Bringing Along Baggage

Finally, after three weeks in Tijuana, the first small shipment of our belongings arrived. The larger shipment will come in another month or so.

It was a relief to find our familiar “essentials” — blankets, pots and pans, dishware. Time to switch out the “welcome kit” items the consulate provided and replace it with our own stuff.

But then I started to feel kind of disappointed. We’re replacing the four crisp royal blue coffee cups in our welcome kit with about twice as many cups of our own — and not a single one matches. The cheap dishes we bought awhile back are scratched up and clunky compared to the shiny blue and white striped ones we’ve been using. And the silverware, my heavens! Of the nice stainless steel we got from our wedding 20 years ago, we have every single salad fork, knife, and serving utensil — but only one regular fork and one small spoon. The rest are the cheap, plain forks and spoons you can buy in a box at Kroger. Our welcome kit had included a decorative matching set.

If there’s a metaphor here, it’s that, while we have brought hopes of shiny new life with us to Tijuana, we have also brought along our old stuff, some of which serves us just fine. But some of it drags us down at times. And while it’s tempting to just throw it away and buy something new, we can’t afford to. We just have to make it work.

Really, I don’t want to throw away the newspaper-related mugs or the delicate little white cup of my mom’s that holds just the right amount of coffee for me. But there’s certainly room and time to change out some of the baggage we’re tired of carrying.

All of which calls for even more trips to the beach.


The Long View

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So late yesterday afternoon, Jack and I got caught in rush-hour traffic crossing back across the border into Mexico. Mark was catching a ride home from work from our neighbor. Then I got a message from him — “Locked out.” I felt terrible. I had left without remembering that the main door was locked from the inside with his key. As we crept along, I felt worse and worse. What would he do? Call security? Go to the neighbor’s? Finally, an hour after his message, we dragged into our garage and Mark appeared just behind us, out of the night, smiling. He had wandered over to the small playground/park in our neighborhood atop a Tijuana hill. “I just sat there, enjoying my view,” he said.

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The Day of the Dead

Brand new in Mexico, we’ve wondered how to take in the authentic Day of the Dead celebrations this weekend.

I asked the mom in another consulate family. She didn’t really know. Tijuana, she explained, is more like the US than other parts of Mexico, where one might enjoy a more authentic experience.

Then again, what is authentic?

I first participated in a Day of the Dead celebration four years ago, about six weeks after my mother had died unexpectedly. Our church, First Unitarian of Louisville, asked people to bring pictures of their departed loved ones for the service that Sunday. I did so. I sat with my kids in the sanctuary and, when Lydia and Nora Grossman began to sing a beautiful folk tune in honor of the departed, I started crying so desperately I felt I could not control the muscles in my face. I rushed out of the room and phoned Mark to come stay with the kids so I could leave. Not long afterward, Zoe left the sanctuary, also sobbing.

Our sense of loss was too fresh to celebrate communally.

Now, four years later, it still seems too soon in some ways. And yet I’m also encouraged by a ritual that allows me to acknowledge reality, honor memory, and learn, if only gradually, how to join in the communal celebration of death and life.

Love you, Mom.

The Strange and Familiar

The day we drove into Tijuana and whirled around a traffic circle, our guide, Stephanie, pointed out the statue of Cuauhtemoc, the last Aztec emperor, in the center of it. Cuauhtemoc is an important figure in Mexico, she said.

At that moment, I could not give one iota of attention to Mexican history or symbols. Where on earth were we and how would we ever find our way around this confusing place?!

Today, two weeks later, I practically genuflect every time I pass the statue of Cuauhtemoc. Many times I’ve been lost or uncertain of my way and all of a sudden, there he looms. I’m flooded with gratitude and relief because now, I know how to get home.

And the definition of home isn’t circling all the way around Cuauhtemoc and heading back toward the border crossing to the U.S. but exiting south so that I find the hotel where I turn right, the Oxxo convenience store where I turn left, the street that slants up the hill to the right where I start the steep climb to our neighborhood, the curving white house on the corner where I make a final left and have a breathtaking view of most of the city.

And then I’m almost there. Almost home.

The Best-Laid Plans …

After our first day in Tijuana, I was pretty sure my biggest struggle would be finding my way driving places. Google Maps is iffy here, and many streets aren’t well-marked, nor are they on a predictable grid. And slow-moving drivers, being an exception, are a safety hazard.

So I figured I needed to memorize routes and practice. For instance, I knew I would have to drive to Jack’s school in San Diego County on Monday to make sure he got the classes he needed, so I dragged Mark and Jack along to drive across the border twice over the weekend to figure out how to get to the border crossing and show the right documents to the Border Patrol (the first time, our guide Stephanie and her family went with us). I figured that that would have to do until Mark could teach me how to drive to my next likely destination, his office at the American Consulate.

So this morning, Jack and I waited for the consulate armored vehicle that would drive him to school (for security reasons); I planned to go on my own shortly thereafter. A few minutes past the pickup time, the driver of the shuttle walked to our house and explained that, trying to drive into our gated community, he had blown his front two tires on the security spikes. Could I drive Jack and two other children to school?

Why, yes I could! I’d even practiced! It worked out well with help from the other kids, who were able to guide me through the car lanes of their respective schools on the US side.

In the meantime, I got a text from Mark, who had ridden to work with our neighbor. In all the morning hubbub, he had forgotten the documents he was supposed to take with him to the consulate today. Would I be willing to drive them to him when I got home? No biggie if I was too scared!

High on my early success I responded yes I would — if he would send me directions. But he didn’t get my return text. So after I got home I worked with Google Maps on the laptop, wrote down the approximate turns, and headed out. Without the documents. Turned around early on, retrieved the documents, and left again. Took a wrong turn somewhere along the way and was guided by Google Maps into a dead-end construction site. Backed out. Figured this was reason I should have practiced first.

But then Google Maps miraculously got me back on track and, in about 5 minutes, to the consulate. Where Mark was shocked, shocked!, given how often I had assured him there was no way I could drive anywhere without practicing first.

While at the consulate, I got to meet two of his bosses, a friend from Mark’s training in DC who gave me driving tips, and a new colleague who made us laugh uproariously about the home alarm systems that are mandatory and make one’s eyes cross. I got to practice my infinitesimal Spanish when trying to explain to the guard why I showed up there (mi esposo was helpful). Mark and I got to have lunch together. And I was able to cobble together directions home that worked, with an assist for Google Maps.

My takeaway — sometimes the best laid plans (practice, practice first!) work out for the best. And yet, if you just have to just use your wits and screw up along the way, you might do even better.

Which is not to say I’ll be winging it very often, given my cautious personality. Just a relief to know that I can.

What, No Dishwasher?

We had been told dishwashers weren’t common in Tijuana, but I was nevertheless surprised not to find one in our kitchen in the new house we were assigned. I wasted no time in noting its absence in discussing the house’s amenities on Facebook.

My friends responded this way:

“I lived in a house in Florida for 13 years. No dishwasher. I really grew to enjoy (most evenings) the ritual of washing dishes. Something very relaxing about putting your hands into hot water and washing dishes. I actually hate unloading the dishwasher, such a mechanical exercise.”

“The good news about no dishwasher – you NEVER have to empty it.”

“We have a weekend cabin on the KY River near Lexington — and our guests frequently ask why there is no dishwasher. Besides the therapeutic is the social ritual…a collective act of gratitude for more than the food…”

“We have done without a mechanical dishwasher for a few years now and it does not seem to be missed.”

By the end of the comments I was feeling lucky to live without a dishwasher, which is of course the point of living in another culture — seeing differences as opportunities, not deficits.

And while that has always been my intention, I’m learning it’s easier to preach than practice.

Working on it.

First Day in TJ

For all my worries about crossing the border into Mexico — Will we have the right documents for the pets? Will it take hours to clear customs? — we sailed through the automated system without talking to a soul.

I am confident that that’s the easiest transition we will make.

Certainly the consulate employees do their best to make that first day a piece of cake. Stephanie, a Foreign Service Officer assigned to our family, met us at a Vons grocery in Southern California and led us across the border and to our new home. A good thing, too, because the maze of (some unmarked) streets in Tijuana was overwhelming. Even she got confused at one point.

That said, the driving wasn’t as unpredictable as I feared.

And when we got to our home (whose location I can’t describe for security reasons, except to say it’s in a lovely neighborhood), several folks were waiting to orient us to security features, telephones and wifi, utilities, and amenities.

We had seen pictures of the house, but in person it was even better:

— Three bedrooms and three and a half baths;

— Outdoor patio with dining set and outdoor sink and grill;

— Walk-in closet and double sinks in master suite;

— Spacious kitchen with island and new appliances;

— Two built-in hallway desks and a family room with hookups for television;

— Open living room adjacent to large formal dining room table that seats 8;

— Separate laundry room and separate maid’s quarters if needed.

Wow, was all we could say at first! And then we began to notice some less convenient features — no dishwasher or garbage disposal, no potable drinking water (you buy it in big dispensers), very little grass in which to water one’s dog. Still, this is the newest and, in many ways, nicest house we’ve ever lived in. “I feel spoiled,” Jack said.

After the orientation, Stephanie guided us back into town for lunch at an open-air taco restaurant. We also stopped at Calimax, a Mexican supermarket, because, even though we had shopped for necessities at Vons, I had forgotten to buy the first item on the list — milk. Stephanie was again our navigator for the language. Mark was eager to practice his Spanish after six months of training, but when the cashier rapidly asked him a question, he had no idea what he was hearing for a moment.

After Stephanie guided us back home and returned to work, we took it all in (and I of course napped). We each walked the dog to explore the small, gated neighborhood. A friend from Mark’s Foreign Service training class who lives around the corner stopped on her way home from work to say hello, even though she had guests waiting, which we greatly appreciated. And then we ventured out for dinner on our own, hitting a seafood taco bar (which is pretty much what it sounds like). Mark got to practice his Spanish again and very capably got us all fed! I drove us home to get a little experience in light traffic, and we all stumbled inside to collapse. OK, I collapsed. Mark and Jack were more productive 😉

Today Mark headed out shortly after 7, with our neighbor, to spend the day in orientation at the consulate. Jack starts school on Monday. And I’m figuring out my next steps. The first is to unpack and prepare for our shipments from Louisville, which will come in a few days and in a few weeks. Another is to review my Spanish lesson for tomorrow. Another is to practice my relaxation techniques (maybe I’ll move that one to first). Onward!!


Off and on throughout this whole process of preparing to move, I’ve been struck periodically by what I can only describe as panic: Clenching stomach, sometimes a racing heartbeat, a strong sense of dread.

Sometimes it seems to come out of nowhere — I’m not consciously thinking fearful thoughts, but my body goes on high alert anyway. Other times, like today, it precedes a big transition.

As many times as I’ve talked to my therapy clients about anxiety and panic, I still have a hard time recognizing and managing it when it’s happening to me — my “old brain,” the part that responds by instinct, is bypassing my “smart brain” to put my body into fight, flight, or freeze mode for my very survival. In 2010, during my last semester of graduate school when I was dealing with my mother’s loss of mobility and need to move to assisted living, I thought I was having heart problems. And even after a series of normal tests, I didn’t really believe the cardiologist who told me that I was probably having panic attacks.

This year, as I navigated life in Louisville while Mark was in training for the Foreign Service, those panic attacks came back. I was going into fight-flight-freeze so often this summer that I finally sought out a therapist who specializes in mind/body work. She told me much of what I already know, but with a kind of calm authority that encouraged me to listen to my body instead of trying that old standby, “Stop it!!”

Even if there’s nothing, logically, to be scared of, she pointed out, my body’s threat-detection system is on overdrive. Ways to walk it back include breathing from my diaphragm, performing a body scan and relaxation exercise, and trying some autogenics — talking my body through a process that moves blood from my trunk or core, where the blood rushes to prepare me for the worst, to my extremities. Walking itself is excellent too, engaging my arms and legs as well as both sides of the body. Any kind of activity helps.

And on a particularly difficult day, I can add my own written exercise that helps me tap into negative thoughts, expose their distortions, and replace them with realistic alternatives.

Today that would involve surfacing “Everybody’s going to say no to all my last-minute phone calls today and nothing will work out! I was an idiot to wait this long!” Then identifying the cognitige distortions — fortune telling about what others will think or do, overgeneralizing, seeing life through a dark filter, labeling myself — and replacing them: “I don’t know what people will say to my phone calls. If they say no, I am competent enough to try something else. Mark has been willing to help in the past and he probably will again. I made reasonable decisions to wait because of information we needed or because I didn’t know I needed to act earlier.”

Now. Let’s get on with our day, shall we?!

T-10 Days Until We Leave

Everyone in our DC family — Mark, Jack, and me — is having stomach troubles.

Mark’s theory is that it’s stress. I wonder if it’s something in water or food.

But since I arrived in DC last Sunday, we’ve been dealing with some stomach-churning issues: Putting the house on the market and accepting an offer; pursuing the visas we need to head to Mexico after assorted bureaucratic snafus; addressing teacher expectations at Jack’s school in advance of transferring to his new school soon; figuring out the timetable for our week-long cross country drive to Tijuana. The dangling details include what route to take, where to stay affordably with pets, and whether to buy a rooftop carrier (I now understand the whole Mitt Romney dog-on-the-roof-for-family-vacation temptation).

One big help has been commiserating with others in the same boat(s). I had lunch with the wife of one of Mark’s classmates who will also be relocating to Tijuana and we had much to talk about. Later the same day, I got to participate in a videoconference between Tijuana-goers here and folks who are already there. We addressed important questions such as whether you can get US Netflix in TJ (yes), the logistics of crossing the border (easier than it used to be), transportation to Jack’s school on Mexican holidays (we’ll be driving him), and parking at our various housing assignments (yes there’s room for a motorcycle).

Next up, Mark and I leave tomorrow for five days in “crash-bang” training, the euphemistic title for learning how to deal with dangerous situations. Jack won’t be coming, so the additional stressor has been figuring out whom he can contact here in Falls Church in case of a problem. And again, we’re saved by Mark’s buddies in the same boat (and apartment complex) who are happy to be his go-to folks while we’re gone.

So that’s what we’re learning — in this new world, being in the boat together has great advantages. My friend Tammy Woodburn, whose husband’s military career took them through 19 moves in 25 years, pointed this during our recent move: You will find yourself asking virtual strangers for help, and they will give it; they will also be asking you one day. And you will be eager to pay them back.

Federal Government: Efficient or Inefficient?

(From a Facebook post about our visa application experience.)

Nation’s capital is a marvel of efficiency: From the apartment where we’re living (Oakwood in Falls Church), it took only 15 minutes yesterday to get downtown DC and parked for about $2. Walked a block or so to office we needed for processing of diplomatic passports and visas. Amazing.

Nation’s capital is incredibly inefficient: At office we needed, clerk told us, no, he could not look up on his computer whether my diplomatic passport had finished processing because he doesn’t have the right software, sorry. Mark asked, is it possible for the woman across the room who signed us in to check? Oh yes, the clerk said. She can. Had Mark not known to ask, we would have not known the passport was processed and ready for immediate pickup at that same office. (The woman who signed us in WAS efficient.)

Nation’s capital is capitalistic not socialistic: Right next to this office is a passport photo service for people who show up missing one of the photos they need and are rushed for time (such as, um, us). For a mere $27.44, that little Polariod can be yours.