Foreign Service – Expect the unexpected!

Life in the Foreign Service brings many unexpected moments and crazy memories and this is the way I like it.

Nobody told me I would …

  • Pilot a Cessna over the Sine Saloum Delta in Senegal – I don’t even have a pilot’s license!
  • Glide from baobab to baobab like Tarzan near the reserve of Bandia.
  • Eat ‘yassa’ chicken with my hands, sitting on the floor in a tiny village near Joal.
  • Take West African businessmen and women to a trade show in Las Vegas and be their nanny 24/7.
  • Drive from Dakar to Bamako on the side of the road, in the sand, because it was safer than dealing with the potholes on the road.
  • Meet Madeleine Albright at breakfast during an American Chamber of Commerce event in Mexico City.
  • Take the kids to Acapulco and learn that, just near us, the narco-traffickers had chopped a dozen heads.
  • Meet and kiss Margarita Zavala, a federal deputy, wife of then president of Mexico Felipe Calderón.
  • Welcome musician and singer Seal at the consulate, chitchat and take photos.
  • Enjoy a lucha libre show with its masked warriors. Lucha libre is a very well-choreographed wrestling competition with heroes and villains. The fun was also among the spectators, for example grandmothers gesturing and yelling chinga tu madre and all other kind of nondescript foul language.
  • Meet and kiss vice-president Biden after his speech at the Embassy in Mexico City, and later receive a letter of appreciation in Pakistan, letter forwarded from Mexico even though it had a wrong address for the Embassy in Mexico.
  • Be car-chased by a crazy man in Chiapas where hubby had to remember and apply all his classes of Crash & Bang defensive driving.
  • Eat powdered ants in a wonderful Mexican dish.
  • Participate and rank top 2 in the first ever triathlon of my life in Islamabad at an age when some of us are grandmothers.
  • Climb the full size brass antelope in the Karachi airport on a dare given by my female boss – who did it too!
  • Be called daughter by a toothless Pakistani villager, thankful that via USAID we brought her electricity.
  • Hike the Margalla hills every week and befriend Pakistani girls in the mountains.
  • Become a designer and invent many unique dresses and shirts thanks to the sewing skills of my Pakistani tailor.
  • Plant my own tree to celebrate the end of a successful project. I was a drop in the ocean of that project but as a representative of USAID, I was treated like royalty.
  • Feeling like a rock star or the Queen of England when I entered a classroom and was “showered” in rose petals Pakistani hosts had laid on the blades of the fan.
  • Sleep on the floor of the hut of unknown Thai mountain villagers.
  • Buy a beautiful and unique piece of embroidery in Thailand that the embroiderer consented to sell only because I was married.
  • Eat in bamboo plates from bamboo dishes with bamboo chopsticks that had all been carved in front of my eyes a few minutes before the meal.
  • Taste savory dishes of the curly-haired Mangalica pig during the Mangalica festival in Budapest.
  • Celebrate Valentine’s day in Bosnia (usually more synonym of war than love, unfortunately).
  • Visit an exhibition in total darkness, led by a blind guide and experience like a blind person what life is like, dinner included.
  • Hike to the top of Mount Triglav, the highest mountain of Slovenia at 2864 meters (9,400 feet).
  • Eat foie gras in a special ‘Magyar’ McDonald burger, the libamajjal, where liba means goose, maj liver and the –al suffix with.
  • Climb a Via Ferrata for the first time in my life: the steep via Ferrata Hans-von-Haid-Steig trail to reach Mount Rax in Styria, Austria at 2 000 meters.
  • Learn a few words of Chinese because I am working as a TDYer in Beijing, China, in the middle of the summer – yet the weather is not as hot as in Budapest or Paris.
  • Three years after doing a TDY in Beijing, being assigned to Beijing and invited to model a qipao dress (also called cheongsam) at a fashion and culture show in the Silk Market.

Some friends tell me ‘I didn’t know you were doing these kinds of thing’ and I answer ‘me neither’!

Hotel Rant

Where to sleep in Pécs?

We love travels. We love travelling. We are not difficult. We can sleep in a hut if the type of travel mandates it – for example an eco-trekking we did in Thailand in 2012 (I’ll have to come back on this because it was fantastic).  We slept on the floor, just like our hosts. On a same trip in the same country we can go from hut to high luxury and hut again, it just depends on what is right at that time and what we intend to do: for example, meet local people in villages (Chang Mai region) or visit museums and palaces (Vienna).

Sometimes we find that the best fit for our family, when the four of us travel, is to rent an apartment. Actually sometimes we are five if we count our tiny Italian greyhound and more apartment owners accept dogs than hotels.  Since we like to cook it is also very practical to have your own kitchen. It also helps control the quality of the ingredients and the amount of fat that go in your plate.

As much as we look for practicality I always have an eye on aesthetics. I don’t like ugly, especially if the prices don’t match ugly. When we were on ‘home leave’– a specificity of the Foreign Service describing the extended ‘re-learning Americana holiday’ we take between two missions overseas – I was trying to get across the country for as cheap as possible. Every FS family will tell you that it can be costly to be in the U.S. for two months = 60 (even 61) days with no roof of your own. With a cheap hotel like $100 a night for four, this is already a whopping $6,000 – on only one salary. Not every FS employee has a house available, either because they are too young to have purchased one, or it is rented. Not every FS employee has parents with a mansion that can accommodate a long stay. Home leave can be nine weeks you know since the employee gains three weeks per year abroad. Some colleagues would argue that ‘yeah, but it’s impossible to take that long’. You can do it. We did it. Just negotiate!

Back on the notion of ‘acceptable ugly’. If I choose Motel 6 and Super 8 because I want to travel to major cities to show our kids the United States in all its grandeur, from Maine to California (Home leave 2013), and I don’t want to break the bank, I accept savorless hotels where we will barely spend a night. But when a hotel pretends to be ‘charming’ or ‘boutique’ with higher pricing associated with such adjectives, I really don’t appreciate that they look like having supplied their rooms with IKEA-like furniture (and at least this would have a clean feel to it), or worse that they are using old cheap 1950s furniture with a carpet so worn that you can’t tell which color it is, much less which color it was. The bed cover can also be repulsive and it is a much cheaper investment to make to improve a room.

So why am I all excited about this topic today? Well, I am planning for a trip to Pécs which is supposed to be the most beautiful city in Hungary after Budapest. I’ve asked my Hungarian colleagues and teacher about which cities not to miss and they all agree. Pécs comes first. Then there is a tie between Debrecen and Sopron. While I am dutifully making my research on Booking.com and Tripadvisor to cross-reference opinions I could only find abominable hotels in the loveliest city of the country!!! Some hotels might look good from the façade to the reception desk and dining hall, the rooms are still very mediocre. The one that dares call itself ‘boutique’ is among the ugliest one. At this point I looked for Bed & Breakfasts and they were all ugly as well.

My conclusion is if you are an entrepreneur: go open a real boutique hotel in Pécs because lovely city means romantic and romantic needs a proper nest!