2021 Wrap-up

Another year is coming to an end…and although it wasn’t quite as crazy as 2020, it was close. For me and Tucker there were definitely some things that changed (drastically) and others that were oddly more consistent than ever before; all of which has me reflecting. So, here’s a look back at our 2021: the good, the bad, and the ugly.

In an effort to cleanse ourselves from the craziness of the previous year, we started 2021 by burning everything we could find that said “2020” on it. It was extremely cathartic. As was our drive to Florida’s west coast for sunset followed by a drive to the east coast for the first sunrise of 2021. I enjoyed the dramatic ending of what was objectively one of the worst years in recent history. Although, unfortunately, a lot of what made 2020 so bad seemed to follow us into 2021, I was still extremely happy that I was able to use the New Year as an excuse to move on (mentally and physically as it turned out).

In February we finally said “au revoir” to Quebec (at least for now, accepting the long immigration pause as a bit more permanent than we had originally thought), and then we literally said “goodbye” to Orlando as we packed up and headed out for yet another (different) international move. This time we went south, moving to beautiful Guadalajara, Mexico! With all the new challenges, like obtaining residency, driving across the border, and settling in with a four-legged family member this time, we all felt completely refreshed. It’s amazing what having tangible plans and clear goals can do for your mentality, especially after a year of complete stagnation. I joke that Mexico became my therapist because I had seriously needed something to focus my energy on post-2020, and luckily, I found it.

In addition to giving us a new focus, Mexico has been an incredibly fun experience! In April, Tucker and I celebrated our birthdays with piñatas and cervezas before getting the best birthday presents ever: our vaccines! Getting vaccinated was another sort of turning point for us as we had severely limited our time outside the house prior to the vaccines. Having some sort of protection (in addition to our masks and other precautions) allowed us to begin exploring again. Since we brought our trusty steed (our Ford Focus) down to Mexico, we’ve actually been able to take several road trips thus far: visits to Puerto Vallarta, Aguascalientes, and Querétaro just to name a few.

Of course, we’ve also spent a good amount of the year simply adapting to life in Mexico. We’ve settled into our incredible neighborhood, and like I did with Orlando, I’ve essentially walked as far as I can in every possible direction to really get the feel for where we live (apparently this is my favorite pandemic-induced hobby: neighborhood walks). Another favorite pastime for me this year has been taking a plethora of Spanish classes. With the flexibility of my remote work schedule, I’ve made it a point to really work on my own language learning in 2021. I hope to continue this trend in the New Year as well. As for Tucker, he’s been paying a lot more attention to soccer as of late. We recently watched Atlas (our home team) win a championship, and we have plans to watch them play in person at some point. Fingers crossed!

Go Atlas!

While there have been many changes for us this year, one of the biggest things that hasn’t changed is work. This is the first time in many, many years that Tucker and I both started 2021 with the same jobs that we’re ending it with. Gotta love the remote work life! We’re also happy to report that our international family visits have continued as well without too much difficulty. As always, it has been such an amazing experience to share our new home with our most adventurous family members! During a lull in the variants, Tucker and I even got to continue our international travels by visiting an entirely new (to us) continent with our Thanksgiving trip to Ecuador. I honestly couldn’t be more grateful for that particular spur-of-the-moment decision. Maybe it’ll tide me over for a while…but probably not.

In contrast to all the triumphs, whether new or continued, we’ve also had a few unexpected hurdles this year. International apartment hunting amid a global pandemic was quite a challenge as was the procurement and installation of the most irritating dishwasher known to man. I also had to have a medical procedure done back in September, which not only tested our Spanish, but also our ability to lean into the unknown/ambiguous aspects of living abroad. Thankfully all went well, and I have only great things to say about the healthcare system of Mexico. Another difficulty arose a few months ago when a rogue highway rock hit and cracked our car’s windshield beyond repair. Dealing with car issues and insurance is never fun, but in a foreign country, in another language, it was torturous. However, as I kept reminding myself throughout the mishaps, this is exactly why we love living abroad: new challenges and endless lessons in patience.

As I write this, we’re enjoying the peace and quiet of the days between Christmas and New Year, which brings me to yet another one of the most exciting aspects of our year: celebrating all the holidays! Learning that Cinco de Mayo is mostly an American invention, reliving the events of “Coco” during Día de Muertos, and wishing everyone “Feliz Navidad” this month have all been incredible additions to our collective cultural knowledge. Now I can’t wait to eat my 12 grapes on New Year’s Eve and ring in what I hope will be an even more exciting and transformational year! Here’s to a próspero 2022!

Crossing the Border and Settling in

It’s hard to believe it’s already May, but when I look back at everything we accomplished in the last month, I can’t believe it’s only May! At the beginning of this year, I firmly decided to stop waiting for whatever “new normal” will eventually present itself, and started the process of moving to Guadalajara, Mexico. The first few stages went extremely smoothly: we got our visas from the consulate, flew to GDL, received our residency cards, found an apartment, all while working full-time (remotely, of course). However, the final stage of the move was a complicated one. We had planned to fly back to the US, get our vaccines, pack our car with the rest of our stuff, and drive the 32 hours from Orlando back down to GDL – all in less than a week, during a global pandemic. Here’s how it went:

First, a little more on the logistics of this particular endeavor…

Driving our car across the border and down into the inner states of Mexico meant that we’d have to get an import license for our car. The import license required a lot of paperwork (like copies of our residency cards, US driver’s licenses, passports, proof of Mexican car insurance, etc.) It also meant that we had to renew our registration in FL and update our US car insurance policy without actually being in the US (thanks Mom and Google Voice). With crossing the border, we also had to have a list of what we were bringing across (in English and Spanish) as well as up-to-date copies of our dog’s vet records for customs.

We did what we could in advance from GDL, but the week we spent back in the US was crazy! We were lucky enough to get an appointment at Walmart for the J&J one-shot vaccine (absolutely perfect for our circumstances), and we got the jab about an hour prior to the national pause. Whew! We also made sure Jenn got her yearly vaccines and check-up, and then started the process of stocking up on US-specific goods (like Everything Bagel seasoning and our preferred brands of socks and underwear) before packing our little car to its gills. Did I mention that during this week of planning and preparing, appointments and vaccine recovery, questions and more questions, Tucker did not take a day off work! He did, however, take a day off for the drive.

One heck of a road trip…

We drove from Orlando, FL to Baton Rouge, LA on the first day. It took just a little over 10 hours, which was longer than expected due to heavy rains. Jenn thoroughly enjoyed the ride in the backseat on a pile of pillows, dog beds, and blankets. Day 2 was from Baton Rouge to Laredo, TX (right at the border). This was also a little over 10 hours (a bit of a delay again thanks to Houston traffic), but we enjoyed both legs with region-specific favorites like Café du Monde beignets and Whataburger patty melts. Aside from worrying about sitting in a car for three days straight after getting a vaccine with blood clot tendencies, we didn’t think much of days 1 and 2. The border crossing and drive across Mexico was our biggest unknown, and no amount of Googling was helping us feel prepared.

Around 6am on Day 3 (the only day Tucker requested off from work), we went through the McDonald’s drive-thru (our goodbye to the US) and crossed International Bridge II, which connects downtown Laredo (US) to downtown Nuevo Laredo (MX). We went through the first of many gates/checkpoints around 6:30am, before sunrise, when there were only a handful of other cars. Each car was eventually directed into a space that reminded me of where you vacuum your car after a car wash. Very intimidating looking guards came over, opened all our doors, checked a few boxes/suitcases and asked us a few questions like where we were going, what items did we have with us, etc. They were also surprised by our little perrita who promptly barked at them when they opened her door. Once they had ensured we weren’t smuggling goods or people across, we were free to drive through another few gates into Mexico.

It was thorough yet efficient, but as we’ve been told again and again, it’ll be much more difficult going the other way. Luckily, we won’t have to do that for a while! Once we were officially in Mexico, our first stop was at the Banjercito (import license and general immigration office). I stayed in the car with Jenn while Tucker handed over our documents and got the stamped form we needed in order to drive on with US plates. After showing this form to another guard at the next checkpoint (just as you’re leaving Nuevo Laredo), we were officially on our way – eating our McMuffins and calculating mph into kilometers, perfectly content.

The next 11 hours were uneventful and absolutely beautiful. We took mostly toll roads, which are newer and very well-kept. We drove through the Sierra Madres Orientals, Monterrey, desserts, canyons, and many little towns/rest areas. We never felt unsafe; there were plenty of gas stations, convenience stores, and clear signage all the way down. The only slightly challenging part was navigating the passing zones (and the fact that some drivers will pass regardless of zone). Overall, we drove through 5 US states and 5 Mexican states, 1,963 miles, over the course of 3 days, and I’d gladly do it again (although maybe not for another year or two).

And now we’re here (semi-permanently, or so it finally seems)

That first night in our own beds with all our stuff in the same apartment was magical! It didn’t take long to put everything away and feel truly at home, but there were (and still are) some things we’re getting used to. First, every time I’ve come back to Guadalajara, I have had to adjust to the altitude/climate again. We’re at about the same elevation as Denver, and in combination with the dry-season (and likely over-exertion) on this particular re-entry, I felt the familiar feeling of altitude sickness that seems to haunt me whenever mountains or plateaus are involved. Jenn is also adjusting to life A) in a high-rise building (with scary elevators) and B) in a city with a couple million inhabitants, but for her, the pros definitely outweigh any cons – so many new smells, a bird watching window, and her own room! Haha! Other than that, everything has been the usual fumbling along until we’ve figured it all out, which is exactly what I love about being an expat!  

Ultimately, I’m pretty proud of how well this all came together, and if I had been pining for an adventure, I definitely checked that off the list early in 2021. Now all that’s left to do is settle in and enjoy la vida en Mexico!

Duolingo Dossier

So, let me start off by saying I have absolutely no personal or professional stake in Duolingo. In fact, I actually applied for a writing job for them once and never heard back…but that slight misstep (on their part) aside, I really love Duolingo, and for this month’s post, I’m going to tell you why.

Generally, I’m all about setting goals and challenges for the New Year, but alas, my goal this year is actually to have zero expectations whatsoever (we’ll see how that goes…). However, for those of you who haven’t been quite so jaded by 2020, January is still a great time to develop new habits, such as learning or practicing a foreign language. And for me, Duolingo has been an amazing way to keep that particular habit up for the last 446 days (yes, that’s my current streak number – woohoo!).

They seriously get me.

Of course, before I can get into the specifics of the app/website itself, I have to recount why learning a foreign language is such a great thing to do. In short: it does amazing things for your brain, it gives you new insights/perspectives, it can connect you to other people and cultures, it can be incredibly useful for travelling abroad, and it can be a fun way to diversify your skills and spend some time away from Netflix/social media, just to name a few of the major benefits. Even if you try Duolingo and hate it, I still recommend finding a language-learning system that works for you (in-person classes, one-on-one video chats, traditional workbooks, etc.) because there is really nothing like learning a foreign language!

Now back to Duolingo. One of the reasons I love this particular app and website so much is that they are completely free. It’s not the usual you get all the basics for free, but as you advance you need to pay or spend a certain amount of time on the app or whatever other hoops they’ve come up with. No, with Duolingo, you can access all the materials and completely finish as many courses as you’d like without ever having to pay. Of course, they do have a “Duolingo Plus” option, which allows you to work offline and skip any ads, but in my years and years of using Duolingo, I’ve not often been tempted because, honestly, the ads are super minimal and who’s ever “offline” these days anyway? 

Another absolutely amazing thing about Duolingo is that there are a plethora of language options/courses to choose from (from Irish and Hebrew to Klingon and High Valyrian, no joke), and it’s super easy to switch back and forth between them. This is great if you’re like me and feel like French Fridays should be a thing. It’s also great because not only does it track and keep record of your progress, you can also test into a course and not have to start at the very beginning (for example, if you took Spanish in high school or gained some previous experience elsewhere). I’ve also mentioned a few times now that there is both an app and a website – they’re linked by your account, but they each have slightly different options, views, exercises, etc.

I also love that Duolingo allows you to set personal goals, for example, how much time you want to spend practicing each day. It also can send you reminder notifications or emails if, like me, you have trouble remembering if something happened early this morning or yesterday… Of course, these goals and reminders are completely optional and customizable, so you can turn them all off and live a more low-pressured life if you’d prefer. The lessons themselves are also extremely quick (or “bite-sized” as Duolingo touts), so it’s actually really easy to fit them into your schedule. I typically do mine while I’m waiting for something: the water to boil, the dog to pee, etc.

With Duolingo I also love the variety it offers. The courses/lessons are fun, and they aim to create useful yet entertaining sentences, scenarios, etc. but there are other features that are equally helpful and perhaps even more dynamic. I especially love going through the “stories”, which use the vocabulary and grammar you learn in the courses to create dialogues with a bit more context and substance. The stories and characters are quite entertaining – one of my favorites was when a character’s son thought his parents were lion tamers because he found a whip in their closet! Tell me that’s not an intriguing story to read in any language! Haha! Tucker and I have also been competing to complete all the different achievements (like earn 100 crowns, finish #1 in the leaderboard, etc.), which is another way to increase motivation and add another level to our learning. The Duolingo podcasts are also really fun (and free). They use both English and your target language to narrate longer, true stories related to life, culture, and the human experience.  

Everything is bigger online!

I also really love how intuitive the interface and activities are. I recently got my parents (who aren’t necessarily “app-people”) into it and no matter how tech savvy (or not) you are, it’s super easy to set up and use. It’s also not very grammar-y (which I realize is a plus for most people). The courses aim for immersion-like teaching (similar to Rosetta Stone), so you cover the major skills without having to sit through grammar instruction. There are “tips” that you can check at the beginning of each section, but they’re not necessary. Duolingo also takes a thematic approach and groups its sections according to topics like “greetings, restaurant, travel”, etc. which build on themselves as you progress.

Ultimately, it feels like playing a game. You complete the activities, you win gems, which you can then use to “buy” outfits for Duo (the owl mascot), or for fun courses like “idioms, dating”, etc. There are also “leagues” where you can see how you stack up against other learners, “wagers” where you can bet some of your hard-earned gems and go for double-or-nothing if you maintain a 7-day streak, etc. And oh, the streak! Probably my favorite of the stats they keep up with – it feels amazing to see that number climb and know that while I didn’t do much in 2020, at least I can say that I practiced a foreign language every. single. day. 🙂

So proud!

Finally, I think it’s important to remember that everything in Duolingo is take it or leave it; some people focus on the streak, others on the checkpoints, others pick it up and put down every few years or so; it’s really whatever flotter votre bateau. And even though Duolingo isn’t sponsoring this post (not yet anyway), I still really think you should give it a try, because for me it has been a simple, fun way to develop a skill that can bring tremendous benefits and entertainment, for free! So, try it out, and when you do, be sure to say “hola” to Duo for me!