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.

katniss

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.

 

 

 

Cat Sitting 101

One of the hardest things about leaving Pristina for 3 months was leaving our cat, Annabelle.  It’s a really long time to be away.  We considered multiple options but knowing our cat’s aversion to travel and conversations we had with our last vet, we decided to have someone look after her here in our home.  Annabelle is not a high maintenance cat, and we’ve been able to leave her alone for a few days at a time without any trouble.  Any longer and we usually have a friend stop in to refresh her food and water and check on her.   3 months felt like way too long to ask a friend to commit to, and I also wanted someone coming at least every other day so she wouldn’t get too lonely or feel abandoned.

Finding the right cat sitter proved to be a very difficult task.   Our housekeeper, Yllka, has checked on our cat previously.  She is perfectly capable of filling her food and getting her fresh water, but she is not really a pet person so she doesn’t interact with her.  By that I mean, she tries to to stay as far away from her as possible.   There is a young girl at post (we’ll call her E), I thought she was maybe 11, and I thought she seemed up for the job. I mean, I was babysitting kids at her age so surely she could handle a cat!  To make JR more comfortable I told a wee white lie and said she was 12.   That didn’t turn out so well for me when a few weeks later – after I hired her, of course – our young cat sitter revealed that she was 9.  NINE!

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Feeling nervous about this lapse in judgment, I asked Yllka if she would also check on kitty when she came by to clean each week.    For my own comfort, I made Yllka and E (our not even a pre-teen cat sitter) each a calendar with clear instructions of which day each person should come to the apartment and spend time with the cat.

Even with that plan in place, I was sick with worry about leaving kitty for so long.  So we gave another set of keys to our friend Keri, who is totally dependable and great with cats.  She offered to come by occasionally for us and make sure Annabelle was doing okay.  She also agreed to be our “in case of emergency” contact and serve as a go-between if Yllka or E had questions.   So basically we had 3 different cat sitters.   Not exactly efficient.

I’m confident that Yllka and E both gave it their all, but there were a few minor issues.

One day, I e-mailed Yllka to see how things were going (shocker, the 9 year old does not have an email account).   It can be difficult to communicate with Yllka via text or e-mail.   She speaks English well, but relies on the help of translating programs on the internet when she needs to write to us.  Here was her reply:

“I hope you are well. Today was the place purified and pour fawn cat food and water every thing is okay., I would like you to go on 20 June for holiday turkey for 7 days after which you will go back to Kosovo on June 21 but i in time that you have given June 24 is the day you have to work or can I free this day and come to work after the holiday to come.”

It only took me a minute or two to realize she was just letting me know that the cat was doing fine and she would be headed to Turkey for a vacation.  She was also nice enough to attach a few pictures of Annabelle with her reply.

A few weeks later, Keri messaged me on FB to pass along a text she’d received from Yllka.

“Hi Kerri Sorry that I write to you in this time! To Jenni a shingle is finish to buy I can buy you for a cat is to because there is more in the box Thanks Yllka”

Smart lady that she is, Keri figured out that a shingle had something to do with needing more cat litter.  Yllka very generously purchased the litter for us and left us a receipt to reimburse her upon our return.

While the logistics were a bit tricky at times, Annabelle did just fine without us, and so far she hasn’t tried to eat the baby.  Yet.  🙂

 

 

 

Sweating the small stuff

Yesterday I was catching up with a good friend from home (who shall remain nameless but is hopefully in labor!) and telling her that my boss had approved me working part-time for a few months to allow me to transition back from maternity leave.   She asked how that would impact the nanny (it won’t, we’re still keeping her regular hours and I’ll just send her home early most days) and whether or not we’ve asked her to clean or help around the house.  I was explaining that  I wanted to keep our housekeeper, so for now we’ve only asked the nanny to  help with baby stuff – bottles, her laundry, and straightening up toys and books.  I realized, to a non foreign service person, I sounded maybe a bit spoiled.

If only she knew where my night went after our chat.

JR and I went to dinner at one of our favorite places that just reopened, Pacific Rim.  We ordered a large bottled water, and the server brought out glasses with ice and poured them before we could say anything.  Now, normally I wouldn’t really think much of this, but as I was catching up on missed e-mails yesterday, I read an updated notice about the water in Pristina – reiterating that the tap water is not safe to drink.  And I think it’s safe to presume that the ice was made with tap water.  I wound up not drinking any of it, and JR just poured his water into a glass without ice.  I told him that the revised guidelines recommended bleaching raw fruits and vegetables, to protect from contamination.  Bleaching produce is not uncommon for FS folks living overseas, but I’ve certainly never had to do it.

While we were at dinner, he mentioned that his office offered him the chance to do a TDY (short-term work in another location) out of the country next week.  He was willing to pass it up, but it’s important that he has these opportunies for professional development and growth.  I told him he should absolutely go, and I would make do.  But I didn’t say it without reservations.  In my head I was remembering how difficult it was when he was in DC for two weeks, and that was while I was not working and had tons of family help around.   As it is, he is tentatively scheduled to make two  2-week trips back to DC in the near future without us. I know many, many people face separations from their spouses and families, but I hate it.  Sometimes I want to yell “I didn’t sign up for this!”  Except we did.

After dinner, we made our way home and started the bedtime and bath routine with Abby.  Our main bathroom (we have a second toilet in the laundry room) was again covered in ants.  Right beside the toilet and the bathtub.  I was so annoyed and disgusted.  Now, if I lived in Ohio, I would have immediately gone to Kroger or Walmart to buy Raid and ant traps.  Alas, not an option here.  In fact, I’m not certain where they would sell ant killer, and I also have doubts about my ability to purchase that on my own.   I’m afraid I’d buy something not safe for use indoors, and that’s not a risk I want to take with the baby and our cat in the house.  JR helped me hose down the bathroom (literally, we used our detachable shower head and sprayed all the ants down and into the drain on the floor) and we called it a night.

This morning, I had to visit no less than 3 different rooms in our house just to try to straighten my hair.  Some of our electronics can be plugged directly into the wall with the help of a small plastic adapter, making the prongs fit.  Other items must be plugged into a transformer, which is a heavy, unweildy box that sits on the ground.   Our house came with 4 transformers.  Those have served us reasonably well so far.  We use one in our living room for our TV, computer, and other electronics.  One in the kitchen for our toaster, blender, and other kitchn applicances.  There’s also the one in our bedroom which I use for my blow dryer and straightner.  We never really used the 4th one, although we moved it into the baby’s nursery assuming it would come in handy.

Well, it would come in handy if it worked.  The US plugs don’t stay in, they fall out or hang there precariously, causing whatever is plugged in to shut on and off constantly.  It seemed unsafe (not to mention incredibly annoying) so we moved that transformer out of Abby’s room and swapped it with the one in our bedroom.   Let me tell you how frustrating it is to try to do your hair when the applicance turns off every 5-10 seconds.  Eventually, I gave up and went to the kitchen to get that transformer, carried it to the bathroom, and used it there (ants and all).  I had to carry it back to the kitchen so I could use my toaster, which I can’t even keep on the counter anymore, because we now have a drying rack and bottles taking up valuable real estate in the kitchen.  If JR and I were picking our own apartment, this kitchen would not make the cut.

My one wall, 3 small countertops kitchen.

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Don’t get me started on trying to cook and prepare food with the limited space, but this morning all I wanted was some %$&* toast!    Assigned housing is a part of life in the FS.  I’m sure at some posts this is considered a really great kitchen, and for others it’s definitely on the small and inconvenient side.  (It’s important to add here that housing is one of the benefits that we receive in the FS, and JR feels very strongly that we should not complain about things we receive for free.)

As with everything in life, there are good things and bad, and you have to learn to take it all in stride.  I hesitated to post this, because the majority of the time, we are happy here and thankful for all of the opportunties that JR’s job brings us.  But I figure everyone is allowed to have a grumpy day, right?

And I always have JR to send me things like this.

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Leaving on a jet plane

This has been in my head all day.

Great movie, great scene. Anyway, no romantic goodbye with JR today because he’s on a beach in Thailand, no doubt missing me greatly. I can tell because he sends me pictures like this:

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Meanwhile, in Ohio, I’m pretty sure it’s snowing. Go figure.

I’m really looking forward to going home and spending time with friends and family (and eating all of my favorite healthy foods.) But it’s a strange feeling, leaving our apartment, our cat, my job, and all of our friends here for so long. I mentioned before that when we return this summer, some of our closest friends will have moved on to different posts, and there will be a group of new arrivals here. Oh, and we’ll have a baby with us, so that’s exciting and terrifying all at the same time!

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Next time I post I’ll be in the O-H-I-O!

Mardi Gras, TLD, and a surprise shower!

This past weekend was our last weekend together before JR heads off to training for work and I go back to Ohio for maternity leave. Mostly I appreciate that time is moving forward, but I’m not excited about being apart for so long, so I wanted to really enjoy our time together.

Friday night, the marines hosted a Mardi Gras party complete with gumbo, jambalaya, king cake and beads.   JR was in charge of the jambalaya and made a triple batch – an impressive feat considering the size of our kitchen.   It receieved rave reviews and the pots were emptied pretty quickly. Guests were encouraged to wear purple and gold, but I’m currently rotating about 4 different shirts that fit over my stomach, and they are not in those colors. Luckily no one seemed to mind.

Saturday was a very special Terrific Lady Day.   We started using this term after watching an episode of The League, when one of the characters tells his friends that he’s giving his wife a Terrific Lady Day where they do whatever she wants.  It’s a rare treat but I love TLD.

This is how I felt when I woke up early Saturday morning:

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I laid out my vision for the day – first we’d go grocery shopping, and then come home and clean. JR was not impressed, but those things make me happy! He suggested that I schedule a massage appointment, and I was able to talk him into a couples’ massage. Halfway through TLD, I assume JR was thinking “never again.” We finished up the day with a delicious dinner and watching Dallas Buyer’s Club (highly, highly recommend that movie! I adore Matthew Mc-however you spell it, and teared up a bit during his Oscar acceptance speech. Also, you should watch True Detective on HBO.)

Sunday morning, Amy picked me up for a brunch at Jessica’s. Breakfast foods and brunching are very high on the list of things I miss about living at home, so when Jessica sent out an invitation for a brunch, I replied within seconds! Turns out, my very sweet, and very sneaky friends had planned a surprise shower for me! We had a great spread of food – homemade cinnamon rolls, meatballs, eggs, waffles, fruit, and french toast casserole. We played a quick game to try to figure out the baby’s sex, but it was a draw. Looks like we’ll have to wait until May (which is driving my poor mother CRAZY).

I wish I would have taken more pictures, and I particularly wish I would have remembered to skinny arm and strike a better pose when standing next to Jessica. I swear, I’m not that big. It’s just the most unflattering angle I could have picked, but I wanted to post a few anyway because she did such a great job of putting this together.

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I’m not really ready to talk about it yet, but some of the great friends we’ve made in Kosovo won’t be here when we get back. That’s the norm for life in the foreign service, but it’s still new to me and I’m definitely not ready to say goodbye to these wonderful people who have helped make Kosovo our home for the past year.

Mo’ Money, Mo’ Problems

After looking in one of our drawers the other day, we realized that we are collecting money. It’s not that we have a lot of money to spend, it’s just that we’ve been visiting countries with different currencies and we either take out too much while we are there, or forget to exchange it back to Euros before leaving.   Also, because of the exchange rates, it’s possible that this pile of money is really only like $25 USD. I have no idea, because math is hard and exchange rates are complicated.

money

Starting at the top, we have our US money. A few family members sent us cash for birthdays and Christmas, so we’ve just kept it to the side for our next trip home. Working your way down the picture on the left hand side, there is the British Pound, Bulgarian Lev, Macedonian Denar, and Thailand Bhat. In the column on the right, we have the Euro (why can’t everyone just use the Euro?!), Ghanian Cedi, Croatian Kuna, and Albanian Lek.

We have a lot of lek because when we visited Albania with our friends, they took out way too much money from the ATM and asked us to exhange some for them since they were leaving post soon and wouldn’t be returning to Albania. Basically, they thought they were taking the US equivalent of like, $30 and wound up taking out $300. This kind of exchange error happens more often than it should, considering we’re educated adults with calculators on our phones.

While traveling this past weekend, we needed 3 different types of currency. Our euros work in Kosovo, but not for the toll roads in Macedonia (they require Macedonian Denar) or in Bulgaria, where they only take their Leva.

I’m used to the Euro now. The exchange rate varies, but is basically 1 US dollar equals .73 Euro. Since it’s our main form of currency, I’m always saying things like “oh it’s only 25 dollars” and JR likes to remind me, no it’s 25 Euro, which means it’s really $34. Not the same thing, apparently.

Since I can barely convert Euros to dollars, I have a lot of trouble when we visit other countries and I have to figure out what currency they use, and the exchange rate. Plus, I mix up trying to convert that amount into Euros or dollars.  Like I said, math is hard.

Bush confused

The Ups and Downs

There are so many wonderful and unexpected benefits to living overseas and this lifestyle we’ve chosen. But there are those difficult times that make you question everything and wonder – what the heck are we doing living so far from home?  I’m also trying to find a balance between being honest with this blog, and respecting the privacy of our families (and JR) who may not be as comfortable sharing personal information so widely.

While we were in Paris, we received some devastating news about the health of one of JR’s family members. We are still processing the information and waiting for updates from the doctors.

Living away from your family and your home state, you think maybe you’re prepared to receive bad news or to travel back right away when you get that phone call. But when that moment happens, it’s overwhelming and it makes you feel sick to be so far away when you feel like your family needs you the most.   We are fortunate that we were able to make the decision to send JR back to Ohio from Paris immediately, and his work and our friends here were understanding and supportive of his need to be with his family.

It was also my turn to be supportive.   I did not expect to be apart from JR so suddenly, and for more than two weeks.  He was where he needed to be, of course, but it will still hard to be here by myself.  Again, we’re both thankful for the friends that we’ve made here who checked in on me and made sure I didn’t turn into a hermit while he was away, and of course my amazing friends and family back home who called, e-mailed, and messaged me.

He returned last weekend and while we are both happy that he is home, I know that he feels very torn about being so far away.   It’s something we tried to think about when moving overseas, but you don’t really think it will ever happen to you.  And even then, how can you really prepare?    Right now, we are trying to stay positive and send all of our love, faith and encouragment to our family back in Ohio.  Even with all the technology that allows us to stay in touch, there is truly no subsititute for being able to be physically present.  It’s times like these that make living abroad really difficult.

Merry Christmas, Happy Holidays!

Yesterday we celebrated our first Christmas in Kosovo, and our first Christmas morning together – ever!  Christmas has always been an important holiday for both of us, and in the past, we weren’t quite willing to give up our own family traditions in order to spend it together.

We were released early from work on Tuesday, so JR and I went home to relax for a bit before starting dinner.  I talked him into buying a ham from the commissary (best 19 Euros we’ve spent in a while) and we had mashed potatoes and corn to go with it.  I wanted to make the table look nice so I used our place mats and cloth napkins that we received for our wedding.  Those things never come out of the drawer.  And for good reason – I almost cried when JR actually USED his napkin.  Hello, it’s for decoration only.

JR went a little crazy on presents this year.  Historically, he’s a better gift giver than I am.  I take some responsibility for this but I’m also very easy to shop for, and he’s not.   He went a little overboard this year shopping the markets in Bangkok, so I had maybe 30 presents under the tree (not just from him, though).  He had maybe 6 presents.  Not exactly even-Steven.   To make matters worse, I was not really excited about any of the gifts I had purchased for him.  Case in point, we each opened one gift on Christmas Eve .  He gave me a beautiful scarf from Bangkok.  I gave him a luggage scale.   He smiled and pretended he was pleased with the gift, but upon further discussion, we both burst out laughing because really, I mean who wants a luggage scale for Christmas?  Holy not exciting, Batman.  Luckily he’s a good sport. Also, I did finally come up with a great gift idea for him, it just didn’t occur to me until December 24th.  So he’s going to get a random gift in January that will hopefully make up for my Christmas (and recent birthday) short-comings.

We both received some great gifts from our family and friends, including lots of fun stuff for the baby.  In my early bid for 2014 Mother of the Year, I have yet to purchase a single thing for said baby.  I suppose I should start doing that soon.

We were invited to Amy’s house for a fantastic Christmas dinner with some of our other friends.  We are so thankful to have met such wonderful people here – it really makes it easier to be away from home for the holidays.

Our lovely hosts!
amy xmas

Tomorrow we’re off on one more exciting adventure to wrap up a really great year!

R&R

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Soon I will be leaving for my first R&R (rest and recuperation) trip back home. Here’s my very basic understanding of how R&R’s work in the Foreign Service.

Your posting determines how many R&Rs you receive during your tour – I think the norm is one R&R per two years. Kosovo is considered a hardship post, and so officers and their EFMs (eligible family members, that’s me!) are entitled to one R&R per year. That means that JR’s work will pay for one airfare ticket for each of us to the designated R&R location – which for Kosovo is London – or to anywhere in the U.S. If you wish to use your R&R ticket to visit some place different, you can do that, but you have to pay the difference in the ticket price.

You can take R&R for as long as you like, obviously subject to your vacation allowance and how much time you can spend away from the office. You do not get any special leave or paid time off while on R&R, so you are using up vacation days when you go. Or in my case, going LWOP (leave without pay, because I haven’t been working long enough to accrue any paid time off). It seems like the standard length of an R&R is two weeks, but again, it’s up to the officer and their family.

There are a few other restrictions to keep in mind, but we have heard that if you have extenuating circumstances, there may be exceptions to these rules. You can’t use an R&R ticket until you’ve been at post for six months, and you can’t use a ticket in the last six months of your tour. You must use one ticket per year. So really, with us arriving in mid-May 2013, we couldn’t use our tickets until now, but we have to use one of our R&R tickets by May 2014.

A nice perk is that we don’t have to use our tickets at the same time. This is especially helpful for JR & I, because we plan to use his first R&R ticket to allow him to fly home when the baby is born. My flight at that time will be covered under the med-evac (I’ll do my best to explain the med-evac later). Basically, this meant that I have an R&R ticket to use or lose, and I’m only going to be here until late March, 2014. I’m also thinking that as I get further along in the pregnancy, international flights will be less comfortable/desirable.
plane

When we looked at the calendar to decide when it would make the most sense for me to visit home, we considered other factors like JR’s work and travel schedule, the holidays, and whether or not I could visit a local ob/gyn while I was home. For a while it looked like my trip may not happen due to ongoing budget issues and pesky paperwork details, but we got the final approval a few weeks ago!

So while yes, I could technically use my ticket to visit Florida, California or even Hawaii, if you know me, you know where I’m headed – O-H-I-O!!!

Six Months

It’s hard to believe we’ve been living here for six months already. Time is going by so quickly. It’s especially crazy to think that in another six months or so, we’ll be talking about bidding on our next post (in addition to a few other life changes!). I bought two cartons of milk at the grocery store this morning, and when I got home, I put one in the fridge and one in the pantry, without thinking much of it. And then I realized how that is something I’d never do at home, but it’s perfectly normal here, because milk is different and can be stored at room temperature. Look at me adapting!

Work is going really well. Right now I’m working on a project involving youth leaders in Kosovo. Some figures estimate that more than half of the population of the whole country is under 25. Unemployment rates are also alarmingly high, around 45%. Young people are the future here (and everywhere, really) and there is no shortage of bright, motivated youths in Kosovo looking for opportunities to better themselves and their country. I’m also working on some of our educational and professional exchange programs. So far, I’ve had the chance to travel to a few different cities and I really love that I can see more of the country.

Last weekend was the 238th Marine Corps Ball which is an annual birthday celebration of the Marines and is usually one of the largest formal events each year for Embassy communities worldwide. It was fun to get all dressed up for a fancy night out with our friends and to witness the formal ceremony put on by our Marine Detachment here at post.

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In other exciting news, we hired a housekeeper! I made a rookie mistake by agreeing with JR that we wouldn’t hire a housekeeper until I had a job. I won’t fall for that again. But now we have a lovely lady named Yllka who will be coming once a week (hopefully twice a week soon, I just need to work on a power point presentation to convince JR of why that will be better for everyone). What Yllka lacks in texting ability, she makes up for with charm and excellent cleaning skills. It is the best feeling in the world to come home to a clean house. I still prefer to do my own laundry, but I happily hand over the ironing to her. I think I’d rather scrub floors than iron – I hate it that much.

Of course, I still feel this desire to clean before she comes. I don’t want her to think we’re slobs. For a few years when I was younger we had someone clean our house on Fridays. I always remember my mom’s rule – if your room isn’t picked up, the door stays shut and she’s not cleaning it. And then I’d have to do it myself. I didn’t understand it then. Why am I cleaning up BEFORE a housecleaner comes? But it stuck with me, and now I like to have things neat and put away before someone else cleans.

We also just got our first bulk order. So, we have an employee association here, and if you are a member, you get a few benefits like a discount on dry cleaning, discount at the commissary, and you can participate in the bulk order. Every few months, we get an e-mail with a few spreadsheets attached, listing out all of the items available for purchase. Then the association makes one large order through a military base in Germany, and a month or so later, the items arrive here. The spreadsheets are daunting. There are like 40,000 items available. And sometimes the name is written in shorthand, and you have to kind of guess exactly what it is, and how many you are actually ordering.

It’s also tricky because you are ordering in bulk (hence the name). JR does not understand why we needed 12 boxes of pancake mix. I, on the other hand, feel confident that we’ll eat them all. If not, we’ll give them out as gifts. One family ordered a CASE of mayonnaise, and they said they’ll eat every jar. A few other items we ordered:

– Roasted garlic triscuits
– tater tots
– texas toast
– pillsbury biscuits
– chicken noodle soup

Very happy we have an extra freezer!
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Our commissary recently had a Grand Opening. It’s a small store, but they’ve managed to fit a lot of stuff in there. I helped with ordering, and you can see that reflected in some of the items for sale, like Smucker’s Strawberry Jam, Ben and Jerry’s Chocolate Fudge Brownie, more Diet Coke than I could drink in a year, and Oreos. It’s nice to have easy access to a few favorite items from home, and I think the commissary will do really well.

Hard to believe that next week is Thanksgiving, but we’re looking forward to it!