Monday, January 31, 2011

The Great Divide

Increasingly, we have begun to notice that our life is divided in two – our old life (i.e. our pre-FS life) and this life (the FS life). We say things like, “Well, in our old life we would have_____, but in this life _____.” Funny, of course, because it’s still our life. It’s really, always “this life.”
I find the space between remembering and forgetting really interesting. I went to a small high school. I am certain that when I graduated I could name everyone in my class of 100, but now when these people’s faces pop up on Facebook, I often have no idea who they are. When did I forget? When did the new crowd out the old? Does it happen in an instant or is it a bit by bit shedding of brain cells that lose their purpose?
This is true with having children too. Of course, I remember our life before having kids, but I can’t really remember it completely. I remember the facts, but not the feelings. Mostly I wonder what we did all day.
I feel that in this life there are lots and lots of these divisions. For this first post it stands out to me when I try to remember what I thought the DR would be like before we arrived. I honestly cannot recall. And yet, I am totally certain that my images and imaginations were vivid and detailed and full of the excitement of getting to learn the reality. Our first day seems burned in my brain along with the dawning that happened on our drive from the airport that, “This looks a lot like a typical ‘third world’ capital. People might not visit us here…” I hadn’t thought it would be all resorts, but my fantasies were selective I think. Now everything here begins on that first drive into our new home.
The division permeates every corner of our lives. I write about it all the time with food, but it happens in other ways too. Even Jeremy’s music, we noticed, has had to change. He is a musician and writes is own music. In Austin, we were always surrounded by dozens of the same. No one played covers when you got together with friends, everyone jammed to each other’s stuff. In our FS life, people want covers. It’s all-good, but with far-fewer musicians, music serves a different purpose.
We now live within a world where babies are timed for home leave and weddings coordinated with CDOs. Where spouses and partners of officers wonder if they can still put their “profession” as attorney, or therapist, or teacher on forms if it’s been years since they worked outside a Consulate. Where, at some point, the number of years you have lived away from “home” is fewer than the number you have lived everywhere-else and you have a decision to make when people ask, “So, where’re you from?”
I have been reading about the events in Egypt. Back when Jeremy was in A-100 we had bid Cairo high. It would have been an interesting place to be. We weren’t totally feeling easy about it, but we were curious and thought it would be a good first post. Once you’re in the FS, you look at events like these through a different filter. My reaction is typically not one of fear, but one of practical awareness – Always have a bag of food ready to run with. Check and make sure the boys’ clothes in the emergency packs are not too small. Make sure our passport photocopies have the updated visas. And, sometimes there’s a bit of fear there too. Ever since the earthquake, if I can’t sleep at night, I imagine the best way to get out of our house. I really hate underground parking garages now. I wonder what in the world we would do with our 100-pound dog if we had to leave in a hurry.
Of all the things that we experience in this life – the new food, language, customs, rules – it’s the divide between who we were, or the life we lived, and who we are that most separates us from the past…and most connects us with now. For all the preparation that the FS requires, it’s funny, in the end, we mostly just live from this point forward…in complete and utter ignorance of what comes next.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Aroma del Almuerzo

I grew up in the Texas Hill Country where the air is incredibly clean and fresh (even during the dreaded Cedar season). Even in Austin, where I spent about 14 years before we joined the Foreign Service, I felt like you could take fantastic deep breaths despite the number of cars on the road.

In contrast, Santo Domingo is a stinky city. It’s polluted. Black soot settles on everything. If you don’t have someone to mop everyday, your feet will be caked with grime from your own floors. In my unscientific analysis I think it’s probably worse the New York City, but better than Mexico City. Who knows. In short, it doesn’t smell good. Except…

Except for lunchtime. I love lunchtime in the DR! Even in Santo Domingo, you can sometimes walk by a local mom-and-pop restaurant with just a couple of plastic chairs and a doña cooking over a dented and blackened metal pot directly over the flame of a gas canister. Dominican rice and beans and meat (la bandera) is so, so, so tasty and the smell just draws you in. Even today I was leaving the hospital (my husband got his yearly ER trip out of the way early this year) and the cafeteria aromas (is that an oxymoron?) wafted out and I seriously considered going back in and getting dinner to go.

And then! Add those perfectly seasoned scents to the countryside – the smell of dust and fruit and sometimes the sea, but more often the earthy smell of things left humid just a few years too long – and you get this pungent, rich, almost historical smell (like if you were to visit a famous landmark like a long-dead president’s home or a Revolutionary War row house only the people were still there cooking and living).

This weekend we drove down to the southwest – my favorite part of the country – where the smells simply overwhelm. The remote roads wind and wind through villages wedged between the Caribbean Sea and mountains. Unlike in Santo Domingo, you can roll down the windows and breath deeply. The smells draw you in and you feel like you’re transported to an entirely different world. And, at each bend, if you find yourself passing just as noon begins to roll towards one, you can catch a hint of la bandera simmering over an open flame waiting to be eaten, all crowded onto one plate, heaping piles of addictive Dominican white rice, with a soup spoon. The true DR piled into one perfect, aromatic bite.

Monday, January 17, 2011


Tonight I made chilaquiles. We also, after months of searching, found a new air filter for our car. Big news all around today. We clearly delight in the seemingly small things around here.

We can’t get tomatillos here, but a dear colleague went on TDY to Mexico for a month and brought me some canned (well, actually they were in a box) ones. They worked smashingly! Chilaquiles used to be a quick easy, tasty breakfast-for-dinner meal I would make relatively frequently back home. Here it is the stuff of dreams. Clearly, air filters for a 2005 Toyota are as well.

We have sporadically searched for a new air filter here for the past couple of months. I will make every effort to go to all future posts with things like air filters. It’s the challenge of living in a place where everything appears to be inefficiently imported.

When we first got here I used to go on these shopping scavenger hunts convinced if I just looked harder a favorite, much-needed cooking item would pop up. Now I have succumbed to the “si Dios quierre” attitude. I don’t know where such and such is and, well, they probably don’t have it anyway. One time, I kid you not, I went to buy new bras (sorry too much info, I’m sure) and all they had at Jumbo (our Super Wal-Mart like store) was hundreds and hundreds, rows and rows, hangers and hangers of size 32B.

I say all this out of love. It can be crazy, but you get used to it. And, I have it on good authority that some places are crazier. Here’s my new favorite statistic that I love to tell people when they say, “Madagascar?! That will be interesting,” The per capita GDP for the United States is $47,400 (which would buy you 1,436 twenty-pound bags of rice on Amazon). For the Dominican Republic it’s $8,600 (also known as 260 twenty-pound bags of rice). For Madagascar it’s $1000 (30, yes three zero, twenty-pound bags of rice). Of course, there’s this too.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

The Inner Sanctum

I eat lunch at work everyday with a cornucopia of women. We represent three decades, at least three religions (and some non-religions), at least six languages and four nationalities by passport, but many more by race and ethnicity. We laugh, we cry, we support and sometimes we even constructively criticize. We always, always have chocolate. We call ourselves the “inner sanctum.” The hour (or two) I spend with these women is not only one of the greatest joys of my life here, but will remain for eternity one of my most treasured blessings.

In the FS life, there are distances that Skype and Facebook and Gmail can’t span. How great to have Internet and social media, but they’re not always spontaneous enough…and they can lead you to an LOL or an LMAO, but they rarely result in the tearful belly laughs that can only happen with your girlfriends at arms length. And, although Jeremy and I once proposed a Skype double-date night with some friends posted to Caracas, you can’t really share a meal over the Internet. Knowing this makes me miss those girlfriends back home even more. Having the inner sanctum makes it bearable…in fact, maybe even much better than bearable.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Happy First Birthday FLT!

Sooooo, that was a really long break. I was trying on not-blogging. To be honest, I kind of liked it…but now I miss it.

My original plan had been to do this for a year and then see how I felt about it. I hadn’t even realized it when I sat down to write this post, but tomorrow will my little blog will turn one! Happy Birthday For Lack of Tacos! I feel really good about having had a go at this and sticking with it. Oddly, I appear to have started the blog on the night of the Haiti earthquake! I remember that evening perfectly and remember exactly where I was sitting at the kitchen table when I was overcome with a wave of nausea and vertigo – a common result here in Santo Domingo when the earthquake hit. Wow…

Anyway, I have taken some time off and feel happy to get back to writing. Actually, I didn’t really stop writing – taking time away from FLT gave me time to focus on my family blog and I know the grandparents like that better anyway.

So, for tonight, as I get back into the swing of things I want to say, first of all, may this year bring each of you joy, peace and happiness from all of us displaced Austinites in the For Lack of Tacos family (i.e. me, Jeremy, the niños, the dog). And, in the midst of so much insanity here and at home, perhaps it’s apt to remember a phrase that a few open-minded Dominicans paste on their bumpers, “Todos somos Haitanos” (“We’re all Haitains”). In other words, we’re all in this together. Give. Love. Smile.