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.

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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.

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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!
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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.
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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!

Halloween Fun

As I’ve surely mentioned at least 100 times, Halloween is JR’s favorite holiday. In addition to his tight pumpkin-carving schedule, he was also busy this past week with several events at work, including the kid’s trick-or-treat, the huge kid’s party, and the adult party on Friday.

JR and I have carved pumpkins together almost every year since we started dating. I typically do the standard triangle eyes and toothy grin, but JR has always liked a challenge. In the last few years, he’s really stepped up his game and he’s crazy good at carving pumpkins. Not only does he carve them well, but he enjoys carving several each year. This leaves me with pumpkin guts and seeds all over the house, but it’s his thing. Here are a few he did this year:

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On Wednesday, the little kids visited the Embassy and went to each office to Trick or Treat. They were adorable in their costumes! One of our friends had a spare Scooby Doo costume hanging in her office, and I convinced JR to put it on “for the kids.” It was hilarious, but he would not allow any photos!

Thursday night, the CLO hosted a huge Halloween party for what seemed like hundreds of kids! All of the American families, the locally employed staff and their children, and a group from a local orphanage were invited for a night of fun. I walked over to help with some set up, and I was so impressed by how much stuff they had, and how cool it all looked. There were games (I was in charge of the Witches’ Hat Ring Toss), face painting, a haunted house (which was so well done), food, and so much candy. JR had a werewolf costume and spent the whole party in a cage in the Haunted House. Some kids were pretty scared, others wanted photos with him! Everyone seemed to have a great time, and we are lucky to have a such great people working in our CLO office to organize and run these events!

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This was my job during the party.

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I told you they did a great job with decorating. I couldn’t capture the haunted house very well, but it was very cool.

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My favorite werewolf! He was going for “An American Werewolf in Kosovo/Diplomat Werewolf.”

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One of the volunteers just so happened to have a full suit of armor!

Finally, Friday night was the adult party. I wore the costume my mom made for me (because she’s fantastic) and JR went as Cousin Eddie. One of our other friends was very excited to wear the Scooby Doo costume. The Count and Countess won the costume contest! JR plans to step up his game next year and take the title.

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Creepy Clown photobomb!

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Social Sponsor Extraordinaire

Last month, JR and I volunteered to act as social sponsors for a new couple that would be arriving at post. I was excited to have something to do, and started e-mailing with them right away. As a social sponsor, you reach out to your people before they arrive to see if they have any questions, offer to get some groceries for them to have when they get here, pick them up at the airport, make sure their house is in good shape, and things like that.

I know that I asked our social sponsor about 200 questions before we came. K and L, our social sponsorees, seemed very laid back and relaxed, not a lot of questions before we met. I asked if I could pick up some food for them, and they asked for milk, yogurt, and fruits and vegetables. Now, I don’t really eat vegetables. So when I went to the store to shop for them, I stood there staring at the produce section for a while trying to think what they might want. A person doesn’t just eat a raw onion, right? It never dawned on me that you might just pick up a tomato and eat it. I bought them some carrots. And then I moved on to the fruit. I do better with fruit.

I coordinated with the Embassy’s Motor Pool to have a driver meet me at the airport to pick them up (to make sure we had room for all of their luggage). Since I didn’t know what they looked like, the driver made a sign with their names on it. I felt very official waiting for them! Once they arrived, we loaded the bags into the Embassy van, and I took them to their new home. They have an awesome house, and it’s located pretty close to us. That night, I took them out to dinner and some other friends joined us to welcome them to post.

We made plans to visit Skopje, Macedonia that Saturday. I’ve been through Macedonia when we traveled to Greece, but we did not have a chance to explore the city. We had a nice day just walking around, there are tons of little shops, cafes, and a strange amount of statues. Everywhere. One store had old military items like coats, helmets, and weapons. They also had a very cool collection of old currency. JR and I are planning to go back soon. It’s definitely a place where he could spend some time.

I’m glad we were able to sign up as social sponsors, and get some new friends out of it, too. It’s really nice to have someone helping you through the transition of arriving at a new post, and I’m happy we could pay it forward!