The Foreign Service Institute, a big part of our lives

FSI is 70*

When my spouse joined the Foreign Service (FS) in 2006 as a second career, the Foreign Service Institute (FSI) became my new home.  I do not say this lightly; I used to spend more awake time at FSI than in my real home, haunting the campus for training or just for lunch to meet future colleagues.  I learned and benefited from FSI for 10 years as a spouse (technically an Eligible Family Member – EFM in our jargon) and now I have returned to FSI as a Civil Service employee.  Most EFMs only know the Transition Center (TC) at FSI; it actually regroups four other schools providing training in different aspects of a profession and in foreign languages.  I have been an eager learner of all five, and this is my tribute to FSI, turning 70 this year.

FSI70

As most EFMs, my first steps in this new life led me to the Overseas Briefing Center (OBC, a division of TC), where I was able to browse through numerous documentation on all potential posts, watch videos, and register for many interesting classes: Realities of Foreign Service Life, Protocol, Explaining America, EFM Employment, Security Overseas, Logistics, etc. Even our children participated in a Security Overseas seminar where they were encouraged to kick and scream on top of their lungs if they were tentatively kidnapped – imagine us, the parents, in the adjacent room hearing the screams!  We paid it back when our kids produced a quality video on Dakar which won first prize. I am also grateful for TC to invite me regularly as a panel member to help other EFMs, sharing with them my candid experience on FS topics.

During one of the TC workshop, I learned that EFMs could join the Direct Hires (the spouse who has a permanent contract in the Foreign Service) in the professional studies curricula.  To increase my chances to get an EFM position in an embassy overseas, I immediately enrolled in the General Services Officer (GSO) class in the School of Professional and Area Studies (SPAS).  Once completed, I began the Consular training.  As a result of being so well informed and trained, I started at my first embassy in Dakar with a job waiting for me, well-armed to understand my surroundings and act appropriately. Actually, colleagues thought I was a Direct Hire!  Many years later, I attended the CLO training in Frankfurt where I met many neighboring colleagues. This allowed me to build inter-mission partnerships beneficial to our Commissary and share cultural and entertainment information.

The SPAS Pakistan Familiarization course became the key to our fantastic tour in a country reputed to be difficult.  I understood the generic “Islam” label covered many different faiths, learned about tribes and ethnicities, the political landscape shaped by a tumultuous history, and why it took ten months for my husband to get his visa … This allowed us to better understand and communicate with people of Pakistan, friendly strangers in stores, streets, and even children in the mountains.

In the Margalla Hills

Young Villagers in the Margalla Hills

After Dakar, we were assigned to Mexico City and the School of Language Studies (SLS) helped me brush up on my Spanish with distance learning classes followed by a mentor. This allowed me to fill a vacant position where a cleared American with a 3-3 level was sought – I was the only one qualified in the pool of 100+ EFMs! Before going to Pakistan, I took Urdu classes, which facilitated my integration with local colleagues at USAID and with our local implementers. I realized that learning to write the beautiful alphabet helped me learn faster because I could read signs around me and practice outside the classroom.

Between earthquakes in Mexico and a rather unstable situation in Pakistan, I became a natural student of the Leadership and Management School (LMS), learning about Crisis Management Overseas and the No FEAR Act.  While never subject to a real crisis – besides regular earthquakes in Mexico City, coups in all countries surrounding Senegal during our tour, and lock-down in Islamabad, I always felt more secure and less prone to panic knowing that I knew how to act during a dire situation.

In my previous career I have designed many websites but a technical person would eventually code and create them.  With the School of Applied Information Technology (SAIT), I learned SharePoint and was able to create a SharePoint site to advocate for environmental matters at Embassy Budapest.

After eight years overseas we are now back in the United States, and I became a Civil Service employee, starting my learning “series” again.  First, I learned to defend myself in perilous situations during a Basic Defense course (TC); then I participated in the Civil Service Orientation course (SPAS); and later in the Knowledge Management Foundations course (SAIT).

FSI just opened this year a new division: the Center of Excellence in Foreign Affairs Resilience (CEFAR), and with the general context, domestically and overseas, we sure do need a lot of resilience in the Foreign Service!  FSI also provides Distance Learning classes and SkillSoft classes that anyone from the foreign affairs agencies can follow from the comfort of their home, one hour at a time. I cannot encourage enough EFMs to look at the impressive catalog and take a class or two from home or join a class on campus.  FSI has made a permanent positive mark on the lives our entire family, preparing us well for this strange new adventure in the Foreign Service.

*The complete FSI history is available on Amazon: FSI at 70: Future Forward: A History of the Foreign Service Institute.

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What I Like About China: More Pros than Cons

  1. PROs
    1. Great metro
      Lines are well described, color-coded. Tiny lights show you your location on the journey, a voice tells you in Chinese and English where you are, where you will be, whether you can change to another line or not. In addition, there is an animated screen, with pictures and the written text of what is spoken.
    In the metro

    Handle to steady yourself in the metro, while learning Shakespeare.

    1. Descriptive signs
      Chinese people use cardinal directions – the four points of the compass – in the metro and in everyday life. Metro exits are always well described with cardinal signs; a simple stop with four exits (People Square has 22!) will be signed A for northwest, B northeast, C southeast, and D southwest. Major landmarks are associated with a particular exit.  In Paris, metro signs give you the name of an adjacent street, depending on the chosen exit, but if you don’t know the area, the name of this unknown side street doesn’t help at all.
    1. Inspiring names
      In the Forbidden City, the Summer Palace, and other monuments, the places are not only beautiful, they have very Zen and inspiring names: Hall of Supreme Harmony, Hall of Preserving Harmony, Hall of Heavenly Purity, Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests, Hall of Abstinence, Hall of Eternal Protection, Hall of Ten Thousand Happinesses, Hall of Eternal Harmony, Hall of Heavenly Kings, Longevity Hill, Garden of Virtue and Harmony, Temple of the Sea of Wisdom, Hall of Happiness and Longevity, Temple of Heavenly Tranquility, etc. It brings internal peace just to read these names.

     

    1. Helpful people
      Structurally, the tactile paving on the sidewalks or in the metro is very common to help visually impaired people follow a street or be warned of an intersection. They are more prevalent than in most large cities in the world. Even when the sidewalk is in marble, there are tiles with long lines to follow and dots at intersections and before crossing a street.  Culturally, people are kind and helpful.  Even with complete ignorance of the Chinese language and no English language on their side, we managed to communicate with signs or pictures.  On several occasions, a person even accompanied me half way to make sure I would not get lost again.
    1. Extreme multi-tasking
      Dexterity in millennials is known. In China, I have noticed it also in older generations. Chinese people read on their tablet, play games on their phones, or watch TV while walking extremely quickly in the packed corridors of the metro. In Hong Kong (the New York of China for speed) I even witnessed people eating with chopsticks while walking – a far more difficult feat than eating a sandwich in the street! I admire the agility, while not necessarily condoning the simultaneous practice of these, especially eating mindlessly.

     

    1. High-speed train
      I knew the high-speed train in France, so I did not expect to be wowed. Beyond the high speed, China has excellent customer service. High-speed stations are designed like airports with enhanced security, modern well-lit facilities, and uniformed hostesses.  Train tickets bear your name and a passport check is performed many times before you are allowed to board the train.  Luggage is x-rayed.  Once on the train, there is much more leg room even in economy class than in any plane, even domestic business class.  Hot water is everywhere to be found at the station, not only for tea but also the ubiquitous Ramen noodles.  On the train, there is also a hot water faucet but why would you only eat noodles?  Every ten minutes a hostess passes with a little cart loaded with different choices:  cooked chicken, cut fruits, cut vegetables, drinks, cookies, etc.

     

    1. Consular team spirit
      Now for U.S. diplomats only. Consular sections usually have the best team spirit – I had noticed it in Mexico. In Beijing, and even more so in Shanghai, the team spirit was at its best. Consular management welcomed us, temporary employees, upon arrival with a private meeting, and thanked us at the end with personalized certificates and a party.  A teacher advised us to ensure our accent was understandable.  Managers assigned us special projects to make us shine beyond the tiring biometrics. We felt truly appreciated.  I would love the opportunity to serve again because, whether they say thank you or not, we are absolutely needed in large missions at peak season.

     

    CONs

    1. Air quality
      On the majority of days, the air quality is very unhealthy in Beijing or Shanghai. Beijing’s air is worse than Shanghai’s on average. Immediately upon arrival at the embassy, besides giving you a badge, managers brief you on what website you should consult to check the air quality, and advise you to stick it in your favorites.  I was shocked to see American families with young kids in these cities.  I believe it should be an ‘unaccompanied under 16’ post.
    1. Cuisine
      Are you surprised it’s a con? I was. When I told people I was going to China, the very first thing they exclaimed was “oh, you will eat so well there.” Exactly what I thought.  I love Chinese cuisine so I was thrilled to discover the real thing.  What I really discovered is the outrageous amount of oil they use to cook.  I tried the cart-street food, the small-no English-sign restaurant, the fancy restaurant, and each time I had to fish my food delicately with my chopsticks out of an ocean of oil. After a few times, I stuck to the Marriott or Ritz food – with international clientele they had learned to temper their natural oily inclination.  Or I simply went to the Korean or Vietnamese restaurants.  In Hong Kong, I had a delicious fondue, with food cooked by myself in lean broth.

     

    BOTTOM LINE
    I also loved the variety of landscapes, the amazing Great Wall, the bargain shopping, the great museums, the customized clothing, and so much more.  I would love to go back but not for more than six months – out of consideration for my lungs.

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A rugged part of the Great Wall

The New Diplomat’s Wife has More Pros and Cons posts.

A Sunday Afternoon in Hong Kong

A good friend of mine works for the Hong Kong and Shanghai Banking Corporation, better known as HSBC. I thought it could be interesting to go see the original HSBC building in Honk Kong and I discovered more than I was expected. This visit allowed me to discover an original facet of Hong Kong, a facet tourists going to the Peak, Madame Tussaud, or even one of the temples, will never experience. When you say bank you think serious, or work, or money? Well, my association of ideas will be from now on quite different.

I decided to go take a picture of Sir Thomas Sutherland, the founder of HSBC in 1865. I started to walk towards the HSBC tower, which is known for its distinct architecture. In 1986 a new building designed by British architect Norman Foster was erected to replace the 1935 building. The address is Queen’s Road Central #1. Little did I know that the statue of the man was not in front of ‘his’ building but in a nearby park. What I did find at the building was much more interesting than a statue actually. I had read that many Filipino maids gathered on Sundays in Statue Park, a park between Chater and Connaught roads, south of the bank. The HSBC building being on pylons, anyone can walk under it and discover an exhibition which explains the growth of the bank together with the economic growth of the island. It also shows the original shoreline of the island being at Queen’s road which explains its curvy shape when all other streets are cut straight west to east and north to south. Then it depicts how, in 1863, the shoreline had moved to DesVoeux road, then to Connaught road in 1904, and much further in 1964 after the construction of more land to create the piers. Brass lions, symbols of the bank, stand proudly in front of the building. They have been named Stephen and Stitt. Stephen was the Bank Chief Manager from 1920 to 1924 in Hong Kong while Stitt was the manager of the Shanghai branch.

hsbc

Building and lions are interesting any day of the week, but on Sunday the show is right there on the floor, occupied by hundreds of Filipino women clattering under the shade of the building. They are very organized. They have placed cardboard under themselves to avoid sitting on the floor and many groups have ‘sewn’ cardboard together and have erected them vertically to protect themselves from any draft. It sounded like an aviary. Being under the building amplified the echo. The buzz almost felt like a mantra.

Emerging from this peculiar atmosphere, I realized that I had admired the lions Stephen and Stitt, discovered the history, the expanding shoreline, the women, but Sir Thomas was missing. I had to cross DesVoeux road to find his statue in a park in front of the Legislative Council Building which is a very nice colonnaded and domed neoclassical building. Going north I crossed Chater road without having to look neither left nor right since the street had been closed to traffic. Is it like this every Sunday or because there was a gathering to promote gender equality that day?  In Statue Park, Filipino women could be counted by the thousands. Chirping among them or on the phone, sleeping, eating, just being together. The community gathering has now expanded all the way to Connaught road and the IFC Mall Plaza. The IFC mall is where the high speed train departs for the airport.  It was time to go back to Shanghai!

To conclude, here is a nicer view of Hong Kong!

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Samaria Gorge in Crete

During our three-year tour in Budapest we visited Greece three times, our last trip was in Crete, its biggest island. The major natural beauty of Crete is the Samaria gorge, one of the longest gorges of Europe (the longest is the gorge du Verdon in France). It is a mostly easy hike, especially going down, and can be achieved by anyone who can walk from 5 to 95 years old! Let me walk you through it.

On a week day early in June we enjoyed Samaria almost alone. It was definitely not one of these days of the summer which will see up to 2,000 visitors trampling through. We arrived just after 8 a.m. in a bus of about 20 passengers from Paleochora.

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Taking her goat to be milked, on the road to Xyloskalo

There were four options. Rush to the entrance of the park and get started immediately or before that take a photo on the rim, have a coffee or even breakfast, and/or go to the bathroom. The Swiss group rushed. We took our time. Officially it takes less than five hours to walk the gorge going down and we could not leave before 5:30 p.m., the departure time of the ferry back to Paleochora from the village at the end of the gorge, Agia Roumeli. We didn’t want to be stranded on the beach for four hours with 32-36 degrees Celsius (90F+).

The beginning of the hike features stairs of stone and wood for about five minutes, then it descends sharply with switchbacks among pine trees. We passed a few slow people and were alone on the trail. Then, an hour later, we rejoined the Swiss group and had to be careful avoiding their ski poles when passing them.

Ski poles, in my books, are meant for skiing or any winter sport involving snow. They have been designed to be planted in the snow. They cannot be planted in stones or hard rocks. Somebody must have missed playing the game stone-scissor-paper when they were young! Ski poles really don’t help when they slip on the hard surface of the rock. Quite the contrary, especially when suddenly they slip over a foot or two from the person they are supposed to help and are becoming a dangerous obstacle for other walkers. Some clever folks have equipped the end of their metallic ski poles with rubber. Some. Not the majority.

After a crowded 20 minutes of descent, as by enchantment, there was again not a soul in sight. The enchantment being partly explained by the fact that this park is very well maintained with many rest areas proposing natural fountains.

The entrance at Xyloskalo is marked number one and the exit is marked number 10. In between, the rest areas are almost every kilometer (900 to 1200 meters to be exact) except from one to two (1700m), eight to nine (3100m) and nine to 10 (1800m). This means that you may take two bottles of 500ml to start and refill every half hour or so. No need to load your backpack too much. Rest area number four is Agios Nikolai’s, Saint Nicolas, and this tiny church is actually open and not completely empty. It possesses a few religious images.

Rest area number seven is the most interesting since it is the old village of Samaria. The stone fountain has two spouts and there are many picnic tables in the shade of large trees. It is also slightly over the halfway point of the gorge, 7km out of 13. Most rest areas have toilets or WC. I don’t know if it is the same in summertime but they all had plenty of quality toilet paper inside. They are “Turk” toilets so be prepared to squat. In areas of intense passage I find this kind much more hygienic – the only problem here is that you need to throw your soiled paper in a bin (there is no flushing mechanism) and the rim of this bin is just about at nose level when you squat! Men will never realize this.

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Stone bridge leading to Samaria

Rest area number eight, Perdika, was soon passed and then started my favorite part. The 3,100 meters between Perdika and Christos are magical. You start walking in the gorge, there is water finally in the river bed, dirt changes to sand, high cliffs are getting narrower, and pink oleanders, already ubiquitous during this hike, become even more numerous. Feet never get wet thanks to many cleverly arranged flat rocks, a few rickety wooden planks and real wooden bridges at the end. 500 meters past Christos you reach the “iron gates” which is where the cliffs are only three meters apart.

After exiting from the national park there are three more kilometers to reach the village on the beach and the ferry. There are many restaurants in the village serving real food like rabbit stew, as opposed to “non-real” food like nuggets – they are also on the menu. On the beach between Gigilos, Kyma, and the Agia Roumeli restaurant, there are plenty of long chairs to help wait for the ferry.

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Choose it, weight it, eat it.

Back in Paleochora there are three good restaurants: Caravella, all about fish – you get to visit the kitchen to choose your own, Cape Crocodile, next to Caravella, looks fancier but not more expensive and very good, and finally for vegetarians, a restaurant which does not feel vegetarian, The Third Eye. It serves Greek, Indian, Asian, Mexican, and Arabic cuisine.

Enjoy!

Habitat for Humanity in Budapest

Habitat for Humanity is an international NGO dedicated to improving housing conditions for poor people, fighting for a fair housing policy and decent homes for everyone. It was founded in 1976 in the U.S. and in 1996 in Hungary. It has affiliates in more than 70 countries and can count on thousands of volunteers. The organization has built or renovated over 800, 000 houses, and provided simple and affordable homes for over a million families. In Hungary, Habitat has helped 2,000 families.

Among the many programs that Habitat develops in Hungary, this Saturday we participated in the Housing First program where Habitat renovates vacant social rental housing units for homeless people, and support them with social work in order to help them keep their homes after moving in.

At 8:30 a.m. sharp we all gather in front of a house in Ujpest, in the 4th district of Budapest. We are nine including Sandor, the foreman, and Betty the representative from Saint Gobain, the sponsoring company. Proudly representing the Embassy there is Chris, Edward and Catherine.

Sandor gives us some background. In Hungary there are 383,000 empty houses or apartments and 300,000 families in need of decent affordable housing. 170 000 children live in a home with no indoor toilet, almost 200,000 in a home with no electricity, and 620 000 children (30% of all children) live in damp, moldy, unhealthy homes.

Above the porch it says ‘Tiszta Udvar, Rendes Haz’, which is a plaque you receive when all houses are in order and the garden is neatly arranged. A plaque they would never receive today!  After the entrance door and a short corridor there is an open air corridor leading to small houses with tiny weedy gardens on both sides and at the very end there is a piece of abandoned grassy and weedy land. The house we are going to renovate is the third one on the right. Sandor started yesterday and already removed all belongings and the old shower. Despite the open windows the stench of mold and mildew is strong. I wonder what had been stacked there and for how long. This house belongs to the municipality which is too poor to renovate it, therefore it has been abandoned. Once renovated, this house will be rented at lower-than-market price.

Sandor tells us: ‘you came here to build, well today is demolition day!’ He explains that when people are poor, they don’t try to renovate well because it costs too much and/or they lack the skills. So they just hide what is wrong instead of fixing the problem at its root. For example there was a leak here; it made the lower walls humid. Previous tenants just covered it with a carpet which prevented the water from evaporating so it traveled upwards until the entire wall, all the way up to the high ceiling, was damp. They did the same with the flooring. Yesterday Sandor and his volunteers removed the carpet and the flooring. Now we even need to remove the tiles, the stucco and the base floor completely and let the bricks breathe and dry. This is why Sandor works on two projects at the same time: to let enough time to dry when needed.

Besides destruction, there are also three truck-loads of aggregate for concrete that has been dumped on the sidewalk and needs to be brought to the end garden where it will be mixed with cement. About 30 fine cement bags are also stacked on the sidewalk, 55 pounds each, and about twenty 88-pound bags of mortar also wait in the truck.

Sandor gives us legal papers to sign. Everyone does so without reading much but a mention catches my eye. We have to ‘destroy’ our tee-shirt, the Habitat volunteer tee-shirt! Sandor explains that if we don’t, it has to be taxed!!! We all sign the paper … for the government. Then he hands us protection gloves, masks and goggles. I know goggles will fog with the mask and I might faint standing still all day hammering a wall not to mention my legendary clumsiness with a chisel and a hammer. When Sandor asks for wheelbarrow volunteers for the cement, aggregate for concrete and mortar I immediately raise my hand. Nobody else does. Then Edward joins me and then András. Chris will be on destruction duty with the others.

All day Edward, András and I fill wheelbarrows and carry them to the end garden where we build a neat, new pile. Since we only have two wheelbarrows for three, we rest in turn and when I rest, I garden or more exactly I weed! I discover a lot of purslane which most people don’t know about, or if they do they think it is a weed and don’t know how to name it. My grandfather taught me it was comestible, quite a delicacy even. Since it is a succulent, you find it in arid places, often between old stones or pavement.  Only in Mexico did I find it in supermarkets between lettuce and parsley! Quick recipe: blanch it, and then add your favorite sauce, for me a mixture of crushed garlic, mustard, Maggi (a specific wheat protein sauce, a bit similar to soy sauce), balsamic vinegar and olive oil. Let it cool and eat as a salad.

Our arms are aching but our legs are doing a big job too. I finish the day at over 17,000 steps!  At the end of the day Chris comes to help us with the cement bags that he loads on each shoulder. We leave just in time before Edward breaks his back. We ache all over but we feel good and will sleep like babies.  Till the next time!

Erdöfi Major Guest House: an exceptional chef south of Mohács

The UNESCO appraised Busójárás festival in Mohács takes place six days before Lent, from the end of February to early March depending on the year. Yet, usually by November all hotels are full in the city, together with all the private rooms which only rent for at least three nights. Determined to not miss one of the most original festival-carnival event of Hungary, we looked for an accommodation a bit further. South of Kölked, in the heart of the Duna-Dráva Nemzeti Park, we found a little house with great hosts: Krisztina and her husband, the park ranger. Their domain is called Erdöfi Major Vendégház and comprises a little house for guests and a little farm with huge Mangalica pigs, turkeys, geese, chickens, etc. They offer three bedrooms of 3, 4, or 5 beds (perfect of families or a group of friends) with shared kitchen and living room. Each room had its brand new bathroom. They can be rented separately or all together for a discount.

The best of this address is not only its proximity to Mohács (16 km without traffic) and total silence, but the skills of Krisztina who is a real chef. Her food is so good – fresh homemade ingredients cooked to perfection– that we promised to come back and we did this August. We called two days prior and asked if she could cook lunch for us. She proposed a menu for an incredible price (HUF 2,500), and we gladly accepted. She served us a creamy cold peach soup – accompanied by more homemade cream. We usually do not pick cold soup on restaurant’s menu but knew it would be special, and it was. So good we had two huge plates each! Krisztina serves you like home guests; she leaves the entire dish on the table. Our main course was chicken breast stuffed with liver, herbs and bread, accompanied by freshly picked green beans and sautéed potatoes. And finally dessert was a homemade warm cottage cheese dumplings served with honey, sour cherry marmalade, brown sugar and cream. Our throats could not go dry either as shepier served us homemade apple juice. We drove home crazy with the smell of a fresh baked onion bread loaf!

Erdöfi Major Vendégház
http://erdofu.hu/
+36 30/ 846-6017
erdofu@erdofu.hu

Ode to Summer in Budapest

We came back from holiday missing part of the summer in Budapest. We missed the worse flood ever: something like one month of rain in two hours, and we missed the historical record of temperature at over 40 degrees Celsius. People complain about the heat but I can’t get enough of it! And what is 40 when you come from Islamabad with 48 every day for three months?!

I also missed my jogging around the cemetery of the wolf, a perfect 25-minute loop jog route from home in the Buda hills. So today I took little Venus – an Italian greyhound is always little even at adult age, a mere eight pounds – and off we went to see the seasonal changes to our neighborhood. Everywhere the leaves and grass were overgrown and wild. I was especially looking for ‘my’ plum spots. There are many fruit trees in the neighborhood and for some reasons Hungarians let fruits fall and rot on the road. This must be a rich-neighborhood in the city trend; I doubt they do this in the country side. First, I found the Reine Claude plum tree, a dark purple variety. There were some left on the tree, and many squashed on the road. I reaped a small kilo and walk to the second yummy tree, the Mirabelle tree – the tiny yellow variety. It seems that the season was over earlier as there were none left on the tree, only a few on the road.

There are many florists around the cemetery, three to five vendors at every entrance. I always chose the closest ones to home to be able to jog as much as possible before carrying loads of flowers and plants. Today I made a huge bouquet with irises and different kind of daisies for the ridiculously cheap amount of 6 euros, which mean 4.80€ after we get the VAT back. Together with high quality-cheap bill restaurants, this is one of the greatest pleasures of Hungary: live like a king for a fraction of the cost, yet being in the heart of Europe.

My day got even brighter when I arrived back home and was greeted by our red apple tree whose branches bend under the weight of a myriad of tiny red apples. They need another few weeks to be ripe. Then I went around the house to discover that the peaches on the tree are already ripe. I was also greeted by some old sad Russian songs coming from the neighbor on the south side and the new neighbor on the north side introduced himself: a Brit married to a Hungarian lady; they just purchased a house who had been on sale for over two years.

When we lived in Dakar, we were lucky enough to have a house with multiple fruit trees: mango, bananas and oranges. I also planted two papaya trees – too late for us but our colleagues who inhabited the house after us thanked us for them. In Islamabad, I planted two papaya trees immediately upon arrival, to have time to taste them before departure – alas a sudden frost killed them both before I had time to protect them for the winter. We had figs, tomatoes and basil to console ourselves!

This afternoon I planted oregano and mint in the garden, gift of a fortunate colleague who has too much in his garden to supply a pizzeria and a Moroccan tea room. I also added yellow pansies to pink carnations and geraniums to beautify the terrace. I had a thought for all my colleagues PCSing this summer, fighting twisted regulations, nasty airlines, and Drexel atrocities …

Today it is 35 degrees Celsius, the sun is high, and the sky is deep blue – I love Budapest!

Pros and Cons of Living in Budapest

Pros

Cost of living
The best restaurants cost a fraction of what you would pay in DC. You can have lunch at a Michelin-star restaurant for under $20. Fruits and vegetables cost much less than in the U.S., for example apples are 60 cents a kilo, oranges $1/kg. A kilo of pork is about $4. A maid costs less than $7/hour and she does more than vacuuming and dusting. She cleans windows, irons, cooks, etc.  Gas looks expensive but you get all the taxes back so it costs no more than in the U.S.

Endless travel opportunities
Hungary is so small you can reach most cities in two hours, perfect for a day trip or a weekend. Seven countries are neighbors (Austria, Slovakia, Ukraine, Romania, Serbia, Croatia, Slovenia) and four more don’t have common borders but are very close: Czech Republic, Poland, Bosnia, Moldova. There are endless possibility for weekends or three-day trips. Wizzair has also many connections from Budapest so you may fly to Italy or Spain for $50!

Food & Wine
Being foodies we are so happy to be posted here where food is delicious and abundant. Hungarian specialties are tasty (Goulash, grey cow, Mangalica pork, paprika, foie gras, beef cheeks, lecso, etc.). Hungarian wines can easily compete with French or California wines. Hungarians are also the best at making freshly squeezed lemonade, simple or with ginger, etc.

Public transportation
Being able to go everywhere by foot, sometimes with the help of a tram, bus or metro is bliss. No more car to park. We use our car only to travel outside the city. Public transportation is plentiful, regular, very safe, and decently priced – about $40/month. Budapest is bliss for teenagers who can go see their friends without needing their parents to taxi them around.

People & culture
From festivals in Mohacs (end of February) to Easter in Hollokö to many beer & wine festivals to music festivals (Sziget, Sopron), occasions are endless to share the Hungarian culture and meet friendly people. They also love dogs – you can take them to restaurants (they also have a ‘cat’ bar for cat owners).

Good  Schools
One American school, two British, 2 Christian, 1 French schools are used by the community at present but there are more international schools available. They are all very good.

Cons
It is hard for me to find real cons particular to Budapest.

Embassy community
Not as tight as what you get in Africa because there is so much to do here that people are constantly out of the city or the country.

Language
One of the hardest to learn after Chinese and Arabic. Extremely few cognates and rules that exist just to be broken on your next sentence. Illogical rules like using the singular when you use a number or ‘lots of’ in front of a name – obviously in English the name and the verb would be in plural form. Imagine that instead of saying ‘These five books are old’  you need to say  ‘This five book is old’.

VAT
The highest in Europe at 27%. Even food gets taxed that high. Few items like bread are taxed at ‘only’ 15%. By doing lengthy paperwork we are able to recuperate it in most cases though – so the con becomes a pro!

Weather forecast
While in most cities you can trust the forecast about one week in advance, in Budapest, even two days in advance it will not be accurate. Weather changes all the time. Yet we have more sunny days than in Barcelona so that is great.

Tons of work
Coming from Pakistan where it was common to work 50 to 70 hours a week we could not believe our colleagues when they said that Budapest was overly busy. Yet after two years we can attest to a level of work that is simply insane compared to other places. It is a small 10-million inhabitant’s country, yet it is in NATO between the West and Russia so it has more share of mind than its size might suggest. Also if you have a regional function and no direct flights to go to your destination due to historical Balkan reasons, travel time adds up.  I wish we could have time to produce better quality instead of always feeling we are running behind.

Five Pros and Cons of Living in Islamabad

A few other bloggers in the Foreign Service are posting their Pros and Cons for their current Post.  I am re-visiting my four different posts to write my lists.

Five Pros

Endless shopping opportunities
Some will tell you that you can save a lot of money when you get 35% danger and 35% hardship – well Islamabad doesn’t get the maximum 70%, I think when we were there the figure was more like 60%. You can also spend a lot of money on expensive items: jewelry (lots of stones), furniture, and carpets to name a few.

Customize everything
Because labor is cheap and artisans are very skilled, you can buy unique pieces or even design them to your taste. We designed: a 100 plus-year-old carved door into a magnificent bed, an armchair, a chaise longue, about 80 outfits from day-to-day woman ensemble to silk dresses, from dressed men shirts to cashmere coat, and many pairs of shoes.

Cost of living
Food costs a fraction of the price in DC. House help costs about $300 a month for a full time person – and at that rate they are in the top 10% earners in the country!

Food
Being foodies we are so happy to have been posted here where food is so good and varied. It is similar to Indian food with some variations (replace pork by beef for example). One beautiful thing to look for: boxes of cherries, presented like rubies in a shrine. One tip: the fish store in F7, Rana Market, is the best. We had sushi from this place several times, never got sick.

Fitness
I have never been so fit in my life. There is an Olympic size pool, a large gym, biking around the diplomatic enclave, hiking the Margalla hills. I even participated in my first Triathlon ever!

Five Cons

Security
Islamabad feels like Fort Knox so you do not feel unsecure at all. RSO wants to keep you on your toes and forbids many things to various degrees depending on RSO personality and real country context. For one year we were able to hike the Margalla hills every weekend, the RSO changed, it got forbidden.

It is very hard to visit the country. Even when RSO tells you it is OK, then Pakistani authorities step in and require extensive paperwork to be processed a month before (Lahore) or three months before (Karachi) – even for work purposes. This definitely hampers travels and tourism.

Embassy community
Tons of singles and faux-singles, more male than female so when you come as a couple, it feels odd. No families so parties never really start until 11 pm even when advertised at 9pm. In the Chancery people dress as if they were in DC and look at you funny if you dress like your Pakistani colleagues – which is much more comfortable considering the weather.

Heat
I like hot weather but for at least two months, you pass 100 F so the difference between inside the office and outside can be uncomfortable.

Hygiene
Or the lack there of … Latrines don’t exist in many places. Flies are everywhere on fruits, vegetable, fish or the hanging in 100 F degree piece of beef. Get used to it. Bring sanitizer!

Tons of work
Many people don’t come as a couple so for fear of getting bored they stay at the office. Many people stay at the office to get overtime even if they don’t really work. Some people really have tons of work because Washington wants constant updates. Visas are an issue so you often end up doing 2 jobs because the incumbent has not arrived yet. Whether you really have a lot of work or not, people make you feel crappy if you dare leave at 5.

Feeling Young in Hévíz

Hévíz is known worldwide for its lake, the largest biologically active, natural thermal lake in the world. Boasting 4.4 hectares (almost 500 000 sq. ft.) in size and 38 meters in depth, its source is exceptionally powerful, delivering 410 liters per second enabling the entire lake water to be renewed in only three days. Its temperature reaches 38 degrees Celsius in summer, and never drops below 24 degrees Celsius in winter, making it a year-round activity.  During mid-February, we enjoyed the water at 27oC outside and 37 oC inside the pavilion. This magical water is reputed to be good for arthritis, rheumatic, and motor diseases.

Besides the lake, there are many activities we enjoyed during our stay in Hévíz: the quiet provincial city and its colorful churches, the many bicycle tours available (with bicycle paths or not), the beautiful city of Keszthely with its majestic castle only 5km away, and Lake Balaton, to name only a few.

Lake Hévíz
At Hévíz, like many other thermal baths in Hungary such as Gellért or Széchenyi, the menu encompasses several pages,  covering every possibility of timing, age or family size. We arrived within two hours of closing time (3:00-5:00 pm in February), so the fee was only HUF 1,600. We enjoyed the sun casting a soft light upon the lake, the lilies and lotus flowers. As our interest was specifically for the lake and its sulfurous waters, we didn’t need to add the ‘sauna world’ option. Besides, our hotel was fully equipped with sauna and hamam. A complex of several little square houses all intertwined is built on stilts over the lake. From each house, several flights of stairs allow you to access the lake. Since the lake is deep and not everybody comes prepared with ‘noodles’ (foam floating devices) they have installed a few metallic rails that you can hang on to in order to rest. The submerged part of these rails is viscous with algae and when you swim your feet might get tangled in the roots of the lilies. It was wonderful being there off-season, as we felt we had the lake to ourselves.

For warmer water, we swam under the main pavilion, past a half-submerged door of heavy glass and metal, past a plastic curtain. This barrier keeps the source water at almost its original temperature. We were immediately intrigued by some people standing under signs featuring a bell and an arrow, which meant ‘move in this direction when you hear the bell’. So we queued like others to understand why this activity had so much success. They are seven signs and under each sign there is a hot underwater massaging jet. After about three minutes the bell rings softly and everybody moves from one station to the next. The first jet is at calf level, the second jet is at knee level, then thigh, and so on until the last jet reaches your shoulders or neck depending on your height.

The city
Hévíz is a very quiet little city with many pedestrian streets bordered by cafes, restaurants, stores selling swimwear and antiquities. It hosts a farmers market near the lake on Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday mornings. Besides the museum and the Roman ruins, there are four main churches which are very different from each other. In the Egregy part of the city (north), in the middle of vineyards and wine cellars, lays the oldest one from the 13th century, or Arpad time. It is a tiny white church surrounded by a large cemetery. The view on the valley is beautiful from there. The Calvinist church has a triangular façade made of brown stones with a small white tower. Then the two newest churches are green and blue. The Heart of Jesus is apple green with a bright orange roof and shiny copper gutters. The Holy Spirit church is blue and boasts seven towers, symbols of the seven gifts to the Holy Spirit. It was recently consecrated in 1999.

church

Bicycling
This area is best discovered on bicycle. The Office of Tourism (OT) in Rákóczi Street can give you a free Hévíz Card. The main advantage of the card for us was to get 4 hours of free bicycle rental for one paid day. So we took our bicycles at 11:00 am one day and had them until 3:00 pm the next day for only HUF 2,200 per person (some hotels rent bikes for HUF 800-1,000 per hour). The card also gives discounts at the lake or in restaurants.

The OT gave us a map with many bike tour routes to choose from, depending on the bike paths, length of tour or incline. We first visited Kis-Balaton, or small Balaton Lake, which was a mere 40km tour! To reach it, we cycled through Alsópáhok and Sármellék, both elongated villages with houses lined up along the main street. For some reason, houses on the east side were more rural (animals, farm equipment) while the ones on the west side were more urban (manicured lawns), yet all were of similar architecture. Just before reaching the small lake we saw a strange church with a single pointy black dome surrounded by wings like shark fins. When we reached the lake the wind was bending the reeds along the shore. Fishermen were trying their luck. From there we took the bike lane along the canal, through the nice landscapes of rolling valleys and vineyards, to finally reach Hévíz.

Keszthely
The next day we rode to Keszthely, which is only 5 km from Hévíz. This is the largest city on Lake Balaton. I particularly like the Helikon Castle also known as the Festetics Palace after the name of the Count who built it. The interior is lavishly decorated with original furniture. In the park there is another building hosting a very large display of old wooden aristocratic coaches and sleds. Other buildings will charm model railway and hunting fans.

Lake Balaton
This lake has the particularity of appearing to be of different colors, depending on the weather and your perspective. I’ve seen it clear kaki green on the south side near Zamárdi, creamy turquoise on the north side near Tihany, and blue-grey in Keszthely. Swans are frequent everywhere and they are hungry!

swan

Lotus Therme Hotel
We chose the Lotus Therme Hotel among the many other spa hotels for a number of reasons:
o   Rooms are equipped with a king size bed with a canopy and you get a kettle to make tea.
o   Five pools: one regular pool indoor, one regular pool outdoor, two thermal pools at 36 oC and one thermal pool at 38 oC; sauna, Turkish bath, salt grotto, etc.
o   Full spa services with massages, facials, mani-pedi, etc.
o   Daily gym program every hour.
o   Isolated in a large quiet park and forest, yet only 10 walking minutes away from Lake Hévíz.
o   Best of all: high quality buffets at breakfast and dinner.

To prepare your trip:

www.heviz.hu
http://www.lakeheviz.com/
http://helikonkastely.hu/en/
http://lotustherme.net/en