Sunday, October 14, 2012

To Market, to Market

Let's not speak of the 6-plus-month hiatus in blogging. Got a little busy. In brief, the immersion program in Quito was amazing, finishing Spanish was grueling, "tradecraft," or training in consular, political/economic, and public diplomacy, was interesting, and a week-long class in diplomatic history was waaaaayyyy more interesting than anticipated. Now after a whirlwind drive with 3 dogs and a cranky cat to Houston and a super-easy flight to Managua, we're here.

The Freedom Chariot, Doug's brand new truck, arrived about 5 weeks after we did, allowing us to get around without relying on the kindness of others. We drove (OK, D drove - I haven't done so since I drove the truck back from it getting dropped off the first day) to the grocery store, to the embassy grounds, to a hiking spot, and, exhaustingly, to far-away Esteli for a day trip.

Yesterday we felt up to tackling Huembes market, the country's second largest and the largest we're advised to visit, located fairly nearby in Managua. Our mission? A garden hose and a ten-foot ladder, two items the gardener is sick and tired of being without. As we drove out, the day guard said to be careful of car vandals or robbers in the parking lot.  Hmmm.

Found the parking area on the first try, paid 40 cents to the handicapped guards' association that protects the parking area, tipped the closest (non-handicapped) guard another 80 cents, and were immediately besieged by guys offering to attach all the bling on the truck with little screws. Thinking that was ridiculous, we walked off indignantly, gradually noticing that every other vehicle had little screws fastening the make/model chrome bits to the body. So we walked back and haggled down the number of required screws and the total price. At that, the salesman ran off to get the workers, who approached with a hand-drill and recommendations that we double the number of screws, pointing out where a single letter was popped off an under-secured model name on an adjacent car. When they started talking about how to secure the hub covers, that was it. We realized that not buying the "service" would guarantee that all the chrome would be gone on our return and that driving home and taking a taxi in both directions would be cheaper, less stressful, and less destructive to the truck. So we drove to a shopping center, hopped the bus for a dime a piece, a little adventure in itself, and finally made it to Huembes.

The market is written up in many tourist guides. We didn't end up getting a hose or a ladder there (the hardware store had great ladders, and the Costco equivalent finally had hoses - better quality at lower prices than the market), but we did haggle on hose prices, inhale a year's worth of carbon monoxide from the charcoal cooking fires, stand in line for 10 fresh-made tortillas (gone by the end of breakfast today!), purchase a bread tray of beautiful local wood, marvel at the variety of organ meats on offer, and go googly-eyed over the piñatas, flowers, kitchen supplies, handicrafts, beauty supplies, barbers, dead gringo clothes stands, and lunch places. They say if it ain't at Huembes, you don't need it. Hot and tired and after roaming around for a half hour or so before finding the tortilla stand again (note to self: if you want it, get it when you see it), we grabbed some fresh and affordable peppers, tomatoes, and jalapeños on the way to the taxi stand. I think the taxistas were snickering a bit at our destination - from Huembes market to the snootiest mall in town, where we'd parked the truck, safe and sound and free from hucksters and predatory "guards."

No photos this time; maybe next time.

Today we'd planned to go to the Granada Jockey Club to watch the horse races, but we're opting instead for a day of beer-brewing (a recently acquired hobby) and football watching. The market was enough excitement for one weekend.

Sunday, March 11, 2012

Off to Immerse Myself!

Okay, what I should really be doing is calling a cab to get to the airport (they're not really serious about being there 2 hours early for international flights, are they?), but just wanted to give a quick update. Along with 11 other students and two professors, I'm headed to Quito, Ecuador, this morning for a two-week immersion (with a brief, 7-hour layover in Panama). I'm super-excited to quit falling back into the ease of English for a brief time and see if I can untie my tongue a bit. I'll be staying with a host family (my 16.95-year-old niece asked "Do old people really do home stays?!") and having classes every day at the Academia Latinoamerica de Español. We'll do salsa classes several evenings and head to a national park for the weekend (I'm envisioning zip-lining and lots of vegetation). D sent me his head size, so I'll be scoping out the hat situation as well.

Wish me luck, or buena suerte!

Saturday, February 18, 2012

My Spanish Transformation

If you knew me back in the day, you'd know I was the biggest French snob in all of central Pennsylvania or northern Ohio. I never had an iota of interest in learning Spanish. As I've learned with many things, from Africa to forestry, that lack of interest was born of ignorance. Now that I'm studying it, I'm adoring it. It's fairly easy, fun, and everywhere! I picked up three free newspapers in Spanish today. Notices about work on the Metro are in Spanish possibly more than in English. There are scads of places to learn, practice, and read Spanish on the web.

Possibly the greatest advantage to learning Spanish? The ability to watch 1970s Mexican masked wrestler vs. vampire princess movies in their original form (Santo, I'm looking at you). I would have had to watch a badly dubbed or subtitled version before this, but now I can stumble through, understanding at least the gist. OK, I probably could have gotten the gist without a word of Spanish, but it's much more gratifying to feel that I'm studying while watching this. I can also watch anything on TV, as long as it's in, dubbed into, or--at the very least--subtitled in Spanish. Comisario Rex, the German detective-dog series? Thank you, I believe I will. Star Trek? Planeta Feroz? Flight of the Conchords? You name it. HBO does a great job of dubbing many of their movies, even beyond those on HBO Latino. Then there are the 8 or so Spanish stations available here, including one that's all programming from China (but, yes, in Spanish). Those poor people who are learning Vietnamese, Turkish, or Arabic must feel guilty when they turn on the TV. I also discovered that a good 10% of the DVDs I brought have a Spanish track and maybe half have Spanish subtitles. Who knew "But I'm a Cheerleader" was also "Pero Yo Soy Porrista"?

And then there's the immersion program. Many of the language students have the option to do a two- to three-week immersion program once they get to an intermediate level. So about 15 of us are going to Quito, Ecuador, in March! Those poor Arabic students? Dearborn, Michigan. I believe the German students can go to North Carolina. OK, the French students are going to Nice. Figures... Still, I'm very excited to go to Quito. Will stay with a host family and get 4 hours of class every morning, followed by reading groups or other activities in the afternoons. Apparently we won't become instantly fluent during those two weeks (darn!) but should gain a lot of confidence. And we're to pinky-swear not to speak English at all, not even in groups of just students, even in the evening. Yea! I hope my host family has a TV too so I don't have to miss out on Comisario Rex episodes.

Monday, January 23, 2012

Manners, Please!

This Saturday instead of lying around the apartment all day in my pajamas and watching terrible movies dubbed into Spanish, I braved the slush and attended an all-day class on Protocol and Representation, aka, how not to embarrass yourself and your government at representational events (any event other than work hours and when you're hanging out with an all-American crowd). Had to dig the suit of the back corner of my closet, where it had languished since October 28.

The class was a total hoot, and not in a snarky way. We learned such tidbits as what indentations on a single tine mark the difference between a salad fork and a dessert fork, how to determine the relative importance (for seating purposes) of those you've invited to a dinner party, what seat NOT to occupy in a car (unless you're the highest-ranking person in the group, which I don't intend to be anytime soon), how to operate a slotted olive spoon, and how to eat a poached pear. We also learned the origins of silverware and how to eat American style and continental style. A good half hour was spent on the proper way of receiving and giving a business card. We mingled and chatted with others at a reception with coffee (only 2/3 full to prevent sloshing) and Oreos (don't be "the guy who wolfed the Oreos").

I know I'm concentrating on the table-setting and eating parts, but there was a lot of other general protocol, for instance, the differences--and how to detect them--between engraving (the best but not common anymore), thermography (acceptable), and laser-printing (not too cool but okay in a pinch) for business cards. How to address an ambassador and how to show respect.

They showed a video on how to "close the deal" by being strong in the run-up to and during a business lunch. It featured an apparent expert on etiquette but I could swear at times it was going to turn into an SNL skit given the background music, 80s fashions and decor, and overall resemblance of the hostess to Pat. In spite of that, it did teach us the proper way to eat watermelon with a knife and fork, get fish bones out of your mouth, and eat raspberries. I learned facts about napkin use and placement that I never dreamed existed.

I can't wait to go out and practice my new-found manners, although I enjoyed dining on fried sliced hot dogs Saturday night - eaten American-style since no knife was needed!

Monday, January 16, 2012

Crying in Public

It's something I've always done with embarrassing regularity, and this new gig is no exception. I cried during a sad movie in Regional Studies class, during a one-on-one conversation with my Spanish instructor talking about how much I missed my husband and dogs, after what I felt was an unjust result on my Spanish evaluation, and most recently, out of frustration with the instructor during Spanish class but really for no good reason at all. That last one was pretty ridiculous. Turns out it was largely attributable to coming down with a cold that's overtaken my 3-day weekend.

Looking back at my long and illustrious history of crying in public, I realize that I have seen far fewer people cry in public than have seen me do so. That means I'm in a minority. How do the non-cryers do it? Can you will yourself not to? I've tried and have even pinched pretty deep dents in the backs of my hands, but to no avail.

When my friend N, who preceded me in the Foreign Service by a year or so, told me that everyone cries at some point during language study, I thought she was mad. But now I can see it can hit you at any point. Or at least, it can hit me.

Saturday, December 3, 2011

Norming the New

Isn't it amazing how quickly the new becomes the norm? The idea of starting this blog was so I could share the new experiences D and I go through as we embark on our new adventure. And yet, here I am, posting only every couple weeks. Is that because nothing new is happening? Not at all. But apparently my little psyche is normalizing all that new stuff as fast as it can so I end up finding nothing particularly worth blogging about.

Two and a half months ago I was in Hawaii, living in a beautiful 2000 sq ft house a mile from the Pacific Ocean, surrounded by a loving husband and adoring pets. Now I live by myself in deepest suburban northern Virginia in a furnished corporate apartment. I have easy access to Tasty-Kakes but can't find poke in the Safeway.
Yummy fat patties!Delicious source of mercury!

My work life has changed from a cubicle in a high-rise office I inhabited for 9 years, with my own phone and computer, a raft of decade-long colleagues, an interesting science- and policy-based portfolio of ocean pollution issues, and some pretty cool responsibilities. Now I'm an itinerant trainee. I pounce upon any open computer in a common area, hoping for one that's not so glacially slow that I'll have to quit before it connects, to check email. My only phone is my personal cellphone. I hide my lunches in refrigerators scattered throughout the corridors of the Foreign Service Institute, then try to remember which refrigerator I chose. I lug my bike's saddlebags around all day, since students have no place to call their own after they finish A-100 orientation (and then it's just a common room with a coat rack). It's not better or worse, but it is vastly different, yet it seems normal now, after just a few weeks.

In A-100, I met 92 people, plus our course coordinators. Since then the acquisition of new acquaintances has slowed, but I've still met a ton of new fellow language or area studies students and language instructors. In A-100, we gradually came to refine the snapshot impressions of our colleagues that were based on quick introductions, to get a feel for the multi-faceted individuals they are. In language studies, we lack the vocabulary and grammar to convey complex thoughts. As a result, I'm the dog-lover, then we have the engaged guy who doesn't call his parents, the barfly with a Russian grandmother, the expectant father who dances the tango, and the woman whose husband cares for their young son and who vows never to return to the African country of her last post. I know intellectually that there is more to these people than the few things we've managed to say and to which we return again and again, but I don't know what it is. If we stay in the same language class together, I hope we'll get to the point of talking about more than dogs, drinking, pregnancy, and the poor engaged fellow's lovesickness.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Giving Thanks

It's that time of year, when we look around and try to get a little perspective from amidst the details of a life that's zipping to the close of another year. So before tomorrow dawns with a tremendous focus on El Pavo (the turkey), I thought I'd give the gracias thing a whirl.

  • For my loving and supportive husband, who has agreed to this new career and is being a total sport about all that's fallen on him.
  • For the overall damn good health of my parents and the fact that they're such great people.
  • For the funniest and funnest group of relatives and friends a gal could hope for.
  • For this amazing opportunity with the State Department. I haven't even started giving back yet, but as I learn more about it, I'm increasingly happy to be of service to such a great country.
  • For the best colleagues in the world: the 100-and-counting wonderful and accomplished individuals I've met so far and the others I know are out there.
  • For the amazing education/orientation I'm in the midst of, and the fact that I am currently getting a paycheck to learn a language with some of the best instructors that exist. 
  • For the good luck and health to be able to bike to and from work--something I'd never have dared in Hawaii. And for the urban beauty along the W&OD bike path.
  • For being in a position to take so many things for granted that it doesn't even occur to me to be thankful for them.

Happy Thanksgiving to all!