3 down, 1 to go

It’s hard to believe we’ve lived in Tbilisi for three years already and we have just one year left. Four years seemed like an incredibly long time to live in a country I knew nothing about and a city I could barely pronounce before arriving, but now I’m afraid our remaining time will pass by too quickly. Abby had just turned 1 when we arrived – now she’s four and we have added sweet William, so things have certainly changed for us!

 
Note that the recent picture above was taken at Carrefour. Yes, she wore a dress, a play tutu, necklaces, fairy wings and a tiara to the grocery store. I’ve given up. 

One of the best things about a four year assignment is that we haven’t had to worry about bidding in several years. Our grace period is over now and I’m already feeling some anxiety and stress about the bidding process this fall, our options, and the uncertainty ahead. I know there are no perfect posts, and I also know that we’ll deal with whatever comes our way.

Two weeks ago, Abby had her last day of preschool. Her class held a little celebration, singing songs and showing off their achievements for the year. We’re so grateful to Ms. Natela and all of the staff at QSI for instilling a love of school and community in our girl. Onward to the 4 year old class next year!

QSI has a summer camp program that Abby is attending for the next two weeks, but in July we’ll be spending more time at home because my mom is coming back! We are so, so excited for her visit. I’ve mentioned many times that it’s not easy traveling this far, but this will be my mom’s 4th trip to Tbilisi and we’re so thankful that she loves to visit us. I told her that I had a few simple tasks for her during her time: 1) teach Abby to swim, 2) teach Abby to use the brakes on her bike, and 3) get William to stop whining. She laughed and said “okay that’s week one, what else?”. We’ll see how that turns out!

Most of our summer days are spent playing outside and at the swimming pool. William in particular is loving summer – wearing what JR describes as “tasteful tanks”. Here are a few more pictures of our summer days!

 

 

 

 

FOUR

We have a four year old! Actually we’ve had one for a few weeks now but the fact remains, she’s 4!

For her party, Abby once again had a very specific cake request. She wanted a Minnie Mouse cake with bows. We browsed online and found a picture for the local bakery, and they replicated it exactly! Didebuli in Digomi does a fantastic job with cakes. Our bounce house is going on its 3rd or 4th year of life and showing the signs. Recently it popped a big hole (apparently 7 kids is the breaking point) that JR was able to repair before the party with some heavy duty glue and strips of canvas. Abby had a great time with all of her friends and was as thankful as a four year can be for all the presents.

We are excited to see what this year has in store for Abby and our family. Three had some really, really rough moments where we learned that Abby is fiercely determined when she sets her mind to something, whether that is staying up for hours at night and fighting bedtime or insisting on wearing not just one, but two skirts (tutus, as she calls them) every single day.  Dropping her nap six months ago made a huge difference for us and made our bedtime routine relatively enjoyable again. As for the issues with her outfit choices… I mean here is a sampling of what she would prefer to wear if left to her own devices. We’ve reached a sort of compromise that she can pick her own clothes on the weekends, and for school days she picks either a top or bottom and I do my best to convince her to wear a somewhat matching piece.

With this new birthday came a new haircut! I do miss those long beautiful curls but brushing it every day was not fun.

Abby loves school, her teachers, and playing with her friends. We’re trying to give her some independence to play outside by herself and she loves that. I’m very thankful for our neighborhood and all of the parents who let this wild group of kids run up and down the street, in and out of houses, without a care in the world. My heart aches when I think about leaving this place. For now, we’re soaking up every minute of laughter and fun!

 
Outside fun and a semi-orderly line at the neighbor’s house while waiting for water balloons

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Love those smiles!

The Merriest

Happy New Year!

December was a super busy month for my office, so I was definitely ready for a holiday break. My parents and my brother arrived in the early morning hours of the 22nd. After 24+ hours of travel, they were exhausted and excited to take showers and head to bed. Unfortunately for them, my neighborhood had no water! In a complete lack of preparedness on our end and contrary to emergency planning instructions received from the Embassy, JR and I had no extra bottled water for drinking, coffee, teeth brushing – nada at our home. He ran out to the store while we rationed what was left in our Brita pitcher in the fridge. I couldn’t imagine going to work without a shower, so we packed our bags to shower at the Embassy’s gym. Thankfully the water was restored by about 9am. While this allowed them to shower, Abby had other ideas about letting them rest. She kept them busy with crafts, games, and talking nonstop. No idea where she gets that.

We took them to Shadow of Metekhi, a great restaurant with beautiful views, for their first taste of Georgian food and dancing, and then spent the rest of the weekend in Christmas mode. Abby was really into Santa and all things Christmas. We’ve been singing Rudolph every night at bedtime since August (note, we are STILL singing Rudolph. She’s not ready to move on.)


Christmas Eve

 
Christmas morning

Abby’s favorite gifts were a small stuffed mouse JR bought her in Armenia, a camera from Nana and Papu, and her big girl bike. My mom was really skeptical when we (read: JR) put the bike together without the training wheels. I just wanted to see how she did without them since she did so well on her balance bike , but everyone else acted like I was crazy so I made her put on all sorts of protective gear just in case. To all of our amazement, she was riding solo within in a few tries! We were so excited for her and she was certainly very proud of herself, but adamant about no pictures!

During the rest of their visit we explored Tbilisi…

…ate khinkali

…saw The Nutcracker at the Tbilisi Opera House

…went to the Tbilisi Zoo where Abby had her face painted for the first time

and generally enjoyed all of our time together. It was truly wonderful to have our family visit us here during the holidays and we miss them already. Counting down to our next visit!

William is One!

The happiest little baby boy in the world is now the happiest one year old!

 

 

William is smiley, mischievous, and so much fun. He has eight (8!) teeth, a ton of hair, and he started walking a few weeks ago. Nothing can stop him now – except his sister. She’s about 80% loving, 10% indifferent and 10% terrorizing. We’ve enjoyed so many adventures together as a family of four this past year. We went to Scotland, welcomed my sister to Tbilisi, returned to the States for a fun-filled summer with friends and family, took a road trip through Florida and Tennessee, celebrated Halloween and Thanksgiving, and many other fun adventures in between.

Here are some recent pictures of this happy face and his wild sister. We are going to do a small birthday party when my family arrives in a few weeks, assuming I can master baking an egg-less cake. Sidenote – I did bake my very first pies, mostly from scratch, I definitely used canned pumpkin but I made my own crust – for the first time ever at Thanksgiving and they turned out pretty well! Hopefully I’m on a roll.

  

The last several months have been busy and challenging for us. I finally started my new job as the CLO (Community Liason Office) Coordinator at our Embassy. I love it, but it definitely requires a lot of energy and focus. At home, Abby is every bit of her 3 and a half years old. She can charm you and wrap you around her little finger, and then turn around and crush your dreams of sleep, happiness, anything really. According to the internet and the dozens of friends and parents I’ve surveyed, this is all pretty standard for her age. And so, we wait patiently or in my case, not so patiently, for her to turn 4 and leave some of this crazy behind. If you are a parent who thinks age 4 was harder than age 3, please, I beg of you, do not comment or reply or inform me of this news in any way, shape or form.

Family picture last year and this year:

 

 

Preschool Days

We hit a major milestone in our family a few weeks ago when Abby started preschool. She’s in the 3 year old “Jolly Stars” class at the international school right beside our neighborhood. We knew she’d attend this school, but we still met with the director earlier this summer to ask questions and learn more about the program. He was very patient with me as we went through my long list of questions ranging from “What happens if she doesn’t eat lunch?” to “Do you have safety drills for an active shooter on the campus?” I’m definitely that parent.

 

On her first day, she was so excited to put on her backpack, meet her teacher and classmates, and she wasn’t phased at all when JR and I said goodbye. She handled it the same the next day, but then we had a weekend together and that following Monday was rough. She cried, she was so upset and didn’t want me to leave. And it was awful. I felt like a terrible mother, even though I knew she would be fine. I knew she liked school, I knew she was safe and happy there – even though I knew all of those things, it broke my heart to leave her there crying. She did that multiple times the second week, but I’m happy to report weeks 3 and 4 were tear-free!

We love asking her about her day and hearing her version of events. Who she played with, what she learned, what they’ll do tomorrow.  She was thrilled to bring in her seashells from our Florida vacation for her first Show-and-Tell, and she loves visiting the library. She’s not too happy with their lunch options yet, but we’re not giving up because I really, really do not want to pack a lunch every day.

When she’s not amazing us with her vocabulary and sweetness, she is testing our limits by being a normal three year old. (Or so my mother says, I’ve insisted the child might actually be possessed.)

William also had his own little milestone -he’s 9 months old now! He is crawling, babbling (JR thinks he’s saying Dada already but we won’t be counting his first word until he says Mama), has two bottom teeth, and he has the best giggles. Just like Abby at this age, he’s a Daddy’s boy. He lights up when JR enters the room or cries if he walks away. When I walk in he’s kind of like, oh you again.

He’s tried so many new foods and I’m learning new recipes and ideas to avoid eggs. The first round of egg-less banana bread turned out just okay, but the second recipe we tried was much better. I’m going to continue to tweak it a bit because we really like muffins/bread in our house so it would be great if we had more options for him to eat. The egg-free pancakes were no good. I mean the kids ate them, but I was not impressed. This is all pretty new for me. I’m decent in the kitchen but I’m a strict recipe-follower. Many of the recipes that are egg free are also designed for kids with other allergies, so they might avoid dairy, nuts, wheat and/or soy. Since we only need to replace the eggs, I’m making some changes to existing recipes and hoping for the best.

It’s fun watching Abby and William try to “play” together. Right now that means him following her around and trying to take her toys. Little does she know this is just the beginning!

 

We’re losing sleep but having a great time with these two, although recently I looked at JR and asked, “How did we get here? Wasn’t it just yesterday that we were out all night at Lodge Bar?” Time flies!

 

Adventures in flying with two kids

Note:  Yes, another traveling with children blog. Unfortunately, coping with travel is a large part of the Foreign Service, and writing about it is cheaper than therapy. So sorry, but not so sorry for more in-depth analysis of airline seating assignments. 🙂

I can sum up our recent travels with these two pictures. Abby full of sass at the airport, and William succumbing to jet lag back in Tbilisi.

Our home leave departure from Tbilisi was pretty uneventful. We waited in a crazy long line at the airport and didn’t even have time for a restroom break before boarding our first flight to Amsterdam.

We had a 4+ hour layover there so we found a place for lunch and then made our way to this really fantastic play area. It had a huge plane complete with a cockpit that made noise. It was semi-enclosed so you could sit at one end of it and feel confident your kid couldn’t go anywhere. Abby enjoyed herself and I found a Ben and Jerry’s ice cream sandwich for myself. #winning

 

The flight from Amsterdam to Detroit was very long. We had the middle section with 4 seats together, so JR and I were each on the aisle with the kids in between us. It was a bit annoying when we wanted to switch our seats because we had to walk past several rows to the restrooms to cross over to the other side. I really can’t remember much about this flight except being annoyed that I accepted the meal because I didn’t eat any of it (airline food and I don’t see eye to eye) and then the food and tray table were in my way for a solid 30 minutes before they came around to clear them up.

JR’s flight was much better than the rest as there was a new beverage option on the KLM flight, Sweet Water 420. This was one of JR’s favorite beers years ago living in Tennessee so he was overly excited that he could drink good beer – FREE good beer – on the 9 hour flight.

We landed in Detroit and starting imagining the possibilities of where we might eat during our 4 hour layover. Before we could find a restaurant though, we had to deal with a very long wait for our stroller. Instead of being available right when we exited the plane, our stroller (and the stroller of a mom traveling solo who was furious and I felt terrible for her) was whisked off to some unknown part of the airport. We had to make our way through customs, passport control and baggage claim and we continued waiting for another 15-20 minutes until someone located the strollers. Finally, time to eat!

To our excitement, the airport offered a Longhorn, Chick Fil A and Max and Erma’s. Decisions decisions! We opted for Max and Erma’s and walked a very long way to find it. But it wasn’t there, because we went in the wrong direction. We were hungry at this point so we went to Gordon Biersch instead. This was an expensive mistake. They didn’t have the drink or sandwich I wanted and the food was subpar, but the meal still cost us an arm and a leg. Welcome to America! Thankfully, William was a doll and Abby slept through the entire layover.

 
Sometimes you feed your kid on the floor of an airport.

We boarded our last flight to Cleveland and it was so gloriously short I can’t even complain that William was pretty fussy for it. My mom and sister were waiting for us in Cleveland and we were all happy to be “home.”

Our six weeks of home leave flew by, and then it was time to fly back to Tbilisi. We started off with another quick flight from Cleveland to Detroit, and this time in Detroit we had learned our lesson and located the Max and Erma’s. The airport map showed there was a kid’s play place nearby – perfect! Abby was not impressed with Detroit’s version of a kid’s play area. They did have a tram that ran the length of the terminal and we enjoyed riding that back and forth for a while before it was time to board.

We had my preferred seating arrangement for this flight (the plane was set up as a 2-4-2) so each kid had a window seat and we took turns in the aisle seats beside them. This flight didn’t start out so well. My TV screen didn’t work – first time that has ever happened to me! I didn’t think it was a huge deal because I rarely get to watch something, but the screen wouldn’t go black which was really annoying when I tried to sleep. We switched seats while JR tried to sleep and during that time I actually watched 1.5 movies! I saw all of Deepwater Horizon (really good!) and more than half of the new Beauty and the Beast (so good, hope I can finish it someday!).

Also, JR happily ordered a Sweet Water 420 again that promptly exploded when he opened it since it was partly frozen. Not a great situation on a plane. He was not amused.

I really wanted Abby to sleep for most of the flight and she was fighting it hard. She threw an all out temper tantrum that in reality probably lasted just a few minutes but in that moment, with the plane dark and the majority of the people around us sleeping, it took hours off my life. I struggled with how to make her calm down and be quiet. In a moment of total frustration, I leaned down close to her and in my meanest Mom voice said “If you do not stop right now I will take you to the bathroom.”

There was no point to my threat. Why was I going to take her to the bathroom? It’s small and doesn’t smell great. I don’t want to hang out in there. I realized how silly I sounded so I leaned back in my seat and closed my eyes for a few moments to calm down and think of another solution. She saw my moment of weakness and pounced. She tapped my arm and tearfully asked “But, do you still love me?”. Straight to the heart, that one. I teared up, starting hugging and kissing her and assuring her I loved her no matter what and the whole thing was MY fault anyway. I then gave her more snacks and another show before trying the sleep thing again.

We had a 4 hour layover in Amsterdam and it was not pleasant. We’d been traveling for a long time already, with very little sleep, and our clocks thought it was about 1am. William slept pretty much the whole time and didn’t even wake up when I took him out of his stroller so we could board our last flight. And the last one was brutal because to be honest, Georgian Airways does not have wonderful service and it was 5 hours long and everyone was over it. But we made it, all of our bags made it, and after a short week and a half of dealing with jet lag we are all finally back to normal.

My tips:

  • Pack a few spare plastic bags to use as trash bags so you don’t have trash poking out of every seat back, and you don’t have to wait for the flight attendants to come around and collect it.
  • We’re still very happy with our 1st Class Kids Pillow. JR figured out how to use the overhead air to inflate it most of the way and then we place it in front of Abby’s seat for the long haul flights.
  • Less is more. I still cram Abby’s backpack full of activities and toys, but she rarely pulls out more than her blanket, baby doll, and headphones. The ipad is where it’s at for travel days. JR and I also each have a full backpack, plus William’s car seat, the carrier (love the Beco Gemini), and our double stroller that we gate check.
  • I wish I would have splurged on the Ready to Feed formula bottles. All of William’s bottles take up so much space, and then when we’re done we just put the dirty ones in the backpack again. With the RTF bottles, you can throw them away when you’re done. The catch is, the box of RTF bottles they sell at the store only comes with 1 nipple for 8 bottles (dumb). So you have to order extra nipples on Amazon in advance and I didn’t think far enough ahead on that one.
  • If you find yourself excited that your flight offers Sweet Water 420 beer, and the one you open is half frozen so it explodes all over you and your tray table, you can use a baby’s burp cloth to clean up the mess. And then put the smelly wet burp cloth in one of the aforementioned plastic bags for the duration of your travel.
  • Not all family restrooms are created equal. Amsterdam has these amazing family restrooms with a futuristic automated sliding door, a changing pad, seating area and sink, along with a toilet and sink that is kid-sized (there’s a regular size one in there as well). Meanwhile the Detroit “Family” restroom is just a larger-than-average bathroom that didn’t even have a changing table. Not helpful.
  • Don’t do it. I’m mostly kidding, but travel with two kids is hard! Prepare for the worst, hope for the best, and remind yourself it has to end eventually.

Frozen

No, this is not a post about letting it go or sisterly love.

Sorry.

It’s about my current EFM (eligible-family member, that’s what I am as JR’s spouse overseas) employment situation. While we were on our maternity med evac, I interviewed for and was offered the position of CLO Coordinator at the Embassy. I’ve wanted this job basically since I learned it existed and I cried when I opened the email. Granted, I was 57 weeks pregnant and an emotional time bomb, but the point is, I was super excited. The Community Liaison Office (CLO, get it?!) is tasked with things like welcoming and helping newcomers adjust at post, providing crisis management and support services, acting as a liaison for spouses and family members interested in employment and schools, planning events for the Embassy community, and being a general source of information.

We had a wonderful CLO when we arrived in Kosovo (cheers to you, JBF!). It was our first post and in many ways, we were clueless. For me, I was anxious to feel settled and to start working as soon as possible. The CLO was helpful in sending out job announcements, discussing possible opportunities for other community involvement in Pristina, and they had weekly events that we could participate in to get to know the city and people. As soon as we learned we were headed to Tbilisi, I immediately emailed the CLO here. I asked to be added to their newsletter and weekly mailing lists. Both of those include advertisements for nannies and vehicles, which allowed us to line up a nanny and a car before we had arrived at post. I also reached out to ask about employment opportunities, and the CLO wrote back right away with information about the types of positions that would be available when we arrived.

Transitioning to a new post and home is not easy for me. In the Foreign Service, some of life’s most stressful events happen not only all at once, but repeatedly every few years. Moving to a new country, where English is definitely not the main language, establishing a new home, starting a new job (or being without a job), making new friends – it’s a lot. You are living in a brand new place, but often only in your temporary housing, you don’t have most of your things, no car (super fun when you need to install a 30lb car seat to take your child anywhere – and then you made it to the grocery store in a taxi but you STILL have the 30lb car seat to deal with), not even knowing how to find a grocery store or a Diet Coke (spoiler alert, they only have Coke Zero here). While others may land on their feet faster, I rely on the CLO office a lot in the beginning, and their support has made a huge difference for me and I want to pay it forward.

I’m super, super excited about this new opportunity. But there’s a REALLY big catch. Perhaps you recall that the new President signed a Federal Hiring Freeze on January 23, 2017. This freeze has major implications for current and hopeful federal employees, and it’s also a pretty big deal to us EFMs. It can be extremely challenging to find an Embassy position as an EFM. At our current post, there are more spouses who want to work than there are available jobs. Financially, it would be really hard for us to continue in this lifestyle if I were not employed. Mentally and personally, I want to be working. I like working. I’m lucky that my current/old position is allowing me to stay on until things are resolved. It’s mutually beneficial because they can’t announce the vacancy for my position or hire for it until the freeze is over. But others here are waiting and waiting and WAITING for a job. And it sucks (sorry Mom, I know how you feel about that word.)

EFMs provide critical support to our Embassy missions around the world. It saves the government a big chunk of money to hire someone who is already living here as opposed to paying to move an officer here. It’s also impacting spouses and families in ways I hadn’t considered. There are several posts that are unaccompanied – meaning they are considered too dangerous for families to live there. An exception can be made in some situations for spouses who obtain an EFM job at the unaccompanied post. In those instances, the spouse can live and work with the officer at the post, so it’s no longer unaccompanied. For people who had these plans coming up in the next few months, everything is on hold for them until the freeze is lifted. This could mean the officer will depart for the post as arranged, but the EFM/spouse can no longer go because they no longer have a job. Or a place to live. Oh and they’ll now be separated from their spouse for an unknown amount of time.

To bring it back to how this is directly affecting me and my fellow EFMs at this post, we are all in a crappy state of limbo. Waiting for the freeze to end, waiting on security clearances, waiting for jobs to be posted, just waiting. Our current CLO coordinator is departing at the end of April. She has one part-time assistant who will be leaving in June. Those positions – and a second assistant – cannot be filled until the freeze is over. The work they do is particularly important during upcoming transition season (starts in May because many FSOs with children try to move during the summer to be ready for the next school year) and if we were to face any type of security or crisis situation here.

I can’t put into words how frustrating and disappointing this situation is as a whole. We are constantly reading news about major threats to the State and USAID budgets. I want to yell – do you not know what kind of work is being done here and why it’s so important? Even our top military leaders think cutting funding is disastrous and would threaten citizens at home and abroad.

I don’t know that anyone is listening, though. To be more productive with my frustrations, I’ll include these links that explain the issues further (and far better than I can). If you only have time for one, please click on the first as it’s super short and really explains how much the State department does with such a small amount(1%. One teeny tiny percent!) of the federal budget.

So until next time, I’ll just be waiting for the thaw.

What do the U.S. Department of State and the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) do for the American people? With just over 1% of the entire federal budget, they have a huge impact on how Americans live and how the rest of the world perceives America.
https://www.state.gov/r/pa/pl/2017/267416.htm

State department funding is critical to keeping America safe.
http://www.cnn.com/2017/02/27/politics/generals-letter-state-department-budget-cuts/

Trump’s Cuts to USAID Would Imperil the United States

A helpful breakdown of foreign aid.
https://www.washingtonpost.com/graphics/world/which-countries-get-the-most-foreign-aid/