Six weeks in!

We’ve already been in country for more than six weeks – I can’t believe it!  So many things have happened in the last few weeks, but here are the highlights.

– We moved from our TDY (temporary) house into our permanent house and it’s beautiful and we love it.  Due to a scheduling conflict, I was actually not here the day we had to move, and of course, on that same day we were scheduled to receive ALL of our shipments, not just UAB (which usually arrives quickly) but also our consumables and HHE (which usually arrive later).  We are super grateful to have all of our clothes and furniture so fast, but it made for a crazy day that JR had to handle solo.  So far we only know of one major casualty:  the power cord for our TV has not been located.  We ordered a replacement cord online, but it hasn’t arrived yet so we’re lucky that a new friend had one we could borrow for a bit.

– We are almost done unpacking and getting settled into our new house.  When I arrived, despite giving JR and the GSO guys what I thought were really clear instructions, I found every.single.bed in the wrong bedroom.  That meant that we spent the first few hours taking apart every.single.bed and moving each one to the correct room, instead of unpacking.   Lesson learned, nothing will keep me from being here for move-in day in the future.

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– Our neighborhood is awesome.  In real life, it’s everything JR would prefer to avoid – small gated community, identical houses very close to each other, and far from the city center.  But this isn’t real life and we don’t own it, and it’s perfect for our time in Tbilisi.  We are so grateful for the little community, and especially how many little kids live on our street.  A few times now we’ve come home from work to find Abby outside with her nanny playing with other kids, and it’s exactly what we wanted.  Our yard is even bigger than I had expected, and we have a beautiful view from our back patio.  After living in an apartment most of our adult lives, it’s awesome to be able to walk right outside from our front or back doors!

– I started working and I’m really enjoying it so far.  I barely have a clue what is going on, but my co-workers are patient and nice, and so far it seems like it will be a good fit for me.   Things are also going very well with our nanny, and that makes it a lot easier to leave for work in the mornings.

– We are street legal!  Although we bought our car the day after we arrived, we couldn’t legally drive it until we completed our registration.   And we couldn’t be registered until we received our Diplomatic IDs which took 3 weeks.  In the meantime we had to rely on taxis, which was a huge pain with Abby’s car seat, and annoying for JR to get to work because sometimes they pull up within 2 minutes and other times it takes 15.  Being able to drive ourselves around is so much easier and we feel like we can finally explore the city.  On the one hand, I feel prepared to drive here after living in Kosovo, but at the same time Tbilisi is a much bigger and busier city (with poles that come out of NOWHERE. Yes, I already backed into a pole), so there will still be a learning curve.

dumb and dumber

– Many people talk about the honeymoon phase of arriving at a new post.  For me, I definitely experience that, but with intervals of “oh my gosh, this is terrible, I can’t live like this” – typically in reaction to something that is relatively trivial, like for example the pedestal sink in my bathroom (why, why why would ANYONE ever want one of these in their master bath!?).  Other issues, like the serious ant invasion, stress me out but I’m hopeful we will get them resolved soon.   I was just talking to a friend about this sort of thing, how the highs you experience are very high, but the lows can be really low.  Being able to react rationally and keep a sense of perspective is something that I’ve tried to work on with all of our travels.  Don’t sweat the small stuff, and all that jazz.

 

– Having friends wherever I am is really important to me.  I’m lucky to have so many great friends from various stages and places in my life, and while sometimes the prospect of making new friends is daunting, I know I need to do it to make this place a happy home.   Everyone we’ve met has been so welcoming and helpful, but at first you still wonder, will I really make close friends here?  If I had any doubt, a text from a new friend that ended with “pick me up, Thelma!” helped me realize that we’ll have lifelong friends here in no time.

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Home Leave

Our first home leave was fun, busy, and expensive, so basically exactly what we predicted.  We were all ready to leave Kosovo (although right now I’d give my right arm for some fresh bread from our little bakery) and our travel home was uneventful.  From the time we set foot in Ohio, we had a pretty crazy and ambitious schedule.  Of course, nothing could stop me from getting a strawberry margarita as soon as possible.  Oh wait – the first time I ordered one the restaurant did not have a liquor license for Sundays, and the second time I tried the server told me they were all out of strawberries.  Soul crushing but I did eventually have one and it was everything I had hoped it would be. kanye

Only a few days after we recovered from our jet lag, it was time for Abigail’s first birthday party (only 2 weeks after her actual birthday)!  We had a family party at my grandparent’s house and it was simple and perfect.  She was totally uninterested in her cake, but I can assure you she has since come around to the idea of sweets!

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The following week JR, Abby and I set off on a little American road trip.   We figured if we could do the same through Eastern Europe, the U.S. would be a breeze.  Our car (generously loaned to us by JR’s dad) was so ridiculously full I wasn’t sure we would make it out of the driveway.  That’s what happens when you will be on the road for more than two weeks and some of your family members, who have smartly chosen to fly, use you to haul their extra stuff (if you know my mother, you know this included a box fan, because she can’t sleep without one).  We started off with a night in Dayton with JR’s family and to pick up his dad, who rode with us to Gatlinburg where we met the rest of my in-laws.  We rented a large cabin about 20 minutes from the city, and it was perfect for our big group – 11 adults and 8 kids from ages 1-12.   Each of the 3 levels had two large bedrooms and bathrooms, and living/family room space with TVs, pool table, foosball table, and an awesome theater room.

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JR’s brother and sister-in-law (A & S) live in South Knoxville and love kayaking and rafting, and offered to take the whole family on a white water rafting trip (many thanks to my sister-in-law Joanna who stayed behind with the little ones!).   It was so much fun.  We had perfect weather and such a nice afternoon with everyone.  We spent the rest of the weekend relaxing, making meals together, watching the kids play, and a little bit of time exploring Gatlinburg (it was very crowded over the holiday weekend).

kayak

We had a little scare at the cabin when we saw a copperhead snake laying in the pathway where the kids were chasing each other with water balloons, which led to a scramble to get rid of said snake and the loss of a kitchen knife.   Despite the deadly snake scare, it was hard saying goodbye – JR’s family is big and spread out, and it’s really hard to see everyone, but we always have so much fun when we do and it’s especially fun for all of the cousins to play together. We definitely hope to repeat this trip again in the future!

After Gatlinburg, we spent two nights in Knoxville with A, S, and their daughter Katie, who is 5 months older than Abby.   JR went to college there and was happy to be back, even for a short visit.  We were able to meet up with two of his friends and their son, and we spent the rest of our time watching Abby and Katie play in the pool and run around the yard.  The second night of our stay was the toughest of the whole trip.  Abby woke up around midnight screaming and crying and could not be consoled.  JR handles these moments far better than me, I didn’t know what to do.  I felt terrible because she was waking up the whole house (they also have a one-year old), and it seemed like nothing would settle her down.  I told him we needed to get in the car and drive.  He said, drive where?  I was like, I don’t know, to a hospital?!  Clearly something is wrong!  Obviously nothing was wrong, she was just having an off night and I don’t handle lack of sleep well.  Eventually, he was thankfully able to get her back to sleep.

The rough night meant little sleep for all of us, and a less than ideal start to the next morning.  The biggest problem was that was one of the only days of the entire road trip that we had a really tight schedule.  We had to drive over 5 hours and make it to North Carolina in time to visit with our friends and put Abby down for a nap, all before meeting my Dad and other family for dinner at 5:30 that evening.   Although she did fine for the first part of the drive, the last 2.5 hours were torture.   Ideally we would have been able to stop and take a long break, but we just couldn’t and I felt terrible for her (and us).

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Thankfully, she crashed for a long nap when we made it to our friends’ house and we were able to relax for a bit before we had to leave for dinner.  Our visit with my Dad and family was short, but I’m so glad we were able to see them while we were there.   We also had breakfast with them the next morning before starting our drive to Florida.

Even though we wanted to drive 6-7 hours that Friday, JR and I were determined to have a better travel day and let Abby dictate our schedule.  Let me just say, thank you Cracker Barrel!  We stopped there after her morning nap and it was great.   We took turns inside at our table, ordering and waiting for food, while the other person played outside on the porch with Abby.  She waved at everyone, rocked in the tiny rocking chairs, and walked all over.  We were there for at least an hour, and it was well worth it.   She was perfectly content to get back in the car after that and even took a long second nap.   Just outside of Jacksonville, we saw an exit with a few hotels and decided we should stop for the evening.   First we tried the Hampton Inn and Suites – I ran into the lobby to ask if they had suites available, and if I could see one first because it was pretty critical for us to have a room that had a separate place to put her pack n play so we didn’t have to go to sleep at 8pm with her.   It wasn’t until I checked out the third hotel – a Fairfield Inn and Suites – that we found a room set up that would work for us and we called it a night.

Saturday was our final leg of driving and we were so excited to see the beach, my family, and to hand Abby off to another adult.  Ha.  Just outside of Sanibel Island, we stopped at a Publix to stock up on groceries for the week.  Abby was thrilled with her ride.

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We failed to consider just how full our car already was, so the final stretch of our drive was ridiculous as I sat in the back seat covered in groceries.  We seriously could not have fit one more item in our car!  Finally, we were driving over the causeway and onto Sanibel Island.  My parents, brother and sister arrived less than 20 minutes after we did, and we settled into our condos (we rented two ground-floor beachfront condos that were next door to each other).  The set up was perfect and we had the best week.  We rented a canopy for the beach and set up our chairs, along with a small plastic baby pool and toys for Abby, and relaxed every day.

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We know how fortunate we are that we were able to spend a week there together, and especially that we had 4 other adults with us who were fighting over Abby gave us a much appreciated break.  Even better, my mom had offered to fly Abby back with them as a lap-infant, saving her (and us) from a long return trip back to Ohio together.

A highlight of the end of our vacation was SUPPOSED to be a a Garth Brooks concert, which you may recall I’ve basically waited all of my life to attend.  Well, Garth’s team failed to consider the Stanley Cup in their venue selection and this led to the concert being completely canceled since Tampa’s hockey team made the finals.  It still hurts to discuss. I sent Garth a strongly worded message on Facebook but he hasn’t replied yet and the whole horrible situation has completely changed my opinion of him.

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We finally made it home (no thanks to me – I probably drove a total of 4 hours of our 16+ hour return trip and constantly asked “are we there yet”) and used the next few days to do finish our consumables shopping, which included two separate trips to Wal-Mart and 6 full carts and a trip to The Party Shop in Wooster to pick up JR’s 17 cases of beer.  Not kidding on that one.  We had two of the nicest, slowest older gentleman handling our pack out on this end, and even though it was only consumables and 300lbs of UAB, it took them almost the same amount of time as it took the Kosovo movers to pack up our entire apartment.

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As one last American hurrah before our departure date, JR and I spent a long weekend in German Village, where we lived in Columbus before we moved.  We rented a fantastic apartment on AirBnB and enjoyed eating and drinking at our favorite places and meeting up with our friends for dinner and a comedy show.  It was perfect, but a bit bittersweet for me because I loved our life in Columbus before starting on this crazy foreign service train, and it reminded me of the things I miss.  I’m incredibly grateful for the time we were able to spend at home, reconnecting with everyone, and especially for Abby to have that time with our families, it was worth the busy schedule and extra expenses!

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The Trek to Tbilisi

I started to get anxiety about our travel to Georgia a few weeks before we actually left.  How would Abby do? How would the cat do?  Most importantly, how would I handle it all?  We do our best to be as prepared as possible, but you can only do so much, and we’re humans, so we make mistakes.

This was our first time flying with Annabelle, our cat, in the cabin with us.  Previously she has flown as excess checked baggage, but the airlines we were using this time did not allow that option.  She is not a great traveler, and we were quite concerned that she would howl and make noise the entire time.  We took her to the vet in Orrville for our required health certificate and asked for suggestions, and he recommended a mild sedative for her.  Thank you, thank you, thank you, kind vet.  Annabelle was calm and quiet from the time we left until we arrived at our house in Tbilisi.  A miracle!

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(Disclaimer – not a real photo of Annabelle)

My mom wanted to take us to the airport, but we had too many bags for one vehicle so we also hired a van to help transport our luggage.  This was our first time flying with Abby’s new convertible car seat (we purchased the Britax Boulevard Clicktight).  It is a beast, weighing in at almost 30lbs.   Since the new seat doesn’t click into our stroller like the infant seat did, we used a bungee cord to latch it to the stroller and we pushed it like that, while I wore Abby in my Beco.  This was the most convenient way for us to move through security, because they allow me to walk through without removing Abby, and they also didn’t require us to take our stroller/car seat contraption apart.

Our first flight was short and sweet, and we arrived in Detroit only a few minutes before boarding began for our flight to Amsterdam.   The seat arrangement was 2-4-2, and originally we were assigned 3 seats in the middle section.  There are rules about where a car seat can be on the plane, and I didn’t love the idea of how we would have to set up if we were in the middle section.  We switched so that we had the aisle seat of the middle section and then the aisle and window seats directly across from that.  We put Abby’s car seat next to the window and took turns sitting beside her, which actually worked out really well (during my time in the other seat I got to watch an entire movie!).   Abby did pretty well, but because her car seat is so big, we couldn’t position it rear-facing with a nice recline, and I think that contributed to her lack of sleep on that flight.

We arrived in Amsterdam about 7 hours later, landing at 5:30am local time (about 11:30pm EST).  Abby and I waited with all of our things while JR picked up our gate-checked stroller.  Or so we thought.  Apparently, our stroller didn’t make the flight.  This is the second time that has happened to us!  What is the point of gate-checking an item?  I was too tired to fully express my rage.  I calmly asked the attendant where we should go to file a claim, as I was certain our item wasn’t really missing, as much as it was just sitting in Detroit.  She was insistent that we could not file a claim in Amsterdam, we would absolutely have to take care of it with Delta/KLM in Tbilisi.  When I explained that there is no Delta/KLM at the Tbilisi airport, she was like, oh well, bummer for you, try there anyway!

Okay, so no stroller, nothing can be done at the moment, moving on.   I’m not sure we could have physically moved through the airport without assistance.  I asked her if she could call one of the golf carts over.  She said, oh sorry those cannot transport baggage.  She also said Abby and I couldn’t ride on them anyway because they can’t transport babies.  So basically those golf carts that always look like an ideal way to move through an airport are completely useless, in my humble opinion.

She brought us over the wee tiniest luggage cart we’d ever seen.  Sigh.  We loaded up and tried to locate their Baby Lounge in the airport, which I’d read about online.  It was pretty glorious.  It’s a separate large room with a long counter and sinks for changing babies, and then 8 sleeping pods.  Here are some photos:

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Amazingly, Abby went right to sleep in one of these cribs and slept for over 3 hours!  This was quite a feat considering that you could hear EVERY sound in this room, including one dad who was coughing like he had the Black Plague.   One minor complaint – the seating for adults leaves a bit to be desired.   You can see where a person could sit beside the crib, but I wanted to sleep, not sit.  JR and I contorted ourselves into some crazy different positions using our carry on bag and the floor to try to get a few hours of sleep.  I also seriously contemplated crawling in the crib.

Finally, it was time to leave Amsterdam and board our final flight to Tbilisi.  The flight took about 5 hours, and we were all exhausted.  Abby’s car seat did not fit in the seat rear-facing, so we flipped her around and she slept almost the entire time, which allowed us to sleep as well.  We landed in Tbilisi around 5:30pm local time (9:30am EST).  All of our luggage was there – hooray!

Of course, when we spoke to their lost and found to fill out a claim for our stroller, the employee was shocked that we didn’t handle it in Amsterdam.   He insisted the claim form should have been filed with KLM there.  I was displeased.

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Thankfully, the Embassy driver was able to help us file our claim, and he and JR’s work sponsor took us to our TDY house where we feasted on homemade chicken noodle soup, salad and bread (thanks to our fantastic social sponsor Laura!) and promptly passed out.

We did not have internet or a phone at first, so I was unsure where to start hunting down our stroller.  Sunday morning, I sent my Mom a FB message (using JR’s work phone) with all of the information and asked her to look into it.  Amazingly, the stroller was found in Detroit and delivered to our door Monday afternoon.  Two takeaways from this trip – gate checking is not a guarantee that your item will arrive at your destination, and my mom can get things done for me even from thousands of miles away.  Thanks Mom!

Greetings from Tbilisi!

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Wow, I haven’t blogged since we left Kosovo, which already seems like so long ago.   We were in the States for about 6 weeks, and then last weekend we made the trek to Tbilisi.   Tbilisi was in the news everywhere recently due to major flooding, which caused severe property damage, over twenty casualties, and escaped zoo animals.   You can read more here.  On a happier note, just the other day a missing penguin was found alive!

I want to write about what we did during home leave and our travel over here, but it may take me a bit to catch up.  For now, we are settling in slowly.  Abby and I both have serious jet lag.  It’s very unpleasant to be wide awake during the wee hours of the morning.   We are living in temporary (TDY) housing for a few weeks while our permanent house is being cleaned and painted (the tenants just left on Monday).   Our TDY place is in the same neighborhood as our permanent housing and we are really excited to be here.

It’s overwhelming to arrive in a new country, but quickly we’ve been reminded how the FS is full of friendly faces and people willing to lend a hand.  On our first day checking in at the Embassy, one woman that we had just met was entertaining Abby with toys while I had to run off and take care of a few things.  Multiple people offered trips to the grocery store, food, toys and baby items for Abby, and helpful tips about life here.   I look forward to being one of the settled ones and paying it forward to newcomers in the future!

 

And just like that

Our tour is over and we’re leaving Kosovo.   It’s been a wonderful two years.  We have made great friends, explored new places, and even expanded our family.  I really had no idea what to expect when we started this adventure, but this was a good tour for us and although there have been challenges, we will miss Kosovo and we are very thankful for our time here.

Some of my favorite pictures and memories from the last two years.

first weekDinner at Tiffany’s our first week in Pristina

albania 1Berat, Albania with Amy

 

rugovaRugova Gorge

singingKaraoke at Pacific Rim.  Don’t stop Believiiinnnnnnn’!!!

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Santorini, Greece

paris vaux

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Paris, Vaux le Vicomte, and ringing in the New Year at the Sacre Coeur

first picWelcoming Abby to the world

lake ohridWine tasting at Lake Ohrid, Macedonia

shelbyI’m not sure I can call it a highlight, but I can’t skip over Shelby (and I have an update to share soon!)

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Our wonderful trip to Dubrovnik, Croatia with my parents

elephant Abby’s first Halloween

 

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Spending precious time with our families and Abby’s first Christmas

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And one last picture of our awesome road trip last month

Lamtumirë, Kosovo!

If there was a problem, yo, I’ll solve it

Since we packed out, we are living the high life with the Embassy Welcome Kit.  Welcome Kits can vary by post, but they are intended for pretty short term use.  We’ve been using ours for over two weeks, and it can be frustrating having just one dish towel and four forks.  Every day is an adventure when you go to make food and realize you are missing at least one essential item.

The very first problem I encountered was the bowls.  I love, love, love cereal, and it just so happens I have one last box of Froot Loops to enjoy.  The provided bowls are super shallow and definitely not intended for cereal.

No worries, I’ve been using this random glass bowl they included for an unknown purpose.   When JR wants cereal for breakfast, we eat in shifts and wash out the bowl in between.  Teamwork!

bowlsThe bowl on the left is the wee one which is about an inch deep.  No good for cereal!

Just before pack out, I had a breakthrough in the kitchen and made pizza dough from scratch for the first time ever. It was so good – and so surprisingly easy – that I made a second batch and tossed it in the freezer.   When I pulled it out the other day to make pizza, I realized I didn’t have a rolling pin.  What to do?   Well one thing we still have in abundance is wine!  So I washed and dried a bottle, and then put a little flour on it.  Voila!

pizza 1

Even though we’re sometimes behind on pop culture and sports over here, JR was still interested in the Mayweather-Pacquiao fight.   The fight was scheduled to begin around 5am local time, so he and some crazy friends planned a viewing party.   It pained me to think of sending him to a party without a dish of some sort, but there was no way I was going to be awake to prepare something before he left.  The bigger problem is our lack of supplies.   Then, I realized a simple solution.  Bacon.  We stocked up on bacon during our last trip to Bondsteel, and we still have a few packages in our freezer.  We cooked it and put it in a Ziplock bag (that’s as fancy as it gets these days) and I’ve been told it was well-received at the party.  I mean who doesn’t love bacon?

With just a few days left to go, our time with the welcome kit and our dwindling food and wine supply is almost up.   One nice treat is that I have an excuse to finish our last bottle of champagne.  This afternoon, I told our nanny that I was going to have a glass of champagne.  She said, “oh are you celebrating something?”  I thought for a second…”um, yes!  Celebrating this lovely afternoon.”

I think that’s a perfectly good reason for champagne!

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A pretty successful packout!

We had our packout on Monday.  We packed out quite early – almost 3 weeks before our departure – because it was basically the only day JR could be there given his current work schedule.  There is always so much going on during pack out that we both wanted to be present to handle any issues and to ensure things were being packed properly and sent to the right places (either onward to Tbilisi or to a storage unit).

To prep, we spent the last few months going room by room and getting organized.  This included donating or throwing away a lot of extra stuff.  I also made a list of the main things we would want to have in our checked luggage, and which items we’d want in our UAB (air freight).   I packed clothes and items for the baby for the next 3 weeks and for home leave.   She has the least amount of stuff because almost all of her summer clothes are at my mom’s house, so she’ll have much more on our return trip.  Then JR and I did the same for ourselves.  It’s kind of pain to use valuable suitcase space on work clothes with such a short time remaining at work, so my coworkers will see me repeating outfits during my last few days.

Once our suitcases were packed, I designated the bed in the guest room as our UAB pile and we started placing things in there.   I included most of my work clothes, shoes, hangers, a laundry basket, and then a bunch of kitchen items like baking sheets, pots and pans, food processor, rice cooker, some tupperware, ziplock bags, and other miscellaneous things.  Other important items were Abby’s high chair, bath tub (I assume at some point she probably outgrows the little Fisher Price Whale Tub, and it may well be while we are home, so who knows how useful it will be once we get to Tbilisi), her play mat and extra books and toys.

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UAB, first round

While we were doing all of this, we were also tossing things in the laundry room or bathroom – my designated “safe” zones that would be shut off completely from the movers.  We kept our passports, keys, phone chargers and a bunch of miscellaneous stuff in there, and we continued adding things even once the movers arrived.   Our social sponsor in Tbilisi has kindly offered to accept a few packages for us before we arrive, so right before we leave we are going to mail a few boxes with sheets, towels, some of our work clothes, and the toys we kept here for Abby.

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The laundry room of shame

On the morning of our packout, we loaded up Abby and her pack n’ play and dropped her off at the nanny’s house for the day.  When we arrived at home, we did a final sweep through the apartment to make sure all of our important items were in their designated places.  This is about the time the nanny texted me to say that we’d failed to pack a single binky.  We also forgot her snack cup and sippy cup.  #Momoftheyear.  Thankfully our nanny is amazing and it didn’t cause too much of an issue for her or Abby.

The movers arrived around 9am.  I was expecting 4 guys but 8 showed up. They started working immediately, and like always, I was shocked by their speed.

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Although we have a total weight limit of 600lbs for our UAB, the plan is to split our shipment with 300lbs from Pristina and 300lbs from Ohio.  So we had our primary UAB pile, and then if we were underweight, I had another pile/section of things to add.  Even with all of that, we were only at 220lbs.  This led to me running around the apartment scooping up more things to add to UAB.  In the future, I’ll have even more things ready to go if we are underweight, because by the time we realized we could add more, most of the kitchen and Abby’s toys had been packed, and those items would have been the most beneficial to add to our UAB.

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The movers making a box to fit our big TV.  Pro tip:  Keep your TV boxes!

And just like that, it was over and all of our things were loaded into the van.  With our living room furniture gone, we had to improvise a bit to watch House of Cards.

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The next day the warehouse guys dropped off a living room set and a bed for us.

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Now we just need to survive the next two weeks sharing a queen-sized bed and two pillows.  And see if the movers will come back to pack up the box they forgot.  🙂

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