Sunday, November 25, 2007

Where We Live

While living in a still-developing nation has its challenges, life in a section of the city like ours gives us almost all of the comforts and conveniences of the US. Below we proudly present some photos of our neighborhood. For more, see the whole album at http://picasaweb.google.com/carlosandamyg/OurLatestHome



the view from one of our bedroom windows

Standing on the bike path in the middle of the boulevard
that goes in front of our neighborhood


Amy's school

Sunset, as seen looking north-ish from the boulevard

Amy

Carlos and our present vehicle

Sunset view from the top of the boulevard

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Europe Recap

We never really got around to it, but for those interested, here is the account of our last few weeks in Europe.

Firenze
After all the glories of Rome, we were a little overwhelmed and exhausted, and Florence was the perfect place to land next. Sunny and slower-paced, we got to enjoy a city where you could walk literally EVERYWHERE without even requiring the use of public transportation. Carlos' highlight was the bistecca fiorentina, which is definitely a culinary marvel. Amy fell in love with the gelato, which was the best we had in all of Italy. Being surrounded by so much renaissance art was also incredible. All the photos can be found [here].

Milano
We only allocated an afternoon and evening in Milan. This was because 1) it is a ridiculously expensive city, and 2) We wanted to maximize our time in Paris and give ourselves some down time in Brussels before the transatlantic flight to Mexico.

The first challenge to our adventure came when our train out of Florence was delayed by several hours. We ended up arriving just before sunset in Milan. Then, to make things worse, the moment we set foot outside the hotel, a gentle rain began to fall. We did not let this stop us, however. Our main goal in Milan was to see the Castello Sforsezco, and then possibly the shopping district. We set out with our umbrella and a map and made the most of our 15 hours in Milan. The castle entrance was closed by the time we arrived, but we gave ourselves the tour of the impressive outer walls, and truthfully the rain and nightfall made it even more surreal.

After that, the rain stopped and we ventured into the shopping district, which totally blew our minds. We spent the shortest time in Milan but it was there that we maxxed out our camera's memory card in the fastest amount of time. We both adored the city, but also discovered that it could be a very hazardous place for our bank account. The shopping is astounding. The architecture was impressive. We would love to go back and thoroughly explore someday. All of our Milan photos are [here]



Paris

No first-time trip around Europe would have been complete without visiting the City of Lights. We generally have a rule that to stay in any part of the world, we must be able to manage basic conversation in the language. This rule held up pretty well in Barcelona with Catalan/Spanish, and then in Italy with our combined knowledge of Italian, which put together was something to reckon with. However, we were so determined to go to Paris that we put aside our total lack of basic competency in the language and figured we'd just go for it. A pretty risky decision to make in the one city where people are least likely to speak any other language.

It was completely worth it. Despite the change in climate to a colder temperature, plus some rain, we got out and saw the essentials: Eiffel Tower, Notre Dame, and a gorgeous fall afternoon walk for several miles along the Seine River. On top of this, we were able to witness firsthand the frenzy that swept into town for the Rugby World Cup, being hosted by France. It was evident everywhere, most notably at the Eiffel Tower, where a giant inflated rugby ball was stuck into the center of the tower and a massive TV screen on the outside broadcasted all the updates.

Not only were we absolutely taken aback by the utter gorgeousness of this city, but we really enjoyed the diversity, the elegant culture, the intricate but reliable metro system, and the food, of course.

As far as the language, the stereotype was true in our case. Most Parisians had little patience for tourists or anyone else with minimal French. However, this turned out not to be a problem for us.

First of all, we found refuge in the predominantly Muslim immigrant neighborhood near our hotel. Along the main street, it seemed nobody actually spoke French, nor did many of them seem to have a language in common. This resulted in a lot of hand motioning and nonverbal communication, and Carlos and I blended right in, at least in terms of language. Second, you pick up a language fast when there's no choice, because otherwise you don't eat, get on the subway, or accomplish any other essential activity. After four days in Paris, we were already managing the basics of ordering fast food, buying metro tickets, and general politeness in French. And the Parisians, in turn, rewarded this with courtesy and even a smile and correction when we got it wrong. They're very careful guardians of their language, and we would be too if we were fluent in the beauty that is French.

Anyway, if we could master the language, Paris could quickly become one our most desirable cities. [here] are the rest of our Paris photos. Below is a short video clip from the Eiffel Tower in all of its gilttery glory.
video


Brussels
We came full-circle. Our arrival to Europe ocurred in the northern European city of Dusseldorf, Germany, and we were now only a few hours away in Belgium. In the geographic and political center of Europe, we found that with language, it was anything goes. French, Flemish, Dutch, German, English, and who knows what else were spoken everywhere, including on TV. We were not particularly charmed by this city, which also seemed to be the most socially unstable of all the places we visited. However, Brussels will hold a special place in our hearts for this reason:

DÖNER KEBAB!!

For those not familiar with this delicacy, it was our fast food of choice in Europe. It's a Turkish dish, essentially the mother of the gyro more familiar to Chicagoans, and it includes lettuce, vegetables, sauces, and special secret ingredients. Every city we visited had dozens of places serving döner sandwiches, and in each region, the döner took on a different character, adding in the local ingredients, but no matter what, a good döner was almost guaranteed to be the cheapest and most fulfilling meal around. For the entirety of the trip, Barcelona held the prize of most delicious döner, but Brussels swiftly changed that with a visit to The Sultans of Kebab next to La Bourse. It was so amazing, Amy had to take a picture.


After that, it was a lot of rest and relaxation and then....Mexico.

In general, we are dying to return someday. Amy favors Rome for the food, culture, history, and down-to-earth sensibility (believe it or not). Carlos prefers Milan for the elegance, size, and shopping choices. Both of us agree that Paris is a place where you could spend years just trying to scratch the surface. All three top our list of places we must return to. No matter what, it was the trip of a lifetime, no doubt. We will never forget it.

To finish this entry, we'll post some photos from our last few days in Barcelona with Chicago friends Dennis, Tanya, and Ashvin:


watching the Bears game at 2:30 am



Magic Fountain


pregame tapas and sangría


This guy was a bit liquored up and convinced
that Carlos was Barcelona's veteran Mexican
player Rafa Marquez, despite the fact that it was
two hours before game time and Carlos was
devouring a steak.


postgame!


beach

Monday, November 05, 2007

Our New Life in A Wealthy Latin American City

It has been a little more than two weeks since our arrival in Monterrey, Mexico, and we’ve been through a nonstop whirlwind adventure trying to re-incorporate ourselves into normal, non-vacationing society. The biggest frustration has been the difficulty in getting Internet access, and we really regret the lack of connection. Thankfully, recent developments have made it so that we will soon have Internet in our own home! Read on...

First Days in Monterrey
Crossing the Atlantic again was a trying experience. Our extremely affordable tickets took us on a Belgian vacation airliner from Brussels to the Caribbean with a one-hour stop in Montego Bay, Jamaica, followed by our arrival in Cancun. This flight lasted approximately 14 hours altogether. Then we waited three hours for our plane from Cancun to Monterrey, which was a two-hour test of patience as we had the fantastic fortune of sharing the plane with an entire high school football team. By the time Carlos’ brother Danny picked us up from Monterrey International Airport at 2 am local time, we were exhausted and struggling to communicate in any language, after nearly 24 continuous hours of traveling.

We began our lives in Mexico living with Danny, his college friend Andrés (a.k.a. Tripa), and Tripa’s loveable one-eyed boxer dog Maclovia. We had our own room in their rented house, which Amy describes as a male undergrad dorm room in house format. Things like heated water, air conditioning, properly working stove, or combat of “friendly resident ants” were not a priority there. However, we enjoyed the setting, near neighborhood businesses and not far from giant shopping centers where we spent days in refuge from the 100 degree heat. Carlos’ dad generously let us borrow one of his vehicles so we could get around, and he continuously helps us out with everything, from job and housing leads, to general advice about how to make a living as an adult in this city.

Amy’s First Mexican Job
The job search got underway, and Amy happened to find a rare opportunity – a teaching position at an exclusive private elementary school. The hiring for this kind of school generally wraps up in March before the school year begins, but a situation with a teacher required a sudden job search. Amy figured she’d just take a shot, despite not having a work visa. After all, this is a school that teaches half the day in English and half in Spanish, and her qualifications were identical to what the school was searching for. After a grueling round of interviews with administration from all levels of the organization, she was offered not only the job, but sponsorship for the visa! She thanked God for the opportunity and accepted the job at Instituto de Educación Naciones Unidas, where she is now employed as the English teacher for 4th grade. (Click this link if you want to explore the school’s web page). This involves teaching the English subjects to one class of 4th graders in the morning, and then a switch after lunch to teach the other class of 4th graders. These students come from homes with lots of resources and very educated families; most of the students speak and write with more well-developed English than the students Amy used to teach in the U.S. The school is extremely organized and has consistent, established procedures for everything, While some teachers would find this restrictive, Amy is relieved to be working in such a structured environment where everyone knows what’s going on (especially after several teaching experiences in the US that were quite the opposite). It’s a challenging but exciting situation.

The school is located in Cumbres, arguably one of Monterrey’s best sectors, a beautiful mountainous suburb above the city. The commute from Danny’s house was brutal and involved an hour of driving around the outskirts of the city to get around the obstruction of a large mountain, heading into the desert and then back into the city again before ascending the mountain where the school is located. (Amy still hasn’t figured out whose idea it was to build a city in the middle of a bunch of mountains nowhere near a body of water). Carlos has been a huge help, waking up to pry Amy out of bed in the morning, making her coffee while she gets ready, and then attacking the commute to Cumbres to take her to work. Which brings us to...

The House On Olmos Street
Finding a house near the school was the next priority, because Amy refuses to drive in this city – the roads are the definition of chaos and police corruption, and she’s not interested.

We found that housing in Cumbres is lovely, affordable, and fairly new, as the whole area is still just beginning to be built and populated. While Amy started working, Carlos spent days scouring the ads and visiting neighborhoods. He found a house just down the road from the school, being rented by a couple whose son just vacated the house to work as an architect outside Cincinnati. They liked us, we liked them, and we adored the small two-story house, which has three bedrooms, two full bathrooms, and all the necessities (including HEATED WATER and climate control). It’s fabulous and the rent is nearly half of what we’d spend on a typical apartment in the Chicago area. We’ve got an office/workout room, guest room, living room/dining room, and one room on the ground floor we don’t even know what to do with yet! Thanks to everyone’s generosity from the wedding, we’ve begun equipping our new home. We’ll post pictures of everything soon.

Settling In
This past week was a busy one, since Amy began teaching full-time and we moved into the house. Carlos has been making runs around the city retrieving all our belongings from Danny’s house and taking care of details while Amy works. The evening of Halloween was dedicated to fully cleaning our new home.

It was interesting to be here for Halloween - these kids are of the fortunate northern variety that gets to enjoy the Mexican celebration Day of the Dead along with the American festivity of Halloween (Halloween doesn’t exist much further south into Mexico). Here, evidently, kids celebrate by taking to the streets in small groups chanting “Hal-lo-WEEN! Hal-lo-WEEN”, which they believe to be an English word for “candy”. Then they show up at the door and expectantly wait for goodies. “We want Halloween!!!” greeted one preschooler. The first bunch got lucky, since this is all Carlos and I brought with us for our first several days at the house: small suitcase of clothing, toiletries, inflatable bed, coffee maker and accessories, and for some reason, a bag of cheap but delectable candy we bought in Rome. After the candy ran out, Amy was surprised that the kids took off pretty quickly and without a fuss before she even finished telling them we were out of candy. Then she took a look in the mirror – hair all crazy, black shirt with pointy lace bell sleeves, broom in hand. The poor kids probably were convinced they had encountered a real live witch.

Anyway, we are in love with our location. Our neighborhood (named “Real Cumbres”, Royal Cumbres) is similar to a typical suburban subdivision in the US, quiet but friendly, with its own 24-hour security patrol. It’s located just off a tranquil boulevard that takes us to Amy’s school in under 2 minutes (walk-able if necessary!). A quick walk down the boulevard lands us at a brand new shopping mall that includes an H-E-B (Texas chain like a Super Target with even more groceries). A 10-minute drive uphill gets us to another new shopping mall with many of the higher-end retailers we grew attached to in the US, plus dining favorites like Chili’s and Applebee’s. Meanwhile, we can walk around the neighborhood to find regular cornerstones of Mexican life: family-owned corner stores, video renters, and our favorite, a place that deliciously grills a whole chicken along with tortillas and grilled onions for under $5.00 US. Carlos describes this as the best of both worlds, and we both agree that it’s the best place we’ve lived together so far. We are so excited and blessed to be living here, and we can’t wait to have visitors!

So come stay with us! You're welcome any time!!