Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Going into Rewind

I've come to realize I may have put the cart ahead of the horse a little and skipped this topic. Or at the very least, I only hinted at or made some implications as to why I was agreeable to Natalie taking up a career with the foreign service.

I found myself thinking this over in great detail after reading a post by I'll Take Mine...To Go, Please! about talking disapproving or concerned parents/family members about this different lifestyle.

Along with the regular suspects of questions about where and when we leave for Mexico and what we will be doing comes the other biggie, "Why?"

Of course, part of this question is brought on by the fact that we are moving to Mexico. If we were telling friends and family we were moving to some western European capital, it would be easy to turn that question around and ask "Why not?" (But isn't just hilarious to tell people you are moving to Mexico to get a job?)

But even before Flag Day, or as I like to call it, A-100 Lottery Day, friends and family really couldn't understand why we would sign up for a life that would require us to move to anywhere in the world every two years or so. (Where I'm from, we joke [these were jokes, right?] that if you want to cross the Ohio River, you need a passport...such is how well I was equipped for culture shock.) After all, even if we were sent to a Caribbean paradise one time, we could end up in civil war-torn hell hole the next.

I can't speak to Natalie's frame of mind when she decided to apply. Besides, that's kind of out of this blog's scope anyway. I'm here to talk about why spouses would be OK with moving away from friends and family and likely ditching a career as well.

For me, at least, the career thing wasn't a big deal, because as I believe I've made clear, my career wasn't really going anywhere.

But that obviously doesn't answer the question about "Why the foreign service?" After all, I could just quit my old job. And if a change of venue was also part of the answer, this is a large country with plenty of places to relocate.

The easiest answer is that this is what Natalie wants to do, I love her, so I support her.

I have my selfish reasons, too. I do want to see the world, and this definitely lends itself to that.

Professionally speaking, I fancy myself a writer. As such, I believe that writers write from personal experience. This life offers an abundance of experiences I would not likely face in the United States alone.

So to come back to ITMTGP's question about talking to family and friends about this choice, perhaps the main points that should be made is why you want such a life. Our family and friends just want what's best for us, so maybe once they know why we think this life is best for us, that might help them to cope with adjustment.

And don't expect anyone to understand either. This is a nation that has done pretty well throughout history subscribing to isolationism, so wanting to leave the Land of the Free to live else where is an entirely foreign concept to most Americans. I think the key to putting others' minds at ease is getting them to understand that this is a decision that was not made lightly, pros and cons were weighed, and ultimately you reached the decision that this is a lifestyle that is best for you.

Sunday, March 28, 2010

EFM: Exhausted From Mini Marathon

CINCINNATI-I know I rail against some of the absurdity of government jargon and lingo, but here is a quickie against my own trade. See the start of this posting, with Cincinnati in caps? That is called a dateline. It means I'm writing this while in Cincinnati, but it doesn't include a date. Wouldn't location line make more sense?

Enough journalism insider jokes. For the first time since its inception, EF'M has hit the road. Obviously, this is the start of a roving blog.

I'm in the 'Nati for the weekend to run the 33rd annual Cincinnati Mini Marathon & Heart Walk. (All proceeds, $1.2 million, went to the American Heart Association.)

This also is home for me. I grew up across the river where I also attended high school, so this trip also was probably my final homecoming before we leave for Hermosillo, though we will stop here en route.

It was good to see my friends, even though we watched the University of Kentucky Wildcats lose in the Elite Eight of the Tourney (which concludes my NCAA basketball coverage until next March) and visit my family.

And then, of course, there was the run...15 kilometers up and down hills along the river (the Ohio, for the geographically-challenged) on Columbia Parkway. I hadn't been training the way I should've been, but was happy to finish in about 1:22 (haven't checked official results, yet).

Some day, I'd like to run a marathon, you know, just to say I ran a marathon. (Historical side bar: Lots of people run marathons, but I wonder how many know how the very first marathon ended? Let's just say the runner [there was only one runner] didn't fare particularly well. He ran the distance, yelled "Nike" [translation, "Victory," well played shoe company], and died. Why do so many people feel the need to do run this distance?)

I don't know how much running I'm going to get to do in Hermosillo. When the summer rolls around (let's call it June-August), I'll have 80 reasons not to run. Those reasons are the average low in Fahrenheit during that time of the year. Also, the thought of running through a country I don't know, where they speak a language I'm struggling to learn and where my gringo-ness will stick out potentially making me a target, I might need to find some alternative way of exercising.

There is a country club, and I don't mind running on the treadmill, but I've never tried running further than a 10k on a machine. It gets too boring to run much longer than that, in my opinion.

No doubt, I'll figure something out, but this is one of those lesser known challenges/sacrifices we make in this lifestyle.

And now I'll be signing out from Cincinnati.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

The Official Unofficial Acronym Chart 2.0

So about two months ago, I attempted to smooth out some of the Foreign Service's clunky acronyms by translating them into meaningful terms.

Since then, I realized a few typos, a few errors and a few omissions that needed to be added.

Before looking over the changes, let me explain my problems with the acronyms.

First, some of them are just nonsensical. I've already bemoaned the use of UAB and HHE as terms to denote two shipments of our things to post. Yes, I get it that it does make a difference what you send UAB and what you send HHE because of weight restrictions and when things arrive. But my complaint is that these terms seem arbitrary. Unaccompanied Air Baggage (UAB)? Isn't everything I receive at post after I get there unaccompanied? Househould Effects (HHE)? Aren't all of my possessions household effects? Hence my recommendation they just call them First Shipment and Second Shipment. At least that implies some semblance of approximate arrival time.

Secondly, despite what A Daring Adventurer might think, I tried to simplify these acronyms down to the nitty gritty. (ADA, thanks, as always, for the link.) In other words, while FSI stands for the Foreign Service Institute, what does the institute do for foreign service families. So instead of trying to remember what the institute provides, I figured I cut to the chase and oversimplify it in three or so words.

Finally, my last complaint about acronyms is that some oversimplify in three or so words. I rail against Eligible Family Member because it attempts to group all of us into a pretty little package. I like individualism too much to be fine with EFM.

So, without further ado, here is the newer, longer, (more offensive?) version of the Official Unofficial Chart of Foreign Service Acronyms. Version 2.0.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

EFM: Evaluating Future Mansion

We got our Hermosillo Housing Questionnaire today!

At this point, this whole moving thing should start feeling more real, but I guess I'm just too blasé about, well, everything for this to get me excited.

Most everything on the form is the nuts and bolts about who we are, what we have (dog, car) and when we'll be there.

Then we have two open-ended sections. The biggie, I assume, is this one:

I. Please identify your weighted housing priorities. For example, if “largest living space” is more important than “playground for children,” you may choose 80% “largest living space” and 20% “playground for children.” The total should be 100%.

Those are the only two examples of phrases, so at this point, we're faced with the challenge of not knowing what we don't know.

So, yes, I'd like to enlist some help from the foreign service veterans for a little guidance. What little surprises did you get when you arrived at your new home? Have any buyer's remorse wishing you had listed something in that section you wanted, only to find it wasn't there because you just assumed it would be in your home?

One example I've heard is a dish washer, though that one isn't too important to me. And at this point, it is probably too late to list "not in Mexico 100%." (Sorry, that was a cheap shot, but I just can't help myself at times.)

I'd love to hear any one's thoughts, horror stories or love stories.

Monday, March 22, 2010

Blogging about Blogging

I realize most of you don't care about college basketball, the Naranjeros or the comparing and contrasting of Mount Vernon and Monticello.

I knew this when I wrote those pieces, and the general lack of comments left behind after them confirmed this.

Yet, I'll continue to post occasionally about college basketball, particularly after the University of Kentucky Wildcats win the championship in a couple of weeks, my experiences watching the Naranjeros when that day comes and whatever tourist destinations inspire me to write.

Sorry, but it is going to happen. Part of my rationalizing for this kind of decision making is that I'm selfish. To borrow from our good friends at The Perlman Update, "I write because it's cheaper than therapy."

The other reason I selfishly write about topics I know you don't care about is that if this blog gets boring to me, then I won't post as often, or at all. Also, blogging will feel more like a job, which will result in some poorly written postings that I'm throwing together for the sake of writing something.

I came to this realization after several incidents where Natalie would suggest something that happened would make for a good blog posting. Maybe it would; maybe it wouldn't. But I didn't find those events to either be interesting enough to me, or within the scope of what I try to blog about, chiefly what it is like to be married to a foreign service officer.

One of my favorite sports columnists, Bill "The Sports Guy" Simmons of ESPN, oftentimes will write about the NBA. If I read any of these columns, which I usually don't, I skim through them quickly. Other Sports Guy readers complain he writes too much about the NBA, and I was inclined to agree. I'd much rather read his thoughts on baseball, football or popular culture.

It wasn't until turning down Natalie's blog-topic suggestions so many times that I gained a little appreciation for what Simmons must deal with on a daily basis from a larger audience. Sure, it might be a good idea, but I'm going to write about what I want to write about because if the topic isn't interesting to me, then how can I write it in a way that is interesting to anyone else?

So keep writing about the NBA, Bill Simmons. I likely will continue to ignore those columns, but if writing those columns means you will continue to write fascinating, well-thought and entertaining columns about topics I do want to read, then by all means.

And so I ask you to be patient with me on some of my interests, so that when I do finally get around to writing about something that is of consequence to the larger Expat Friends of Mine (EFM) community, it will be a better piece.

Friday, March 19, 2010

Cloud Nine

Ever wonder the origins of some of our common expressions?

Take, for example, the famous ninth cloud, a place we like to find ourselves. Why is cloud nine so desirable? According to the wiktionary, the 1896 edition of The International Cloud Atlas defined 10 types of clouds. The ninth cloud was the cumulonimbus, which rises to 10km making it the highest of the clouds.

I had a pretty good view from a cumulonimbus yesterday during the 12-hour orgy of college basketball yesterday, better known as the first day of the first round of the NCAA tournament. DeVaughn Washington, (in the picture below) also got a pretty good view from a cumulonimbus when he skied high on this alley-oop, fastbreak dunk in the second half last night.

There were great games with great finishes and four overtime periods, but the climax for me (pun intended) was watching the University of Kentucky pound their first round opponent, East Tennessee State by 30 points most of the game (100-71 final) at the same time that Ohio University kept Georgetown pinned to the ground for 40 minutes to win 97-83.

Let me re-iterate. Ohio University, the 14th seed in the Midwest/St. Louis bracket, who was 22-14, beat a third-seeded Georgetown team that beat Duke, Syracuse, Villanova and Pittsburgh, among other highly rated teams. Georgetown was ranked 14th and 15th out of 330-something teams in the AP and Coaches' polls, respectively, as recently as Monday. In the RPI, which is a computer-mathematics-based rankings, Georgetown was 7th; Ohio was 94th.

On second thought, maybe the cumulonimbus isn't high enough in the sky.

Watching this game, I ascended to the lesser known 13th cloud, the trifectus-nimbus. Ohio knocked down 13 three-point shots on only 23 shots hitting an absurd 56.5% of them.

Just a notch higher is the 14th cloud, the victorious stratus. Not only was Ohio the 14th seed, but they poured on 97 points for a 14 point victory. That set a new record for the largest margin of victory by a team with a seeding of 14 or higher. No other team in this category ever scored a double-digit win.

Still higher, and as of today the pinnacle cloud, is the 32nd cloud, the advancitous cumulonimbus. Ohio's star guard, Armon Bassett (that link takes you to Sunday's posting which has a picture of Bassett dunking in the MAC championship game), tallied 32 points, and as a result, Ohio advances to the second round, the round of 32, on Saturday against Tennessee. Then we'll see if I can get lost even higher in the clouds.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Jobs vs. Careers

Many of you directed your comments yesterday about my perception of being an Emasculated Form of a Man (EFM) to a grander view of self worth and employment, which is fine because that is where I was headed today anyway. The two are definitely linked; I was just highlighting my opinion that I think it might be especially hard on men given social norms and some of the data.

I also need to give a special Clairvoyancy Award to the authors of I'll take go, please! for using the actual phrasing of jobs and careers, because that is exactly what I was planning on covering today.

(A quick aside: Thank you to all who included overly generous, flattering remarks in your comments.)

The instructors at Free Studies Inside (FSI; by the way, three courses, eight or so instructors, and all have been women...OK, OK, I'll let it go now) were kind enough to us on Friday to no sugarcoat the facts. Even those of us fortunate enough to have portable careers are going to arrive at a post where we will be unemployed.

According to their November 2009 data, 2,470 (25%) EFMs worked inside the mission (which is somewhat Christian-speak for the U.S. government building at post); 1,295 (13%) worked outside the mission; and 5,978 (62%) were unemployed. Within that last group, about half would've liked to been employed.

Here is some more interesting data regarding employment that I couldn't really find a place for, so I will unceremoniously throw it at you now. The State Department breaks the world into regions: Africa (AF), East Asia Pacific (EAP), Europe (EUR), Near East Asia (NEA), South Central Asia (SCA) and the Western Hemisphere (WHA).

Childcare is so expensive in Europe and the Western Hemisphere that many EFMs opt for unemployment because it makes more sense financially, and so those to regions have higher unemployed EFM rates at 66% and 65%, respectively. Also at the bottom (66%) is East Asia Pacific due to the fact that it is illegal for EFMs to work in several of those countries including China, Thailand, and more. Near East Asia and South Central Asia both are higher than average (53% and 47% unemployed, respectively) because both of those regions have many unaccompanied tours, so unless the EFM is working at the mission/post, they aren't coming anyway. Finally, Africa with 48% unemployment gets mad props for doing the most to provide work for interested EFMs, and have a better unemployment rate to show for it.

But what kind of work are EFMs finding?

The FSI instructors admitted that most of the mission work is clerical, so unless your previous career was a secretary/office manager/or whatever the going PC term is these days, you are working a job and not necessarily furthering your career.

But there are some career paths that offer some hope, especially for those who work in the local economy, which is foreign service speak for working outside the mission/post. For example, about 400 EFMs were able to find work teaching, which represents about a third of EFMS working outside the mission.

I fall into the next largest group, which is freelancing (189 EFMs also found this kind of work), though I also overlap a bit into telecommuting (84 EFMs did this) because I'm freelancing for an American company. There are freelancing jobs in the local economies.

Lawyers and medical workers also find employment, though the problem here is that American certification does not always transfer to the post.

Throw in some military jobs, non-government organizations and international organizations that pretty much is all that is available in the local economies.

What, your career is not represented in that group?

For the creative and entrepreneurial type, you can create your own business; 141 EFMs took this route last year. Lest we forget, there were 9,743 EFMs last year in all, so this apparently is a difficult undertaking. But, in my opinion (and was shared by one of the instructors), this seems to be the most secured way to have a career no matter where you are posted.

And finally, there is the volunteering option. But this comes with an often overlooked caveat. While volunteering can be personally rewarding, our instructors suggested that we should be more selective in these endeavors that Americans usually tend to be. In other words, search for volunteering options that you can use to further your career for when you return to the States.

That's right, we will be coming back to the States, and there is no reason we should be putting ourselves at competitive disadvantages because we were accommodating to our Federally-employed Significant Others (FSOs) and not looking out for our own interests, too.

I don't think this can be stressed enough. There will be tours in Washington, D.C., and many of us will not be able to afford this city on one government salary. Or perhaps after doing a few tours, your family decides to either take a break or leave the foreign service life altogether. Then what? You just spent the past 10 years or whatever making yourself less marketable.

It is imperative upon us to keep our own career goals on task because we will not be getting much, if any, help from anyone else.

That ends this rant, and as a reward for your patience, I'll update the Official Unofficial Chart of Acronyms in the coming days to cover all of the new gems I picked up from my FSI courses.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

EFM: Emasculating For Men?

On Sunday, I said I had taken a respite from posting due to college basketball, but that is only half true. The whole story is that I was occupied Friday with a Free Study Inside (FSI) course for Employment-Frenzied Mates (EFMs) about finding jobs (or careers, for the lucky) at posts.

I gathered lots of interesting data and advice during the daylong course (in fact, somehow I was in class longer than Natalie even though she is learning Spanish as a requirement and her only job right now. Also, this was flag day for the 151st A-100, and one of our friends, and EF'M reader, got assigned to Belize; we will be visiting.)

One piece of datum the presenters shared was that are 9,743 EFMs as of November 2009. Of this group, 7,901 (81%) are women compared to only 1,842 (19%) men. Within the class I was attending, of the 23 in attendance, 16 were women (69%) and there were 7 (31%) men*. The asterisk is there because there actually were only six men there, but one of the women was the FSO, and she was there gathering information for her husband.

Also, during the event, one of the men I met took the nontraditional step of adopting his wife's last name and dropping his. And as recent as yesterday, while researching on how readers were finding EF'M, I found that someone Googled "what is it like being the wife of a fso," and that brought them here.

Now, I'm not too proud to be a "stay-at-home" husband (it does help that I'm actually a work-from-home husband) and never really considered my masculinity to be at risk. Yet I should admit occasional feelings of discomfort on the topic.

It is not that I mind taking a financial backseat to my industrious, ambitious wife while putting my career on hold. Far from it. Part of the reason for my signing off on this whole deal stemmed from the fact that I was not getting any satisfaction from my career.

Rather, I can sense judgment in others - friends, family, and even the foreign service community. What is wrong with this guy? How can he watch idly from the sidelines? And from the foreign service, why doesn't he take the tests, too, and become a tandem?

Maybe this paranoia stems from cracks in my self confidence. Maybe I'm more proud than I once thought. Or maybe I subscribe to 1950s stereotypes more than I knew.

At least within my circle of friends, family, etc., it still is fine for the man of the house to be the sole (or dominant) breadwinner while the woman stays home and tends to the household duties. But when you challenge this norm by reversing these gender roles, there is some awkwardness.

Now it is up to me, and my fellow male EFMs to make peace with that judgment until the rest of the country catches up. For me, that is why having some source of independent income is so important. Not only does it let me maintain an identity separate from the foreign service, but it is part of my claim to my manhood. I'm bringing home some of the bacon, too, even though I'm also cooking it.

So if you'll excuse me, I have to go to the grocery store now, and I'm fine with that.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

24 Hours of Extreme News Swings

Saturday evening through Sunday evening, let's call it from 6:30 p.m. Saturday to 6:30 p.m. Sunday, have been a lot of fun, yet sobering as well.

I haven't posted in a few days as I have been in college basketball-induced stupor, watching my teams win the SEC championship as they were supposed to, and making an improbable run to win the MAC championship.

Being a native Kentuckian, being a UK basketball fan is a birthright much the same way being a Packer fan is to Green Bay. And while I never attended the University of Kentucky, the UK Wildcats have always been my No. 1 rooting interest in all of sports.

As an Ohio University alum, however, I took the greatest amount of satisfaction watching my Bobcats run through the Mid-American Conference tournament by beating three of our biggest rivals, and doing so as the lowest seed ever to win the MAC tourney. (To the right, Armon Basset, our best player, ices the game in overtime with a slam dunk in the closing seconds.)

Consequently, on Selection Sunday, always one of my favorite days in the year, I watched as UK got a 1 seed, which puts them on the fast track to the Final Four and a shot at the school's eighth championship. And I also got to see Ohio get paired against heavily favored Georgetown as a 14 seed to play Thursday in Providence. (The wheels already turning in my mind on how I can get to Providence...I love March Madness, and I love cheering for the underdog, unless that means cheering against UK.)

I was planning on writing exclusively on college basketball, but then came the news this evening about the slayings in Juarez. (An unrelated side note, the AP reporter who wrote this article is someone I went to Ohio University with and worked with at The Post, the university's student-run newspaper. Nice work, Phil!)

A couple of weeks ago, I wrote that despite the travel advisories, I wasn't too nervous about driving to Hermosillo. Sunday's news was more upsetting.

In the past, I'd always tell people that while yes, the Mexican border is dangerous, it has been mostly drug cartels targeting each other. Americans largely were not getting harmed. Sunday changed that reality.

While there are many unknowns about what happened at this point, there are several levels of scariness about the news.

For example, what if this was some sort of retaliation for a Mexican getting denied a visa by the consulate office. That is by far the scariest scenario. Less threatening, but still upsetting is that the EFM who was slain was a corrections officer in El Paso, and maybe he was the target.

Lower on my personal threat level is the cases of wrong place, wrong time and that it could have been a case of mistaken identity.

Regardless, thoughts and prayers go out the families of the slain and to those who live along the border. Be careful, be safe, and good luck on making your decision about the temporary withdrawal to some where away from the border.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

An Ode to Telecommuting

Telecommuting is the best thing to happen to the Internet since e-mail, online dating and porn.

It behooves me that our government can waste so much time and money debating the irrelevant (or the relevant but it is obvious they will never make the right changes...I'm looking at you, healthcare bill and bailout bills) when they could be drafting legislation to promote telecommuting (maybe tax breaks for allowing a certain percentage of employees to work from home?).

To wit, telecommuting reduces our oil dependence by reducing rush hour traffic; allows for more free time for personal use; and saves money for everybody except for the people who rent out office space.

I know one of the arguments against telecommuting is that many people are too easily distracted at home to be productive. And for some people, this could be true. I'm not saying that telecommuting is for everybody.

But for the vast majority of people who spend eight hours or more in an office or cubicle everyday, transitioning to telecommuting would be smooth and result in no loss of productivity. Quite the contrary, I have experienced a morale boost from working at home and have been more productive.

I blame the Old Guard for stifling telecommuting. For example, my first high school journalism teacher taught us how to layout a page on pica-grid paper, complete with old fashioned cutting (with scissors) and pasting (with glue). You know, just in case that whole Internet thing didn't work out, we could still design a page for the Gutenberg press.

The Old Guard have failed to appreciate that the Internet makes gathering information and communicating easier and faster. As a result, eight hours is too much time to be in the office every day. Even the most industrious, busy-bodies out there can still find time to read EF'M or other blogs at the office.

I think it is only a matter of time before there are more Americans telecommuting from home than working in an office. Here's hoping for the rest of you, because I'm already living the dream.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Day One at Home

I got my first taste of what life will be like in Mexico as I spent my first day in my new office, the living room.

Sure, there were a few difference between working at home in Crystal City and working at home in Hermosillo. For example, while it did reach a sunny 61 F here, it was a sunny 74 F in our future home. And their low only dipped to 50 compared to the nearly freezing 37 here. Oh, and everyone I interacted with spoke English, but otherwise, yesterday was a microcosm of my future life.

The day got off to a rude start as I had wanted to sleep in until 7 a.m., but Natalie was less than quiet getting ready in the morning. For almost five years, I've been getting up before her to go to work, quiet as can be, and on this my first morning of getting to be the later riser, no dice. To her credit, she improved a thousand times over this morning.

After seeing her out the door, I started my new morning routine - making my own pot of coffee. While I'll be saving a lot of gas money and time not having to drive to and from work, I will be incurring new coffee costs as there was always as much free Starbucks coffee at work that I could drink. At home, I use Guatemalan coffee beans I bought through a vendor I met at the Crystal City's farmer's market last summer. Now, I like coffee, but I don't love coffee, but if I don't get two cups in the morning, I start going through withdraw by lunch time, which is marked by a throbbing headache.

Then I took Tiffy on her morning walk, and came home to get our breakfasts. I don't think my being home altered Tiffy's schedule too much, as I imagine this is how she spent her days while home alone. She didn't pester me at all.

Fed and caffeinated, I spent much of the morning getting organized. This included lots of e-mails. Some of it was work related, some personal and some foreign service oriented. The main task was to get an extension from Free Spanish on Internet (FSI) for another three months of Rosetta Stone access. I've been in touch with our Career Destruction Office (CDO; after much discussion, this has been accepted as an alternative to the Official Unofficial Acronym Chart's designation as Curmudgeon who Decides Overseas post), FSI and some other group, and I hope this gets resolved today.

After a couple hours of this sort of work, I went a jog until I nearly puked. I made it five miles, but before you say "good job," let's not forget I need to get to 9.3 miles by the end of the month for the Cincinnati minimarathon. That pretty much wiped me out for the rest of the day, but I ate lunch, checked on my e-mail accounts to make sure I wasn't following behind on my communications, and ended up watching TV for an hour or so.

Of course, this is when Natalie came home from work, finding me sprawled on the couch in pajamas. This is how I get judged.

All in all, I felt like it was a good start. I need to create a routine to make sure I get everything done, and yesterday went a long way to doing that. This is an exciting time right now, and I don't want to squander the opportunity to start good habits to maximize my situation.

Monday, March 8, 2010

A Monday Mea Culpa

This morning, I had to go back an re-read what I posted over the weekend, especially after reading some of the feedback.

And first, I need to thank everyone who shared their stories and advice about how they have handled their cell phone situations.

But after reading again what I posted, I fear that in my effort to not point to accusatory of a finger at one group, I perhaps painted the entire foreign service community with too large of a brush.

I think another contributing factor is the fact that perhaps I've had it too easy so far. I've been riding a streak of good luck that has included nailing down some employment, getting to start freelancing early (today, yippee!), being a part of a fun and active A-100 group, and have had the opportunity to meet many of the people who will be moving to Hermosillo about the same time we will. And to top all of this off, I have found that this blogging experience has been rewarding as well as I've learned a lot from reading others and from getting feedback on my posts as well.

So I was about due for some adversity, I suppose. After all, it is not like I'm being asked to stand idly by state-side while Natalie is shipped to Iraq for a year.

But where I probably was too hard on in some areas, I also might have erred in not highlighting how critical a cell phone that meets my parameters is to my situation.

Blepharokeratoconjunctivitis. My options are to have a cell phone that can record that word and its equally daunting friends or go to medical school. The ability to do my job is dependent on my having a cell phone. (Though doing interviews via Skype is intriguing; you deserve some type of award for creativity, Donna.)

And I consider having my own government-free job at post to being critical for maintaining my independence and semblance of self importance.

I do want to thank everyone again for their concern and thoughts, and apologize if I offended anyone by being too whiny. I'm a whistle blower by nature, which is great for journalism, but unfortunate for forming social bonds.

Saturday, March 6, 2010

Cell Phone Woes

What seems like what should have been a rather simple task has proven to be a trying, soul-searching, several weeks-long event.

A couple of weeks ago, I used this blog to ask for advice about owning a cell phone abroad and didn't get any feedback. If you don't remember, haven't been reading that long and/or didn't feel like reading that post, I need a phone I can use in Mexico to call doctors in the United States and around the world, and the phone needs to have a recording mechanism. My current phone, over there on the right, has no such bells and whistles.

About the same time, I also tried reaching out to the people already working at post in Hermosillo to find out what the spouses do about a cell phone. Unfortunately, I came by the same advice, which was none.

Next, I turned to LiveLines, which yielded a couple of responses, but it came up short on the, "Well, this is what I did when I moved to Mexico," statement I was hoping to receive. As I was awaiting responses from LiveLines, I did some online research, which had the added benefit of locating this Web site, which has more information about Hermosillo than I have found any where else, and it at least got me pointed in the right direction regarding cell phones.

I was getting frustrated because I expected more help from the supposed tight-knit, supportive group that the Foreign Service family is supposed to be. I couldn't imagine that I was the first Entrepenural Freelancing Machine (EFM) to move to Mexico. My fruitless search for advice on this topic has been my worst experience with the Foreign Service to date because it was the first time I've felt isolated and, to an extent, lonely during this process.

(I realize I'm committing a faux pas by saying less-than-flattering remarks about current and future colleagues, and for what it's worth, Natalie isn't thrilled about this posting. But this is my blog about my thoughts, opinions and experiences, warts and all. That said, I'm exercising some restraint so as to not negatively effect her standing with her colleagues in case this gets read.)

So with what little information I had, Natalie and I went to the Pentagon City Mall to buy a new cell phone today. I knew enough from my research to know that Verizon did not have any good Mexican options, but as they are our current provider, I was ready to give them the first chance.

To no surprise, after we explained our condition, the salesman agreed that Verizon would not be able to help us.

So we went to the AT&T kiosk, and described our situation again, and the salesman described some rather undesirablely expensive options. Then he added his two cents that we would probably be best off buying an AT&T or T-Mobile phone, but hold off on buying a service plan until we reached Mexico and then signing a local contract with TelCel. (For full disclosure, AT&T and TelCel have some sort of financial relationship that I'm too lazy to understand, and definitely too lazy to understand and explain it. Also, only AT&T and T-Mobile phones can be used with a TelCel plan, as I understand it.)

I was impressed by both salesmen's honesty on the topic, and ultimately, Natalie and I decided not to get a cell phone for the time being.

But this still doesn't solve my current problem of trying to record interviews before we go to Mexico while I'm freelancing from home. Unfortunately, I can't buy an AT&T phone and use my Verizon plan on it; and doesn't this seem like a monopoly?

So on the way home we stopped at Best Buy to figure out what to do as a stop-gap measure. So I explained yet again my cell phone needs to a saleswoman and showed her my phone causing an audible gasp, a few giggles and perhaps a short look of horror.

After composing herself, she said she doesn't think there is anything that can be done as far as upgrades are concerned and led me to the audio recorders section. "You must really love that phone," she said during the walk. To which I explained that I'm indifferent, but it has served its purposes as a phone until now, which is why I'm ready to part with it.

In the endgame, I still have my same cell phone and will have to resort to putting docs on speaker phone during our interviews, which is not preferred but will have to suffice for a few months.

And I've had the unfortunate experience of feeling let down by the foreign service community, but I'm willing to give everyone the benefit of the doubt this once that perhaps this topic is so complicated and full of bad news that no one wanted to be the bearer of bad news, that there is no simple, inexpensive, desirable way to be a freelancer in Mexico for an international trade journal.

I just hope I don't have too many more experiences with the foreign service community like this one because it did evoke feelings of helplessness.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

EFM: Excited For Mexico?

Excited for the Liga Mexicana del Pacífico is more like it!

Last week, I decided I wanted to see how the Hermosillo baseball team was doing. The Naranjeros (which I've seen translated as the orange growers and orange pickers. Can I get an official ruling on this?) are like the Yankees of the Mexican Pacific League winning 15 titles since the league was formed in 1957.

Not knowing Spanish made it difficult to navigate their home page, but it led me to learn more about the league they've been dominating. And after a while, I also discovered they won the league championship in the end of January.

The Liga Mexicana del Pacífico (LMP) is the premier winter league of Mexican baseball, and some current and former MLB players take part in the league. For example, the Naranjeros' starting third basemen is former MLB two-time All-Star Vinny Castilla and coming out of the bullpen is current Mets' reliever, and Hermosillo native, Elmer Dessens.

The LMP winner then represents Mexico in the four-country Caribbean Baseball World Series, which includes the Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico and Venezuela, which hosted this year's event. The tournament is a double-round robin, and the Naranjeros finished third, beating Venezuela twice but losing to the other two countries each time.

Aside from the thrill of getting to cheer for a team that is playing to represent Mexico in the Caribbean Series, apparently LMP games are like minor league games complete with cheap tickets, interesting mascots and a general county fair-like atmosphere.

Let's look at the competition. Three other mascots in the league are the Sugarcane Pickers (Los Mochis), Tomato Pickers (Culiacán) and Cotton Pickers (Guasave). I particularly love the Cotton Picker logo, but for obvious reasons, this mascot would never fly in the United States. And before you laugh at these teams' expense, remember in the MLB, we have the Red and White Sox, and the Reds, who formerly were the Red Legs. (And yes, that is cotton ball holding a flaming baseball...what's not to love about that?)

I also love the Tomato Pickers' Web site, but it might not be appropriate for viewing in the office because it plays music. But you can't visit this Web site and not get excited about LMP games. If you watch the scrolling pictures at the top, those are cheerleaders you see. Kind of gives a new meaning to fantasy baseball. (Nerd note: If there is an LMP fantasy baseball league, someone please contact me and reserve a spot for me. I'm all over it.) Also have to enjoy the last song snippet they play is about five seconds of Black Eyed Peas.

To win the LMP, the Naranjeros had to knock out the regular season champs, Deer (Mazatlán). The remaining three teams comprise two indigenous peoples, the Mayos (Navojoa) and Yaquis (Obregon), and the Eagles (Mexicali). Though it is a bit confusing because the Sugarcane Pickers also use an eagle as their mascot, too.

I also love that their jerseys sport sponsors like NASCAR uniforms do. Even better, one of the Naranjeros' sponsors is Tecate beer. I had planned on adopting Dos Equis as my Mexican cerveza of choice, but unless I gag on Tecate, this beer has bought my loyalty. Sorry Dos Equis guy, but I still love your commercials. (He speaks fluent French, in Russian.)

No doubt, I will try to make it to every home game, which is probably like 30-40 games. Are season tickets an option? I'm legitimately excited about the baseball south of the border!

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

EFM: the Excellent, the Foul and the Monstrous

Instead of using bullet points again, I found another way to deal with lists, and everyone loves lists. It's a great way writers to keep the attention of the easily distracted American. So this is the EF'M take on the good, the bad and the ugly.

For the first time since we've been married, Natalie and I are debt free! There will be dancing in the streets of Crystal City! College loans were paid off last year, and our final car payment will be paid off as soon as it goes through.

Which brings up an another interesting tidbit gathered from Free Studies Inside (FSI) course from last week about moving. For those of you still paying off car loans and who will be leaving the country soon for post with your car, you ought to check with your bank to make sure you are allowed to take the car with you. Apparently, many banks have rules against this because it is expensive to send the repo man to another country.

(Mom, if you're reading, skip to the next topic.) There has been a lot of bad news about crime and drugs in the northern part of Mexico culminating in a State Department Travel Alert.

Here is one little pearl from that posting: "Large firefights have taken place in towns and cities across Mexico, but occur mostly in northern Mexico, including Ciudad Juarez [as I say, you can't pronounce Juarez without "War"], Tijuana, Chihuahua City, Nogales, Matamoros, Reynosa and Monterrey."

I should be troubled by the inclusion of Nogales, because that is where we are going to be crossing the border, but for whatever reason, I'm not terribly concerned by the travel alert. I suppose part of it might be the little bit of denial that lingers in the back of my mind that this is all actually going to happen soon. Still doesn't seem real.

I suppose I'm also not too worried because Hermosillo did not appear on the list. I know there will be some dangers living in Mexico, but then again, there are some dangers living in Washington, D.C., as well. Just have to be smart. (Safe to read again, Mom.)

The timing of this massive earthquake couldn't have been worse for the Chilean people.

I'm guessing many Americans don't have the budget to dip into their pockets a second time to help relieve another natural disaster abroad, but here is hoping they can. Not to take anything away from the work our diplomatic corps does, but I have to imagine we do our best diplomacy in the form of American charity to other countries following such disasters.

In terms of American contributions to the Chilean people, I'm going to predict that coupled with the fact that Americans already gave so much to Haiti, other factors including that fewer Americans appeared to have been harmed/killed (I don't have any stats on this) in the earthquake and that Chile was better prepared for such an event will result in less media coverage and less donations.

Still, if you can, please offer what you can to another suffering people. The State Department has been directing people to the Global Disaster Relief facebook site, but Doctors Without Borders also is always another good not-for-profit to send funds after these kinds of disasters.

Monday, March 1, 2010

Debating Presidential Palaces

Late last week, like Thursday or Friday, I realized that this past weekend was my last weekend for the foreseeable future. When I leave the office this Friday, it will be the last time I'll be in an office for at least 2.5 years.

To mark the occasion, coincidentally, we added our first check to our D.C. bucket list. This is our list of things to do and see before leaving the area, and visiting Monticello was on this list even before Natalie joined the foreign service.

I'm a history lover and a big fan of Mount Vernon, so I had to see the other great plantation in our area, a 2.5 hour drive, give or take. (I suppose the final great presidential residence other than the White House would be the Hermitage. If anyone has any insights as to whether this is a worthwhile visit, I'm all ears.)

(Another note, this posting also serves the purpose of adding some new pictures to the blog; Natalie has been complaining it has been too grey as of late. This is the famous west front of Monticello, which is on the back of the nickel.)

So here is my take on the two Revolutionary American meccas.

The Mount Vernon grounds, at least, what is open to the public, are much more expansive and complete than Monticello's. Washington's mansion is the focus of the grounds, but you can fill an entire day visiting the other sites including his tomb, docks, farm, gardens and the several remaining buildings and slave quarters still standing. (More notes: it is easy as a modern American to make the mistake of thinking of MV and Monticello as homes when really they are plantations. Washington lived at MV, but so did is more than 100 slaves, so there are several "homes" here, like at Monticello.)

It is no comparison really between the what remains of the other structures at MV vs Monticello, because, quite simply, most of the shops and cottages at Monticello aren't there any more. Not so at MV, which is missing only a few of the original buidings. (Tiffy got to visit Mount Vernon.)

And the icing on the top is that there are several farm animals at MV including cows, sheep and horses (and pigs?, I can't remember) making this destination more appealing to children.

(Natalie with Washington's horse, Nelson, and a period actor.) In contrast, Monticello's mansion is more stunning than MV's. Monticello is set up differently in that your fee ($17 or $25 depending if you visit during peak times or not; $50 for an annual pass) includes the house tour, but you schedule in advance when you went to take the tour, which is great for busy months compared to the first-come-first-served method at MV, which results in waits that exceed two hours easily if you arrive in the spring or summer.

MV is large and ornate, especially for the late 1700s, but Monticello is over the top. The Monticello tour smartly begins at the front door and you are immediately struck by the grand Entrance Hall with artifacts from the Lewis & Clark expedition decorating the room.

(Natalie and me in the Monticello's dome room, the only room you can photograph.) Surprisingly, though, this isn't even the most awe-inspiring room in the house. After working your way through his study and bedroom, which are incredible for historic reasons, the parlor will floor you. And before you have time to recover, your are shuffled into the dining room, which not only is striking for its bright yellow color, but also contains his famous wine dumbwaiters and revolving service wall.

So Mount Vernon vs. Monticello. As of this writing, I'd give a slight edge to Washington's plantation, but with an asterisk - that being I've only seen Monticello in the winter so I didn't get to fully appreciate the gardens there.

Here's an insider tip for visiting MV: Natalie and I went in mid-Decemberish, and the place was deserted. This was great because not only did we not have to wait in hours-long lines to get inside the mansion, but during this slower period, the staff opens the third floor to the house, which is closed during the busier times of the year.

The other trick to this is buying the annual pass. A one-day pass $15, and the annual pass is $25. So our recommendation is going once in the winter when it is empty and you can see the entire mansion at your leisure. Then come back in the spring/summer and skip the mansion and check out the gardens, dock and farm.