye. You’d think that food dye is all the rage in Brazil, but shockingly –no. So, I sent the Diplomat on a wild goose chase on his bike in the heat of a Saturday afternoon to procure the dye. And procure he did, in a small cake shop in Copacabana. Mission accomplished – and the birthday and the resplendent cupcakes were a resounding success.

Which brings me to another philosophical point about living this nomadic, international life – no matter what, one naturally leans towards things known and comfortable and this is particularly true about food and cooking. I am so used to just going to the store and getting ready-made pie crusts, food dye, pickles (why are there no pickles in Brazil??), sour cream, mascarpone cheese, an olive bar, peaches, feta cheese, to just name a few. Well, here (and in many places in the world) you can find some of these things only in specialty stores at exorbitant prices, or not at all, frankly. At the same time, you can buy mangos and lychees for pennies, drink fresh coconut juice every day, eat cheeses you have never even heard about before and wear string bikinis on the beach (or anywhere for that matter) without a care in the world about your personal cellulite. I guess the only way to survive the constant culture shocks and clashes is to embrace your new environment immediately, try to understand it, use it in everyday life and end up ordering a lot of things from Amazon.com (God bless the diplomatic pouch!).  

Sadly and inexplicably, I continue to gain weight in Rio. I have now began running alongside the beach once or twice a week (read – I ran twice last week for the first time, and almost passed out the second time when I increased my running path to a whooping 2 miles). I have also adopted other, non-traditional exercise methods at work to help me in my quest for a late modeling career. For example, at least once a day, I climb up and down (admittedly, at the pace of a snail) the stairs of the Consulate all the way up to the 12th floor in my 5-inch high heels. It serves a dual purpose really – besides working out, I also warm up since our Consulate maintains a comfortable -23C degrees inside and after sitting down for 15 minutes, I can’t feel my frozen fingers clanking on the keyboard of the computer and fear that if I type faster, they’ll just break like icicles. There are several structural reasons why the damned building is maintained so cold, but I don’t care. I am tired of walking around wrapped in massive colorful woolen scarves like an eccentric Buddhist monk. Climbing stairs warms me up and the people from the building across get a kick out of watching me stretch every 3 floors.

Another tough aspect of living overseas is not getting the TV channels you are used to and getting a bunch of new ones in a foreign language that you just learned. No matter how well you learned it in the past 6 months, and how strong your resolve to watching the news in the native language is, you are still barely understanding a small fraction of whatever the pretty lady is prattling about on TV or the gorgeous made-up creature is crying and hurling herself about in the soap opera. You will sit there, in your first days, still dedicated, straining your neck to hear better in the hopes of understanding better. You will not. You will give up. Unless you are the Press Officer at post, in which case you must.

And so you begin craving and missing your U.S. channels and all the good shows you were into and all the stupid ones you were REALLY into even though you never told anyone you watch them. The only channel that appears to be universally available anywhere in the world is actually CNN and so we end up watching a ton of it anywhere we go. At least we are always in the know.
But the world has moved much technologically in the last few years and now, thanks to a combination of wires, lack of wires, some pluggy thingamajigies, some random stuff that I honestly do not understand, some stuff that hides where my computer is and many more machinations, we are able to watch most U.S. TV shows. Yup, including the Real Housewives of New Jersey. Even the Kardashians show (did you know there was more than one??). Not that I do watch them. But I could if I felt the sudden urge to dumb myself down. So, life has definitely improved for the poor expat. And speaking of shows, I am hooked on a new one, called Married at First Sight, the premise of which is that a bunch of singles leave themselves in the hands of 4 experts with perfectly coiffed hair and eclectic tie choices to choose them a spouse and meet that spouse for the first time at the altar. Then they marry them sight unseen and get shipped off to a honeymoon and then back for a month of marital bliss. I freely admit to spending 4 straight hours on Saturday night and another 3 on Sunday and another 2 on Monday morning watching the whole shebang on FYI.com. It is a good show, people!

What else is going on? Ah, yes. I finally managed to attend a real reception with some fancy schmancy people hosted by our own Consul General where I met some really cool people. Then I got inspired and organized a reception for our own consular section and consular contacts in one of the swankiest hotels in Copacabana where I met even more cool people. Life is looking up, folks!