We have tickets – kind of

When I started this post it was titled “Holy cats, we have plane tickets!”.  But it was silly of me to think things could be so simple!

We’re faced with two issues regarding our travel home.  First, JR is currently planning to attend a  one-week training in DC, so we were all flying together to DC, and then just Abby and I would continue on to Ohio.   But now there’s a strong chance that this training will be canceled, so we would need to change his ticket.  And it was only because of this particular training that we all wanted to fly through DC, so if the training is off the table, we can take a different route home.

The different route is important because it feeds into problem #2.  The cat.  Right now we’re supposed to fly on Austrian Airlines to Vienna and then DC, and then a United flight to Columbus.  Austrian had no trouble making arrangements for Annabelle to fly as checked baggage on both flights and the cost is $200.  Okay, great.  But, they noted that I needed to call United directly to book Annabelle on the DC to Columbus leg.  I called and that’s where things went downhill.  United informed me that Annabelle would have to be flown as cargo.  In order to do that, we have to take her to their cargo center at Dulles (located at the airport, but not within the terminal) and check her in 2 hours prior to our flight.  We’re scheduled to land in DC at 2:05, and our flight to Columbus leaves at 5:20.

Hmm.

I’m quite concerned that we will not have time to retrieve Annabelle and our other bags, clear customs, deliver her to the cargo office in time, and check our bags all over again for the final flight.   Oh and United is charging $300 for the cat for this short flight! NOTE: It costs more to ship our cat on one domestic flight with United than it does for a transatlantic flight with Austrian.  Urgh.

We’ve thrown out some different options – such as renting a u-haul minivan and driving ourselves home from DC.  This would actually get us home faster, and would probably cost about the same.  The problem is that JR has never recovered from driving Annabelle from Columbus to DC in 2012.  He loves her but swears he will not drive in the car with her again.  Apparently she yowled like she was being tortured the entire time and it was miserable, so when I suggested this option, he responded with:

 

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Regardless, we aren’t making any changes until we know what’s happening with JR’s training, so it’s wait and see at this point.  But we still have dates and we’re down to about 6 weeks, which is crazy.  On Friday, the movers came to do a pre-packout survey.  Basically they go room to room and we talk about which items are going to storage, which items are going to Tbilisi, our UAB (air shipment), and all sorts of other details.   They looked a little concerned when they saw the size of our couch.   Our pack out date is just a few weeks away now and full-blown panic is starting to set in – we have so much left to do!

Preparing for our next move

It seems like all I do these days is look at the calendar, make plans and make lists.  We have less than 3 months left in Kosovo!

When we leave, we will go back to the US for several weeks for Home Leave.  Home Leave is required by law – we have to return to the US to reacquaint ourselves, eat hot dogs, and be all American.  For me, that means visiting with family and friends, eating at all of my favorite places, and an absurd number of trips to Target and Kohls.  For JR, he just sees money flying out of his  our bank account.

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Home leave is a really nice benefit, but it can be incredibly expensive.  We don’t own a home or a car in the US, and we’ve heard stories from colleagues about how quickly lodging, rental car and food costs can add up during your required stay in the States.  In addition, we will be stocking up on consumables for our time in Georgia and buying other neccessities (okay, and some wants!) while we’re home.  We are incredibly fortunate that we have an apartment we can use at my grandparents’ house, and several family members who are willing to loan us a car.

But before we can start home leave, we have to pack out here.  One really nice thing is that we don’t have to do the packing ourselves.  However, we have to decide how to sort our belongings into different shipments, try to anticipate how much of our stuff will fit in our next house, and we try to time it up correctly so we can get our shipments in Tbilisi as soon as possible.

When we leave Kosovo we’ll have our six checked bags with us, plus the baby and the cat.  We each get two bags with a 50lb weight limit (and we are usually at 49.5lbs per bag).   We’ll have all the clothes and other items we need during home leave (the baby monitor and sound machine are top priority in a carry-on because I would be in a panic if we lost either of those), as well as anything we’ll need immediately upon arriving in Georgia.   I think we should be fine with six large checked bags, but I really want to minimize our carry-on situation, because that is what gives me the most grief while we travel and I’d rather not look like this again at the airport:

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Speaking of which, how soon until Abby can carry her own bag?  Next year maybe?

The rest of our stuff is divided into two major categories – Unaccompanied Air Baggage (UAB) and Household Effects (HHE).

Our UAB is our air freight shipment.  We can have up to 600lbs sent by air, which should arrive in Georgia anywhere from a few weeks to 2 months after we do.  Most Embassy housing is furnished, but we prefer to have our own couch and bed with us.  So those items, and everything else –  clothes, books, kitchen items, all of our other wordly belongings- make up our HHE.  That will typically arrive 2-3 months after we do.  You can have up to 7200lbs of HHE shipped.  We will also have our car shipped from Pristina to Tbilisi.  It may take several weeks or a few months to arrive.

The government will store any excess items that we do not want to take to post.  Initially we weren’t planning to send items back to storage during this pack out, but we have SO MUCH STUFF, so we have to send some back.  We already have two small storage units in DC from our previous packouts.  What’s crazy is that I barely remember what we have in each unit, and they are stored in two separate lots – one from our Columbus move and one from our DC move.  I have no idea when we’ll ever retreive these things or if we’ll even want them when that day comes.

I’m going to be much smarter about our UAB allowance this time around.  When we arrive in Tbilisi, we will have a furnished house and a welcome kit provided by the Embassy.  The welcome kit contains sheets, towels, dishes, a few small appliances, and some miscellaneous things, like a TV.  It’s helpful, but it’s really not enough to make do while you wait for your HHE.  For example, our welcome kit here contained dishes for 4, and two bath towels.  Two bath towels = too much laundry.  So we’ll be including towels, pillows, and some other comfort things in our UAB.  We will also have the baby’s high chair and pack ‘n’ play, several of her favorite toys.

I’m still trying to wrap my head around the best way to handle things the day of the pack-out.  Our apartment is on the small side and each room is pretty full. Ideally, we can have a spot that we designate as UAB items, and a spot with our designated checked baggage.  We don’t want to risk either of those piles getting mixed in with our HHE shipment.  And in our previous packouts, we’ve been shocked by how quickly the movers box things up, so you really have to be on alert and watching for issues.

It’s a lot to think about and plan for, and I’m always getting new tips and ideas from other FS families.  Here’s hoping this is our best pack out yet!

 

Confessions of a Minimalist Hoarder

Way before JR joined the FS, he told me that if we were going to be moving every few years, we would need to “live a minimalist lifestyle” and downsize our belongings.  I didn’t understand why he was directing that at me when he is clearly the one who has trouble letting go of things (see the awful brass tables he refused to part with that are now collecting dust in storage) but as each pack-out comes and goes it’s clear we both have some issues.

Not this bad:

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but not great either.

As we prepared for our very first pack-out from Columbus, we were able to sell, donate, and throw away a decent amount of clothing, movies, and odds and ends we just didn’t use anymore.  I drew a hard line at keeping these movies.  I don’t care that they are VHS and we don’t own a VCR.  I don’t care that you can probably get them on Netflix.

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In case you can’t read the label, the 4th one is my homemade copy of the final episodes of 90210, recorded in 2000.  I’m realizing it may be time to say goodbye, but I’m just not there yet.  Don’t judge me.

Our life right now is consumed with pre-move planning.  This is our third pack-out, and I really, really, really want to do it better this time.  In an effort to be more efficient and organized, I made a list of the items we need to go through in each room, and we’ve been tackling that list for the last several weekends.  I’m quite proud of how much we’ve been able to get through, and I feel better knowing we’re doing it now instead of waiting a few weeks prior to our actual pack-out date.  But again, it’s clear we have problems when it comes to hoarding or refusing to let go of certain items, regardless of logic.  A few examples:

I assume many women can relate to keeping a pile of skinny jeans in their closet.   The size on my smallest pair is laughable to 32-year-old-post-baby me, but no way in hell I’m getting rid of them.  Because you just never know!

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Turns out I’m also something of a deodorant hoarder. I really had no idea!  One of my fears is being somewhere with no deodorant so I’m always buying it anytime I see it on sale, or  when I place a new Amazon order, I end up mindlessly adding it to my cart.  Always better to be prepared, right?

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I have a love/hate relationship with this exercise book JR refuses to throw away.  A former client gave it to him and he says he might use it “some day” for exercises.  A part of me thinks it’s funny and the other wants to tear my hair out looking at it on our bookshelf.  I’ve tried to convince him that he can surely find those same exercises on that new  invention we call the internet, but he won’t listen.   The best part is that I thought including this in my blog would publicly shame him into throwing it away.  I asked if we could finally toss it and he replied “But the thing is, the book has some really great exercises!”

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Last weekend, I went through my boxes of pictures and mementos.   I was able to throw away a few things (and I had a good laugh – WHY was I keeping the empty jewelry box from the first pair of earrings JR gave me?  Why did I keep a mint from our Carnival Cruise in 2007?)  I could not, however, part with this shirt.  My memory tells me that my mom bought this for me when she went to Bon Jovi’s Slippery When Wet concert in 1987 and left me home to miss out on the all the fun.  Back then this shirt fit me like a nightgown.   Now, I couldn’t tell you the last time it fit me in any capacity, but that’s irrelvant.  I’ll treasure it always.  🙂

Here’s a picture of my Mom (wearing the shirt) and I, circa 1987-1988, and a picture of the shirt now (with a bonus Abby picture, to give you an idea of the size).

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As you might imagine, the minimalist lifestyle is a work in progress.  But how can I get rid of a classic like a Bon Jovi Slippery When Wet official tour shirt??

Maybe for our next pack-out.

Our next assignment!

A few hours after I hit publish on my last post, JR received notice that more positions had been assigned.  We quickly opened the document and searched for our last name – and we were THRILLED to see that we are headed to our first choice post: Georgia!

Not this Georgia georgia

But this one Tbilisi_sunset-6

We’ll be living in Tbilisi, Georgia located at the crossroads of Europe and Asia.  The bidding process was a bit stressful and difficult for us.  As early as this summer, we started to get a general idea of which posts would be likely to have openings for JR’s level and position.  A list was released in August, but only employees currently serving in CPC posts (critical priority countries, such as Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq, or Yemen, that are one year unaccompanied tours) were eligible to bid at that time, because one benefit of serving in a CPC is priority bidding for next cycle.  So, although there were quite a few places on the list that looked good to us, we knew we had to wait and see which spots remained after the priority bidders were assigned.

Our official list came out in October, and we had two weeks to submit our bids.  Prior to that, JR had been in contact with some of the posts that interested us, and we were doing a ton of research, looking into things like the job details for JR, salary (different at each post because of differentials like cost of living and hardship), spousal employment, language requirements, if malaria medication was required, safety, housing, quality of life, etc.  We created a very detailed spreadsheet that listed all of those things, and more, and then used various resources to fill in the blanks.

JR had to bid on at least 3 and no more than 8 positions.   He had to bid on one CPC, one post in Africa, and one priority country (Haiti, Bangladesh, Liberia, among others).   Needless to say, we had many difficult discussions about how we wanted to rank the posts and which posts we should try to avoid.  Ultimately, we were able to agree and we felt good about our chances of being assigned to one of our top spots.

Then the real waiting started to set in.  Lots of rumors and talk about who was assigned where, when we might find out, past stories of people getting unfortunate assignments – it was nerve-wracking!  We also thought we would know by the first week of December, and then there were multiple emails about how we might have to bid ALL OVER AGAIN in January, although thankfully that is not the case for us.   Knowing we are scheduled to leave Kosovo in early May, it’s been challenging to not know which continent we will be living on in six months, whether or not we’ll need to be in DC for language training, and so many other things.

BUT – this story has a very happy ending because we are so excited that we will be working and living in Tbilisi.  We have heard great things about the mission and the work being done there, and we think it will be a good fit for our family. Neither of us have visited Georgia before so we are incredibly excited to explore a new country and region!

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It’s almost time to bid

In this crazy life we’re living, it’s hard to believe we’ve been calling Kosovo home for more than a year (well, a little less than that for me due to my maternity med evac stint in the US) and that our time here will end next summer.  And even though that is still a year away, it’s almost time to bid on our next assignment.

JR’s bidding process is probably different from State Department FSOs, so I can only speak to how it works for us.   We will receive a list of available positions and their locations, along with the length of each tour.   Most tours are four years.  Some locations, such as Kosovo, are considered hardship posts and are two year tours.  Finally, there are a few one year unaccompanied tours (UT), in locations that are considered too dangerous or unstable for your family to go with you.

We knew when we joined that JR would have to complete at least one UT during his career.  It’s really tough to think about spending a year apart, and it’s even harder to try to figure out when it would be best to do this.  Now, while Abigail is too little to remember him being gone?  Or when she is older and could Skype with him and look forward to his visits home?  Right now, we don’t feel ready to face a separation.  If we’re forced to, of course we’ll deal with it, but don’t expect him to pull a Katniss this bidding cycle.

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Currently,  we’re in a weird waiting period because although we have some idea of what positions will be open, we really don’t know for sure.  All we can do is think about what factors are most important to us, and what locations might be a good fit.  And we also have to prepare ourselves to wind up somewhere unexpected and possibly undesirable.  Try as I might, I’ve been unable to convince anyone that the Bahamas or France are developing countries in need of US support.

Our considerations for bidding this time around are a bit different than last time.   We have Abby to consider, and if we end up at a 4 year post, she’ll be starting preschool there.  So now we find ourselves researching preschool options all over the world.   Two other major concerns are safety and medical – specifically with regard to malaria.  Malaria is a serious threat in many of the countries that we may serve in, and we would need to consider the risks of having Abby take anti-malarial medication daily for several years.  I’ve done a small amount of research on this already and we are very concerned about the possible long-term side effects.

Another major factor for us is the availability of spousal employment.   Many countries do not have bi-lateral work agreements that would allow me to find work on the local economy.  In countries where that may be an option, it’s unlikely that I would have the requisite foreign language skills needed and it’s also likely the pay would be significantly lower than what I would have recieved for the same job in the States.   Ideally, I’d like to find work at USAID or the Embassy.  I enjoy my current position in the Public Affairs office and it would be great if I could do something similar at our next post.   Another option is to consider some type of telework or web-based job.   I honestly wouldn’t know where to start.  And knowing myself, I would prefer a job that gets me out of the house and interacting with people on a daily basis.
Right now it’s a big guessing game.  Which posts might be open, who wants to go where, and which countries will be on the list we turn in for assignment?  As Tom Petty said, the waiting is the hardest part.

 

 

 

Get Outta My Dreams, Get Into My Car

Our weekend started off with great news – our car has arrived in Pristina!

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I am super pumped to drive. I’m less excited about parking in our garage. It is teeny tiny. First I tried reversing in, and that didn’t work. Then JR hopped out and tried to give me directions, and I was still not getting anywhere. The guards on mobile patrol were passing by, and they tried to help too – in between laughing and pointing. When I finally managed to get the car into the garage, I got a bit too excited and rammed into our freezer with the front end. Oops.

I’m told it looked something like this:

So, I’ll try to work on that.

Also this weekend, JR was skeptical (I feel like I’m always writing or thinking that sentence. I think he spends a lot of time being skeptical of me.) when I told him I really wanted him to watch part of Keeping up with the Kardashians with me. I gave up KUWTK last year. I realized that I was fast-forwarding most of the episodes, and that I hated every single person on the show, except sometimes Khloe. And occasionally Kourtney. Anyway, so a few people had mentioned to me that the Kardashians went to Greece and that I should check it out, so I did. At first they were in Mykonos, and since that’s not where we went, I didn’t really care. But then they did a boat tour and I was practically yelling at the screen – they went on the exact same boat that we were on! I got JR to watch and he agreed it was pretty cool to see Captain Ted, George and Nancy (the boat crew) on TV with the Kardashians. In the next episode, Kourtney and Scott had dinner at Dimitri’s, the same restaurant we went to in Amoudi Bay. It was very cool to see all that on TV.

Saturday night we went to the opening of an American-style craft brewery here in Pristina called Sabaja Brewery. It was such a fun event, and we were all more than happy to support the new businesses owners at their big opening. Our Ambassador and the Kosovo Minister of Finance both spoke and congratulated the owners on their entrepreneurship and hard work. (More about Sabaja Brewery here: http://birrasabaja.com/?page_id=203&lang=en).

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sabaja 2

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And that was our weekend!

Home Sweet Home

So, our HHE arrived on Monday! Most of my week was spent unpacking, organizing, moving and cleaning, although I did take a few breaks. (Thank you Jessica for the wonderful brunch yesterday! In my dream housewife world, there would be brunches several times per week.)

JR is allowed to take one day of administrative leave to help when our things arrive, but his office is crazy busy right now so he didn’t think he’d be able to miss a day. Honestly, I thought this was just fine because I pictured myself as super woman and figured I could handle it all on my own, and he’d be all surprised and the house would be in great shape when he got home.

That SO did not happen. I totally underestimated how much would be going on at once. We had one moving crew that was supposed to arrive around 9am to pick up the extra furniture in our place that we wanted removed, and another moving crew coming at 10 to deliver all of our things. There were also different people delivering an extra freezer, and an electrician coming to install an outlet in the garage. They basically all showed up at 10. There were so many people, all of them asking where does this thing go (excellent question, considering every item was wrapped/boxed and not exactly expertly labeled, so it was kind of a guessing game), is this piece staying or leaving, and on and on. It got hectic in a hurry. Luckily, JR was able to come home at noon to help out!

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We quickly started running out of room for boxes, and places to stand. The movers will unpack the boxes and pull things out, but after we did that with maybe ten boxes, there wasn’t any more room to put things down.

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Once everything was inside and the movers were gone (they did a fantastic job!), JR asked me how I wanted to move things around and set up the rooms. I started explaining my vision (I’m pretty certain that once the word “vision” comes out of my mouth, JR stops listening to whatever else I have to say) and we got to work.

We made some good progress, and we were so excited to have our bed, our couch, and our TV set up Monday night. JR had to get back to work Tuesday, and I had high expectations for how much I could get done that day. The tricky thing is that sometimes I like to focus on a less important task that doesn’t really help the big picture. I wound up spending most of the morning color-coding the closets and refolding/organizing (and occasionally trying on) clothes. Oops.

But I’m happy to report we are pretty much done! Obviously we still need to organize some things, but the place really looks and feels like our home. Now for a little tour.

Office/Storage/Kitty’s Room
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Our bedroom
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The closet. So, somehow when we first got here, JR took over this closet. I decided that was not going to work long term, and suggested that it should belong to me. He didn’t go for it, so we are sharing the closet. Allegedly, compromise is important in a marriage.
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Guest bedroom
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Laundry room
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Bathroom. The shower curtain rod is all the way up to the ceiling, and when we tried to hang our shower curtain we realized it doesn’t reach down to the tub. So now I need to go shopping for a new one.
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Living Room
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Dining Room/Kitchen
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Home sweet home for the next two years!