Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Finding a Place

If you spent time abroad before you joined the Foreign Service and especially if that time abroad was doing something that put you in close contact with the “everyday” citizens of your host country, your first tour can make you feel a little out of place. If you always took public transport without a single worry beyond making sure you had your wallet in a front pocket or never packed make-up because who needs that while backpacking through the Mayan jungle or figured a shopping spree included sturdier tent stakes and an extra set of flashlight batteries to compliment your new mosquito net, then having security guards patrol your neighborhood and having a generator and a cistern to supply you with continual household comforts can seem weird…although at the same time it doesn’t, because electricity, water and a certain level of safety feel normal at home and an Embassy feels like a little corner of the US abroad.

I have been thinking about this a lot as we’re going through our bid list. B Files has told me a couple of times I should update the Santo Domingo RPR of Talesmag (I am writing an RPR for it poco a poco now). I had never read it, but she’s right. Wow! – what a difference of opinion people can have regarding the same post. And why? We’re all different people I guess. We seek different comforts, different moments, different ways to make our home away from home feel like the place where we belong. It’s no secret that we (my family and I) have come to love it here. We have a lot going for us when it comes to this post and I guess that makes it easier. For one, we always loved traveling to places like the DR (hectic, chaotic places with spotty electricity, tentative bus schedules and loud, joyful people). Being part of the Embassy makes experiencing this the way we used to a little more difficult, but we seek out moments (and, I say, thank god for my job because it takes me far from the Embassy life quite frequently). Of course, it helps too that I speak Spanish. I didn’t really have to go through the navigation process in the same way many accompanying spouses and partners do. Plus, our kids are young, they are adaptable and have taken to life here completely.

So, this all sounds completely random, I know. And, obviously doesn’t sound at all related to food. But, it’s food (and bidding, of course) that got me first thinking about how we make a home somewhere. There are these moments, frequently…or perhaps all the time, when I am visiting a community for work. It’s crazy hot and humid and dusty in the air and muddy on the ground and I cannot imagine wanting to be anywhere else. And then, that wonderful moment is made perfect by the offering of a chair from a community member. A plastic chair, always, slid over a concrete floor and wiped clean before I can even move to sit down. And then a small, plastic cup of refresco (Country Club Orange or Cola Real usually) with a tiny bit of hielo. The most incredibly perfect antidote to the heat. And a smile…or often many because in small communities it takes little to draw a crowd. And I think, in that moment, I get to spend forever finding these moments, over food, over refreshments, with new friends, everywhere. If that’s the case, if we can find that, how do we not love every post, in some way, some how? Oh, and that’s rhetorical by the way, don’t answer it. I’m not na├»ve…just at peace.

Friday, August 20, 2010


Aaaand, just when we were getting to the point where tostones, rice and habichuelas were feeling like food of the gods (or, you know, good) it’s time to bid again! I can hardly believe it! And yet, it’s been 18 months since we last bid, so it makes since. I love, love, love bidding. It is exactly like when I used to lay on the floor with the Atlas as a child and close my eyes and flip the pages and imagine where I would end up.

All the questions. All the categories. Schools? Danger? Language? Job? Coffee or vodka? Falafel or sushi? Pad thai or curry? Aaaahhhh the possibilities are endless…within a certain highly constricted realm.

Okay gratuitous request: If you have a post you loved – tell me. If you have a post you hated – tell me. And, if you have something especially good (or bad) to say about the food definitely let me know. Would love to hear from some of you all and move towards narrowing down this list.

Monday, August 16, 2010


One of the perks of working abroad is that you usually get off both American and host-country holidays. Today is a Dominican holiday –Restoration Day to be exact. That means that, knowing we would have today to rest up, yesterday we were in the mood for a family adventure – and we certainly had a good one.

Most people think of the DR and think beaches. Of course, they’re not wrong, we have some pretty incredible beaches. But, we also have some wonderful mountains (including the highest peak in the Caribbean – Pico Duarte) surrounding beautifully, green, fragrant and cool fertile valleys. It’s hot here right now – in the mid-90s every day in the capital - but, as we set out on our journey to Constanza, a remote town known for its cool temps, fruits and abundant vegetables, the air began to cool and thick clouds brought in breezes and some rain.

The road to Constanza turns off of a major highway between Santo Domingo and the DR’s second largest city, Santiago. After leaving the main highway in Bonao, it’s a couple more hours of windy mountain roads through villages. The road is really well paved, thank goodness (that’s not always the case), and filled with guaguas (buses), trucks carrying produce, cars (ranging from Porsche to once-was-a-Datsun) and motos. Halfway up you can stop at a chapel and say a prayer…or take a photo or moment of silence…whichever suits your fancy.

Knowing that much of the Dominican produce you buy in the supermarket comes from the mountains of the interior is one thing, but seeing the fields and fields of green is something even better. As you finally make your way into Constanza (don’t think cute Alpine village or hipster Washington state commune, it’s neither, but that’s okay) you are practically bowled over by the smell of garlic in the air. Jeremy said, “Forget garlic, it’s like driving into a giant kitchen of vegetable soup.” The combination of the 30-degree temperature drop and the patchwork hills of veggies make this a seriously fantastic change of scenery.

It had been a long drive, but well worth it in so many ways. Admittedly, once we got to Constanza we weren’t entirely sure what to do with ourselves. The guidebooks warn that there is not much to do there…that is true. But, we made our way to a little hotel that has a restaurant and we enjoyed some okay coffee and delicious flan. We also happened to see two sets of non-Embassy friends who were spending the day there. It was a really nice surprise – one of those things that makes you feel like you really live somewhere.

We had a slight misadventure with the brakes on the way back down. Despite some mountain driving under my belt in the past, I had clearly forgotten some of the most important rules. But, we made it. We had stopped at a pleasant, roadside restaurant in Bonao (Tipico Bonao – for which Fodor’s has this review…if you’re interested) for lunch on the way up and (after our brake-related delay) decided a Dominican truck-stop dinner was in order. We laughed at how we chose the white rice, beans and fried plantains instead of the pizza. The boys flirted with the locals. All-in-all, it was a bit of international adventure at its best – we finished the day feeling a tiny bit like our old backpacker selves…albeit with the kids, and a car, and enough cash to ward of fears of being stranded…but still.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010


That banana (Dominicans call bananas guineos, by the way, if I haven’t mentioned that before) looks pretty big doesn’t it? That’s because there are two in there! Cool, huh!? My boss tells me it’s not all that rare here. She said she always looks for the double ones because the fruteros will only charge you for one. At home they must just send all those back or something. This reminds me…when we first got here I had a two-headed pineapple. Weird.

Sunday, August 8, 2010

The Common Table

Well, I have delayed long enough. We’re back and it’s precisely because we’re back that it has been difficult to find time write. The boys and I touched ground at Las Americas last Saturday. It felt so good to be back in the land of chaos and continues to feel so nice to be home. I’m amazed at how much the DR has become home to us and yet how much what we call home is a shifting between two (or more) worlds. It stands out to me, of course, in the food we eat.

I went back to work on Monday and found myself, at the end of the day, anticipating Vilma’s rice and beans with a little salad. I had missed this. The simplicity of it. The easy leftovers. The guarantee that the boys will eat it. Knowing that Vilma (5 months pregnant and with the boys all day until school starts back up) can leave this to cook practically unattended reduces my stress level.

Wednesday we had a despedida (a good-bye party for our amazing Consul General) at the Ambassador’s residence. We still don’t have an Ambassador (which is a total bummer because the guy they have lined up sounds pretty cool…and he’s a Texan). When we have events there the food is never fancy. Not at all like those parties for diplomats in James Bond movies. But, it’s always good. And, I love these parties. Santo Domingo lends itself beautifully to outdoor festivities – especially in the evening, when there’s a breeze. Despite the simplicity of the food (which was good) there is always this cocktail party atmosphere that reminds me that we’re diplomats. It’s the type of party I pretty much never went to in my old life. Even if it’s not all sparkle and champagne, it looks more or less what one would anticipate those things look like.

Then Friday I spent the day traveling for work. My colleague and I visited an orphanage and a batey and then we stopped and had arroz blanco y habichuelas from a stand on the side of the road. It was served on Styrofoam out of plastic buckets. We sat at a card table we shared with whatever other travelers happened to come by. There were lots of bees. It was hot. We talked about what would be the next step with the community we had just visited. We laughed a lot. Our bellies full, we hopped back in our jeepeta and headed back to the office.

Friday evening we went to a birthday party for one of the boys’ friends from school. It was also a despedida. The family is Italian, have lived in the DR for many years and the husband has been transferred to another country. Besides the family, we were the only foreigners. We see this group of people all the time – the boys’ school is very tight-knit. But, at the end of the day, we remain outsiders there. People are very friendly and the boys are loved by their friends, but we have found it challenging to develop strong relationships there. People already have their lives. The party was at a restaurant called Lincoln Road – it is the most fabulously perfect kid-friendly restaurant in the entire city. They also have a great weekday lunch special. The kids were served chicken nuggets and French fries or mini-pizzas. The adults ate communally off a plate of what my girlfriends and I used to call “fried goodies.” Picking (not loading up your plate) is considered appropriate. Take one, eat it slowly. Move on subtly to the to the next item. Eating seems to happen this way frequently here (although I can’t claim to have done a thorough study) – it’s quite the contrast to the free-for-all of the driving, queuing and shopping.

As usual, I think I am beginning to ramble. It’s actually through the rambling process that I seem to work out my point – which was sitting there in my brain all along. What I love about this post: all these worlds, compartmentalized and yet woven together.

Have I mentioned before that I love Santo Domingo? I don’t love the food here. I’m not passionate about it. But, I do love having all these different areas of my life that I adore and finding that they’re joined through the simplicity of the food. At each of these events the food had the same quality – nothing fancy. But, every second, of every one of these moments I felt so at home. I felt in love. I never wanted, at any moment, to be somewhere else or eating something else. I love the wonderfully simple meals I can prepare with good ingredients back in the States, but I wasn’t racing home from work on Monday wishing I could have…I don’t know…anything different than what I knew Vilma was cooking. I don’t spend my time at Embassy gatherings thinking it would only be better if the hors d’ourves were more delicate, more cuisine-like. And, I certainly don’t secretly wish that Dominican street food were Malaysian street food even though Malaysian street food is a-ma-zing. We may have few Dominican friends, but I’ll take the moments we do share with locals however I can get them, even over a plate of nibbled fried goodies with insanity of five-year-olds whirling in the background.

I think what this all means is that food matters, but maybe the longer you stay somewhere it matters less than you think it does at the beginning. Or maybe it means that what happens while you’re eating and who you eat with matters more than what’s on your plate. On the other hand, perhaps it means I am starting to love the food simply because I love the DR and our life here. Hmmm…either way, we’re back. We’re eating. We’re laughing. We’re home.