My jobs in the Foreign Service – Part III – Mexico

About family employment, this link will lead you to information far more complete than anything I can say. I just want to bring some personal touches beyond the statistics. See Part I and II for a full picture.

When I left my demanding private sector job in IT in France (marketing director for Europe) I told my colleagues I was retiring. They laughed – I was still a bit young for retirement – but I truly believed what I told them. After all isn’t it the perfect cliché ‘the wife of a diplomat drinking tea and chatting by the pool’?

I spent a school year (e.g. ten months) in Arlington, Virginia educating myself about the Foreign Service. Online, in class, one-hour presentation, full day seminar, three-month course… I attended everything I physically could that the Foreign Service Institute (FSI) had to offer. You can learn everything at FSI, they offer more than 600 courses: languages, cultures, finance, human resources, protocol, retirement planning, leadership, pet shipping, resilience, how to raise bilingual kids…

After this, instead of retiring, I found a job before arriving at the Embassy in Senegal (see previous post) and worked from the first day to the last. I was thus ready for a big long holiday.

We arrived in Mexico City in September; I had decided to enjoy this beautiful city first and not look for a job before the New Year. I found a job immediately thereafter in the Consular section but it seemed that my clearance could take a while so I accepted an interim job in the procurement service of the Narcotics Affairs Section (NAS). When it can easily take State three months to hire you, it took them less than three days – they needed me so they speeded up! They knew I could leave anytime for my job at State.

I enjoyed working for another section than State because, despite being all under the same roof, different agencies have different characteristics and usages. For a curious person like me it is fascinating. At State, all we could hear was how to save money, spend less, cuts expenses. At NAS, we were being criticized for not spending enough and not fast enough! What a change of paradigm.

Eventually my clearance came through and I became Staff Aide for the Minister Counselor of Consular Affairs (MCCA) for the country of Mexico (one Embassy, 10 consulates) and the General Consul of Mexico City. This job was usually performed by an officer but for budgetary constraints had been transformed into an EFM position – just my luck. Among many other tasks, I was the editor of the mission-wide monthly consular newsletter and in charge of VIP referrals for the deliverance of visas. The process to obtain a visa is much faster if you are considered a VIP by an American employee – it has to further the interest of the United States – you can’t just pretend your hairdresser is a VIP. We received the visit of the top three Mexican film directors, many government or military high ranking employees and the most known of all was the singer Seal. A British national, he was touring in Latin America and had lost his passport therefore his visa. He had painted his nails (toes and hands) brown.

Then I went to work for a less known service of the Consular Affairs and became a Fraud Prevention Unit (FPU) investigator. They needed a cleared American with a good level in Spanish since the interviews had to take place in Spanish. FPU is a very busy service in Mexico! Besides interviewing people in Spanish I also had to read the press (paper and online) to register all the ‘bad guys’ in our database. We are talking Mexico where heads are chopped left and right. Sometimes colleagues would send gory reports mentioning – be careful, terrible photos inside. I would then keep these reports for the afternoon – didn’t want to spoil my breakfast. As a side note, despite all the violence reported in the press, we never felt threatened during our two years in Mexico because violence was highly targeted and occurring in very specific places.

More about jobs in Pakistan and Hungary later.

My jobs in the Foreign Service – Part II – Dakar

About family employment, this link will lead you to information far more complete than anything I can say. I just want to bring some personal touches beyond the statistics. See Part I published yesterday for a full picture.

When my husband applied for the Foreign Service we lived in France and knew one person, in a different section, in the Foreign Service. We were not inundated with tips, we had no clue what or where we were getting into. When he applied we had very little chances that he would be selected because I was foreign-born. I had a full time job (60+ hours per week and my 4-hour per day commute, except when I was travelling one to two weeks per month) as marketing director for Europe so I did not look for any information about what might potentially happen … or not. Once my husband received his offer, he had two weeks to pack and leave (the email had been sitting in his inbox for another three weeks but we had no connection during our holidays in Africa) after a clearance/decision process which took three years. He had to leave without me and the kids. We were not prepared. Once he left, I used all my lonely nights to do some research. I learned the many acronyms, the few jobs for spouses, the housing and schools situation; I educated myself. I understood I would have to fight to get a job but sometimes it just depends on your date of arrival, and that I might work only one year out of two or not at all. After eight months, we were ready to join my husband in Virginia.

Commercial Specialist – I had a great start in the Foreign Service since, as soon as I landed in Senegal, I began as a Commercial Specialist for the Department of Commerce U.S. Foreign Commercial Service (a sister agency to State within the Foreign Affairs)! I had applied in April, received the offer promptly after my interview and only moved to Senegal three months later, ahead of my husband actually. Being francophone with a background in sales and marketing were the key skills which helped me seize this amazing job.

Based in Dakar, I was in charge of all West Africa and part of Central Africa.  On one hand my customers were in the U.S. and I had to advise them about the best strategies to enter the West African markets, which sectors were in demand for U.S. products, which importers were solvent. On the other hand I had African importers who wanted to know who they could import from, which companies were reliable and used to do business overseas. The big thrill of this job was organizing and leading delegation of West Africans to trade fairs in Las Vegas or New York on various topics such as building materials or cosmetics.

Community Liaison Office Coordinator – For ‘needs of service’ I also became a CLO in Dakar, a fascinating job which is considered the Rolls Royce of jobs for EFMs (eligible family members) within the Department of State. There is a long definition for CLO that you can check on the link at the top of the page. The short definition is: ‘in charge of good morale’ of everybody in the mission. If officers have good morale they will work better. If their EFMs are happy, the officer will be able to concentrate on his job. It sounds simple but it is a complex job since it encompasses eight areas of intervention and involves a lot of un-rooted people. Some happy to be there, some grinding their teeth. And this complex job changes with every continent and every country because hardships come from different elements.

I will continue later on my jobs in Mexico City, Islamabad and Budapest.

First Day in Pakistan

Tuesday, June 19, 2012 – At two o’clock in the morning, one half-hour ahead of schedule, our plane landed in Islamabad. We immediately spotted our ‘facilitator’ – an unknown stranger to whom we entrusted our lives for the next hours…

Not that we are cowards – after all nobody ordered us to Pakistan, we chose it on our own, with eyes wide open – but for those of you who don’t read the press relative to this part of the world, let me summarize a bit so that you understand in which context we arrived in Pakistan.

2011 had been the annus horribilis of the relations between the United States and Pakistan. In January a certain Raymond Davis killed two civilians in Lahore and, while rescuing him, his American colleagues unintentionally killed a bicyclist. In May the Seals killed Ben Laden which lead the media to two embarrassing conclusions: either the Pakistani were accomplices or they were incompetent since Abottabad is pretty much in the suburbs of Islamabad, not exactly a remote place. Several other incidents followed and finally in November, NATO (therefore the U.S.) killed 24 civilians near Salala. Despite proofs that miscommunications were more numerous on the U.S. side, the president refused to apologize forgetting the need to save face in Asian cultures. Because of this it took us months to receive our visas.

More recently, two weeks prior to our arrival, on June 4th, 2012, U.S. drones killed 15 people – while Pakistan has forbidden the use of drones. The same day they managed to eliminate the number 2 of Al-Qaeda. June 6th kamikaze Talibans activated 3 bombs killing 22 people. June 7th a bomb blasted in front of a school in Quetta, Baluchistan (South West) killing 15 people. June 8th, near Peshawar (North West), a bomb killed 18 government workers. Following a speech by Leon Panetta, the press wrote on June 10th ‘The United States and Pakistan are growing as stronger enemies day after day.’

As we were gently directed to the long queue for ‘foreign diplomats’, a second facilitator lead us to yet an even faster queue. We collected our luggage and pet quickly, and jumped in an armored car with such a large survival kit in the trunk that we had trouble fitting all our luggage. It was still dark so I did not see much of the road from the airport to the house.

We arrived at our house hidden behind a large metal door, guarded by a Pakistani guard armed with a Kalashnikov. High walls and barbed wires everywhere. That’s what I call a welcoming house!

Roughly speaking the house was about 190m2 (2,000 ft2), distributed on four levels, two large main floors, a lower small floor and an upper small floor for laundry and access to the terrace. At 4:30 am the sun started to rise as we discovered that we had a tiny garden planted with zucchini, tomatoes, peppers, a small fig tree and a young orange tree.

We unpacked as much as we could until exhaustion wiped us from 6:00 am to 9:00 am. Then we were driven to our gigantic Embassy compound in the Diplomatic Enclave, checked in with general services (GSO), the community liaison coordinator (CLO) and human resources (HRO). We had a quick lunch, visited our respective sections and were brought back in our neighborhood for basic food shopping

Home by 5:00 pm, sound asleep by 7:00 pm. This concluded our first day in Pakistan where we stayed one thrilling year (details to come).

Three Days to Pakistan …

In hours it did not take us 72 hours to reach Pakistan but date wise, our journey spanned three days. When one grows up in the Western world, one doesn’t dream to make Pakistan their home, especially not after 9/11, but one day you join the Foreign Service and the next thing you know you have a one-way ticket to Islamabad.

Sunday, June 17th – That day in 1885, the ship Isère delivered the Statue of Liberty to New York City. France should ask for royalties: what would New York be without this statue? And this day in 1963 the Supreme Court voted to abolish Bible reading in public schools in the United States. But for us, June 17th is when we took our first flight to Pakistan. One day I’ll tell what crooked path led us to choose this mission.

We had to check out of the hotel at noon. In order to pass the time we went to the pool, then to the movies, and then it was finally time to go to the airport to start a new adventure. We have to fly American companies, or companies which have a code-share with American companies. It happens that United Airlines is paired with Qatar Airlines, which was great for us because Qatar is one of the best companies in the Middle East.

We chose the smallest Italian greyhound of the litter so that she would always travel in-cabin with us. Except that Qatar doesn’t accept any pet in-cabin, of any size. Except falcons. Falcons are not pets though, they are emirs’ best friends. Who wants to lose the emirs’ business?

So for the first time of her life, poor minuscule Venus was in a crate and I was even more worried than her when I handed the crate to the special pet staff. What if she doesn’t make the second flight? What if they forget to feed her, give her water? We are finally all in the plane. The flight attendant checked – or not, but then she lies well!

Monday, June 18th – In Western India, a father angry with his daughter for her ‘shameful’ (in his eyes) attitude beheaded her with a sword and showed her head to people in his village. She was 20 years old. Are we really going to live next door?

When we travel we promptly set our watches to the destination country. On this basis, we were served dinner at 7:00 am and breakfast at 4:30 pm. We arrived in Doha at 6:25 pm. 40 degrees Celsius (104F)! When I travel I like to wear comfortable velvet pants. At this temperature though velvet becomes very uncomfortable and sticky. Qatar is a tiny country, a little peninsula in the Persian Gulf, home to only 1.7 million people, yet it has a first-class airline. The Doha airport is very modern but they have already planned a brand new airport for the year to come. Oddly there are no signs in Arabic, everything is written in English.

There was a time, just the year in which my husband became a diplomat, where any one assigned to a new mission that required over 14 hours of travel would benefit from a business class ticket. Knowing that we need to work immediately upon arrival, it seemed reasonable to allow us to sleep. Congress believes that diplomats are spoiled brats so it decided otherwise in 2006. Nowadays, whatever the grueling length of the flight, we must take the economy class. Productivity is so overrated!

We took off at 11:40 pm.

Tuesday, June 19 – At two o’clock in the morning the captain announced that it was already 27 degrees Celsius (81F) in Islamabad. A half-hour ahead of schedule, our plane landed on Pakistani soil. We descended on the tarmac and immediately spotted our ‘facilitator’ – an unknown stranger to whom we entrusted our lives for the next hours.

Life in Pakistan to be continued …

Sasso with Franco

Franco is our B&B host in Matera, Basilicata. He offered to take us around his city on Sunday afternoon.

In the morning we had wandered around the Sasso Caveoso, the southern part of the city and the Sasso Barisano, the northern part of the city. After our first tour of this incredible city we found a grocery store. We like grocery stores better than souvenir stores: our best souvenirs are local foods. For example in Italy we will look for local fresh pasta like orecchiette, wine from the Puglia and Basilicata regions, cheese and salami. One of the most common grape in Puglia is the negroamaro, a very robust wine. This name means literally ‘black and bitter’ but I found it rather ‘velvety’. The other grape we tried in Puglia is called primitivo, also rustic and strong, with a high level of alcohol, known as Zinfandel in California. In Basilicata, the grape we found the most is the aglianico. It came from Greece and its name derives from ellenico (Hellenic). It is a tannic wine with dark berry flavors. Since Franco had planned to take us around we bought him a good bottle of primitivo and a white wine to replace his bottle.

We had lunch in Le Botteghe, a restaurant with vaulted ceiling, large authentic pavements on the floor. As a starter we tried the specialty of the region: bread soaked in olive oil with cherry tomatoes, basil and onions – a bit like a bruschetta in taste but completely different. Then we shared the lamb and the peasant sausage with fava beans from the region. Simple food, no sauces, yet full of flavors.

We were then ready to explore some more. Franco took us outside the city, on the North East of the city where the national park Parco della Murgia Materana starts. First he showed us a church carved in the rock with a built-in façade. It had three naves. Archeologists have registered 155 rupestrian churches around Matera. Then we saw a huge quarry, still in use to repair the sassi with similar stones as the original ones. Nearby there was the Sun cave named after a smiling sun carved in its ceiling. There were also remnants of a wall built as a beehive. Time has taken its toll on the structure but much of it should be restored in the perspective of 2019 when Matera becomes the European capital of culture.

We understand much more Italian than we can speak and Franco had numerous stories and history to tell so we listened a lot. Whenever he was driving, yet wanted to continue speaking, he would stop the car to be able to use his hands! It is not a cliché, Italians speak with their hands. We stopped to visit some grottos. On the way Franco showed us wild thyme, oregano and even arugula. In one of the grottos we could clearly see the sediment left by the ocean in prehistoric time. Now the ocean is 44 km (about 28 miles) away from Matera. Suddenly we realized that we were on the other side of the canyon, facing Matera and its imposing cathedral. Walking back to the car, Franco had to stop several times, because even if he was not driving, in order to understand the full picture we had to see the hand gestures, and you can’t do this if you are walking side by side!

When we came back we gave him the wine to thank him, he didn’t want to accept. We insisted. He accepted only if we accepted his invitation to his beautiful house – a never ending-story! The living room had a high vaulted ceiling – it was perhaps an ancient monastery. We met his wife and his eldest son. It was hard to part with such good company.

We really want to come back. Special times in Matera are for Christmas, at Easter when there is a show with the 12 apostles in 12 grottos across the canyon, and July 2nd when Matera celebrates its Saint Patron la Madonna della Bruna.

Sassi Sunday

Franco is our B&B host. A small slim man, dark-haired with an olive-color face with some hair under the eyes, on the cheek bone; he is about 60 and a nurse when he doesn’t host. We booked one of his two apartments in Matera. Two days before we arrived he wrote us in some weird English, even Google Translate does better – but we did understand the message: ‘the sassi is closed after 5:00 pm.’ He had to fetch us outside of it to take us inside. If you have never been to Matera it sounds like gibberish. Eventually we received a call in the early afternoon of our planned arrival. It was a woman because ‘Franco only speaks Italian’. We told her we would arrive between 6:30 pm and 7:00 pm. She mentioned that we should give him a call then and he would pick us up Via Piave. Which number – asked the GPS-equipped me? Via Piave, she repeated. Intersection with which street? Via Piave, at the street light. So we understood there might only be one street light on this street. Indeed it was quite easy to find our host pacing around the street light. We speak some Italian so we managed fine. He told us to park our car where he had saved us a spot.

We asked if we could buy vegetables on our way to the apartment – since we had just purchased fresh seafood in Gallipoli: shrimp, clams, mussels, squid… He asked if we needed garlic. We answered that since we loved to cook, we always travel with a good knife and garlic! He understood we wanted to make a small home of his apartment and was quite amused. I believe this is what prompted his future generous behavior towards us. He asked if we needed olive oil and white wine and offered to give us some since the tiny vegetable store only sold a few vegetables. We accepted sheepishly but happily. We asked Franco if he knew a guide to take us around the area the next day. He said he would look into it. When he came back with olive oil and wine from his home, some houses above ours, he said he would take us around himself. ‘Are you sure?’, we asked slightly embarrassed. ‘Yes, tomorrow afternoon’, he answered with a smile and he left. That night in our grotto in ‘biblical’ Matera my husband cooked a fantastic meal, pasta al frutti di mare. Our digestive walk gave us a glimpse of this wonderful big village.

Matera is built on several hills: to go anywhere will never be straight nor flat. The pavement is very uneven, streets go up, down, swerve, continue as stairs … most of the interesting part is pedestrian. That Sunday morning we were ready to spend the entire day discovering the Sassi. We climbed to the Duomo (cathedral), went down on the other side of the hill to see the Santa Lucia monastery. From there we admired the canyon, the Gravina River and the troglodytes on the mountain on the other side of the canyon. Then we visited the San Pietro church where movies have been filmed. After this we visited a sort of museum, a house in a grotto as they used to live with animals inside, bed very high to be far from the humidity, tools on the walls, very small kitchen and no bathroom.

We came back via the Medieval Art Museum and the Purgatory Church which has an unusual rounded façade. After Piazza Sedile we went in a small tunnel and emerged just above Via Fiorentini, near where we stayed. We needed to have lunch to be ready for our visit with Franco.

To be continued …

Italy – Matera: a city with no urban planning

How shall I describe Matera? This city overwhelmed us. We were not prepared for such beauty and uniqueness. I’ve heard some people making a reference to Cappadocia in Turkey: absolutely not the same, it would be like comparing strawberries and turnips.

Matera is in the region of Basilicata. If you look at the boot formed by Italy, Matera would be where you have the bone of your ankle. The town lies in a small canyon, which has been eroded during the course of the years by a small stream, the Gravina. Matera has been registered as a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1993 and has been chosen to be the European Capital of Culture in 2019. Matera was chosen by Mel Gibson to film The Passion of the Christ in 2004 and he didn’t have much Photoshop to do after filming. This is the positive side which came after much shame thrown at it earlier in the century.

Matera is also known since Carlo Levi wrote his autobiography in 1945, Christ stopped at Eboli (Cristo si è fermato a Eboli), which became a film in 1979. Eboli is south of Naples, and north of Matera. The expression ‘Christ stopped at Eboli’ meant that the people living in the very south of the country were not Christians, they had been forgotten even by Christ. When young doctor Carlo Levi was exiled by the fascists to the Basilicata region (then called Lucania) in the 1930s he discovered an extremely poor region where squalor and insalubrity led to malaria being a common fate for the population. Matera and the entire region became the shame of the country.

Matera is famous for people living in sasso houses (sassi in plural) – sasso means stone in Italian. First occupied in the Paleolithic Age, then settled by the Romans, Matera has always been inhabited. People would hew their houses in the rocks, soft limestone and tufa, and essentially live like troglodytes. Eventually they built facades to their caves. Thousands of caves. Until the 1950s less than 3% of these ‘houses’ had running water and there was no sewage system. To add to the insalubrity most families lived with their animals in the same cave – not pets but donkeys, cows or goats!

The poor sanitation was so alarming that in the 1950s, the government of Italy forcefully relocated most of the population of the Sassi, about 20,000 people, to areas outside the city. Finally in the 1980s the right plan was adopted: repatriation and gentrification and eventually development of tourism. The city invested in drainage and electricity and gave important incentives to inhabitants to rebuild their houses– up to 50% of their investment was tax deductible. About 60,000 people now live in Matera which is nothing less than an open air museum, a living museum.

We arrived on a Saturday night, the sun had set and multiple little lights made Matera look like a nativity scene. Our B&B host Franco introduced us to our new home for three days: a cave house, a real grotto where nothing was flat nor square but the floor. Walls and ceiling undulated, high enough for us not to feel claustrophobic. Although a bit tired we ventured outside after unpacking. The magical view of Matera by night gave us enough energy to start losing ourselves in the intricate maze of the city where we had to stop at every corner to fill our eyes and take photo after photo.

To be continued …

Italy – Lecce by night, Lecce by day

Before we arrived in Lecce, we stopped in Otranto, the eastern most part of Italy, where you are closest to Albania and can even see the coast on a clear day. I need to mention it because not only it boasts a large Aragon castle and fortified walls but I especially liked its cathedral. Its entire floor is covered in beautiful mosaics representing the tree of life. This floor has been skillfully and meticulously made by a monk named Pantaleone from 1163 to 1166. The scenes are inspired by the Old Testament so you can imagine how barbaric they are which is very unusual in a catholic church.

At night we had settled in our wonderful B&B and went to the restaurant recommended by our hosts. The cuisine was delicious: I had a delicate fish on a bed of wild mushrooms. We discovered the grape of the region, the negroamaro, a powerful grape that had actually been toned down for modern tastes. On a Friday night we didn’t understand why we were alone in this very good restaurant. Eventually we tried to pay with our visa card but the rain had damaged the lines. The owner came, tried, and tried again, apologized. We asked him where we could find an ATM and that we would return promptly. He told us the closest ATM was within a 15-minute walk but his voice had the resignation tone that he half believed we would return.

This interlude allowed us to discovered Lecce by night, which was delightful. The huge Porta Napoli (Naples gate), almost as big as the Arch of Triumph in Paris, erected in 1548, was even more majestuous all lit up in the dark. The most baroque church you can imagine, the Santa Croce, built in 1646, looked even more complicated and imposing at night. Twin columns frame the door, six more are on the lower part and four more columns on the upper part surround the large Romanesque rosacea, all decorated with niches, telamons (male caryatids), imaginary creatures, animals, mythological and historical characters.

When we returned, the restaurant owner was so happy he rounded down the bill and offered us a drink! In this part of Italy we had to have Limoncello. And here we are, after a hard start of the day, full of rain, having a great time with a total stranger speaking Italian only – a language we understand about 70 to 80% of but can speak much less.

The next day we visited Lecce by day: the cathedral (il Duomo), the Roman amphitheater, the Piazza San Oronzo . What is interesting about this main plaza is the fact that Saint Irene was the patron of the city until the plague invaded all of Southern Italy in 1666 except Lecce. The inhabitants thought it was because of the bishop at the time, Oronzo, made him a saint, erected a statue, gave him a plaza and declared him the new patron of the city. We basked in the sun while a classical pianist played in front of the Saint Irene church. It finally felt like holiday!

We went to Gallipoli for lunch. Not the Turkish Gallipoli, known since Mel Gibson featured in a film about the First World War, but the Italian Gallipoli situated on the inside of the heel of the Italian boot.. Gallipoli, comes from the Greek word Kallipolis which means ‘beautiful city’. The old town is on a peninsula. Just after you pass the bridge there is a large castle built in the 13th century by the Byzantines and remodeled by the Aragons and the Angevines who added a polygonal wall fortified with round towers. Among many other nice monuments there is the baroque cathedral of Sant Agata from the 17th century with a richly decorated façade with niches featuring statues of saints.

That evening we arrived in Matera. To be continued …

Rain to Jewel Lecce

We had a wonderful day discovering the heel of Italy, the Salento which is the southern part of the Puglia region. We are sleeping tonight in the Basilicata region. I highly recommend both.

Our trip had started in a chaotic manner of good & not so good. For the first time we flew on a low-cost company (Wizzair) and we were full of apprehension. The check-in was fast, automatic, the plane was clean with plenty of space for the legs – even without purchasing extra-leg space as advertised every day before our departure. The flight was on time, the landing uneventful. We quickly retrieved our suitcase and received the keys for our rental car from a very gracious and efficient girl. Good!

We got out of the airport to get our car. It was a very dark night and it started to rain. We arrived drenched at our car. Not so good.

We arrived at our Bed & Breakfast in Bari on the Adriatic Sea, facing Albania. The son of the owner helped us park. The lady owner offered us tea and the room was large with a nice design. Good.

The next morning we tried to pay with our visa card. Their machine didn’t work. We pulled out a 100-euro bill for a 60-euro night, they didn’t have change. The shower was hot then cold then hot then cold … we started to get annoyed.

We visited the beautiful cliffs of Polignano a Mare and its old city past the archway and then the rain started to drizzle. We drove through cute villages of Cisternino and Ceglie Messapica but our view was obliterated by the overly present rain. Yes in Southern Italy, the very dry part, it was raining all day. We had left sunny and warm Budapest for cold rain!

We stopped in Ostuni to have lunch. November is definitively low-season here. Most restaurants were closed. All wet, including feet, we were starving and miserable. We found Il pozzo dei desideri (The wishing well). A predestined name. Our silent wishes came all true. The food was delicious and beautifully presented. Their specialty pasta was orecchiette (ears … I know it doesn’t sound as appetizing in English) with clams and zucchini overflowing from a cornucopia made of parmesan ‘lace’ that we devoured. When we left the restaurant we saw an entire giant rainbow over the sea. A magical moment. It is so rare to see a full rainbow.

Then we drove to the jewel of the Puglia, the city of Lecce. Old town starts past the Porta Napoli, where most streets are pedestrian. We settled in one of the best Bed & Breakfast we’ve ever been to, the Antiche Mura. Fuchsia bougainvillea petals carpeted the ground of the very green garden. Very welcoming hosts offered us local typical fresh cakes, free parking, a map, plenty of advice. On top of a stylish bedroom in an old stone-walled room with high ceilings, we had a full kitchen, and I mean full. It had all the appliances you can think of, including to make your own paninis. And then the fridge was full: eggs, orange juice, mineral water, yogurts, butter … And the cupboard was full: olive oil, vinegar, sugar, salt, pepper, basil, oregano, hot peppers …

After yet another great meal at La Scarpetta, we went for a digestive walk in the city to discover part of it by night. One of the highlight was the baroque Santa Croce, the Holy Cross Church.

To be continued …

Postcards from Italy

Today I’m writing from Italy. When I was in the airplane from Budapest to Bari I was wondering when the last time I was in Italy was? Souvenirs came slowly but soon started to flood me with emotions.

If I recall correctly my last time was in Milan in January 2006 for a business trip. I was launching a new product in Europe and Milan was one of the capitals where we had organized a press tour. It was a very cold winter with snow and lots of snow the day I was supposed to fly back. My airplane did not like it. It was grounded for an hour, two hours, three hours! Meanwhile the stewardess refused to serve dinner because she could only serve when the plane had taken off. We were not allowed to get out either. When we were finally released from the plane, starving and exhausted, I assumed someone from the company would give us hotel vouchers and change our tickets to the next day. It was past midnight, there was no one to be found in the airport except my fellow passengers and myself. There was no taxis, the city was paralyzed by the snow. In last resort I called a colleague to save me: he picked me up and dropped me in a hotel. The next morning I took a train back.

My last trip as a tourist was in summer 2005. Our family visited Rome, the kids ran in the forum, drank and played at all the fountains, and we basked in the sun. Then we settled in the Sorrento peninsula. It was our first time renting an apartment from an individual rather than going in a hotel. The apartment was in a red castle perched on the highest point of the peninsula allowing us to see both seas. We felt royal. From there we visited Naples and Pompeii. I remember my son playing the hero on broken pedestals where he would freeze as a statue, my daughter chasing cats in the seedy streets of Naples. One day we took a boat to Capri and hiked around the island. On the way back, Italian strikers blocked the highways.  People were stranded in their cars with no food, no water, under the harsh sun for a good part of the day without being able to move their cars. My family was happy that I made the Scouts motto mine: ‘always ready’. For a long car trip I always plan fruits, nuts, snacks, sandwiches, cherry tomatoes, tuna salads …and books.

In the spring of 1999 I accompanied my husband on a business trip. He had a client near Venice and each time he would come back without having had time to visit Venice. I just could not conceived being half an hour from Venice and not going there at all. On this trip, we worked all day, had to meet customers of our client, and enjoyed a nice dinner with our client – you can’t do business without a good meal in Italy – and then it was … very late, past 11 o’clock.  Going now to Venice to arrive in the dark? Not an option. To this day I still have not visited Venice with my husband!

In the summer of 1993 we had decided to go around France, from Bretagne to Alsace, sometimes making France very large, going through Geneva, Como Lake or the Dali museum in Figueres. Our great souvenir of the Como Lake was when we rented a small boat to see all the nice houses that you can only view from the lake, not from the road. What made the memory stick (no pun intended) is that I was on my belly, driving the boat with my feet. I didn’t drive in a straight line but it was a lot of fun!