Back to Work

Truth be told, I didn’t think it would be January before I was able to write this post.  Like everything else we’ve experienced since our adventure together began, the job search has been a journey.  Yes, I have a job!  Thus closes the symbolic loop since we cut ourselves loose from a stable income and reliable lifestyle 18 months ago.  I start work as Director of Marketing Communications for a local university this month.

Voluntarily leaving a solid career as the sole breadwinner at age 40 with 3 kids was scary.  However, fear of failing to land a job upon our return was terrifying.  Our adventure would not be complete or considered a successful experiment until I managed to land a legitimate, prosperous job.  Doing so was the final piece of the puzzle for us.  As such, a summary of the job search process and conclusion seems appropriate as our blog comes to a close.  One of our goals for keeping a blog was to inspire other families to break loose and create their own adventures, however brief.  After our own experience returning from a sabbatical and conducting a lengthy job search, I can’t emphasize enough the importance of planning, preparation, realism, perseverance and a strong network.

Before we left for Argentina, Erica and I made a deal that I would wait until April to even begin thinking about the job search and what comes afterwards.  Our trip became reality as a result of my planning gene, but my wise wife recognized I might begin planning our return the moment we arrived in Córdoba.  As it turned out, our life down south was a whirlwind and we all became absorbed in our new lives, making it easy to forget about impending reality for a time.  However, once we passed our self-imposed moratorium I threw myself into the process of preparing and searching for a job.  Having spent over 12 years with my previous employer, I found the experience fascinating, frustrating and a valuable learning experience.   Returning to the workforce following a sabbatical can make for a unique search and challenge, so here’s what I’ve learned:

Steps to take while still abroad:

  1. Preparation:  Use this time wisely.  I found it difficult to make much meaningful progress when I was still in Argentina given time and distance.   Therefore I immersed myself in job search and interview preparation.  Find a resource or expert that works for you (Mine was www.manager-tools.com), beef up your LinkedIn profile, rebuild your resume, and get job boards set up.  This is also the time to research a new career path or focus.
  2. Study:  While it certainly signaled the impending end of our time in Córdoba, I spent the final few months writing and studying.  I developed answers for behavioral interview questions and worked out key accomplishment answers.  I spent hours memorizing answers to these as well as my “elevator pitch” before we returned.
  3. Warm up the network:  Like any relationship, your network takes work.  Don’t wait to ask for help or a job until you’re back in the States.  Keep in touch rather than going completely dark.

What I wish I knew earlier:

  1. Be focused and specific:  In hindsight I approached the search too broadly.  I found myself interested in a number of different roles and industries that made it difficult at times to concisely pinpoint my target to recruiters or companies.  While I’m thankful for the experience and happy with the result, my task would have been easier if I’d had the ability to identify the exact job and sector I was interested in pursuing.
  2. Career accomplishment documentation:  Keep a consistent record of accomplishments for each job WHEN YOU HAVE THAT JOB.  Building a great resume off memory is hard!  Consider buying this product too.
  3. Career Tools Interview Series:  A premium product from the guys at Manager-Tools.  I found this series of podcasts to be enormously helpful in interview preparation.
  4. The power of a network:  As a career salesperson,  I was conscientious of the value of a strong network, but only now do I really appreciate it.  I wrote a post on LinkedIn about how grateful and humbled I’ve been by the time and energy given by so many.  Build it, nurture it and repay it.

Tips:

  1. Use your time wisely while still abroad
  2. A job search is a job and that job is sales:  I found myself leaning on my sales experience to keep grinding away.  Read my post about this on LinkedIn.
  3. Be intentional:  Develop your network now with thoughts to the future.
  4. Be ready to pay it forward:  I can only hope someday to offer others my time and energy as others have done so with me.  Start by asking each person how you can help them someday and thanking them.
  5. Stay balanced:  There are a lot of highs and lows in a job search.  Erica did an amazing job of supporting and counseling me throughout.  As in sales, it can be hard to keep grinding away and be “on” day after day.

Challenges:

  • Perceptions: I encountered a variety of reactions during my job search to our story, many very positive.  Our experience was actually a plus for some hiring managers who recognized it as accomplishment.  Goal setting, planning, organization, execution, and perseverance all were obvious skill sets I could point to as a result of our trip.  I was able to build a significant key accomplishment out of our experience abroad.   However, a sabbatical can also put you at a disadvantage in some cases.  As one recruiter pointed out, technology and the workplace changes rapidly, and a year + out of the game can give hiring managers pause.  Additionally, stepping out of the workforce mid-career is not a concept that most people can easily relate to.
  • Budget:  We budgeted for 1 year abroad and 6 months searching for a job back in the States.  It’s going to cost more than you thought so pad the budget!
  • Taking a step backwards:  A distinct possibility we considered when we jumped into this was that I would have to take a step back in career and pay when we returned.  This would be a natural sacrifice for our experience that we accepted should it occur.  I feel very fortunate that in the end I was able to transfer my skills and experience into a marketing communications role with a great organization and avoid a career hiccup.  However, consider the possible ramifications and be realistic.

The search will always take longer than expected.  Each major step in the hiring process seemed to take a month in my case.  Opportunities appeared and faded.  It’s a roller coaster.  I couldn’t help but become vested in a company during the pursuit.  My search for the right fit and role took 6 months.  It was a fascinating education in its own right as I learned a tremendous amount about numerous companies, the hiring process, interview preparation, and significantly expanded my professional network in the process.  While we did budget for a 6 month search, we didn’t expect it to take the full-time period and we budgeted too conservatively.  Despite considerable expense and stress, we have zero regrets.  We could never put a price on our experiences together.

Resources:

Manager Tools

Tamara Murray:  Author of a number of relevant posts on LinkedIn well worth the read and perspective.

Job Boards:  I found these to be more targeted and useful than the big boys like Monster or CareerBuilder

  • LinkedIn:
  • Indeed
  • Zip Recruiter
  • Glassdoor
  • Simply Hired

Reentry

Back to school in the Pacific Northwest

Back to school in the Pacific Northwest

As we close in on a month since we moved back into our house in Portland and enrolled the kids in school, it seemed time to review how the kids have reintegrated.  We get a lot of questions about how the kids are handling coming back from Argentina after a year. So far it’s been amazingly easy for everyone.  They seem to just roll with all of these changes so getting them to articulate how the adjustment has gone tends to be difficult.  Coming back to a familiar place and familiar faces certainly seems the easy part for them.

The boys are back in the same immersion school a few blocks from our house.  Molly is at the same preschool that the boys attended.  While the language barrier with teachers is behind us, many of the same daily struggles with kids and school exist equally in Portland as they did in Córdoba.  The boys have commented several times about the differences between Spanish in Córdoba and here.  Ben’s teacher shared a great story about how Ben has been so helpful to a new student from Mexico recently.  We like to think that his experience as a stranger in a strange land built this empathy.   All three are in soccer given the shortage of youth rugby leagues in Portland.  Our neighborhood is filled with kids of the same age running free in the afternoons. The kids have thrived in an environment that allows them to play outdoors, climb trees, ride bikes and generally run amuck.  This level of freedom just wasn’t possible in our barrio in Córdoba security and safety concerns.  Unpacking and moving back into our house has seemed like Christmas at times for the kids.  A year with minimal possessions may have taught them to value what they do have, at least for now!  Toys and books forgotten have been rediscovered as we opened boxes over the past month.

Molly loves her new preschool!

Molly loves her new preschool!

In their own words:

What have you been most surprised by?

Elliott:  By how big all my friends have grown since I’ve been gone.

Ben:  The Spanish because it is very different than in Córdoba.

Molly:  By my school because I love it so much.  I didn’t think I would like it but I do.

What do you miss the most from Argentina?

Elliott:  I miss the people, my friends and the ribs.

Ben:  My friends.

Molly:  My friends and my school there.

How is school different here than in Argentina?

Elliott:  Here there aren’t as many recesses and there’s no kiosko and the Spanish at Beach is completely different.

Ben:  There isn’t a kiosko and there is only one recess.

Molly:  I went to school longer in Argentina.  Here it’s shorter.

Riding bikes to school

Riding bikes to school

From the kids’ perspective, we’re simply back after a long trip.  They are pretty unfazed when telling anyone about where they’ve been.  The last year has reminded us just how incredibly resilient children can be.

Nomads in the USA

We touched down in Seattle a little less than one month ago after an amazing exit tour through Brazil.  Since we returned to the Pacific Northwest, we’ve traveled nearly 1,400 miles in a borrowed Suburban visiting friends and family and adjusting to life post-Argentina.  With our home in Portland occupied by renters until the end of August, we’ve travelled up and down Oregon and Washington hitting family gatherings and making the most of the end of a wonderful summer.  Couch surfing with friends and family prior to employment and the beginning of school has provided a great way to ease back into life in the States.  However, this nomadic lifestyle, while far from hard living, hasn’t been without its challenges.  Our family of five have now spent 6 weeks living out of suitcases since we departed Córdoba.  While this period of transition might not offer a true perspective into our reintegration until we’re back in our house, it’s been interesting to observe nonetheless.

After a year away the little things become much more profound.  We were all struck by the blunt language and behavior of the TSA employees in Miami when compared to the Argentines, but that might just be standard for the TSA.   As expected, we had instant sticker shock from our first “American” breakfast in the Miami airport.  I still can’t help but convert costs from dollars into pesos in my head and feel sick.  Adjusting to American tipping standards has been a tough pill to swallow also.  We couldn’t help but notice the number of obese people as we walked through the Dallas airport.  As we flew into Seattle, Ben spied an American football field and could not have been more excited.  Not hearing Spanish continuously has been strange and sad for Erica and me.  My first visit to a shopping mall in Gig Harbor, Washington was a shock.  So many people seem to take for granted the abundance and variety of products available to Americans.  We are still amazed at the cheddar cheese, salsa and peanut butter at the tips of our fingers.  The size of vehicles is another reminder we’re not in South American any longer.  Just like fast-food, cars and trucks seem super sized.  The caution and generous attitude displayed to pedestrians by American drivers is amazing!  Drivers actually come to halt at a cross walk!  The kids initially were confounded by what to do with toilet paper, but have quickly been assured it’s safe to flush here.  Erica and I are still occasionally surprised to see glass doors and windows without iron bars.  Everyday it seems we see or hear something that reminds us we’re not in Argentina any longer.

Reunited with cousins!

Reunited with cousins!

Despite all of the driving, it’s been wonderful to see old friends again and visit family.  The cultural differences between Argentines and Americans in terms of greetings and familiarity has been striking though.  After a year absence, a handshake or a quick hug between longtime friends would be considered cold and distant in Argentina, while being the norm in the US.  We seem to be torn between two very different worlds at this point.  Erica and I certainly have mixed feelings about returning.  We’re not yet settled into our old lives, and not entirely sure we want to drop back into them.  Erica and I miss speaking Spanish and try to speak often to each other and the kids.  The kids ask often when we are going back to Argentina.  We miss besos and the extraordinary affection we experienced in Argentina.  We miss our wonderful friends and asados every Sunday.  I’ve tried to reproduce asado for family and friends a few times, but so far it’s just not the same.  Someday we hope to build our own quincho and parrilla but obtaining the same cuts of meat will be a challenge.  It has been sad to read from a distance the continuing financial issues facing Argentina.  The recent default and sky rocking blue rate remind us of the real impact on the Argentine people.

The kids have had differing reactions to reentry.  Molly and Elliott don’t seem as phased as Ben.  Ben has always had a more difficult time with change.  Ben’s reaction as we arrived in Portland to be reunited with family was to burst into hysterical tears.  The moment and emotions were just too much for him.  As parents, we try to remind ourselves that we’ve put them through an enormous amount of change that calls for additional patience and latitude.  They are all clearly tired of living out of suitcases and driving.  Although normalcy is still a ways off, I’m sure they will love returning to our old house, neighborhood, and regaining a sense of familiarity.

We look forward with a touch of anxiety to watching the kids begin school again in Portland next week.  The job search continues for me.  Our uncertain future is both terrifying and exciting.  We plan to write more about the kids reintegration into school, the job search process and our lives after this adventure as we learn together where it all will lead.

La Difunta Correa

Roadside shrine outside of Mendoza

Roadside shrine outside of Mendoza

Shrines to accident victims or saints along the road in Argentina are a very common sight.  A visitor to the country might mistake devotion for excessive littering at times when passing by shrines to Difunta Correa.

While driving from Mendoza to the foothills of the Andes near Uspallata, we passed the largest such shrine we’d see so far.  It’s an interesting sight and story to share.

Mounds and mounds of full water bottles

Mounds and mounds of full water bottles

Difunta Correa refers to the legend of a woman who attempted to find her husband during a time of war in Argentina in the 1800’s.  While trailing the marching army through the desert with her baby, she died of dehydration.  Her infant child was found alive, nursing at her breast by traveling gauchos.  Hundreds if not thousands of roadside shrines throughout the country pay homage to Difunta Correa (Deceased Correa) and her thirst by housing piles of full water bottles and other offerings.

Ruta 7 into the Andes from Mendoza is a beautiful, but desolate stretch of highway.  While we probably noticed 10-12 shrines to Difunta Correa on our 2 hour drive, none was larger than this one.

Ben distressed at the waste of water bottles

Ben distressed at the waste of water bottles

When we stopped for a closer look at this one, Ben and Molly were upset by the apparent waste of water.  When Erica decided to contribute one of the bottles we’d recently bought, Ben nearly revolted.

Driving in Costa Rica and Argentina has been an adventure at times.  We’ve rented cars a number of times as well as simply being passengers.  It’s provided a very different opportunity to experience the country than can be found onboard a bus.   I’m somewhat fearful for my newfound driving techniques when we return though.  My favorite is the habit of honking upon approach of a 4-way stop with no change in speed, as if to announce, “here I come, out of the way!”

Salta Surprises

City view from Cerro San Bernardo

City view from Cerro San Bernardo

Traveling to Northern Argentina has always been high on our list of must-see destinations ever since we began planning to live here.  Last week we finally ventured up to Salta and some of the surrounding areas while my Dad visited from Oregon.  Some of our favorite parts of travel is the way it can educate, provide global perspective and disprove preconceived notions.  We had always imagined Salta as a desert land of red rocks and adobe, but instead we were surprised by the vast diversity in people, food and landscape.

Land:  Salta sits 860 km to the north of Cordoba and about 300 km south of the Bolivian border.  To cap off my father’s visit to Argentina, we’d put together a 10 day tour to Salta and Mendoza before sending him home.  After the short flight from Cordoba, we spent 5 days exploring the city of Salta and neighboring areas such as San Lorenzo, Purmamarca, and San Salvador de Jujuy.  We noticed right away how wrong our ideas about Salta would be as we landed.  The surrounding area is lush and green, with high, arid mountains to the west.  The hills around Salta are a dense jungle-like landscape.  It is only as you head farther north that the more famous imagery of Northern Argentina appears.

View from the Cerro de los Siete Colores, Purmamarca

View from the Cerro de los Siete Colores, Purmamarca

We elected to rent a car for a few days in order to take a few day trips from Salta after hearing about how much the region had to offer.  I think my Dad was ready to continue solo onto Bolivia after the long day trip to Purmamarca with 3 kids in a 5 passenger car, but managed to see part of the famous Quebrada de Humahuaca.  In 2 hours we drove from a chaotic city, through dense green hills, into a broad glacial valley, and into the desolate foothills of the Northern Andes.

Purmamarca

Purmamarca

Food:  In most of Argentina, spicy food is rare.  Not so to the north!  Living in a college town like Cordoba, we’ve had our fill of lomos, pizzas and migas that lack any sort of spice.  I can’t say we’re tired of empanadas though.  Standard fare in Salta and Jujuy includes tamales, humitas, llama empanadas and locro.  Most restaurants also provide picante (sort of salsa and hot sauce mix) to accompany tamales or empanadas.  The tamales are small and round, filled with corn meal and meat, but otherwise similar to what we’d find in Mexico.  Humita is a sweet, corn-based sort of tamale that’s delicious.  Both are wrapped in corn husks and steamed.  We also managed to be in Salta on May 1st, when locro becomes a standard menu item in many restaurants as the weather turns colder.  Locro is a stew of pork, corn and potatoes that varies widely based on the chef.  We’re determined to track down a family recipe before we leave!

Ben loves his locro

Ben loves his locro

People:  It was fascinating to see just how distinctly different the people looked in the north.  Features commonly associated with Peru or Bolivia like high cheek bones and dark complexion stand out in Salta and the north.  The huge influx of European immigrants that diluted the indigenous population in so many parts of the country and makes Argentine people so incredibly diverse has not reached the north.  There’s an incredible quantity of textiles and crafts available in the north as well.  True gauchos are a common sight with their flat brimmed hats or berets, trousers tucked into high leather boots, and red sash at the waist.  So many leather boots might explain the disproportionate number of shoe shiners in the main plazas in Salta.  Sitting in an outdoor cafe on the edge of Plaza 9 de Julio ensured we would have a minimum of 5 shoe shiners stop by to see if we needed a shine, even if we didn’t have on leather shoes.  We also noticed a strong police presence that is not visible in Cordoba.  Pairs of police officers seem to be on every corner.  Check points on the highway were more frequent.  It was a bit unnerving to see so many, particularly ringing the teachers on strike in Plaza 9 de Julio at all hours.

Plaza 9 de Julio, Salta

Plaza 9 de Julio, Salta

We could have easily spent a month or more in the north and still not seen it all.  Even with one year we are finding that Argentina is too vast to see all of its many wonderful sights.

Management Lessons From Argentina

Prior to moving to Argentina I worked for the Portland Business Journal as a sales manager.  As a young manager I gleaned what knowledge I could from a number of more experienced managers and sales trainers.  I recall my mentor George telling me early on just how similar managing salespeople could be to parenting.  Our superb sales trainer at the time, Jeff Schneider, hammered the key tenets and roles a sales manager must play into me while also drawing many such parenting analogies.  While traveling and living abroad as a family, I  have been repeatedly reminded just how much parenting can mirror sales management challenges.  The lesson I suppose is that it can be more difficult than one might think to escape entirely from reality and thoughts of work while on sabbatical.  While I don’t claim to be the best parent or manager, the lessons provided by these men provide a wonderful goal to aim for whether it be while managing a sales team or a family experiencing life south of the border.

The four primary roles of a sales manager I was taught are coach, mentor, trainer and supervisor.  As Jeff so wisely pointed out, most sales managers end up focusing primarily on supervision, an eerily similar problem faced by Erica and I here!  I’d like to share a few additional management lessons I’ve learned thanks to living abroad as a family.

Manage the individual, not the team

Just as salespeople are unique individuals and require an individual approach, living abroad together has illustrated just how different our kids are.  We’ve spent A LOT of time together.  It’s been a fascinating and rewarding experience to discover what approach might inspire one of the kids, while having zero impact on the others.  Freed from the responsibilities of a job while we live in Argentina, I’m grateful to have the time and energy now to truly learn about my kids.  They are all highly motivated by any electronic device of course. Elliott tends to be very money motivated, Ben not at all.  Sport of any kind and socializing with friends drives Elliott.  Ben loves having friends over for play dates, but sport, eh.   Elliott cherishes access to his email account we opened for him to keep in touch with friends at home.  Ben has one also but we have to nag him to use it.  On the other hand Ben loves rocking out with his headphones and iPod.  Michael Jackson and Charlie Daniels are favorites.  Molly loves the iPad and pleasing others.  She might be freaking out about her shoes not fitting one minute and kissing your hand the next.  Not unlike seeking the right formula for a sales rep, Ben’s a tough cookie.  We’ll let you know when we figure that out!

Be humble

As any good sales manager knows, you want your salesperson to be a better rep than you.  Well, I can tell you that my kids and wife excel at speaking Spanish while I simply manage the logistics of our existence here.  While I would love to be more fluent, I recognize my own strengths and weaknesses.  The other day at rugby, Ben was speaking to Erica with a new friend looking on.  Afterward Erica overheard the friend ask,”Hablás inglés, vos?”  Nothing makes us happier.

Lead during times of change

Our team at the Portland Business Journal went through a tremendous amount of change while I was a manager.  Learning how to manage during times of change while also learning to be a manager was incredibly difficult, but not so unlike our current status.  Our kids have adapted amazingly well to living in Argentina.  Their world has turned upside and yet they have just rolled with it all from the start.  When we started selling furniture on Craigslist last year, they barely batted an eye.  We moved in with a Costa Rican family of 5 for 3 weeks and enrolled in a language school.  We tossed Ben and Molly in a taxi with the school director each day to go to kindergarten in Spanish.  We lived out of a hotel in Cordoba for 2 weeks!  No problem.  Well, minor issues that we can gloss over now.  We threw the boys into a public school that is 100% Spanish.  We jumped on an overnight bus to Buenos Aires.  All things considered, the kids have been champs.  I like to think that they have been relatively unfazed because of the confidence Erica and I have tried to project despite our own concerns.  Although scared out of our minds and unsure at times during this adventure, we have always positioned each trial or phase as a new adventure.  I don’t recall who started it, but we began a corny Team Vaughn chant completed with hands in to kick off meaningful new adventures before we even left Portland.

Motivation by trial and error

Our challenge to provide motivation for the kids began the moment we sprung our plans on them a year ago. We pulled out the stops with stories from our scouting trip about meat, ice cream and swimming pools. When we were in Costa Rica incentives took the form of a trip to the public pool after a good behavior day at language school.  This trial and error continued in Cordoba when we came up with the Morning List, The Big 3 and the Night List.  While we’d tried a number of similar things in Portland, we actually managed to find the time and motivation to stick with it here.  In an effort to teach responsibility and maintain our own sanity, we came up with a few basic things the kids should do on their own without endless nagging and reminders.  Morning and Night includes stuff like get dressed, make the bed, and brush teeth.  The Big 3 believe it or not are flush, wash hands and lights off in the bathroom.  I cringe to envision life with 3 boys rather than 2.  Successful completion of these tasks on a daily basis is rewarded with 5 pesos each.  Given the ready availability of kioscos and sugar this has proven to be a fairly productive incentive so far.  I won’t lie though. It’s not uncommon for the boys to have a debt tally on the fridge when motivation devolves into supervision. Homework, behavior at school and our home school efforts have provided endless opportunities for experimentation with motivation.  We committed to home school the boys 5 days a week in English since their school day is short compared to the US.  Although not particularly popular with the team, we created a chart per day with subjects including reading, history, math and science.  We have a mix of workbooks, apps, documentaries and games we use to keep it mildly interesting.  Regardless, Ben still manages to try to scratch out math on the chart and make it look like history. We also have learned when to call in the big guns for training help as does any good sales manager.  We finally saw the light and have our wonderful babysitter helping Elliott with his homework twice a week.  It’s a far cry from our painful attempts to interpret assignments using Google Translate, and he’s far less likely to misbehave with a cute 21-year-old Argentine instructing him that ourselves.

Unfortunately, after our best efforts, it sometimes all comes down to banning the kids from electronics, rugby, play dates or loss of pesos.  I learned some of my biggest lessons as a manager from the people who worked for me.  The analogy continues as our children challenge and inspire Erica and I everyday in Argentina.

Asado

It is hard to have a conversation about Argentina for 5 minutes without talking about meat.  We are only half kidding when we list carne as one of our primary reasons for moving to Argentina.  The reverence placed on the asado and its importance in Argentine society can’t be overstated.  The priority placed on family in Argentina is a wonderful change from the States.  Many of our friends grew up in Cordoba and live mere blocks from siblings and parents.  The concept of moving to another city or country for work is rare.  An integral part of this family first culture is the Sunday asado with friends and family.  We have been very fortunate to have had many opportunities to enjoy asado during our time in Cordoba, so while I’m far from an expert asador, its time to share some of the best part of Argentina.  Before I continue though, a brief glossary of terms is necessary:

Asado:  Basically a barbecue.  Though a BBQ in the States might mean an hour with hotdogs and burgers, an invitation to an asado tends to mean you’re on the hook for at least 4 hours, not that you’re watching the clock after the wine and excellent meat.  This is the term for the event itself and the Argentine method of cooking.

The parrilla and tools ready to start

The parrilla and tools ready to start

Parrilla:  The actual barbecue.  This typically references the structure of the actual cooking space that can come in a multitude of designs.  Usually the parrilla is housed within the quincho (next term) and includes the grill and rack for combustibles surrounded by brick.

El quincho

El quincho

Quincho:  This is the eating and socializing space typically separated from the house.  While house hunting in August a realtor asked Erica what the English translation for quincho was.  The realtor was astonished and horrified to find that there is none.  I suppose if you imagine nearly every house in America with a “man cave” built around their BBQ outside, you’d understand the quincho.

Tools of the asador

Tools of the asador

Asador:  The grill master. Lena: The name assigned to any hardwood that’s used for an asado. Typically sold in plastic bags at any kiosco or neighborhood store. Prices range from $13ARS to $25ARS. Carbon:  Charcoal is probably too generous on this, but close.  This is typically lena partially burned and bagged up and available pretty much anywhere.  It tends to be a few pesos cheaper than lena.  While many people prefer the flavor from using lena over carbon, it takes less time to be ready for cooking.  We’ve been slightly amused and pissed to discover the occasional brick in the middle of a few bags of carbon now and then.  A trick to charge more for less based on weight. Carniceria:  The meat market.  It has been fun to gradually learn and experience the difference between cuts of meat in Argentina and the US.  Finding a high quality, reliable carniceria in the barrio has been part of the adventure.  When buying meat for an asado the general rule of thumb is to be prepared for 1 kilo per person.  Much to the chagrin of the nation, Uruguay recently surpassed Argentina in annual beef consumption.  Needless to say they can still put it away nicely.  Standard purchases from a carniceria for an asado tend to include vacio, chorizo, morcilla, matambre and asado (short ribs). Fiambres:  Appetizers.  Typically meat, cheese, olives and bread platters.

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The method of cooking meat in Argentina has been a stark difference from our push button gas grill in Portland.  There’s nothing fast about an asado.  Many families gather on Sundays for a weekly asado, which might be in the shape of lunch or dinner depending on the designated start time.  It is standard for guests to bring sides, salads, bread, desserts or drinks potlack-style while the asador handles the meat.  Depending on preference, the asador will get the lena or carbon started in advance of arriving guests.  The fire is started in a compact, elevated grate to the side of the primary grill.  There is no charbroiled grilling to speak of in our experience.  The idea is to allow the lena or carbon to burn into hot coals before they are shoveled in a thin, even layer under the grill.  Meat preparation is simply olive oil and parrilla salt (basically kosher salt), lots of salt!  A good trick I noticed once was lemon added to some cuts as well, but I’ve never seen anyone use a dry rub or sauce of any kind.  I get the impression that might be blasphemy.  Many parrillas have extra bells and whistles such as grease catchers and grills whose elevation can be changed.  The coals essentially smoke and sear the meat slowly, resulting in a wonderfully smoky flavor.  It’s tricky to learn how to keep adequate coals at the ready as the coals placed under the grill cool in order to maintain even heat and judge what heat will blacken the meat versus cook it perfectly.  As the meat cooks guests snack on wonderful fiambres and hang out in the quincho.

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Typical sides cooked on the parrilla include thinly sliced potatoes with paprika and oil, bell peppers, provolone a la parrilla (provolone cheese with oil in a tin dish cooked until bubbling and served with bread), and onions (tossed directly into the coals and peeled after roasting).  It’s common to serve the cut as it comes off the parrilla rather than wait until all the meat is ready.  In fact at a few man-asados I’ve had the privilege of attending, it’s common to bring your own asado knife and pass around forks to eat communally off the cutting board sin platos.  Salads of tomato, potato, arugula or carrot are pretty typical sides along with bread.  Of course no asado is complete without dessert after the gluttony.  Some of our favorites have been helado and home-made dulce de leche.  If Fernet with Coke appears at the end of the night you can be assured you’ve lived a good life.

Pollo para parrilla

Pollo para parrilla

A huge part of our family’s experience here in Argentina has revolved around the asado.  Given the importance placed on asados and the role it plays in family relations we’ve been exceptionally grateful to have been included in the experience with a number of Cordobeses and expat friends here.  Wherever we land when we return, we hope to carry back the tradition and technique of the asado and build our own quincho.

Costilla, chorizo and vacio

Costilla, chorizo and vacio

A Tale of Two Days

During our time in Argentina we have been fortunate to have very few days in which Erica and I are both at the end of our rope.  Some days it seems that nothing goes right or according to plan.    Being flexible and patient are critical,  and I like to think we’re pretty good at it, but some days it all falls to pieces regardless.  Rarely however, do we seem to have two days that are so starkly different from one another.  Yesterday was a rough day for both of us.  The sun comes up the next day and the magic is back.  A tale of two days living in Argentina:

Wednesday, March 19

Yesterday was unusually cool and cloudy.  Molly and Ben are killing us the moment they wake up.  In short order Ben and Molly both lose access to all electronics for the day.  Molly freaks out about everything from hair to shoes, is late for school and screams during drop-off.  Ben and Elliott bicker and mess around rather than buckle down with morning homeschooling.

I proceed to get my ass kicked in my Spanish class and realize I may have hit my learning limit.

Erica tries yet another new bus route to work downtown but has to abort and get a cab.  Paying cabs to get to teaching gigs is not very profitable, thus frustrating.

The boys goofing around on the walk to school grows so annoying I nearly push them into the street.  My plan to check in with Elliott’s teachers about homework fails when I first try to ask Ben’s teacher if we have bought the correct math book.  Ben has disappeared with said book to the kiosco to spend the pesos I gave him for a water bottle on candy. By the time I return the candy and collar Ben, Elliott’s class has started.

Molly and I head to the grocery store for the weekly restock.  At checkout I try yet again to ask for home delivery.  After 3 attempts the checker understands me.  When I ask if I said it correctly, she says yes.

Erica tries to pay a hotel deposit for my sister’s upcoming visit at a bank and realizes that ALL banks close for the day at 1:30pm.

Hoping for a nice day tomorrow, I vacuum the pool and proceed to break the vacuum.

While Erica’s heading to her 2nd teaching gig of the day, she gets hung up in downtown traffic since all the garbage workers are striking and firing off cannons in the street.

Molly and I head to a nearby doctor’s office to schedule health checkups for the kids before we pick up the boys at school.  After feeling pretty good about making the appointment despite my rough language, I realize I booked a time when the boys are in school.  By the time I realize my error we’re on the bus headed to school.  The bus Molly and I take from the doctor’s office completes its route before I expect it to, making us late to get the boys.  On the walk home from school, every dog seems like Cujo, ready to rip our limbs off and I start to realize I’m really bothered by the ridiculous amount of security on the beautiful houses in our barrio.

On Erica’s way home from teaching downtown, she flags her bus which slows down at the curb, and then, for no apparent reason, speeds up and drives past the bus stop without stopping.  She ends up having to wait another 15 minutes for another bus to come by.

Thursday, March 20

Today it’s a gorgeous, sunny day.  The boys start their math homeschooling today without being reminded!  Bickering is minor.  Molly awakes in a good mood and gets dressed with no fussing.  She’s dressed and delivered to school on time and with no crying.

Erica recovers the boys’ notarized birth certificates (previously missing) at their school and successfully completes the bank deposit she tried the previous day at a bank near our barrio.

The boys and I hit the pool store for some supplies and I miraculously get what I need with zero translation help from the boys.

With trepidation, I call the doctor’s office to reschedule the appointment, and am amazed that I’m able to do so with near total comprehension.  The makes my day since speaking on the phone in Spanish is one of my greatest fears here.

I’m able corner Elliott’s teacher and ask how he’s been doing on homework.  Seems he’s doing what he’s supposed to so far.  I covertly watch Ben buy his water bottle today as instructed versus candy before heading out for a quick run home in the sunshine.

Erica’s finally able to get Molly to wear her tights to ballet and dropped off with no fuss allowing her to get to work on time.

Erica’s evening English class goes well….her favorite 82-year-old-student charms Erica with her question about idioms, “Ehreeka, I don’t understand. What means this, ‘hunky guy?'”

My medicinal Fernet & Coke seems to be easing a persistent cold this evening.  The day was good.  I didn’t even explode when Ben dropped an entire bag of milk on the kitchen floor (yes, I said “bag”)!

So again we have a lesson in perspective.  It’s all still parenting, with just a few extra wrinkles to make things more interesting.  One day we feel worn down and helpless.  The next, all is well in the world and we’re living a dream once again.

5 Reasons We Love Cordoba

The view of downtown Cordoba from our rooftop in Barrio Urca

The view of downtown Cordoba from our rooftop in Barrio Urca

National Geographic Traveler recently named Cordoba one of the 20 Best Destinations in 2014.  As the article points out, the city’s combination of history, culture and proximity to the Sierras make Cordoba a wonderful destination.  We decided to move to Cordoba because of the size, climate and people.  It is also a huge college town, with more than 6 universities, which we assumed would be a bonus for Erica’s teaching endeavors.  We could not be more pleased with our selection and are proud to share it with so many family members visiting this year.  While the mountains and lakes of Bariloche and the glitz of Buenos Aires tend to garner far more attention, Cordoba flies under the radar as the nation’s 2nd largest city.  To mark our upcoming 7 month anniversary in Cordoba here are our top 5 reasons that we love Cordoba:

  1. Cordobeses:  The absolute top reason we love Cordoba is the people we’ve met.  Cordobeses have a well deserved reputation for being some of the friendliest Argentines.  The generosity and willingness to embrace our family has been astounding.  Our house, entrance to the boys’ school and Erica’s job have all been possible only due to the kindness of the people we’ve encountered.  The character of Cordobeses have allowed us to truly become a part of the community as we experience school, work, birthday parties, asado, family gatherings and sports.  Where else would a taxi driver return an expensive camera a week later?  Where else are you invited to their home for an asado 10 minutes after meeting for the first time?
  2. Language:  The Spanish spoken in Argentina is commonly referred to as Castellano.  It’s a distinctly different sound than the Spanish spoken in Mexico.  The accent in Cordoba is unique as well.  The sing-song intonation of Castellano is beautiful to hear, albeit muy rapido mucho veces.  Moreover, we love the fact that very little English is commonly spoken in Cordoba.  We came here to immerse and learn the language and Cordoba is a perfect city to force us all to speak Spanish.  This point was reinforced during our travels to Patagonia and Buenos Aires in January where English was widely understood.  In Cordoba, we’ve grown accustomed to the stares and second looks when we speak English.  Nearly everyday we are asked, “de donde son?”  Our presence here is unique and people are genuinely interested to listen to English, as evidenced by the crowd of kids that gather around us when we speak to the boys at school.  In Cordoba we need to be ready to speak Spanish at every turn, for every task, no matter how minor.  It can be exhausting, but it’s an effective way to learn.  We’re also thrilled to hear locals tell us that the boys have picked up the Cordobese accent.
  3. Climate:  We have loved most aspects of the weather in Cordoba so far.  We wanted to live in climate far different than Portland.  For the most part, that means warm and dry as opposed to wet and dreary.  Winters are dry and windy here.  Summers are hot and sometimes humid with regular thunderstorms.  The electrical storms in the spring and summer have been unbelievably powerful.  Continuous cracks of lightning and thunder rattle the house followed by sheets of rain and hail.  Given how much we walk, we’re fortunate that the rains that turn the streets into rivers are fairly infrequent and dry up quickly.  The region has gone from brown and drought-ridden to flooded and lush in our time here.  We have been told this year has extreme for the region with record-breaking heat, wildfires, giant hail, flooding and even an earthquake!  With the exception of some miserably hot and humid days in December and January, we have loved waking up to beautiful, sunny days that seem the norm here in Cordoba.
  4. Neighborhood:  While researching our trip, we’d read about Cerro de Las Rosas and Urca on some expat forums.  These adjoining barrios lie about 20 minutes by bus to the northwest of downtown Cordoba.  It is a middle to upper class neighborhood that is crisscrossed by major bus lines and is extremely walkable.  To the horror of our friends here in Argentina, we have been determined to go sin auto for the year, and it would not be possible were it not for the convenience of our barrio.  We’re blocks away from a great park, ice cream, meat market, vegetable stand and school supply store.  We walk 2 blocks to drop Molly at ballet and Ben at karate.  Our longest regular walks are to the boys’ school and grocery store (Disco, aptly named).  It’s a safe and relatively quiet area outside of the usual blaring alarms and dogs.
  5. The Sierras:  To the north and west of Cordoba lie the Sierras de Cordoba.  We have loved our limited excursions to some of the towns that dot the mountains nearby.  The Sierras remind us of Nevada in a way.   Far from alpine, the Sierras tend to be more desert and scrub.  We’ve been able to visit La Cumbre, Mina Clavero, Jesus Maria, Nono, Capilla del Monte, Villa General Belgrano and Ongamira.  The bus system is wonderful and cheap, allowing us to avoid expensive car rentals most of the time.

(Bonus favorite from Rob)

Fernet & Coke:  While definitely an acquired taste, Cordobeses love their Fernet and Coke.  Erica’s description of this Italian digestif is that it tastes like jet fuel and Grandpa cologne.  Accurate for straight Fernet to be sure.  However when mixed with Coke, you have a sweet yet bitter cocktail.  I must admit I only tried it first as a novelty, but it’s truly grown on me.

Fill 1/3rd glass with Fernet, top off with Coke and ice, and you're half Cordobese

Fill 1/3rd glass with Fernet, top off with Coke and ice, and you’re half Cordobese