Make new friends, but keep the old

Many, many moons ago I was a Girl Scout, and I remember singing that song at summer camps. I think about those lyrics quite often in this crazy overseas life. Making friends is one of the best and worst parts about the foreign service. In some ways it’s great because I like meeting new people and I’ve already been so fortunate to make new lifelong friends. On the other hand, making new friends can be intimidating and awkward. You’re starting completely from scratch at each new post, just hoping to find someone (and if you’re really lucky, a few someones) that “gets” you.

I know I’m lucky to have the friends that I do. Some of my earliest memories include meeting and becoming best friends with Ashleigh in Mrs. Lehman’s first grade class at Maple Street School. She was so cool and I knew I wanted to be just like her. Almost 30 years later, Ashleigh is still one of my dearest friends, and while we no longer fight over who gets to ride in the front seat, I still kind of want to be like her. I’ve written before about my hometown group of girlfriends and how much they mean to me. We’re reuniting again in just a few weeks and I can’t wait to see them. I also have a fun date planned with my very best friend from college, and some of the awesome people JR and I met in law school are making the pilgrimage to Orrville in July for a cookout. I’m counting down the days until these visits!

When we decided to live overseas, saying goodbye was hard. Staying in touch means making time to see each other when I’m in Ohio and that often requires months of advance planning, but my friends are pros at this and are no longer surprised when I email them 6 months out asking them to set aside a date for some quality time while I’m home. We email, text and call as often as we can and we’re grateful for the time we have together. Still, I miss out on birthdays, get togethers, play dates and other fun things. I’ve asked them to stop having fun without me but no one seems interested in that request.

Arriving in Kosovo with no job and no friends, I knew I needed to find my people quickly. And thank goodness I did. Without Amy and Jessica, I probably couldn’t have made it through that first tour. It helps so much to have someone else who knows exactly what you are going through when you experience the highs and lows of the foreign service. Our time in the same country (actually, on the same continent as we’re on 3 different ones right now) was short-lived, but thankfully they’re just a gchat and a few time zones away.

I dreaded starting over once again in Georgia. I know I’m a broken record about this, but the first few weeks and months in a new place is really draining on me. Before we arrived I was emailing with ET, the wife of one of Justin’s future work colleagues. She offered to answer any of my questions about life in Tbilisi, and while I initially tried to reign in my crazy, I let it all fly after just a few exchanges. I could tell instantly by her responses that she was my kind of people. When we landed and I had no phone, no car, and definitely no friends, she swooped in and I loved her from the start. Our husbands and kids became friends, and they introduced us to more of their friends, and it all seemed so easy and comfortable. We expected to have 3 years here together but they left early for a great new job offer. Happy for their good fortune but sad to lose them, we enjoyed our last few weekends together and finally got around to taking pictures. Amazingly, in the year+ that we spent together, ET and I didn’t have a single photo of the two of us until the night before we left!

Our girls


Our farewell photo shoot

I was fortunate to have other girlfriends still at post when I returned after having William, so I didn’t have to start all over, but there were some new arrivals and potential friends to be made. Constantly putting yourself out there to make new friends can be tiring. Most people assume I’m an extrovert, but I definitely have introvert tendencies. I also struggle with social anxiety sometimes and worry about silly things when I meet someone new. Should I send her a Facebook friend request or is it too soon? Can I wear yoga pants to your house?  Do you like dessert? Were you team Noel or Ben, Big or Aidan, Brandon or Dylan? (The correct answers are Ben, Aidan, Dylan.)

In the beginning I’m questioning myself constantly. It’s a huge relief when I can do things like send a mid-morning text saying I need to vent and then show up at a friend’s house and she has mimosas ready (thank you, Marisa) or respond to an invitation to come over with “Okay, I’m coming over but I’m still in the clothes I slept in” (thank you, Bridget).

Friendships and goodbyes have been on my mind as we enter another summer transfer season. Some of our great friends and their families are departing, including the above mentioned Marisa and her daughter, K, who is Abby’s best buddy. These two are full of mischief and giggles, and it’s been so much fun watching them grow up together the last two years.

 

As Marisa keeps reminding me, it’s not goodbye, it’s see you soon. So to my amazing friends all over the world, I’ll see you soon!

 

Greetings from Tbilisi!

tbilisi

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!

 

5 Pros and Cons on life in Kosovo

Some of the FS blogs I follow are doing the top 5 pros and cons of their current posts to help out future bidders who are researching where to go next.  So here are my top 5 about Kosovo.

PROS:

1. The people.   I’m not sure I’ve ever felt more welcomed anywhere in the world than here in Kosovo.   Almost everyone we encounter is kind and welcoming, and many of them express gratitude for everything that America has done to help Kosovo with its independence and economic progress.   In Pristina, there is a statute of Bill Clinton and a store named Hillary.   There are so many places in this world where our help is not appreciated, and where people might have reservations about being identified as Americans, but not here.   The 4th of July celebration was really incredible to see – surely it’s not the norm for other countries to celebrate our Independence Day, but they do here!

jenni bloghillary.kosovo

2. It’s affordable.   I was talking to my mom the other day and telling her how we eat a lot of eggs, because they’re easy and cheap and Abby likes them.  She asked me how much a dozen eggs cost.   I realized I had absolutely no idea, I just assumed they were inexpensive because most things are here.  I usually spend about 30-45 euro ($33-50) a week at the grocery store.  I did check last week and a carton of eggs was .87 euro (I think, things are not always labeled clearly, and there is also that language barrier).  A loaf of delicious bread from the bakery is .30 euro.  At our favorite restaurant, we usually both order steak, have one or two glasses of wine, and spend around 35 euro.  You can save a lot of money living in Kosovo, but you have to watch out for…

3. Travel opportunities.  Kosovo is located within driving distance of some amazing places – Greece, Albania, Montenegro, Croatia, and Romania, just to name a few.   If you have the time, you can drive further to visit Slovenia, Hungary, or Austria, or take a ferry to Italy.   We could spend another two years here and still not see everything this region has to offer.

4. Embassy community.  This has changed considerably over the last several years.  At first, Kosovo was an unaccompanied tour, and then it changed to allow spouses to join, and then children under 5 could come as well. I think it’s only been in the last few years that they made it a full accompanied post, allowing school-aged children to live here as well.  Our Embassy is working hard to catch up with the changing family environment.  The CLO office is always scheduling a restaurant night out, day trips, and regional trips.  You make friends really quickly in this life, and this post was no exception.

5. Walking to work.  We think it’s awesome that we can walk to work in 5 minutes and walk downtown for dinner in 15 minutes.  We rarely drive our car except to get groceries at Viva Fresh (on the other side of town) or if we’re headed away for the weekend.   This also allows for couples commute, which is a real highlight for JR.  🙂

CONS

1.  Winter/Air pollution.  Winters can be long and tough in Kosovo. I’m from Ohio, so I’m no stranger to frigid temperatures and snow, but the winter can really wear you down here.  One of the biggest problems is that people burn coal in their homes for heat, which produces an awful smell and pollutes the air.  It soaks into your hair and clothes the minute you step outside and lingers with you all day.  It’s unpleasant to breathe, and we kept Abby inside for most of the winter to limit her exposure to it.

2.  Litter.  There is SO.MUCH.TRASH here.  Everywhere you look.  Areas that should be clean and beautiful, green spaces, rivers, all of it is often ruined by trash strewn all around.  It’s disheartening to see such a beautiful country plagued by this problem.

3.  Stray animals.  It’s a running joke (admittedly a sad one) that when people leave Kosovo they don’t take a traditional souvenir, they take a new pet.  Or 2 or 3.   There are an abundance of stray cats and dogs all over Pristina, and most of the country.  It is sad to see, and most people cannot resist and end up adopting at least one pet during their tour.   The few shelters that exist are overcrowded and lack funding, but there are so many other pressing issues for the country to resolve that I doubt this problem will be resolved anytime soon.

4. Lack of personal space.  I like a little elbow room when I’m checking out at the store, or waiting in line for something, but that’s hard to come by here.  People often get in your personal space and stand just a little bit too close.

space
I thought this was funny regardless of the grammatical error.

5. Groundhog’s Day.  It can feel like every day is the same here.  JR and I often pass the same people, at the exact same spot, walking to work each morning.  We almost always eat lunch at the small restaurant on the compound, and there’s a rotation of about 3-5 things we eat, while sitting with the same people (hi Lori!) every day.   I think the lack of variety and choices can wear on you – and this is coming from a person who would eat macaroni and cheese and peanut butter all day, every day and be happy as a clam.  I share some of the blame here since we’ve become set in our routine, especially since the baby came.  Small changes are happening though, like new restaurants are opening or Sabaja, the craft brewery that many folks enjoy.   So it’s a minor con, but it makes the list.

 

 

 

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:

 

hard pass

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.

kenny powers

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:

luggage

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!

 

Traveling with an infant

Note:  I wrote this back in the summer after our first experience flying with the baby.  Not sure why I never published it, but here it is.

I was very nervous about traveling with Abby.  When we left Ohio she was not quite 7 weeks old – which is very little to be going on such a big adventure.  Three flights, a 24 hour delay, and two days later, we made it home and she didn’t show the slightest bit of stress.  Adjusting her to local time was an entirely different issue.

I spent a lot of time online reading up on suggestions and tips for traveling with a baby.  I found it very helpful, and I think our preparation helped keep me calm (okay, by the end nothing about me was calm, but that wasn’t because of the baby) and made the trip much easier.

My packing list for the baby:

1. Stroller.  We have the City Mini GT.  It’s a bigger stroller, but we love it and felt it was necessary for the uneven pavement and roads here in Kosovo.  Many people recommend taking an umbrella stroller for airport travel, but Abby is still too little for one of those.  It was really helpful for moving through the airport, especially because we had Abby’s infant car seat with us and that beast is heavy.   We also have a Stroller Bag – so just before we boarded each plane, we collapsed the stroller and gate checked it.  (As you may recall, that didn’t turn out so well for us on Turkish Airlines, but I digress).

2. Car Seat and Base.  Our car seat is the Britax B-Safe.  Abby had her own ticket for each flight (per the travel orders from JR’s work) so we knew we would be taking her car seat on the plane with us.   However, I did not know what to do with the base of the car seat.  We had used it constantly in Ohio, because we were always on the go, in and out of the car.  I didn’t want to buy a separate base and ship it to Kosovo becasue those things are pricey.  I also didn’t want to try to pack it in one of our bags.  We had 5 checked bags, our maximum allowance, and each bag was stuffed to the brim and weighed 49 pounds (50lbs is the max).   So, when we boarded the plane, I had Abby in my K’Tan and we carried the car seat attached to the base – so basically to anyone else, it looked like just one piece.  We quickly realized it would be next to impossible to get the seat belt around the car seat when it was attached, so we took the base off and placed in an overhead bin.  I’ve heard that you can gate check the base without charge, but I wasn’t sure if that would work.  Ideally, we won’t have to fly with the base again because it was just one more item to carry around, but we had to get it home with us somehow.

3.  Baby carrier.  We have two carriers – the K’Tan and the Beco Gemini.  I love them both for different reasons, and the K’Tan is the one we used while traveling.  It’s similar to a Moby Wrap but far less complicated.  There were several advantages to wearing Abby through the airport.  I did not have to take her out or do anything special when we went through security, but they did have me use a metal detector instead of the body scanner.  Oh, and they ran a wand over my hands and checked the results of that, but no one touched the baby, and I didn’t have to fuss with getting her in and out of her stroller.  And of course, it allowed my hands to be free to carry other things, and eat when we stopped.

4.  Boppy pillow.  I was a little torn on bringing this.  On the one hand, it was just one more thing to carry, and we seriously had SO.MUCH.STUFF.  On the other hand, it gives your arms a nice break when you are holding the baby or feeding her.  We didn’t know how much time Abby would spend in her car seat and how often she would want to be held.  Luckily for us, she really did sleep most of the time in her seat.

5.  Diaper Bags.  Yes, that’s plural, because we have a bit of a war on the homefront over who has the better diaper bag.  I used mine primarily as a purse and also I had back ups in it, and we used JR’s for all the necessities.   We packed about 20 diapers (which at first seemed like overkill, but when we were stuck in DC and doing a count of our remaining diapers, unsure of when we’d actually arrive in Kosovo, I wound up going on a last minute diaper run just to be safe).   We also had several bibs, burp cloths, multiple changes of clothes for Abby, and a change of clothes for each of us (that was in case she spit up or pooed on us, but turned out to be handy when we had to overnight in DC anyway).   Extra ziplock baggies for dirty clothes, and small trash bags for dirty diapers.  We also had a few small toys. Oh and we packed at least ten pacificers, just in case we lost 9 of them.

We debated on the best way to take Abby’s formula and bottles with us.  We bought Similac Ready-to-Feed bottles.  They are a bit pricey, but it was very convenient (although each pack of bottles only comes with one nipple and they don’t tell you that on the box.  Luckily we had extras at home from the hospital).   We also had a few extra bottles and formula on hand just in case, but this meant we didn’t have to measure out and mix bottles on the flights.   One security guard commented to me that the bottles were just under the size allowable, but honestly I thought you were permitted to take any amount of formula/food for the baby, so his comment surprised me.

I also carried the most recent medical records for me and Abby, as a precaution.

Misc. Tips

– It’s a good idea to feed the baby or give the baby a pacififer during take off and landing to help their ears.

– When you need to change a diaper on the plane, try to take just the necessities to the bathroom (changing pad, wipes, fresh diaper and trash bag) because it’s SO TIGHT in there and there really isn’t room for a big diaper bag, nor is there any place you’d want to put that down.  Because gross.

– It’s not a bad idea to become a master at changing your baby while holding her.  That came in handy more than once.

– 55 minutes is probably not enough time to make a connection in Dulles, especially if you are carrying around all of the items mentioned above.

– Hope for the best, plan for the worst.  And whenever possible, drink a margarita.  🙂

 

 

Adventures in Babysitting

I know, I know you aren’t supposed to call it babysitting when it’s your own baby.  But it made me think of the movie and I loved that movie.  I don’t understand why Elisabeth Shue wasn’t a bigger star.

Anyway, two weeks ago when JR left for training in DC, I tried to be all positive mental attitude “you can do this!”  In reality, I felt more like this:

elisabethshue

 

steve-carrell-nooo

For the most part, things have gone swimmingly.  Abby is smiling, giggling, and showing a little more personality each day.  It’s clear she adores me.

more abby

But we’ve also had our share of mishaps, including one coming home from grocery shopping.  Let me back up though, to a time when I was pregnant and my mother texted or e-mailed me DAILY to tell me about certain specific baby items that I simply HAD TO HAVE in order for me and the baby to survive.   She was particularly stuck on me having a grocery cart seat cover for Abby.

grocery

(note, that is not my kid)

My initial response was “Why would I need that?  Why would I ever take my baby to the grocery store?”  My mother was appalled to say the least.  Horrified even, that I would deny her future grandchild a weekly trip to get groceries.  We went back and forth, round and round for a few days.  My argument was simple.  I’m a creature of habit.  Almost every Sunday morning, around 9am, I drive – alone – to Viva Fresh and buy groceries for the week.  Before Viva Fresh, it was the Giant store in Alexandria.  And before that, the Kroger  in Columbus.  JR isn’t even invited.  I like to do this by myself.  So, why would I take the baby?  Wouldn’t it be more logical for the baby to stay home with him?  The funny thing is that my mom was seriously perturbed by the whole thing and the baby wasn’t even born yet.

Neither of us could see the other person’s point of view.  At this time, we have no shopping cart cover for poor Abby.  However, I did take her to the grocery store last week.  I had to because apparently you can’t leave them home alone at this age.

The trip itself was fine.   Except that her infant car seat is SO HEAVY.  It’s supposed to be super convenient to take her in and out of the car, but there is nothing convenient about feeling like my arm is going to fall off.   She also takes up the entire space of the shopping cart, so I had to strategically place groceries around her.

abby viva

When we arrived at home I surprised myself by successfully backing into our garage, something I’ve never been able to do before.  I was feeling a little proud and maybe even smug.  I figured I could carry Abby (in the ridiculously heavy car seat) and all the groceries through the garage and up the stairs in one trip.   Well, trip I did.  I made it a few steps before catching my foot on the uneven surface in our garage and me, the bags, and the baby went sprawling.  She was the last thing to drop and she landed totally upright (unlike me).  I turned around to check on her, worried that she’d be screaming in a second because it had probably scared her, but my sweet girl was fast asleep and still snoring.  Couldn’t be bothered, that one.  Meanwhile, I was feeling like

ross

Not my finest moment.  I’ve also had a few hiccups with bath time.  Bath time is super easy with two people, and JR and I have a nice system that works for us.   On my own it’s a different story.

Last night I carried her into the bathroom and turned on the water.  We have a detachable shower head:

shower head

So I took it down and laid it in the bottom of the tub to wait for the water to get warm before I filled her little baby tub.  I would have just stayed in the bathroom and taken her clothes off there, but I suspected she had a dirty diaper so off we went to her room to get changed.  When we returned to the bathroom, I was in for a surprise.  The shower head had flipped over so that the water was spraying directly up from the tub and all over the bathroom.  A full on rainstorm in the bathroom.  There was SO MUCH WATER.  All I could do was laugh and carefully make my way to the tub to turn it off, getting us both a bit wet in the process.  Mind you, she’s naked.   I think she may have peed on me during the chaos  but I can’t be sure because I was pretty wet from the shower head anyway.  Sigh.

The important thing is that we both survived, and JR is coming home TOMORROW!!

laughing