Sunday, August 17, 2014
I have just returned to Rio after 12 days of binge eating, drinking and being merry back home in Sofia. As mentioned before, Son spent solid 6 weeks with Grandma and I went to collect him and bring him back to the rainy fold of Rio de Janeiro. In his absence, the Diplomat and I watched more soccer than ever necessary, and had entire weekend days to do whatever we wanted. The problem was that we badly missed Son who, at the same time, thought about us in passing while becoming increasingly popular with the kids in front of Grandma’s building in Sofia.
As I was facing a 11-hour flight from Rio to Paris, I tried my darned best to get myself upgraded to business class. I started asking with remarkable self-confidence about the price of the upgrade (a staggering $2000), pretended to think about it for a while, then asked about upgrade with miles (knowing fully well that all I had was 380 miles left) and was told no. Finally, with a huge pleasant smile and (what I thought was) irresistible charm and no small amount of gumption, I asked whether I could be given a complimentary upgrade. All I was given, instead, was a cold unblinking stare and an aisle seat deep into coach territory. C'est la vie. On the plane, for about an hour, the TV did not work but at least they were passing rather excellent Champagne to lessen the pain. Finally up in the air, pleasantly buzzed, we were given our tiny yet delicious dinner and the TVs finally began working. I watched the highly intellectually stimulating LEGO movie and, folded like an amateur contortionist, managed to sleep for an entire 4 hours. In Paris, I found myself a nice leather sleeper semi-couch facing the runway, and was asleep in 3 minutes. It was not a good sleep though, as I was clutching with one hand my phone whose alarm was set to wake me up to board the plane to Sofia, and with the other my obscenely expensive and rather large Louis Vuitton purse.
I woke up an hour later and decided to check out the cigar choices at the Duty Free shop. To my delight, they had a giant walk-in humidor, into which I immediately went. Now, you should know that in European airports, duty free shops have 2 prices for tobacco products – one for travelers within the EU (higher) and one for those traveling outside of it (palpably lower). I knew that but since I was technically traveling from Brazil to Bulgaria with a layover in France, I thought that maybe they make an exception in such cases. I decided to ask the haughty-looking young French salesman which price I would be paying given my situation. The conversation went on something like this:
Me: Hi! I was just wondering which of these prices I would be pay…
Haughty French salesman (interrupting me): Where you fly to?
Haughty French salesman: Ah, you pay European price.
Me: But I am coming from Brazil.
Stupid haughty salesman (with a VERY patronizing tone): You no’, Bougaria eez en Europe now!
Me (speechless for a second): Yes, I actually know but thank you for pointing it out. As a matter of fact, Bulgaria has been located in Europe ever since it was founded in 681 A.D. Anyway, I was simply asking because I am here only as a layov..
Inane French salesman (interrupting again, yelling a bit): Eez Europe!!!! (exits with aplomb).
Me (seething; leaving without cigars)
Then, finally at Sofia airport, I looked and felt very much like something chewed, swallowed, then masticated on for some time and finally spit out by a particularly languid cow. I only wished to go through the passport lane quickly, collect my luggage, be met by Son and Grandma, and then be whisked home to the sumptuous feast that my mom had undoubtedly cooked for me. Instead, I had to go through the usual uncomfortable rigmarole at the passport control, where I would present my U.S. passport, be looked at with confusion or suspicion or some other negative microexpression by the border officer, be asked for my Bulgarian passport, having to explain why exactly I did not have one and then finally be free to go. Soon, suitcases in the cart, as I was about to bolt to freedom through the “Nothing to declare” lane, a pleasantly smiling unformed policeman stepped in front of my cart and brightly asked me where I was coming from. At the point of nervous breakdown from sleep deprivation and really bad airplane food, the effects of which I was already feeling, I replied that my immediate flight was from France. He insisted on knowing where my original departure city was – at the mention of Brazil, he visibly got excited and began asking me various questions about my luggage and who had packed it. Then he asked for my passport and spent 4 solid, quality minutes leafing through it with deep interest. Naturally, I grew anxious as this had never happened to me before. Since I have some old middle-school friends who work for border patrol, I began suspecting that this was some sort of a prank and in turn, started staring at the widely-smiling policeman very suspiciously. To which he responded with an even bigger smile and a new inspection of my passport. In the end, he ran out of things to ask me about, had looked through my passport 7 times and smiled wide and long enough to be cast in a toothpaste commercial. I was finally released in Bulgaria.
There, I was soon astonished to discover that Son had become a full-fledged member of the pack of kids living in my building, all of whom are kids of the people I went to primary school or grew up with in the same building. I grew up in those blessed times where we kids roamed the streets of our area until dark, without fear of kidnapping or perverts or whatever else credible fears we have nowadays for our kids, thus not letting them play outside until dark without supervision. Well, apparently this still exits to an extent where Grandma lives. Son would get up in the morning, have a huge breakfast, then head downstairs even if there were still no kid to play with. Or, while at home reading a book, the other kids would begin ringing the bell, asking him to come down to play. Extricating him from their fold at night to come home was more painful than pulling wisdom teeth by a brand new dental resident (I know from personal, very painful experience). The good news is that Son’s Bulgarian has improved considerably and now he can argue with me successfully in two languages.
While in Bulgaria, I had the usual hectic schedule of seeing as many family members and friends as possible. That entailed a lot of restaurant going, which naturally led to a lot of food and even more drinking. The situation got so bad that after five straight nights out, I simply could not go any further and had to cancel a dinner that I had been really looking forward to. My entire being simply went on strike and refused to move all evening.
I also managed to visit the U.S. Embassy in Sofia, which was indeed spectacular! Comparing it to the Consulate building here in Rio, it looks like a palace. Too bad I am not allowed to work there as I was recently informed by Diplomatic Security. Oh well. Overall, my stay was awesome as all such stays tend to be and I came back to Brazil weighing a solid 4 pounds heavier. I also managed to bring in my suitcases 4 lbs of dried salami, 3 kilos of feta cheese, a kilo of smoked ham, 4 packs of sunflower seeds, 3 bottles of Bulgarian grappa, one bottle of wine and a packet of dry kadaifi. Nothing tastes better than home food!
In my absence, the Diplomat was supposed to play tennis on a daily basis and golf at least every other day. Ironically, it rained almost daily so he sat home in immense frustration and called me at all hours to make sure I wasn’t having too much fun. Here I’d like to add as a side note just how amazing technology has become today. There are so many ways one can talk for free internationally, which is astonishing to me especially since I still remember vividly paying 93 cents a minute back in 1996 when I first went to the U.S. in order to talk to my family as I was struggling with severe and painful homesickness while trying to adapt to my new life. I remember writing letters almost every day to my parents, grandparents, my boyfriend and my friends as virtually no one had email back then in Bulgaria. Today, we are so easily and obsessively connected globally that we have absolutely no excuse falling out of touch with people who are important to us. So, call your mom today!!!
Tuesday, July 15, 2014
So, the World Cup befell Brazil and we were all enjoying it thoroughly. Honestly. Frankly, it has felt like I were back in the U.S. – there are so many Americans in the streets that one can mistake Rio for New York easily. It is kind of disorienting, really. But our compatriots are everywhere, drinking, getting lost, losing their passports, sleeping semi-naked on the beaches,watching the games and drinking some more on the metro. I am beginning to get the feeling that the majority of American tourists (whose median age appears to be about 22) have come here under the pretext of the World Cup in order to imbibe as much beer and caiprinhas as possible.
Few days ago as I was riding on the crazy bus to the consulate, all of a sudden at one of the stops the driver started yelling at someone in the back who had gotten on the bus using the back door (reserved only for getting off the bus – you get in from the front where you pay the bus fare). After the person did not register anything, the driver went in and personally tossed him off the bus – it turned out to be a 23 year old gringo who clearly could not hold his cachaça, was wearing long beach shorts and a tank top that hadn’t seen laundry in about a year. He sauntered off towards the beach, looking dazed and confused, and a second later threw himself on the sand and fell asleep immediately. American behavior during U.S. games became even more erratic. While I was watching happily the U.S. – Germany game at the aptly named Gringo Café among many of my fellow compatriots, there was a man in a semi-naked state who would habitually run through the street where the café is located, screaming, “U-S-A” from the top of his lungs and waving a giant U.S. flag energetically in the process. Looked heavy but the guy had a great deal of enthusiasm. Too bad we did not win that game. At least it seems that soccer is becoming a thing in the U.S.
I have been watching the games religiously and believe it or not, have managed to obtain a few coveted tickets to watch the games in Maracana, the legendary football stadium of Rio de Janeiro. What is even more amazing is that we bought those tickets on the official FIFA website rather than buying scalped ones. It came to my attention that people who are unable to attend the games habitually return tickets directly back to FIFA, which re-releases them at some ungodly morning hour on its website every day. So, armed with this information, the Diplomat decided to stay up all night once and wait for tickets to appear on the website. He gave up at 11.30 pm, which I thought was a little weak. However, apparently that same night he woke up with an odd premonition around 5 am, and quietly went to the computer to check the situation. To his utter astonishment, there were a few tickets available for the finals and with trembling fingers he began the convoluted process of buying them online. And then the amazingness of what was happening took over him and he could not get himself together to complete the transaction. As a result, I was woken up by his hysterical shrieks, informing me that we are getting tickets to the World Cup, accompanied by a few eloquent expletives, clearly aimed at expressing his delight. I was made to understand that he was too excited to figure out how to use a credit card to buy the reserved tickets and we had 8 minutes left to complete the transaction. I ran breathlessly to the living room, and cursing the blurry website images managed somehow to complete the process. Then I realized that I was actually not wearing my glasses and it was a small miracle I could see anything at all. After we danced the happy “we got World Cup finals tickets” dance for a while, I changed and went to work where we irritated everyone the entire day by telling them about our success, while simultaneously falling asleep at random places around the office. The next night, using the same strategy, the Diplomat managed to buy us also tickets to the round of 16 again at Maracana. That emboldened us and we began dreaming football tickets night and day. We figured out that FIFA was releasing them at 5 am, and so every night at 4.30 am, the Diplomat would get up (somewhat noisily, I might add) and park himself at the computer, trying to score us quarter final tickets. Sadly, however, our luck ran out and he gave up the hunt largely. Until one day our evil friends from work told us that there are several programs/applications developed by fans, which somehow manage to know how many tickets are being released at the moment of their release by FIFA. The application would make a sound and you will get right on the computer frantically trying to beat everyone else who is killing themselves doing the same. Except that the sound is a police siren and the Diplomat would leave it next to his bed. There is nothing more annoying than waking up to a fake police siren sound at 5.12 am, having a disoriented Diplomat make his way haphazardly in the darkness to the living room and then come back 20 minutes later with no tickets after all. We finally decided it was not worth it.
People though are desperate for tickets and would rather get arrested and spend a night in prison for buying scalped tickets rather than just sit tight in a nice little bar and watch the game surrounded by friends. Last week, again on the proverbial bus, I saw two middle-aged Frenchmen who both had pinned pieces of paper to their shirts with the following on it, “Looking for tickets for France-Ecuador game!” I started laughing (because it was funny), which they took to mean that I have tickets for them (which I did not).
So, I ended up going to three games overall – to a 16th round to see Colombia spank Uruguay (I was actually cheering for Uruguay because blue is my favorite color, but I was surrounded by so many feisty Colombians that I did not dare say a peep), to a quarter final to watch Germany beat very polite and tactically France, and finally to be treated to a model game at the final between Germany and Argentina. Folks, Maracana is AMAZING. Like, AMAZING! It was redone for the World Cup so now the seats are very comfy and spacious and no matter where you sit, you have a great view of the game. Unless you wear glasses with really crappy prescription, like I do, in which case you don’t really see very well and keep asking, “who is Messi, wait, where, where, wait, what just happened, who is that??” every two minutes. The final game at Maracana was clearly once in a lifetime experience. Unless Brazil hosts the World Cup again when I am 89 or something and Argentina happens to play Germany again, and I happen to have tickets, in which case it will be twice in a lifetime thing. Either way, it was spectacular. Even Gisele Bundchen showed up to unveil the FIFA trophy. The whole city was filled to the brim with Argentineans who had driven over the border for the game even though only a tiny fraction of them had tickets to the game.
As some of you might know, the Brazil-Argentina football rivalry is epic and legendary. It is indeed so bad that during the final, most Brazilians supported Germany even though they had just lost to them in a staggering 7-1 semi-final simply because they are passionately against Argentina winning. As one TV commentator said, Germany gained 250 million fans overnight. The stadium was packed with Brazilians dressed in German shirts, screaming every time Germany made a pass to the goal, and booing every Argentinean move. The rest of the stadium had 23 real Germans and a ton of Argentineans wearing Messi’s number 10 jersey (for those of you who have lived under a rock the past one month, Messi is from Argentina and is the best soccer player in the world right now as evidenced by him winning the World Cup 2014 Best Player after the game). The Diplomat suddenly had the epiphany that he had loved the Argentinean team all of his life, and bought a Messi shirt on the way to the stadium to add to the blue madness there.
After an emotional game with 2 overtimes (and no penalties, thank God, can’t take any more penalties!), we headed home to what promised to be a nice, peaceful Sunday night. We needed it, as we had had a crazy week leading up to it. We had had the pleasure of hosting our very first guests here in Rio – five of the most fabulous Bangladeshi ladies ever who came to enjoy the World Cup and party with us in Rio. After a few days of dinners, drinks and incessant shopping, they left a couple of days before the final. That following night, the Diplomat and I hosted a 12 people goodbye dinner for one of our colleagues, which meant a day and a half of intense cooking, and a morning of the final game with intense hangover. And so, with all that emotion and the World Cup over, we were looking forward to cleaning up the apartment and getting ready for the new work week. Well, it was not meant to be. As we were standing in the train, watching some feisty and rather inebriated Argentineans getting tossed out of the metro, we noticed a few familiar faces – another group of good Bangladeshi friends who were obviously also coming back from the game. Turns out, they had come to Rio a few days before that, and did not realize we were there already. Since it was their last night in the city, they were mulling over going to Lapa, the party district of Rio, to celebrate the end of the World Cup. A couple of caipirnhas later, and the Diplomat and I took the most logical decision ever – to go out with them. And so we all dragged ourselves to our apartment, continued drinking while we changed, and then around 11.30pm set out to check out the club scene in Lapa. The mood there was incredible! Crowded and loud, the craze overtook us and we started ordering passion fruit caiprinhas from street vendors (yup, street vendors) while waiting to get into the club. At 2 am, good times or not, I simply could not continue to overlook the fact that I had to get up at 6 am to go to work and we reluctantly left. I am proud to say that I made it work on time and was even coherent enough to interview over 120 visa applicants.
And so, the World Cup is over. The city is none the worse for it and I think we are all about to exhale a collective sigh of relief as the tourists promptly leave Copacabana and the prices of pretty much everything go down. At least for the next two years until the Summer Olympics hit this country again.
Sunday, June 8, 2014
The past four weeks have been busy. My Mom arrived to spend a precious month with us, babysitting and cooking for us while taking in the Marvelous City. We used the occasion of her arrival and ditched the boys to go to the incredible Iguacu Falls – one of the three most spectacular falls in the world. The falls span across the Brazilian and Argentinean borders (separated by the Iguazu river) and one gets a different view of the falls depending on the side one is. Usually, one spends a day exploring the views from the Brazilian side, and another hiking to see to falls from the Argentinean banks.
The trip started very well. It turned out that several of my colleagues from the Consulate would be going to Iguacu (it was a long weekend) and we planned and planned out awesome weekend together. I dreamed of bonding and fitting in. It was going to be glorious. Mom and I arrived on Friday night in Iguacu city in Brazil. Given the incredible popularity of this tourist attraction, I knew that the town would be cute and filled with many lovely little restaurants and could not wait to spend a night eating Brazilian BBQ and drinking caipirinhas with Mom. Folks, I have rarely seen a less lively place in my life. After walking for an hour in the desolate landscape of the sleepy little town of Iguacu we returned to have dinner in the overly priced cavernous and practically empty restaurant right next to our hotel. It was not cute. Or quaint. Or good food.
The next day we had a hearty breakfast at the hotel and headed over the falls on the Brazilian side. It was cold, so I put on pretty much all of the clothes I had brought with myself. Since the bulk of our luggage has yet to be delivered to us (welcome to Foreign Service life), I own a total of 2 light sweaters and a pair of jeans to for cold weather. So, I put them all on. We decided to do this trip on the cheap and so rather than renting an expensive car with a driver, or signing up for an organized tour or some other such capitalist contraption, we took the public bus 104 which took us directly to the park in no time (well, SOME time, like 30 mins) from downtown. Then I got a text from my colleagues that they had just set out to explore and so Mom and I hurried to catch up with them. At that point, my colleagues texted to say that the views from Argentina were gorgeous, which was all very nice except that we were on the exactly opposite side of the river. We resolved to wave to each other and continued on our merry ways. Soon we had our first sighting of the Iguacu Falls, which was unforgettable. Frankly, I cannot even begin to describe them, so let’s not go there. Let’s just call them stunning and their power breathtaking and leave it at that. As you draw closer to the biggest two falls in the middle of the others, you need to buy yourself a nice, plastic raincoat (or, in the case of Mom, prudently save and bring the one you bought in Niagara Falls) and don it as it practically rains as you stand close to the falling tons of water. The Brazilians have built a nice long terrace in the middle of the river, right under the falling waters, which allows the eager revelers to stand in rapture and be whipped by cascades of frothing waters while trying to take pictures with their overly expensive cameras. And if you happen to be wearing glasses (like me, for example) you pretty much see nothing as the glasses are completely covered with rain drops. Still, awesome!
We woke up the next day to a nice, steady rain. Determined to make this trip work, Mom and I ate another hearty breakfast at the hotel, put on our plastic raincoats and braved the naughty weather. We wanted to take another public bus, which would take us over the border to Argentina, and from there we would take yet another public Argentinean bus to the park itself. Given that it was Sunday (read, buses frequency goes to one per hour), and the crappy weather, it was a miracle we caught one in less than half an hour. It was filled with suspicious looking local characters and several bearded Euro backpackers. It got a bit dicey at the border as I presented proudly my courtesy Argentinean visa to the border officer. All Americans need a visa to visit Argentina, and I had just gotten mine a week before with the help of our consulate in Rio. I was very excited. The border patrol officer was not. He stared blankly at it for some time and then asked me something in a language that I can only guess was Spanish. I said in my best Portuguese that yes, this was a visa, yes, issued to me by the Argentinean consulate in Rio de Janeiro. He then said a lot more in incomprehensible Spanish (you’d think that I would understand at least SOMETHING using my Portuguese; I did not). What was more worrisome was that a) he seemed unhappy, and b) all the backpackers on the bus and Mom breezed through the border check with their EU passport and the bus did not appear to be where I had left it in front of the border patrol office. Mom gesticulated at me wildly that they are waiting for me but that I should hurry. By then, all seven border passport officers were gazing at my (clearly suspicious) visa. In all honesty, what the visa was in fact a poorly made blue stamp, on the lines of which someone had scribbled that it was valid for a year. Son could have made that visa with his toy stamp kit. I began to sweat. I now understand what my applicants go through. And then all of them began speaking to me, waving my passport around. I understood nothing. Finally, they gave up, stamped it and gave it back to me with an air of disgust. People, I have rarely been so relieved. I ran and caught the bus, which was waiting for me while all the crust backpackers kept giving me dirty looks.
While on the Argentinean side, we got steadily rained on, which for a long time did not dampen our spirits (yes, pun intended!). We walked about and stared for some time at the falls from that side and then ended up at the infamous Devil’s throat, the most impressive fall of the group. It was unimaginable. Thanks for a balcony built in by the Argentineans right next to the Throat, one could get as close as a few meters from the cascading tons of frothing, gurgling water falling the long distance to the bottom. Heavy mist bordering on torrential rain rises in waves in the air, making it foggy and very warm. The noise is deafening and the sheer power of nature forces you to forget everything else that could have possibly entered your mind thus subjugating your senses and your mind to the reigning wonder of nature. I was rendered speechless for a while, standing there, under the pouring combination of heavy mist and medium rain, tucked in my flimsy white raincoat. It was humbling.
Up to that point, all was going according to plan until we decided to explore the lower trail of the falls, which would take us to the bottom part of the falls where they break into the water. The rain, light and tolerable until then, all of a sudden woke up and decided that we should never see the lower trail and began pouring down on us full force. I gave up when my sneakers got so full of water that every time I made a step, some of it poured out happily from there. I was done with the damned falls. I was fall-ed out. It was nice while it lasted. And good thing too – turned out that by the time we got to the bus station to take the bus back to Brazil, there was only one last bus going there. If has stayed long enough to see the lower trail, we would have had to find a place to stay in Argentina. We jumped in that old creaky public bus, filled with yet more Euro backpackers with ginormous backpacks on their backs and smaller ones hanging on their fronts like some particularly ungainly kangaroos. Because of the rain, the inside of the bus smelled like wet socks and dirty dogs. I sat next to another thoroughly wet tourist who did not bat an eyelash when I took off each of my sneakers to line them with wads of paper towels which Mom had just stolen from the bathroom at the bus station. I felt better and warmer. Back in Brazil, on our way back to the hotel, I spotted a lively Lebanese joint which had two churning shawarma grills, glinting happily in the rainy night. It was exactly what we needed. A mere 20 minutes later, we were contentedly sitting in our hotel, eating smelly chicken kabobs and drying our clothes and shoes with a hairdryer. All in all, the trip was a success and one to remember.
At the same time, do you feel bad for the Diplomat for being sad and lonely back in Rio. While we were out admiring the nature, he went to a fancy party to which were had been invited the previous week. He was apparently having such a nice little time there, that he decided to text me around 12 am, saying, “This party is awesome, wish you were here with me!” Sweet, no? Except that he somehow managed to send the text message not to me, but to our 24 year old babysitter who was watching over Son in the meantime. Awkward…
Another highlight of the last month was out visit to the ballet. For those who do not know, I am big opera and ballet lover, and have spent the past ten years of my marriage torturing the Diplomat by dragging him to various such festive musical events. He once even endured a 5-hour grim production of the Queen of Spades, in Russian, with minimal décor and confusing plot, only because I wanted to hear Placido Domingo in the Metropolitan Opera in New York. That is why it took me by surprise that he decided to come with Mom and Son to see the ballet Bayadere at Theatro Muncipial in Rio as participation in this family event was purely voluntary (well, for him; not so much for Son whom I decided needed to learn about the ballet). It was a lovely production, with some beautiful work by talented Brazilian ballet dancers. The décor was opulent, which is not small praise for this production which depicts lavish Indian scenes. And most importantly, Son loved it. Which means more ballet for the Diplomat (you can just imagine his excitement)!
The Diplomat and I decided to utilize our free babysitting and started going out more these days. This past weekend, we went out on Friday night with some lovely colleagues from the Consulate to what turned out to be a great restaurant concept. It was a large restaurant complex, with seating on a large terrace where you can order food from several different restaurants. This concept happily avoids those typical spousal moments where one of you is decidedly in the mood for some good, solid steak, while the other would rather eat sushi, and in the end you end up going for sushi while the other spouse quietly resents you and forces you to go have steak the very next time you agree to go out with that pesky person again. At the Lagoon at Lagoa, all of you jokers can sit together, looking out to the beautiful lake vista, and order whatever your soul desires. No, it does not have Thai food. Or Chinese. Or Indian. You know what – you are damn picky! Go cook yourself at home!
When we were done, we decided that we had not drunk enough and transferred the party to the local drinking joint. I have to admit, there are several such joints dangerously close to our apartment, and we do tend to find excuses to frequent them. We made it home at 1.30 am. The next day, we went to a BBQ hosted by the Consul General, where we feasted on burgers and about 34 types of pasta salad courtesy of our colleagues (we were all asked to bring a side dish and what better one than a pasta salad). That night, we were invited by some awesome Brazilian friends to a birthday party in the trendy part of town called Barra de Tijuca. This is a somewhat newer part of Rio, which has plenty of shopping U.S-style. To our utter astonishment, as we were driving past the large Barra Shopping mall on the way to the party, we spotted a giant and distressingly realistic Statue of Liberty adorning its doors. It was a good birthday party, with a live band and decent caipirinhas and an oversized cake, covered with red and blue stars (the birthday boy had lived in the U.S. for some time, a period of his life he remembers fondly). In other words, we felt quite at home.
We are about to careen into the organized chaos also known as World Cup 2014. We are already feeling the effects as the Dutch team has invaded our sports club to practice, which has in turn brought quite a few pesky journalists loitering outside and masses of police on each and every corner. The Dutch are staying in a hotel not far from our apartment and one can observe the daily circus of the footballers trying to leave the hotel and stopping to pose for pictures with beautiful Brazilian ladies, hug some babies and to generally look very important and celebrity-ish. The Cup opens on Thursday. The worst is yet to come.
Monday, May 5, 2014
The last 2-3 weeks saw us finding the places to do things important to us – like, getting a manicure and playing tennis. As many of you now know, the Diplomat cannot function well if there is no tennis in his life. And as he was getting rather pale without whacking the addictive green ball back and forth, despite the gorgeous Rio weather and the alluring sights of the Rio beaches, we took the matter in our hands and signed up as members in a local sports club that offers 8 splendid red clay tennis courts. Balance in nature has been restored. As a result, we are also now officially fans of Flamengo, a boisterous and winning Rio soccer team.
I also had to face the music that my nails were starting to rival those of Angelina Jolie in her latest, high caliber, intellectually stimulating movie about some evil lady with massive nails. The problem was that I was wearing a special kind of nail polish from the U.S., which was pretty much bullet proof and also rather unknown in Brazil. I had to spend 3 nights at home, slowly chipping and melting it away with nail polish remover in order to be ready to visit a local nail salon. In the process, I managed to knock the polish remover twice, which left some amusing spots on the night stand as well as caused my blackberry screen to look like a three-dimensional lava lamp for a while. Sadly, I must report, the polish remover has been drying off inside it so the effect is all but gone by now – it was giving my dull office emails a rather exciting new look.
Another exciting development in our lives is that both the Diplomat and Son acquired exotic new clothing pieces – a so-called sunga, the bathing suit that all Brazilian men wear on the beach. There is zero tolerance towards swimming shorts, the kind used by the vast majority of men in the U.S., and wearing them, we were warned, would quickly ensure that all hot Brazilians sunning themselves attractively at the beach would promptly identify the man wearing them as a foreigner and ridicule him among themselves for such tasteless display of excess fabric. We could not have that! The sunga comes in several forms and the variation is mostly in the level of shortness of the leg sleeves. The Diplomat opted on the more conservative side and he now officially owns Brazilian beach briefs. Due to Son’s extremely skinny body, his sunga mostly billows around him. Both of them were quite a vision at the beach this weekend and were immediately recognized as foreigners by a group of perceptive beachgoers who, however, were delighted to see them blending in so well.
I am happy to report that work has really picked up and I am truly enjoying myself. My day begins with a refreshing morning ride on a local bus, which takes about 30 mins to get to the consulate with a beautiful ride along the Rio beaches. I have reached the conclusion that Rio bus drivers have either a childhood dream to follow Ayrton Senna (I wonder I they are aware of how he died), have a death wish of some sort or are simply one mad bunch of people in a hurry. I have never, ever, in my life, seen such suicidal driving as I observe daily on the Rio bus network. Their speed is uncalled for in the twisting streets of this city and the turns are so abrupt and fast that last week I actually fell off my seat. I tried to be graceful, but there is nothing graceful about falling flat on your butt in public transportation at 7 am while wearing 5 inch heels and an A-line dress. They find stopping to let passengers on or off clearly distasteful and a waste of their time. As a result, I have missed my stop several times. Yes, my morning commute is a great start of the day and certainly helps to make feel alive. The truth is, I still find them fun and love reading during the mad careening.
The U.S. consulate here is terrific – my colleagues are a great team, everyone is lighthearted and quite collegial. I must admit though that I was a bit unprofessional this past week as I had another encounter with a fat, shiny, slick cockroach (remember this?). As I was interviewing a lovely family of 4 at the visa window, my peripheral vision registered quick neurotic motion on the floor below my high chair. Reluctantly, I looked down and was faced with the above-mentioned cockroach. Now, I admit that it was probably quite unnerving for the nice family on the other side of the interview window to see their calm, possessed and highly competent American officer suddenly jump a few feet up in the air (causing her pen and their passports to leap high into the air from her hands), while she shrieked with zero dignity and diplomacy and ran out of the area. Half a minute later, I returned and inspected the floor with suspicion but it appeared that the shiny beast had disappeared under the carpeting somewhere so I made back for the chair. At which point I saw the blasted animal again, heading straight for me! I yelped in horror, and ran away again. I must point out at this point that I was interviewing from a part of the consulate where there were no other officers so my antics were not observed by anyone. Well, except for the nice Brazilian family who noted every single move I made during this scarring ordeal in my line of duty. Given that they had no idea what was going on, I can safely assume that they deduced that I was a lunatic. When I finally returned and approved their visas, I did mention apologetically that there was a cockroach there, while smiling pleasantly at the wife. She gave me a very odd look back which I took to mean that she herself was a fearless woman and cockroaches are nothing to her.
And speaking of domestic pets, as I was getting, let’s say water, later last night from the kitchen, I saw a portly lizard running around on the ceiling. Upon seeing me, he freaked out and tried to sandwich himself between two high cabinets. He was stuck there for a while and every time I would go into the kitchen he would be wiggling around frantically trying to unstuck himself. Sadly, he was gone this morning – I have always wanted a gecko for a pet and had already named him! Come back, Jonathan!
Overall, life here is fantastic. We live in the poshest area of Rio called Leblon, two measly blocks from the beach, which we try to visit almost every day. I have a large terrace where we eat every single meal, even in pouring rain (we just close off the awnings and pretend not to notice all the drops on our heads). The apartment boasts 3 bedrooms, a large kitchen, and an inexplicably long entrance corridor. We have two bidets! Another delightful contraption are the delightful little metal doors for the toilet paper, which is placed into recessed compartments in the wall and closed off with miniature doors. Albeit admittedly annoying, it does give me no small joy to open the little door and pull paper, and then close off the door again neatly. And the one in the guest bathroom? It is gold plated, along with the soap holder (also hidden behind a tiny door) and the water flush button. My guest bathroom, folks, is fancy!
Rio is a wonderfully noisy city, whose citizens happily live in cafes and bars all day long. Weekday lunches in the business district are often complimented by beer towards the end of the work week. People here scoff at food brought prudently from home and prefer to lunch in restaurants or the “per kilo” places where there is usually a vast array of great food, which you pile greedily on your plate. After work, the bars and street pubs swell with chattering cariocas, drinking “chopp”-es (draft beer) galore, eating excellent grilled meats and yelling at the big TV screens inevitably showing soccer from some part of the world if not from Brazil itself. The walkways are covered beautifully with small white uneven stones, a wonderful remnant from the Portuguese colonial times called, logically, Portuguese pavement. While aesthetically quite pleasing, the walkways are murder for my shoes whose stilettos happily wedge themselves between the small pavement stones and often trip me.
The beaches of Rio are lined up with beach shacks selling delicious and overpriced food, as well as various beverages and Son’s favorite coconuts. It is the most common sight to see friends sitting there, each one with a giant coconut with a straw in it, chatting the sunshine away. If you need a chair, there are numerous entrepreneurs on the beach renting out chairs and umbrellas, as well as fetching you drinks, food and coconuts at your whim. Trust me, there is nothing like sitting on Copacabana beach, on a chair right at the tip of the ocean, under a pleasant umbrella, sipping a caipirinha and reading a good book. Until, of course, Son drags you out to see the massive pile of sand he had compiled which is supposed to be a castle. You pat him on the head, saying, “very nice, darling, very nice” absentmindedly, and then sit back under the umbrella, take a sip from the caipirinha to make sure it hasn’t gone warm and then spend a few scientific moments observing the local lifeguards prance about in tiny red sungas (see above) and very emphasized pectoral and abdominal musculature. You then lean back assured that they are there for you lest anything happens in the water, take another pensive sip of the darn addictive beverage and go back to your book. Yes, life in Rio de Janeiro can be quite enviable…
Sunday, April 6, 2014
After our fabulous roadtrip, we spent a week in California where I taught my nieces how to knit (I am a ball of secret talents), did a barbeque or two, and learned to drink fantastic boxed wine. People, boxed wine is the next sliced bread! It is fresh, it saves glass, it saves corks and most importantly – it is damn cheap! It will take over the world, I predict. A week of boxed wine, and we flew down to Fort Lauderdale where we climbed on a week-long cruise to a string of Caribbean islands whose names and sequence I promptly forgot.
Cruising! My goodness – have you done cruising? It is an outstanding way to vacation! I wish I lived the rest of my life on a cruise. Naturally, it does depend on which cruise line you do end up, so thankfully, with the expert help of our fabulous friends P&C, we sailed on the luxurious Celebrity Silhouette – an island of never-ending buffet, faucets of booze, a delightful British band called “The Smart Casuals” and hundreds of Serbian/Croatian/ Macedonian/Russian/Indian crew members, where you can see why we felt at home right away. We were lucky to receive a free “classic alcohol package.” Yes, that means that we drank for free. That also means that we drank a lot. At times, indiscriminately even. There were says I thought I’d turn into a Mimosa myself. The last night, I simply could not have a night-cap. My body disagreed and my mind agreed with it. See, the problem was that 1. the booze was free, and 2. there was always someone to bring it to you. Anyway, the cruise was amazing, and no small of that was due to the awesome company of P&C, with whom we even played a couple of exquisite games of Taboo – a game both the Diplomat and P’s husband C particularly cherish. OK, I lied, they don’t. Good men.
Once we arrived back to the ever cultural Fort Lauderdale, we had a day to re-organize our two bulging suitcases and 3 pieces of hand luggage, which were so heavy one would think that we were smuggling led or gold bars. Now, I would like to run by you once again the logistics that was our month-long vacation. As you remember, we started out with 6 suitcases, packed for Brazil. As Brazilians adore shopping in the U.S., the airlines have allowed everyone going to Brazil from the U.S. two suitcases of 70lbs each per person to carry the loot back home. To capitalize on that, I had packed us accordingly. As we were going on a 3-week roadtrip though, we had to leave 4 gigantic suitcases in P&C’s house in Washington, DC, to be picked up after the cruise. We then took the remaining 2, limited them to 50 lbs each and overstuffed the hand-luggage. Once the cruise was over, we spent the night in Fort Lauderdale, and then the Diplomat took a 7 am flight to go back to Washington, DC to pick up the 4 70-lbs suitcases. Son and I then flew on a later, more human flight of 10.50 am to meet him in Washington, and to fly to Brazil.
Fat Cat, at the same time, also was about to board a plane of his own – since our connection to Rio in Houston was only 45 mins (apparently, insufficient for fat cats transfers), Fat Cat had to take an earlier flight and join us in Houston, so that we can arrive on the same flight in Rio. While we were gallivanting through the Motherland, Fat Cat was happily residing with a most amazing friend of ours in Washington. Thus, when the time came for him to fly, we engaged the expert services of an animal shipper, the lovely Action Pet Express. Contrary to my experience with other folks in the business, they were efficient and communicative, and apparently knew what they were doing – Fat Cat was unceremoniously collected from the house of my friend (after some running and hiding, apparently), and put on the plane to Houston. Thank you, Action Pet Express! Same day still, Son and I gracefully arrived at the Baltimore airport, where we soon met the Diplomat who had gotten a rental car and brought the luggage back from P&C’s place.
And there we were, 324 giant suitcases, one bored to tears child running up and down the airport, clutching a large plastic dinosaur, one bedraggled, grumpy and sleepy Diplomat and me – ready to burst into tears as I realized that in mere 6 hours I will be in international air space, leaving my beloved United States of America for two years AGAIN. Our terrific friends M&M came to the airport to see us off and give us one more last hug, which made me tear up even more. Going to Rio in business class helped though.
We landed in Rio on a beautiful Tuesday morning, when the sun was shining and no-one spoke English at the airport. We were picked up by our gracious social sponsor from the Consulate (new officers arriving at post generally are assigned a social sponsor who meets them at the airport, shows them where to buy salt and wine, how to sign up for internet, and is generally there to answer any kind of asinine questions you might have when arriving in a brand new country) and headed straight to the cargo area of the airport to pick up Fat Cat. That took 4.5 hours. For real. I don’t know why. It also took about 1234 pages of documentation, to handle which we hired an outrageously expensive local “broker.” This Fat Cat costs a LOT of cash for the paltry amount of affection I get from him. Just as I sit here and write this, he is lying next to me on his back, four legs high up in the air and his butt resolutely pointing in my direction, twitching in his sleep. Am I supposed to be endeared??
And there they are, my promised first impressions of Rio de Janeiro, the Marvelous City as they call themselves.
1. Cariocas (people from Rio) are OBSESSED, POSSESSED, CRAZY about working out. Wherever you go, you’ll encounter hundreds of people running (men are always topless), bench pressing, squatting, stretching, lunging, lifting, pulling. There are contraptions every few meters on the beach that present opportunities to do all of the above. At times, I am afraid that as I am standing there talking to a Brazilian, he will burst into a spontaneous workout, or start doing push-ups as we talk not to waste of minute of the day without toning his already perfect body. Yesterday we passed by what appeared to be a public playground. It turned out to be a free gym for the retired. It was packed by 60-year old ladies, who were working out so hard as if they were being paid. It was 9 pm on a Friday…
2. Every fourth person on the street wears clothes with the colors of the Brazilian flag – whether it is a t-shirt, a skirt, a microscopic bikini or bombastic shorts, the folks of Rio wear their Brazilian pride for everyone to see.
3. Brazilian men largely consider shirts to be an inconvenience to life. Thusly, they have resolved to life without them. Many also scorn pants – it is warm, after all, isn’t it? Why bother? As a result, the streets of the city are filled with men walking around in absurdly small bathing suits (at least, I’d like to THINK they are bathing suits) and little else besides a watch. Some a pleasing to the eye. Some – well…
4. Rio is gorgeous. It is busy, crowded, noisy, but it is also filled with trees and palms and flowers, the beach has powdery white sand, the ocean is inviting, and then when you look behind you, there are stark tall mountains, from the top of one of which looks down benevolently Christ the Redeemer. I feel calm and happy in Rio, and forge ahead with my somewhat forgotten Portuguese.
5. I need to refresh my Portuguese or learn to carry a small dictionary. Today I purchased detergent, but to my dismay my whites’ laundry left a lot more to be desires. Cursing Whirlpool, I ran the laundry again. It was a tad better. Then I decided to read the label on the tub of liquid that I had bought. Not understanding what appeared to be a key word, I went to the dictionary. You see, it appears that I have been washing the clothes with fabric softener.
Summary: Rio is amazing and its people are wonderful. I feel very fat here. Rio is expensive. I need to be at work by 7.25!!!!!! Should I run on the beach?
Monday, March 17, 2014
Well, we are no more in Arlington, VA. We spent a solid month planning the move, which was being complicated by the planned Home Leave – that one month of mandatory vacation the State Department wants us to take every time we change posts in order to re-familiarize ourselves with the motherland. Our Home Leave was a 3-week road trip starting in Salt Lake City and ending in San Francisco, followed by a week of cruising. The complications: On one hand, Fat Cat could not come with us during Home Leave for the very simple reason that we are we did not think it was a wise idea to have a hyperventilating cat with massive claws stuck in the car with us for three weeks. Thus, we had to find a temporary home and someone to put him on a plane to Brazil. On the other hand, the planning was also complicated by the fact that Home Leave would include both skiing and visits to rainy states, as well as a week in California and one more in Florida. Which would mean that we would need one suitcase with warm skiing clothes, and one with light, summer clothes. A final complication is that we leave for Brail immediately after the cruise, for which purpose we have additional 4 suitcases, weighing about 60lbs each, which we clearly could not and would not take on the roadtrip with us unless we traveled on a school bus. Which we did not. So, we deposited the 4 monstrous suitcases with a couple of VERY close friends and the Diplomat will go fetch them after the cruise is over on the day we leave for Brazil and drag them somehow to the airport where Son and I will be eagerly waiting. As I said, a lot of planning went into this. I am also currently VERY suitcased-out.
I’d like to offer a few astute observations from our road trip so far:
- America is beautiful.
- America is largely under-populated. There were miles upon miles without seeing a single soul, whether it was human or bovine (and there is a LOT of bovine around the NW).
- America has an astonishingly large amount of Walmart and Fedex trucks. Every second truck on the road is a Walmart truck, and every third one – Fedex. What are people SENDING and BUYING so much??
- America has an even larger amount of microbreweries. Each one claims to have the BEST beer. Half of it tastes the same.
We started the trip in Salt Lake, leaving the frivolous life of FSI behind and flying over. We settled in a rather dated Sheraton in downtown SLC, and spent the next three days skiing in Alta, a fabulous skiing mountain, which was made even more fabulous by the fact that no snowboarders were allowed there (no hatin’ but suffice it to say that there is nothing more annoying to a skier than a posse of young snowboarders with pants bottoms hanging lower than Foucault pendulum, sprawled out leisurely in the middle of a run, usually right after a turn and thus, not clearly visible, chatting the day away oblivious to the frantic skiers trying to avoid them upon stumbling upon them suddenly and with great speed). Son was deposited in ski school, which he absolutely loved while we gallivanted though the sunny, powdery slopes and drank copious amounts of beer.
I would like to take a brief pause from my typically flippant writing style and pay homage to a good friend and reader of this very flippant blog who passed away about two weeks ago. The reason we began our trip in Salt Lake was indeed to see our friend, a fellow diplomat with whom we worked in Bangladesh, who was fighting a very cruel terminal disease. Ever courageous and gallant, just a month before our arrival he had told the Diplomat that he could not wait for us to arrive so that we can all ski together and have fun in their gorgeous house in Park City. In fact, he had been skiing every day until then with zero function in his arms. Lou Gehrig’s disease (or ALS) had other plans, however, and less than a week before our arrival, our friend suddenly passed from the various complications that come with ALS, leaving behind a gorgeous wife and two small baby girls. I am forever grateful that she allowed us to spend some time with her last week, sharing memories over exceptional homemade meatloaf and copious amounts of red wine. Dear D, you were an adventurer in the true sense of the word and you will inspire us forever! May you rest in peace!
From Utah, we continued through the vastly unexciting vast landscape of vast burnt high desert to the happening town of Boise, Idaho, where we stayed with another couple of fabulous friends of ours. They happen to have a set of twins the exact same age as Son, which made for a VERY loud house for the three days we were there. I must say that Boise was an unexpected delight – the very first night we arrived, the lady of the house H took me on a wine/beer/chocolate/nut/food tasting bonanza through town, also known as “First Thursday.” The idea is that every first Thursday of the month, participating shops and restaurants open their doors until later than usual, allowing Boisians and their lucky visitors to stroll through downtown, enjoying galleries hosting wine tastings, unique stores offering cheese and snacks, even nut shops featuring microbrews! It was fabulous! I barely remember getting home. I did manage to acquire, however, in my, err, rather felicitous state, a bag of exceptionally spicy peanuts, appropriately dubbed “Ghost Chilies.” I remember eating a few of them in the store, thinking them a stupendous idea at the time. Keep in mind that at the same moment I was sampling raw beer from a 25 gallon jug so my judgment just MIGHT have been clouded on that one. The next day it became apparent that eating more than one per day was injurious to the health. Also, no one else but me would go near the damn nuts. I persevere and eat them. As a matter of fact, I JUST had one, to prove a point. I am amazing! I am also currently breathing fire more impressively than the dragons on “Game of Thrones.” The point it – Boise is happening! Go visit.
From Boise, we set out to Salem, Oregon on a two-day trip, spending the night in Bend, OR. Thankfully, the landscape changed and we began enjoying rolling hills and multiple cows around us. In Bend we checked in into the stylish Shilo Inn Suites Hotel from the similarly named shabby chic mid-Western chain, which besides a rotating Lazy Boy also boasted a devastatingly handsome gas fireplace with an elegant wall timer, allowing for full 15 minutes of unmitigated romance and natural warmth. Looking dreamily into the gay, most natural flames of the fireplace, I began to think that I knew why those jetsetters Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt named their first-born child Shilo – could it be that she was the wonderful outcome of a playful night in front of the gas fireplace at one of the several locations of the Shilo Inn Suites in, say, Tillamok, Oregon after a day of sampling cheese or maybe in Nampa, Idaho or even Elko, Nevada?? I am just saying…
We had dinner in one of the ubiquitous microbreweries there, The Deschutes Brewery, where Son as usual drew dinosaurs all over the children’s menu (the kid is somewhat of a Dino Picasso, if I may say so rather proudly!) and I as usual ate an enormous burger with three kilos of French fries. Good times! The next day was back on the road towards Salem, another 130 miles or so. Easy, no? No. Everyone kept mentioning that we “would be fine if we have chains or traction tires.” Traction who? The weather was a pleasant 59 F, and I kept remarking just how lucky we had been with it all along. Apparently there was some mythical pass where the situation could be different. We scoffed, bought a coffee at yet another ubiquitous phenomenon in the Northwest – a drive through espresso joint – and went on our merry way into the forest. 20 mins later, it began to drizzle. Another 5 and it was raining. Then it turned into flurries, and to my amazement another 15 mins later we were full deep into a snow blizzard. WHAT?? The Diplomat was cool as a cucumber, and glued himself behind a semi-truck who slowly went up through “the pass” clearing the road for us. I sat there in the passenger seat, white-knuckled, without chains or traction tires, or even without so much as a sweater, counting miles. Folks, it was surreal! Mere 30 miles below, it is sun and rainbows. Up there – blizzards and traction tires. Another 20 mins and we were out of the snow inferno, back into pleasant green pastures and more placid looking cows. Soon we were in Salem, a delightful little city in the midst of the green vastness of Oregon. Son spent the next three days creating major mischief with his slightly younger cousin while we tasted wine, spent a windy day at the Oregon coast, drank more beer (where else) at a local microbrewery, and generally did not do anything useful besides laundry.
Next stop – San Francisco (well, San Ramon, where my sister-in-law, or SIL, lives). The trip had to be broken in two again, given the over 600 miles distance. The Diplomat decisively determined that we shall cruise through fun coastal roads rather than drive on the highway, and thus, had to wake up at the crack of dawn to be on the road by 7.30 am. I agreed and we managed to be on the road by 8.30 am, which isn’t bad given our usual standards. Packed with snacks and waving tearful goodbyes with his cousin and his 36-week pregnant wife, we drove off to the border of California in search of Redwoods and more sunshine. The Redwood National and State Park is located in the northernmost coastal California, right off the border with Oregon and stretches about 50 miles south, generally oriented along Route 101 between Crescent City and Orick. It is home to majestic redwood pines thousands of years old and quite ginormous. Some of the tree trunks are so large that some idiots earlier in the previous century decided to carve tunnels through them so that they can drive cars through the tree. Man and nature, true harmony.
We drove slowly through this natural wonder and decided to stop and take what was supposed to be a 30 minute hike through the grandiose forest. The trail, however ended back into the parking lot after 7 minutes. Clearly disappointed, plus Son insisted to checking for some of the alleged local fauna like Roosevelt Elk and banana slugs, I decided to take another trail that went somewhat parallel to the main road and promised to cross it in half a mile and go back through the trees on the other side of the road according to the nice map we looked at. All was well, and the Diplomat, Son and I were enjoying a pleasurable walk through the beautiful nature until it became clear that we are back to where we had parked the car except that we were about 400 feet from the road and while we could see the car parked there, there was no trail that led to it as promised. Clad in knee-high boots, I looked at the high grass and random shrubbery and decided that we will just cut across NATURE and get back to the road. While it wasn’t as easy as walking on a trail path, it wasn’t climbing Mount Everest either. The Diplomat disagreed. He did so loudly. In fact, he kept disagreeing though the 5 minute trek that did involve, among other daring things, climbing on a cut tree trunk and jumping over a small ditch that ran parallel to the road. The man is just not the outdoorsy type. Clearly, we survived. We managed to get to Fortuna that night, where we had dinner in a…YES, a MICRO-FREAKING-BREWERY! Dude…
The next day we had about 200 miles left and looked like we would make it to the house of SIL before lunch until suddenly the Diplomat got a hankering for mission-style burrito. So, tacos were had and then we just happened to stumble upon Sonoma Valley so we had to stop at our second favorite vineyard, Clos du Bois, to taste some of their newest inventions and eat our mission-style food (is it just me or “mission-style” sounds dirty??) Then one last pit stop at McDonalds and after 3 hours in San Francisco traffic, we were finally at the doors of SIL’s house in San Ramon, CA. Epic.
Fun fact – when I returned the rental SUV that same night, I decided to look exactly how many miles we had driven. Check this out – it was EXACTLY 2000 miles. EXACTLY! To the mile! Unreal. Karma. The trip was awesome. You’d think that spending 8-9 hour days locked in a car with your beloved and your small child for days on end will end up in several nervous breakdowns but it did not. It was, in fact, rather fantastic! Thank you, Mr. Diplomat for driving 1800 miles (I did drive here and there) and never once complaining about it! We should do this again. Like, in 10 years.
In the next post, I will regale you with stories of how Son entertained himself during the trip (very useful info) and how we went to a Go Kart place today.
Tuesday, February 25, 2014
It has been practically a month since I last wrote, wow. Been busy, you know? Finishing language training, completing about 785 administrative tasks related to leaving the warm bosom of the Foreign Service Institute, packing my scarce possessions…
Speaking of the training, I just passed my Portuguese test, and apparently, in the learned opinion of the State Department, I now speak Portuguese on a fairly intelligent level. Look at me, yey!! Let me tell you about those State Department language tests. They are all conducted on the top floor of the building where there are few rooms and people only go to test. It looks and feels desolate. And desperate. You can practically smell the desperation in that area. Or maybe it is just sweat and dust from nervous students.\
The way the exam is conducted makes things even worse. After you check-in for the exam, and fill out a form that you will never discuss its contents with anyone, you sit there nervously in a semi-circle with other colleagues who are also awaiting the guillotine (also known as language test) while fighting the un-ladylike urge to bite on your freshly manicured nails. The testing center has exams all the time, in all kinds of languages. Everyone sits there, tightly wound, making stupid jokes and bitching about the testing process. You can feel something ominous up in the air. And then suddenly various executioners, cleverly disguised as examiners, come by and take the trembling officers one by one into the torture cells, designed to look like sound-proof testing rooms. It is a humbling experience. And if you are sitting there, wondering why this is such a big deal, let me tell you – each language student has to reach a certain level of proficiency, depending on the language and the job he or she is going to. If you fail, you ain’t going to post. You go home. You feel awful, you might even feel sorry for yourself. The department gives you more time at FSI to learn the language and you mournfully wish your colleagues who have passed to have fun and good luck at post. And so, you go in the testing room, facing the two examiners, and lose valuable 2 hours of your life trying to prove how great you know Albanian, or Farsi, Norwegian or Amharic or whatever else elusive and twisty language you have been sweating over the past months. Once it is done, you are sent back to the waiting room to watch how your hair slowly turns white from worry. Gradually, the rest of your compadres file out of their rooms and all gather back to discuss their performance. As it turns out, everyone thinks that they did God-awful. I just wish someone, someday has the balls to state coolly, “I killed that exam! I was awesome! I am as fluent in Bengali as was Rabindranath Tagore. I am THE shit!” Clearly, no one ever says that or else the rest of the trembling crowd might tear him or her to pieces in their neurosis after the exam. In a few deathly long minutes, you are summoned back in to be informed just how miserably you have done and how you have barely squeaked by the necessary score and just what a shame you are to the Department. Or not. Depends.
What I love watching, though, is the lit faces of those colleagues who just fly out of those rooms upon hearing that they have passed and look like happy lunatics! Yey, congratulations! You are now ready to go to Ouagadougou (yes, this is a real place!). I will never understand why the Department tests us. Our teachers, who spend way too much time with us every day can tell you in two seconds whether or not we are at a certain level, and how much more we need. None of this exam nonsense is necessary if you have studied the language at FSI and people have monitored your shaky progress. I have vowed to become boss of FSI one day so that I can dispense with this vile practice once and for all. Seriously.
This past weekend was spent pleasantly with 2 of our closest couples and their kids in a rented house in Deep Creek, Maryland. As the Diplomat passed his own exam on Friday morning, we collected Son from school, and set on the 3.5 hr journey to spend a lovely weekend with friends, eat and drink and try to forget as much Portuguese as possible. With about 30 mins to our destination, our friends P&C called us with the exciting news that the street leading to our house is solid frozen and their SUV refused to climb there. Given that we drive a toy car with rear-wheel drive, we would never make it. In addition, they cannot find where the house actually is given that the whole area is pitch black. Exciting! I immediately began calling the owner (who was apparently caring for her sick ancient aunt on the West Coast and her husband whom we later concluded works for the CIA (we based this clever deduction on the fact that we found a CIA mug in the house! Solid logic)). No one picked up for some time and it took a somewhat terse email to her to finally get some traction.
The owner informed me rather shocked that the plough-guy must have been there. Sure, I said, but he might just as well have been bird-watching for there was a solid sheet of ice on the way to the house. She then cheerfully asked me if we had any other place to stay in town. Icily, I remarked that we do not, that we have just driven 4 hours and have 4 tired, hysterical children in the cars. She said she will try to find someone to do something. I trekked up the street in utter irritation only to find that if the cars curved to the right onto the grass, it might be possible to avoid the ice. In true Bulgarian form, our friend C then gunned his SUV and actually made it all the way.
That did not solve the problem, however, that we could not find the house itself. It was 10 pm, the darkness blinding and my cell phone light could only go so far. It did not help that I decided that I saw a bear move in the woods. Finally, after a lot of brave loitering about, I stumbled on the path to the damned house and soon we were all in, bringing in massive quantities of food, enough to last us a week, and a bunch of hyper kids. By 12 am, we managed to send the broods to bed and opened up a bottle of bubbly. The rest of the weekend was filled with snow tubing, constant eating, drinking, yelling at the kids to stop yelling, more eating and drinking, games of Taboo (to the constant protests of the men) and testy phonecalls to the landlady to ask just why exactly the heating does not work on the first floor of the house and one could actually domesticate a penguin there should the desire befell. The landlady told us that there are some vents on the ceiling, and we should get our ass on a chair to go open them. Um, wow, you did not just say that. After we did climb and fiddle with them, and still nothing happened, we called again. Landlady got seriously pissed and proceeded to chide my friend for calling her too many times which she found to be rude. Awesome. Thankfully, otherwise the house was great and the company wonderful, the kids ran non-stop for 24 hours, yelling from the top of their lungs, falling, scraping, hitting, injuring and laughing themselves to their hearts’ content. And I got to drink tea from the CIA mug!
My precious belonging just got packed by two feisty Salvadorean ladies. It was a bit of an embarrassing experience as we kept forgetting stuff in closets and entire rooms. Oh well. Glad to be done! This Sunday we begin a month-long home leave. Yeah, that paid MANDATORY vacation that the State Department makes us take after each post. Man, I LOVE this job.