A Traveler in the Foreign Service: Not much of a diplomat

My journey into the U.S. Foreign Service started as a Colonel Muammar Gaddafi impersonator in a school auditorium near Buffalo, New York in 1986. I was taking part in an 8th grade Model U.N. assembly, and had been given the difficult brief of dressing up like a citizen of Malta and delivering a speech advocating Maltese interests, whatever those were during the Cold War.

According to my trusty Encyclopedia Britannica, (remember those?) Libya was one of Malta’s primary trading partners, and since it appeared to be relatively close to Libya on the map, I went ahead and donned a flowing white Arab-style robe with matching headdress and aviator sunglasses for my speech. A photograph of me in my Gaddafi costume appeared in The Buffalo News, and someone at my school decided to send a copy of the press clipping to the embassy of Malta in Washington, in the absurd belief that they might find some amusement in the fact that a 13-year old boy was photographed grossly misrepresenting their country.

A few weeks later, I received a package from the office of the Prime Minister of Malta with some books about the country, along with a scathing letter, which darkly and absurdly hinted at a sinister, anti-Maltese conspiracy perpetrated by our “so-called free press” in Buffalo. My school was convinced that I’d created an international incident and forwarded the letter to the State Department. Five months later, I received a letter from the State Department’s Desk Officer for Malta, which contained an unlikely piece of advice: consider a career in diplomacy.

My parents bought me a shortwave radio and the crackling sounds of far-off places fed my desire to see the world. After college, I took jobs in advertising and publishing more or less to fund travel opportunities, and took off as soon as my bank account allowed for extended overland trips in Europe, the Middle East, Russia, Central Asia and China. The trips left gaping holes in my resume but renewed my interest in joining the Foreign Service.

Wanderlust is a romanticized concept but it can also be an affliction, a malady that prevents people from becoming settled, productive members of the rat race. After returning to Chicago, my adopted hometown, after along overland trip in 2000, I resolved to make a serious push to get into the Foreign Service, in the hopes that it would be a career that could channel my wanderlust into something productive. Rehabilitate me, if you will.Others have had much longer and more distinguished careers in the Foreign Service than I have, and this series isn’t meant to be a definitive account of what life in the service is like. There are more than 5,000 Foreign Service Officers working in some 200 posts all around the world, and everyone has their own stories, experiences and perspectives.

When I tell people that I was in the Foreign Service, I get a lot of blank stares and awkward questions. Even well educated people often have no idea what the Foreign Service is.

“Is that like the French Foreign Legion?” a medical doctor and Ivy League graduate once asked me.

In this series, former Foreign Service Officer, Dave Seminara, will attempt to explain what the Foreign Service is and isn’t, share some Foreign Service vignettes, and provide an answer to this question: is the Foreign Service a good career option for compulsive travelers?

Next: ‘You’ve Never Smoked any Marijuana?’ Getting into the Foreign Service

Read more from A Traveler in the Foreign Service here.

Knocked up abroad: international travel with a baby

travel with a babyThis is the third in Knocked Up Abroad‘s guide to traveling with a baby. Before you go, see tips on planning travel and flying with a baby.

So you’ve decided to travel abroad with your new family addition, well done! You’ve chosen the best baby-friendly destination, packed light, and even survived the long flight. Now that you’re on the ground, possibly recovering from jet lag and hopefully learning new foreign phrases for “what a cute baby!,” how can you ensure you and your baby have a fun and relaxing vacation? After five countries in under four months (several of them without other adults), I can say it mostly comes down to attitude and planning. Here are my tips for international travel with a baby:

-Don’t expect the world to cater to you. The most important thing to bring on a trip with a baby is the right attitude. If you travel expecting every restaurant to have a baby-changing table in the bathroom (which they probably won’t, especially in Europe) or that public transportation should be stroller-accessible, you can be sorely disappointed. Keep your expectations low and get creative. I’ve changed my baby on many toilet seat lids, on top of and even in sinks (stuff your diaper bag in to make a flat base), and occasionally in her stroller. Allow yourself to be surprised by people, too. In New York, I was prepared to carry my stroller up and down stairs at some subway stops by myself, yet I was helped by strangers every time. A restaurant owner in Italy set up a makeshift table on top of their deep freezer when she saw me struggling to change the baby on a sink top. Look at inconveniences as part of the adventure rather than a sign you should have stayed home.-Plan your logistics carefully, and then let the rest of your plans go. As noted previously, it pays to do your research before departing. Each day of your trip, plan out where you want to go, how to get there, and what you might need but realize that you might not do any of it. In Malta, there was a wine festival in the next town with cheap tastings and free food, but a cranky baby meant we stayed within walking distance of our apartment (good thing too, or we could have missed a great parade). In Slovenia, we had to make a detour back to our hotel after a diaper incident meant I had to strip my baby down to just her winter coat and diaper. Babies can be unpredictable, so you may need stop at a cafe to feed a baby, take an extra walk around the block before bed to soothe crying, or go back to your room early when the weather turns bad. While combination transit or tourist passes might be a good value, they won’t be if your baby won’t go in a museum without screaming or prefers an open-air stroll to a bus ride.

-Find favorite rest stops. When you need to take a time out from exploring to feed or change your baby, there can be some comfortable places to stop that exist in nearly every destination. Museums and large hotels tend to have nice bathrooms, sometimes with changing facilities. Large baby stores may have a private nursing room or a place to change the baby, plus plenty of gear and gadgets if you need them. Pharmacists generally speak English and carry nearly all of the necessities. At night, however, you may have to be creative again. I tend to visit the same cafes in Istanbul again and again not just for the food but for the bathrooms, the waiters who rush to coddle and play with the baby, and comfy seating while I feed her.

-Breast is best when traveling. While it’s a personal choice how you feed your baby, if you can and want to breastfeed, there is evidence both anecdotal and scientific to support that breastfeeding is preferred while traveling. According to the CDC, it provides needed immunities, nutrition, and hydration for the baby. Even if the mother gets traveler diarrhea, breastfeeding can help to protect from contaminants and rehydrate the baby. It’s also convenient: perfectly packaged, the right temperature, and nothing goes to waste! Nursing mothers may still want to carry a manual pump and store a spare bottle or two. So far, I’ve found every country to be friendly to breastfeeding mothers, though I carry and use a scarf for modesty and spit-up. La Leche League has resources in many countries if you need help, check their map for local groups.

-Document your baby’s trip. It goes without saying that you’ll take plenty of photos and perhaps journal, blog, or tweet your trip, but it helps to document the more mundane activities too. When my baby was born, I got a set of cute notebooks to help me keep track of her feeding and sleeping schedule and diaper changes. I maintained it faithfully only for the first month or two, but now try to revive the records when I travel. Especially if you’re dealing with a big time change, it can help you to figure out how the baby is adjusting by keeping track of how often they eat and how long they sleep at a stretch. It’s also useful when deciding how many diapers to buy so you don’t get caught short or hauling around a mega pack. In the event that your baby gets sick (fingers crossed that they don’t!) during or after your trip, you can tell the doctor if anything is out of the ordinary and help pinpoint causes. You don’t need a fancy notebook either, you can jot down notes on the back of a museum ticket or restaurant receipt while you’re making a pit stop.

-Pack “in between” clothes. If your baby has clothes that he is about to grow out of, bring them along on your travels. If they have only one or two more wears left in them, you won’t mind if they get left behind in a hotel room, will have less to launder or carry, and you’ll probably take many photos of your baby so you can remember a favorite outfit before it gets too small. Keep a spare in your diaper or day bag in case of a changing emergency.

-Know your conversions. Do you know your baby’s weight in kilograms? Does 39 degrees sound hot or cold to you? If you’re American, you probably suffer from the disadvantage of not knowing the metric system used by the rest of the world. You’ll need to know measurements when buying diapers as size numbers might change between countries. My baby was born weighing 3.4 kilos (about 7.5 pounds) and wears a size 2 Pampers in every European country, but wore a size 1 in the same brand of American diapers. In case of a fever while traveling, you should know what temperatures require a visit to a local doctor or just a dose of Children’s Tylenol (which is called Calpol in many other countries, by the way). This info is all online, of course, but it can’t hurt to jot it down in your wallet just in case.

-Carry lots of bags. One of the more useful items to pack and/or collect on your trip is bags disposable, resealable, and reuseable. Bottles can be kept clean and stained clothing can be kept separate from the rest of your stuff in a Ziploc bag (bring a stash from home, they are harder to find in some countries). Supermarket store plastic bags are useful for laundry and diapers until you can deal with them properly. You’ll be going to the store more than usual for baby supplies, and many countries don’t supply bags for free, so bring your own reuseable tote for groceries, carrying gear from your luggage on an outing, or bringing souvenirs home. Bags are useful even without a baby but can also make a huge difference if you have a wet baby miles from your hotel.

What are your secret weapons for traveling with a baby? Leave us your success stories (and mistakes) in the comments.

Knocked up abroad: applying for a baby’s passport

baby passportAs my new baby girl was born in a foreign country, getting a passport was a necessity for her to even return home to America. Though Vera was born in Turkey, she’s an American citizen by virtue of her parents’ citizenship and entitled to a US passport. For Americans born outside the country, the US consulate issues a Report of Birth Abroad that acts as an official birth certificate and proof of US citizenship. After a trip to the US to visit family and a vacation in Malta, Vera’s been in three countries before she reached three months of age and is rapidly racking up passport stamps.

As soon as we brought the baby home from the hospital, the first order of business on the road to getting her baby passport was getting her Turkish birth certificate. While not required by the US consulate, it is necessary in order to get her residence permit, required for anyone staying longer in Turkey than the 90-day tourist visa. I learned that I could obtain this at my local registry office with a letter stating that I had given birth at the American Hospital (this is provided in both Turkish and English by the hospital). I set out with my one-week old baby in her stroller, sleeping peacefully, assuming that the office would be a short walk from our apartment given the local address. An hour later, I had walked as far as one of Istanbul’s busy highways, dripping sweat, in tears, and definitely lost. Google Maps is generally a useful tool for many city addresses, but for some parts of Istanbul, you may as well be mapping a jungle. I enlisted the help of some Turkish friends who found a satellite image of the office online and emailed it to me. In true Turkish fashion, the registry office is actually two streets away from the mailing address and no one in the area can give you an exact street number when you are frantically seeking directions.When we finally got to the registry office, I took a number, left my stroller downstairs (in Turkey, you can trust that no one will steal it, but I did take the baby out first) and went in search of the counter for birth certificates. Naturally, Vera chose the moment I was filling out a form to launch into her first meltdown. As I struggled to write down my contact information and covertly feed her, I was ushered behind the counter and installed at a random guy’s desk, with an old Turkish lady practically forcing me to sit down and nurse the baby. Once the baby was content, I returned to the birth certificate lady but was met with a new obstacle in the form of a major language barrier. Fortunately, another man waiting at the registry office was able to translate for me – I would need to come back with all of our passports, residence permits, and marriage certificate from the US. The next day I returned armed with every possible bit of documentation and while every woman in the office gathered around Vera, exclaiming over her cuteness and wondering why the crazy foreigner was taking her baby out in public so early, I provided information for the birth certificate. I needed more translation help, as you are asked questions about your education level and religion (Islam is the default in Turkey, so many non-religious Turks are still considered Muslim even if they are non-practicing), which I couldn’t answer in Turkish but there is generally always someone around who can speak English. A few more rubber stamps and Maşallahs and I had her birth certificate.

Next step was a passport photo, a seemingly easy task that is particularly challenging the younger the baby you have. The US State Department requires that the baby look at the camera with eyes open, and that the photo be taken with a white background and nothing in the photo such as your hand or a baby seat. Newborns tend to sleep a lot and their vision is quite hazy, so getting them to be alert and somewhat focused on something is easier said than done. While some parents might opt to take the photo themselves, I decided to go to a professional rather than try to mess with the correct measurements and angles myself. One afternoon when Vera was barely two weeks old, I waited until she seemed awake and took her down the street in her carrier. The five-minute walk immediately put her back to sleep, so the photographer and I tried everything we could think of to wake her and get her attention. Somehow a half hour of tickling and a Turkish man yelling “kız bebek!” (baby girl) only made her sleep more deeply. Finally, we managed to get the photo you see above, which will remain her passport photo and primary means of identification until she’s five years old. Though some online information led me to believe they may not accept the picture due to her open mouth, the US consulate approved it for use.

Passport photo in hand at last, we made an appointment with the US consulate to apply for her US passport and Report of Birth Abroad, which will serve as her official birth certificate. The paperwork for this report turned out to be slightly more complex than anticipated, as it requires precise dates of presence both in the United States and abroad for each parent. If you keep good records, this could be simple and straightforward. As I’ve traveled frequently for the past decade and have been living in Istanbul for over a year, this took a lot of time to estimate using passport stamps, old travel confirmations in my email, photo date stamps, and anything else that could give me an idea of dates I spent outside of America. You are also required to provide documentation of the parents’ citizenship (my husband is Russian-born, so we needed the approximate date and place of naturalization), marriage (if applicable, it’s a whole other can of worms if the parents are not married), and dissolution of any previous marriages, which can result in some frantic emails to friends back home and calls to US registry offices if you don’t travel with all your paperwork.

The US consulate in Istanbul is far from the city center (you can take Metro to İTÜ Ayazağa and then a quick taxi ride) and resembles a fortress on a hill, with American-style maximum security. Most places in Istanbul with metal detectors, including the entrance to the airport, allowed me to skip security while pregnant (I got a cursory pat down at the airport) and often with the baby, and often ignore metal objects that cause the detectors to beep. At the consulate, I forgot to remove my camera from my purse and was yelled at when I attempted to remove it myself (“Ma’am! Step away from the bag!”). After clearing security, we waited in the US Citizen’s Services room to present the baby and our paperwork. There was another couple waiting with their month-old baby which turned out to be their sixth child, and they were fairly blasé about the fact that they had come from Iraq to have the baby in Istanbul (we guessed military family) and planned to return home to the US only two weeks after applying for the passport. Presenting our own paperwork turned out to be easier than expected, as they only needed to see that we had in fact lived in the US before, but it’s a good idea to have all of your travel dates on hand in case you are questioned. Finally, we paid our $205 for the report and passport, and had them both delivered to our home one week later (compare that to the weeks it usually takes to get a passport at home!).

We planned our first trip out of Turkey for when Vera would be six weeks old, which was just enough time to get all of our paperwork in order and feel competent enough as parents to travel. She will receive her Turkish residency next month after she is four months old. When we went through passport control leaving Istanbul, there was some confusion as she had no visa or residence permit and we were prepared to pay a fee to leave the country, but we were eventually allowed to pass through free and only purchase a tourist visa when we re-entered Turkey that will cover her until her residency is established. Now the adventure would really begin: actually traveling with a baby.

Stay tuned for tips on traveling with a baby and destination guides for foreign travel with a baby. Waiting for baby to arrive? Check out past Knocked Up Abroad articles on traveling while pregnant and what to expect when you’re expecting in Turkey.

Five tips for a great Gozo break


Gozo, as Meg Nesterov recently reported, is a spirited place. The smaller of the Republic of Malta‘s two main islands, the island also known as the Isle of Calypso provides the rustic antidote to big brother Malta’s package holiday flash. There’s a lot to do on Gozo. Capital Victoria boasts an incredible walled Citadel. There are trails for hiking. There are little villages that become shady and welcoming in the late afternoon; many of these have gloriously grand churches to visit. And then of course there’s the classic Mediterranean activity: setting down towel and various paraphernalia along the water for an idle afternoon.

Here are five tips for making the most of your time on Gozo, with an emphasis on local cuisine.

1. Eat lunch at Ta’ Rikardu. This little restaurant occupies space on a passageway in the walled Citadel at the heart of Gozo’s tourism core. Don’t let its popularity with tourists chase you away. The restaurant offers an absolutely delicious local platter (see above) of fresh tomatoes, local cheese, sun-dried tomatoes, capers, olives, and onions. Also delicious are the homemade ravioli, fat and enormous, stuffed with cheese and parsley. There’s a small shop on the premises selling local food and drink.

2. Book a taxi with Marcel Mejlaq. You should probably rent a car on Gozo. Those unable or unwilling to drive will likely need a taxi from time to time. Track down Mr. Mejlaq through your hotel. He’s friendly, full of good anecdotes, and charges under the going rate. Another cabbie charged €18 to go from the port to our hotel; Marcel charged just €13.

3. Eat dinner at Jeffrey’s Restaurant. Though far less explicitly local in orientation than Ta’ Rikardu, Jeffrey”s is a good place to taste Gozitan food. The fried cheese starter is especially nice and the beef-stuffed squash main is also quite good. A vegetarian version of the stuffed squash (called “marrow” here) can also be ordered.

4. Swim at Xlendi. Popular among locals and tourists alike, Xlendi’s bay features exquisite clear water and a lively weekend atmosphere. Avoid the tiny beach and plunk your towel down on the sloping rock along the left-hand side of the bay. Dive in or lower yourself down via a ladder. Afterwards stop by Gelateria Granola for ice cream. Don’t expect solitude or a village vibe here. Xlendi is tourism central, but the town has been developed in a manner that isn’t garish and the water is absolutely lovely.

5. Walk the Ta’ Cenc plateau. Adjacent to the very nice Hotel Ta’ Cenc is an attractive plateau. The views over Gozo and across to Malta from here are wonderful. There are Neolithic period dolmens and even the remains of a temple to check out. In the hours leading up to sundown the plateau is particularly captivating.

Visit the Gozo Island in Malta

Ta’ Cenc, Gozo

ta' cenc gozo

What constitutes a good hotel experience? This question animates a certain subset of travel writing. It’s just popped up for me again in light of the buzz around the launch of Ritz-Carlton’s new marketing campaign. (Check out the campaign’s quite captivating video.) “Let us stay with you” is the tagline of the Ritz-Carlton’s campaign, which is designed to capture the idea that experiences are more important (and in fact more desirable) than objects within the context of luxury hospitality. I like that theme, even if I’m plugging into travel at a vastly lower price point.

Frankly, the realization that this was Ritz-Carlton’s intention came as a relief. Originally, I interpreted the “stay” in the tagline to mean “cohabitate.” The idea of a hotel’s staff moving in is a bit disconcerting, the physical version of a social media nightmare in which Facebook likes and Foursquare check-ins take over and define us. And then of course there are some other uncomfortable interpretive dimensions of this marketing campaign, especially in light of the ongoing bedbug epidemic in parts of North America, which might make some readers cringe at the prospect of a hotel “staying” with them past checkout.

Potential misinterpretations aside, Ritz-Carlton’s campaign hinges on the idea that a hotel can create memories. This is fine, of course, but there is also something here that grates on my nerves and, I’m guessing, the nerves of other tourists and travelers–namely, the idea that the work of memory-creation would ever be outsourced to hotel staff. I’m not sure I want anyone I don’t know making memories for me. And shouldn’t travel be driven by advance research, personal obsessions, and the odd planning mistake, anyway? Travel isn’t an all-encompassing cloud of good feelings. There are ecstatic moments as well as stressful moments.

All of this was on my mind when I stayed at Gozo‘s Hotel Ta’ Cenc this past weekend. Ta’ Cenc a beautiful property occupying a considerable piece of cliff top land on Gozo, on the edge of the village of Sannat. Ta’ Cenc is not terribly expensive by European resort standards, at €186 per night for two, though it’s far beyond my standard budget, which averages just a fraction of that.ta' cenc gozo

My stay at Ta’ Cenc was an indisputably good experience. A beautiful location, nicely-kept grounds, friendly staff, and capacious room were all points in the resort’s favor.

The physical setting of Ta’ Cenc is absolutely lovely. The single-story hotel rooms snake through flowering gardens and alongside two outdoor pools, one for families and one for adults. There is an attractive small spa as well, with an additional pool, gym, and sauna, all complimentary for guests. Treatments are quite reasonable, with body massages beginning at €25.

Several buildings are Trullo-style, with conical roofs. Beyond is a beautiful plateau that stretches to cliffs that drop right down to the sea. The plateau, which includes hiking trails, affords striking views over Gozo and across to Malta.

Ta’ Cenc is undergoing a renovation. Our suite (a gratis upgrade from a standard room) was clearly mid-renovation. Consequently, the bathroom was old school, while the bedroom and lounge were smartly done in understated blues and beiges. The bed was very comfortable.

Was it perfect? No. Had I been terribly fussy, the unrenovated bathroom would have bothered me. More substantively, the hotel’s restaurant did not thrill me, with its very bland Italianate dishes that didn’t really reference Gozo’s local culinary heritage. (Malta may produce little of its own agricultural products, but what it does produce is very tasty.) Lastly, the hotel advertises a private beach on its website, despite the fact that the beach is not currently open for use. I’d count two of these issues (bathroom and beach) as minor.

Will Ta’ Cenc “stay” with me? The dry heat, the pleasant pools, the architecture, and the surrounding cliff top were all absolutely lovely, and I won’t soon forget the sweetness of several staff members. I’m happy to leave it there: a hotel experience that was far better than most, with a few mostly minor hiccups.