Sunday, September 25, 2016

Housing in the Foreign Service

Foreign Service housing is one of the most talked-about benefits in this lifestyle. Complain about any aspect of FS living and someone will likely remind you about the "free housing." And the truth is, it's pretty awesome. When we live overseas, housing is one thing that we really don't have to worry about, at least as far as expenses are concerned. The rent, the utilities, and any upkeep are all paid for. Anyone who lives in the DC area knows how much money that's worth. It's one of the reasons we hope to stay overseas for our next post. Housing in DC is insane and diplomats are on a government salary, after all.

But for every FS perk there's usually a downside. And to me, the hardest part about having your housing provided is that you have no control. I don't just mean in choosing the house (I'll get to the housing survey in a minute). I mean that if you're given a house with zero bathroom storage, for example, you can't hire a carpenter and have some built. If you have a washer and dryer located outside, exposed to all the elements and pigeon poop, there's not much you can do about it. If something breaks, you can't just buy what you need and fix it yourself. What you *can* do is put in a work order.

Our laundry area for the past 1.5 years (not pictured, cockroaches)

Every embassy and consulate has a staff responsible for facilities. So, when your water cooler starts leaking all over, or your oven stops working, you enter a work order online. The process is a little tedious but not a big deal. Generally, if it's an emergency like an overflowing toilet, someone comes quickly. Your oven or water cooler will probably get fixed that day or the next. This is awesome, because it's free! The local facilities guys have always been pretty great (except for the guy who hung our pictures, another thing we aren't allowed to do ourselves). But if it's, say, the bathroom storage or the exposed washer and dryer...well, they might never get fixed. Because now it isn't just the embassy involved. If it's something that costs money, the owner of the house (here in Lima all the housing is owned by local Peruvians as far as I know) has to approve it. And there is nothing that says they have to approve it.

I have yet to get that bathroom storage, despite two carpenters coming on two separate occasions and measuring for it (the quote was crazy and the owners said no). This is an annoyance, but one I can obviously live with. As for the covered laundry area, I asked for it the first week we moved in here, and last week, almost a year and a half later, they put in a cover. Huzzah! No more pigeon poop and puddles where we wash our clothing! But yeah, I like to think I'd have taken care of it a little sooner if it had been up to me.

Our recently-installed and much-appreciated cover.

As far as housing itself goes, we do get to have some input, generally. In Yekaterinburg, there was a tiny housing pool and only one apartment big enough for a family, so it wouldn't have mattered if we wanted to live in a house with a yard outside the city or a smaller apartment near the embassy. We simply didn't have a choice. Here in Lima, things are completely different. And if you take anything away from this blog post, hear this: RESEARCH. Don't take someone else's word for it. If at all possible, visit the post. If not, ask around until you find someone whose opinion you trust with your happiness for the next 2-3 years. Believe me, where you live can make all the difference.

The "housing survey" asks you to pick your preferences, without ever having been to the city (unless it's somewhere you've traveled on your own in the past). Questions have to do with things like having a yard or a pool, a house versus an apartment, proximity to school and embassy, etc. Imagine having to decide where you want to live without ever having visited a place. And keep in mind that wherever you pick, you will be assigned a house sight unseen (you get photos after your house has been chosen). There is always a worst house in the housing pool, and someone is going to get it. I have seen houses here that are enormous modern homes with pools and immaculate yards, and I've also seen cramped, older homes with spider infestations. Sometimes you get lucky, and sometimes you don't.

There are three housing locations in Lima, for the most part: Miraflores, or the "touristy part" of Lima, on the coast; Surco, which is near the embassy and the American school, but isn't very pretty; and La Molina, or the suburbs. When we filled out our Lima housing survey, we asked for a house in La Molina. It was the advice we were given by multiple people (granted, not people we knew well) because it was supposedly close enough to the school and embassy, in a safe neighborhood, and we'd get a nice big house with a yard. To my infinite regret, when the survey folks came back to us and asked if we were sure we wouldn't like an apartment in Surco, we said no thanks (someone told me it wasn't a good area and the apartments weren't great. Having been in said apartments, I can now thoroughly disagree, but I didn't know this at the time).

Sadly, a lot of La Molina looks like this

One thing you can't appreciate from looking at a map is traffic. La Molina is a huge area, and we got housed on the very outskirts of it. We're one of the furthest houses from the embassy, in fact, in a neighborhood called "Sol de la Molina." Sol, because it IS sunny a lot. But unfortunately, it's also a cultural wasteland. We can't walk to anything (although they did build a grocery store on our street this summer which has helped immensely). My first three months here, before our car came, were really difficult. Cabbing with two small kids to get groceries sucks. And Jack gets picked up by the bus at 6:30 am for an 8:00 school start time. If I had it to do over again, I'd have chosen any other housing option. While we do have a beautiful house, we are so far from everything there is to do in Lima, and when you've only got two years somewhere, that's a real shame. It takes us an hour and a half or more to meet our friends in Miraflores for dinner. It's only ten miles away.  Ten miserable, trafficy, smoggy, dear-god-please-don't-let-us-die miles away. I knew the first week we were here I didn't want to live here, but that's where the whole "control" thing comes in. We couldn't move. Trust me, we asked. Even though our stuff wasn't here yet (and wouldn't be for quite a while), assigning housing is a very complicated process, and there wasn't a free apartment in Miraflores to move us to. Sigh.

The view from a friend's balcony in Miraflores

You live and you learn. From now on, if we go to a post with vast differences in housing options, we will either visit ahead of time if possible, or make sure we talk to a VERY trusted source for advice. I have learned that I'm a city person, especially in a foreign country where driving isn't always as civil as it is in America. I like to walk to cafes to write and meet my friends and not have to invest half a day just to get lunch with someone. It's a tiny knife to the heart every time I sit on one of my friend's balconies overlooking the ocean in Miraflores, where there are parks and restaurants and museums all within walking distance. But I've got a safe, lovely house, with plenty of room for guests - who generally don't want to stay way out in the boonies. But hey, it's free.

(John thought I should mention that the cycling and running are better out where we live. I think this really depends on the person. I would much prefer to run along the ocean than on the sidewalk-less streets in our neighborhood, but John is willing to put up with the dirt hills and wild dogs because he can ride for hours. He also bike commutes, but he's one of maybe two people at the embassy crazy enough to do so. He's been hit by cars three or four times now, and the hill he has to go over is insane. But it is possible, so there you go.)

Friday, September 2, 2016

A Day Off in Lima at Parque de la Amistad

One of the perks of the Foreign Service is that you get American holidays PLUS the host country's holidays off, which generally adds up to about 20 days per year (not including vacation days!). My favorite ones are the American holidays, since the kids still have school and John and I get to hang out alone, but the Peruvian holidays aren't bad either. We had Tuesday off and knew we wanted to do something with our friends, who suggested the Parque de la Amistad. It's in the center of Lima, so relatively convenient for people living on the coast or in the Andes like us (that's sarcasm, mostly).

Jack dressed "handsome" for his girls on Tuesday.

Parque de la Amistad is a sort of mini-amusement park, with a lake with paddle boat rides, a steam engine that goes around the park, playgrounds, and other various amusements like face painting. It was crowded due to the holiday, but not too crazy, and the kids had a great time until it was time to leave, at which point we all became the worst parents in history. Before the park, we went to one of two Thai restaurants in Lima, Siam. It has decent Thai food, if you're looking for a change of pace.

John is the one waving. Will was obsessed with this train.

Entry to the park is free, but you pay for each attraction separately. It was 10 soles (around $3) for face painting, and I think the boat ride was a dollar or two per person. As in Russia, these types of parks are usually a little run down. They had to bail the water out of the paddle boats before we got in. I laughed when Jack said, "Look Mom, a baby fish! Oh, never mind. That's a piece of trash."

Will was probably worried we were going to capsize.

All in all it was a fun time for the kids. It got a little tough with Will, who hadn't napped and did not want to get off that steam train. The playground was also crowded enough that it was hard to keep an eye on the kids, and I do get a little nervous about that (Lima is a relatively safe city, but a friend had a scary incident with a stranger at a restaurant, so I prefer to have the kids in my line of sight at all times). Being there reminded me a little of the post-apocalyptic Disneyland in Yekaterinburg (John's nickname for Mayakovskogo Park - see very sad, very empty train below).

Note the animal statues for decoration.
Sure, it's no Disneyland, but it was a fun way to spend an afternoon in Lima, even in the middle of "winter."

Wednesday, July 20, 2016

Available Now: A Cup of Culture and a Pinch of Crisis

I'm so proud to be a part of this book, which features essays from Americans living abroad (many of them fellow EFMs), specifically involving food. My essay, Maslenitsa, Or How I Found Warmth in a Russian Winter, is about the pancake festival we attended in Yekaterinburg to welcome "spring." In March. It's a humorous essay that also touches on some of the challenges of living in Russia. Plus it features a blini recipe that I tested myself.

Here's the link to the book on Amazon:

And the beautiful cover:

I hope you'll check it out!

Sunday, March 13, 2016

Restaurant Review: Central AKA The Emperor's New Food

For my birthday a couple of weeks ago, John made a reservation at what is considered by many to be the top restaurant in Latin America, Central. It's #4 on The World's 50 Best website and was voted #1 in Latin America by San Pellegrino. I hadn't researched the restaurant much, but I knew it was going to be a 12-course tasting menu. Disclaimer: I am not adventurous when it comes to food. As it is, I only started eating fish because I needed more to eat in Russia. Before that, I'd been a vegetarian for 15 years. But after a very positive experience with a set menu at a restaurant in Toronto a couple of years ago, and knowing Central's reputation, I tried to go into this meal with an open mind. Unfortunately, sometimes that's just not enough.

I'll start off with what I did like about Central, because it certainly had some good points. The restaurant is located in an unassuming building with no sign, and we managed to get there in about 35 minutes on a Saturday night, which is a small miracle coming from where we live in Sol de la Molina. We met a really sweet American couple outside while we waited for it to open. It was their first day in Lima, and I thought it was adorable that they were staying in a hostel but were coming to Central for dinner. They'd made reservations months in advance (I sure hope their experience was better than ours!). We chatted for a few minutes before going in, where we were escorted to our table in the center of the dining room.

Enjoying my champagne and trying not to freak out about the menu.

I really liked that we could see into the kitchen, and the head chef, Virgilio Martinez, was there the whole time, when he wasn't presenting dishes to the guests himself (to be honest I had no idea who he was until John told me - he looks like a 35-year-old hipster and was completely unpretentious, which was odd because his restaurant kind of is). I actually hate to give a negative review because I watched these people cooking and could see the pride and passion that went into their work. Everything was presented in a very unusual and creative manner, and each course was brought out by a chef or waiter and explained to us (in English, which was also nice).

The open kitchen. Martinez is hidden by the woman in the checkered shirt.
The wine list was excellent. John was thrilled to find some of his favorite wines on there, and while it was as overpriced as one would expect, he was genuinely happy with his drinks. Alas, a quick glance at the menu told me I was in trouble - I don't eat things like snails by choice, and while the dishes aren't exactly explained, the ingredient list was scaring me. Be warned: on Saturday nights there is no option to order a la carte, which I think may have been part of the problem with this meal for me. If I could have chosen foods that were recognizable and appetizing (to me), I would probably have had a much better experience.

The menu

From the first course on I had a hard time eating the food. In addition to the strange ingredients (and I don't just mean exotic, but strange, ranging from "bark" to "clay" to "bacteria"), the food didn't taste good. And at the end of the day, that's what matters to me. Unique presentation and "experience" be damned, it's food, and I want it to be delicious! Most of the dishes were too salty, so I didn't get any nuance of flavor. The bread that Martinez presented to us smelled and tasted like marijuana. I think it was cooked with smoked coca leaves, which may explain it, but again, it just wasn't good to eat. Even Martinez admitted that the flour they used wasn't the best, but that it was native, which I think is what really matters to him as a chef. The butters that came with it were probably the highlight of the meal for me. John really liked the octopus course, and one of the meat courses. I had two potato dishes to replace the meats, but both were so salty I couldn't taste the potato (the little bacteria balls on one of the dishes were also rather unappetizing).

The leaf covered with snail paste was probably the low point, or maybe it was the smoked tuber that tasted like what I imagine licking a hearth would be like. John had a gluten free menu, and I didn't have meat, so a few of our dishes varied. But John's dessert was inedible (some kind of cocoa ice cream topped with a crispy herb cracker - and whatever the herb was, it was extremely bitter). When the waiter could see he didn't enjoy it, he brought us both another course, and by that point I was just ready for the meal to be over. We did appreciate the gesture, however.

Leaf, fish (I think), and snails. Nope.

The tuber was another major miss for me.

Somewhere around the fifth or sixth course, I started to pay attention to the diners around us. They all seemed awed and impressed by the food. I could tell they considered Martinez a celebrity, asking him to take a photo with them and gushing over their meals. And I couldn't help but feel a little like this was the emperor's new food, that everyone believed they were *supposed* to love the food, so they did. While I can't deny that it was an impressive meal in many ways, I left wishing I'd gone out for pizza instead. I wasn't full, but I could barely stomach the "solar mucilage" - a drink that tastes pretty much exactly how it sounds - and chamomile gelatin that came with the last course. I understand that this kind of cuisine isn't for everyone, but John is a foodie, and even he was incredibly disappointed. Part of me wishes we'd gone with friends. We probably would have laughed about it and enjoyed the experience more. But I couldn't keep a straight face while eating some of the food, which made John feel guilty about choosing the restaurant, which made the entire experience an unpleasant one for both of us.

If you go to Central, I suggest you go with more than an open mind; a sense of humor (and a large snack beforehand) might serve you better in the end.

Wednesday, March 9, 2016

Getting to Know More of Peru: Arequipa and Colca

Hello all! Now that I've finished drafting my new novel, I'm taking a couple of weeks off to wait for feedback from critique partners and hoping that means I can catch up a bit on blogging! It's been a hell of a couple of months. In January and February, we had family visiting for four weeks total. It was awesome and kind of exhausting, especially because the plague descended on our house in the form of a stomach...thing. I can't say exactly what happened, because I'm pretty sure the local lab screwed up my results, but John had both a bacterial infection AND a parasite at the same time. I think I had the bacteria. My poor parents were both sick for a couple of days while they were here. My sister, Amy, and her husband both had mild stomach issues (and so did I, even after I thought the plague had left). John and I both lost a significant amount of weight (which was NOT the plan) while we were ill, and now I'm once again struggling to get healthy. It was a very effective reminder that this is still a developing country in many ways, and even though we think we're careful about what we eat, our systems still haven't adjusted to being here. All I can say is I'm going to Vegas for a writers conference in April and I plan on making the most of the all-you-can-eat buffets!

But despite all that, we've done some great traveling this year, and I wanted to share some photos and travel tips for other families who might be looking to explore areas outside of Lima.

I knew my sister and her husband wanted to go to Cuzco and Machu Picchu when they came, so I researched other trips for my parents' visit. I had heard that Arequipa is a beautiful city with great food, and that Colca Canyon was a side trip not to be missed. One challenging thing about traveling within Peru is that many places are at a high altitude. Arequipa is only around 8,000 feet, but Colca Canyon is at 12,000, and the road there goes over 16,000 feet. Let me tell you, when you live at sea level, that's a BIG change. Huaraz was also tough, going straight to 12,000 feet, and we all felt the altitude there, even though I was on Diamox (a medication that helps prevent altitude sickness). After taking the kids to Cuzco last year and then Huaraz, I was well aware that Will does not like high altitudes, so we decided to leave him in Lima with our nanny. Jack has done great on all our trips within Peru, fortunately.

Arequipa has a lovely city center, but I'll say up front it's not as beautiful as Cuzco. The terrain is much drier than in the Sacred Valley, but we were lucky to have great weather while we were there, with only the occasional passing rainstorm. We had a few things working against us on this trip. First, John and I were both still quite sick at that point, and it made it very difficult to appreciate the food and the sightseeing. And then John had to return to Lima for one night and ended up having his return flight canceled, so he missed all of Colca Canyon, which was the real highlight of the trip. I'll tell you one thing, we have NOT been impressed with the Peruvian airlines. Almost all of our flights have been delayed or canceled. Ugh.

On a bus tour of Arequipa (John and Jack recommend the "queso helado")

Colca Canyon is beautiful. We stayed at Colca Lodge, which has wonderful grounds, thermal springs, and the cutest alpaca farm in the world. Jack and I had a blast there, and the trip out to see the Andean condors flying in the canyons was truly special (we were lucky to see any condors, because we went during the rainy season - I'd say to avoid traveling to Arequipa/Colca from January to March because of this, although as I said, we got lucky).

Colca Canyon - it's like a golf course in Jurassic Park, or something.

A random woman's finger helpfully pointing to the condor.

On the way back to Arequipa, I did come close to passing out going over the pass. The Med Unit here gives out enough Diamox for four days, the logic being that you should be acclimated at that point, so I hadn't taken it for a day when we hit 16,000 feet. If you go and have any sensitivity to altitude, I'd suggest staying on the meds. But that's just my two cents.


Escaped baby alpaca!

A village in Colca - I love the colors!
Due to illness/general tiredness, we missed seeing the Inca Ice Maiden (who, by the way, is not on display from January to April, although a different mummy is apparently displayed). We did go to the Santa Catalina Monastery (what we would call a convent), which was very beautiful and interesting. Definitely a highlight of the trip.

Santa Catalina Monastery

Overall, this was a fun trip, though a challenging one. I wouldn't recommend more than two nights in Arequipa, and I wish we'd had three nights in Colca instead of two, just because it was so beautiful and peaceful there. It would be the perfect spot for a writers retreat. Next time, I'll write about my second trip to the Sacred Valley and Cuzco, and my first time to Machu Picchu!

Thursday, January 7, 2016

The Start of a New Year in Lima

I swear that some day I'll get back to a regular blogging schedule. Maybe. I constantly have things I want to say about my experiences here in Lima, but I never seem to have time to write them down. This week has been one of "those weeks" as an expat (you know, where I can't seem to find anything at the grocery store, including milk in two stores on two different days, bananas, carrots, and a host of other rather common items; where I get a haircut that doesn't turn out quite as expected thanks to my nonexistent "salon Spanish"; and where I nearly die a dozen different times while driving Jack to and from his swim lessons this week). But I try to remind myself that I had plenty of "those weeks" in America too - life can just be challenging sometimes, wherever you are.

At any rate, I've just published my second freelance article for Spanish At Home, a website that helps people learn Spanish! Here are the links to the articles, one about taking taxis in Latin America, and the second about regional variations in Spanish words.

I have some expat goals for this year, including taking Spanish classes at the embassy and riding lessons at the barn nearby, as well as all kinds of travel. We took a recent trip to Huaraz, a city in the mountains, while John's family was visiting, and we've got a trip to Arequipa and Colca Canyon coming up in just a few weeks with my parents! Then my sister Amy and her husband are coming for a visit and I'm heading to Cuzco with them, and finally making it to Machu Picchu.

As for general life goals, I'm working on a new novel that I really love and trying to get a little healthier this year. As I mentioned in my last post, it's been a little rough on the immune system since moving here, but I'm hoping more exercise, meditation, and a healthier diet will help. I've got a week-long writer's conference coming up in April that I'm super excited for, and beyond that, we'll see! I have high hopes for 2016. Happy New Year!

Sunday, December 13, 2015

The Physical Side of Culture Shock

It's funny, this moving abroad thing. It comes with all the things you'd expect, like culture shock and learning a foreign language and just finding your way around a new city, but one of the things I think some people tend to forget about is the physical adaptations you go through in a new place.

For example, when you move to a foreign country, your body is introduced to a whole new world of germs. We were fairly illness-free for our first few months here, probably because Jack wasn't in school, but now I can't seem to get healthy. I've had cold after cold. Even John, who's usually very healthy, caught the recent cold that wiped out our whole family. Jack got scarlet fever, which I didn't know still existed (one tends to think of Little Women and The Velveteen Rabbit, back when scarlet fever was a life-threatening illness), and Will and I have both been sick for a month straight. The same thing happened in Russia, so I know this isn't just Lima. But man am I ready to get healthy again!

My skin also had to adapt to a completely different climate here, which meant changing around all the skin products I usually rely on. Even my hair had to get used to new weather, and new water, and of course a new hair stylist.

And then there's the food. I remember my first week here, three different people all told me to prepare myself for the weight gain. The Lima Fifteen, or something. Now don't get me wrong - Peruvian food is great. But in both Russia and Peru, I've lost weight upon arrival. I'm a creature of habit, and finding replacements for the products I eat almost daily (yogurt, bread, the frozen meals at Trader Joe's I sorely miss) takes time. It's been six months and I still haven't found a bread I like. That's not Peru's fault - the selection here is pretty amazing, especially compared to Russia. But most days when I open the fridge, I take a look at the food we have and end up closing it again. I've never been one to skip meals, but here I probably eat two meals a day on average. It's a terrible habit I'm vowing to break in the new year.

A rare workout - carrying Will up a massive hill in Cuzco.

My exercise routine has changed, too. When we moved to Russia in 2012, I worked out five days a week. Most days it was just running on the treadmill and the occasional weight lifting session, but something happened when I got pregnant with Will. I can't exercise while I'm pregnant because of all the contractions I have, and even though I got back into running and trained for a 10-miler after he was born, I fell right back into my lazy ways when we got here. Once I got over my fear of running alone here, I started running a few days a week in the nearby park. But the lack of energy caused by not eating, and all that sickness, has completely derailed me. I'm a sloth. Again, I'm hoping to change all that in the new year. I know John will hold me to it, at least.

So there you have it. A new country, a whole new set of physical changes that I for one never anticipated. If we move anywhere with excellent pastries next, I could be in a lot of trouble.