The Longest Flight

That’s not my normal exaggeration, our flight from Cairo to Washington, D.C. was my longest plane ride ever. It was scheduled to last 12 hours, and we were certainly seated on the plane that long, but from take off to landing I think it was about 11.5 hours. Truth be told, it wasn’t terrible. The fear and anticipation was probably worse for me mentally than the actual flight.

We woke up around 5:00am to get ready. Kids were up at 6, and by 7:15 we were in our shuttle van on the way to the airport. Considering that the Cairo airport was closed and we were the only flight of the day, you might have thought that the check in process would be faster. It was not. I was hyper-aware of every thing the kids touched (I lost count at 1000 opportunities to get sick). It was a relief when we dropped off our checked bags and then went to wait at the gate.

We had Jake’s monster car seat for the plane, 2 strollers that we gate checked, and 5 carry on bags packed to the brim with food, mostly. After our last flight (we hadn’t flown since we arrived in Egypt in August, which is unusual for us) I vowed to pack less activities for the kids and rely more on the iPads. The issue is this flight was during the day, not an overnight. My kids love movies and shows, but even they don’t want to watch a screen for 12 hours straight.

Honestly, the flight was as uneventful as we could have hoped. William napped for a while, Abby stayed up the entire time, and Jake slept off and on. Jake had the hardest time since he’s recently begun to walk and he loves to explore. He wanted to get down on the floor and we had to keep him confined to our laps or his car seat. JR and I took turns passing him back and forth most of the time. The lovely passengers in the rows right behind us played endless peekaboo with him. Everyone did pretty well until the last 20 minutes or so. By that point it was about 11pm our time, so well past bedtime. Abby finally broke down in tears, William was throwing a major fit, and Jake was fighting sleep in the carrier.

We were told our strollers would be at baggage claim, but we weren’t prepared for the long walk or how many times William would throw himself on the ground while we made our way to a shuttle and then to passport control. JR was carrying the 20+ pound car seat, I was wearing Jake, and William alternated being carried, crying, and occasionally taking a few steps on his own before tantruming all over again.

We were a mess while we waited in a short line for passport control. Just then, I remembered that I had a banana in my backpack leftover from our snacks. JR told me not to worry about it, we could throw it away on the other side. I was like, yeah but what if he asks me about it? He gave me this look like, don’t you dare even think about it. We walked up the customs officer and answered some standard questions about where we had traveled. Then he looked directly at me and asked if I had any food in my bags. I said, yes some snacks for the kids. He followed up with “any fruits or vegetables”?

As casually as possible I said, oh I think I still have a banana in there but we don’t need it so I can just throw it away. He said “I’m sorry, you’ve passed the point of no return. You’ll need to visit the team at the Agriculture office to take care of this.”

You can probably imagine the look JR gave me.

Honestly, it’s been a week and he still hasn’t forgiven me. But I couldn’t lie! To a law enforcement officer! He put all of our passports in this clear plastic box and called for a colleague to direct us down a very long path, far in the direction we wanted to be going. We walked and walked. Well, William didn’t really walk, of course. Finally we arrived in a separate waiting room set up like the DMV. I panicked. What had I done?! Just as we were called up, an officer informed us one of our children (I’m sure you can guess who) had run away. William made it almost back to passport control before JR caught him.

Meanwhile, the Agriculture officer walked up to me and said “ma’am, so you have a banana in your bag?” Near tears I replied, “yes, and maybe even two clementines. I’m sorry!”. He said why don’t you give me those, I’ll throw them away, and you can go get your bags. Bless his kind heart.

The whole ordeal lasted less than an extra 20 minutes, but it was still a setback. We made it back to baggage claim and I won’t bore you with the frustration of collecting all of our bags, not being able to find one for the longest time because someone had pulled it off and pushed it to the side, and the conveyor belt holding the strollers not working and preventing us from getting ours off.

There were no connecting flights to Ohio that night. When faced with the idea of taking all of our stuff, checking into a hotel, and returning to the airport the next day, my mom, as usual, stepped in to save the day. She rented a 15 passenger van and drove from Ohio to DC with my brother to pick us up. They were waiting for us when we walked out of baggage claim. They scooped up the kids, helped us load the car, filled us with food, and let us sleep most of the 6 hour ride home.

We’re getting settled in our AirBNB in my hometown, just a few miles from my parents. We’re quarantining with them and my brother. We all know it’s a risk, but no one is working or having physical contact with other people so we’re doing our very best, and we’re so thankful to be home.

 

 

Back in Ohio

Surprise, we’re back in Ohio! How did we end up here?

I’m trying to remember when coronavirus really became a daily concern for me. I think it was mid-February when we started reading news reports about a bad outbreak in northern Italy and Milan. I was on the elevator at work and remarked that I hoped this wouldn’t impact our trip to Italy in late March (we planned to fly in to Milan and then drive down to Lucca to meet my parents for vacation). A colleague turned to me and said “You probably aren’t going to Italy.”

I was sure he was overreacting. The rest of February passed with visits from Tbilisi friends and regular routines, but towards the end of the month the news out of Italy was grim. We were constantly checking the news, talking about the potential of canceling the trip, and feeling really sad about it. The first week of March, after the CDC raised the Italy travel warning to a Level 3, we canceled. It wasn’t that simple, because we had tickets for my parents, our tickets, car rentals, and our AirBnB reservation in Lucca. After what seemed like endless phone calls, tears, and time spent on hold, we were able to cancel and receive refunds for everything. We are thankful for that.

The ripple effects of this outbreak are beyond my comprehension. Every day I find a new thing I think is the “most” sad, in addition to the lives lost. High school seniors missing their last semester and graduation. Weddings canceled. Nursing home residents without visitors. People losing their jobs, unable to pay their bills. It’s all awful and really sad. And I know how incredibly lucky we are, but I’m still pretty sad about the ways it has impacted us.

I spent nearly every day in March worried about coronavirus, personally and professionally. It became a daily topic at work, and then it completely took over my workday. At home we worried about our own health and the medical care available in Egypt. On March 15, the State Department said that anyone at an overseas post who thought their health might be adversely impacted by staying at post could go on Authorized Departure. Authorized Departure is a type of evacuation where you have the option to stay or go. The next day the Egyptian government announced they would close their airport for 2 weeks starting March 19. JR and I barely had time to even consider whether we would want to take the AD. He was leaning towards it, and I was against it. I didn’t want to uproot everyone, I didn’t feel like I could make that decision and pack so quickly, and I didn’t want to leave my job. We talked it over and agreed to reevaluate and not make a rushed decision.

We spent the next several days discussing and going back and forth endlessly. There were many tears. We considered the quality of the health care, the ability to hunker down and practice social distancing, the challenge of keeping the kids away from other kids in our apartment complex, whether or not we could telework (luckily we are both able to), and many other considerations. I struggled with the idea of abandoning my responsibilities. My job description is literally to support the Embassy community, and it feels like when things got tough I left.

Ultimately, I agreed with JR that it would be best for us to make plans to leave when the airport reopened. We informed our supervisors and friends, and started packing. We had flights for April 1. We told the kids, which was in some ways easier and harder than I expected. They really just rolled right along with it, even as I explained we weren’t certain when we could leave because the airport was closed, we were leaving because of coronavirus, and we didn’t know how long we’d be gone. We told our nanny, and that was incredibly difficult.

As April 1 approached, we worried endlessly that the airport would not reopen. I also doubted our decision. Many of our good friends chose to stay. I wondered if we’d done the wrong thing, we were overreacting, were we putting ourselves at a greater risk by traveling and going to the US.

On March 25, the Prime Minister announced the airports would remain closed until April 15. That’s when I started to feel a little panicked. We knew we wanted to leave, but we were unsure when we could. The situation in America was only getting worse, but we still wanted to be in Ohio. There were rumors at work that we might have an opportunity for a special flight for Embassy employees and American citizens who were trying to leave Egypt, but no one knew when the flights would happen or how much notice we would have.

Our bags were strewn around the apartment in various stages of preparation. When we grocery shopped we didn’t know how much to buy. I felt overwhelmed daily. Of course, we were also trying to telework and do e-learning with Abby, while William and Jake were home. Our nanny was there but the kids knew we were there and would scream like banshees at our bedroom door for attention to complain about the most recent atrocity one had inflicted on the other. There is no office in our apartment, no desk, no space for working from home. We sat on our bed and worked side by side, and when JR had conference calls I worked from the floor of my closet.

If you have well-behaved children, if you are managing to telework and homeschool your children, if you start each day with a color-coded schedule and stick to it, cheers to you friends. Let me assure you that was NOT happening in our home. Also to those of you just trying to survive right now, cheers to you as well.

Last weekend we learned there would be flights available on April 1 and 3. We requested the 1st, quickly finished our packing, and finalized our plans to leave. After one VERY long travel day, which I’ll write about soon, we arrived safely in Ohio. The day we arrived Governor DeWine announced that all incoming people to the state of Ohio must self-isolate for 14 days. We had already planned to do just that at the farm house we are renting but it was one more sobering announcement.

Things here are much different than I anticipated, but we are incredibly grateful to be home.

 

 

 

 

Family, friends and Dairy Queen

I’m always a few weeks tad behind, but here are some highlights from our R&R in Ohio:

  •  Being around friends and family reminds of just how much I miss them. Life is great in Georgia, but I had so much fun while we were home.
  • The radio. You don’t realize how much you miss it!  There were so many great songs on the radio, but most importantly, I’m a full-blown Belieber now.  If you aren’t listening to Justin’s Bieber’s “Love Yourself” you are missing out.  I also love this cheesy “Stand By You” song by Rachel Platten. I was driving alone singing that song and having an emotional moment and thinking how much I loved JR and I would totally stand by him, and as the song says “I’d walk through hell for you.”  But then I thought to myself…eek.  Hell would be so hot.  My feet would burn so quickly!  So maybe not quite that much?

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  • JR had a week long training in DC, and on his way to Ohio he stopped in Gettysburg, PA for the night and toured the battlefield next morning. There’s a great tour guide program that allows you to pay a very reasonable fee for a private, certified guide who you pick up and they’ll actually drive your car for you as they show you the sights.  He said it was one of the best historical tours he’s ever been on and highly recommends it.  http://gettysburgtourguides.org/guided-tour-rates/
  • My grandparents wanted to take all nine – yes, NINE – of their great-grandchildren to Build-a-Bear for Easter.  I do not totally understand the pull of BAB, but kids love it and it’s insanely expensive so hooray to the company owners.  A $35 limit per kid was set, but of course my Mom was all “well, if Abby needs something additional I’ll just pay for it.”  Mmhmm.  She’s 2, I don’t think she actually needs anything.  Abby picked out a cute cat that we like to think reminded her of Annabelle and enjoyed the stuffing process.  Then it was time to shop for accessories.  My Mom would not hear it when I insisted the cat did not need an outfit because she’s a cat.  Next thing I know, I’m buying TWO pairs of sparkly flats for the cat.  Two, because she has 4 paws of course!  Okay, but it was all worth it when Abby put on these fake glasses and danced around the store. 
  • We had our first ER visit.  The day before we left, Abby had a cough in the morning that sounded much worse when she woke up from her nap.  My mom thought it sounded like croup, and we didn’t want to take any chances before traveling so we made our way to the nearest Urgent Care.  Which was closed.  At 4pm on a Saturday. What is the point of an urgent care??  That left the ER as our only option for her to be seen that day, and ultimately I’m glad we went.  The doctor agreed that it was probably viral croup and gave her a dose of steroids before sending us home.  She seemed totally fine the next day, thank goodness!

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  • American roads and highways.  After driving in Tbilisi for several months (think Mad Max Fury Road meets Mario Kart) we were amazed with the driving. Nobody driving the wrong-way on the highway, everyone in their lanes, stopping at lights, even blinkers for goodness sake!  At our first 4-way stop in Ohio, another driver politely waved us on and JR said “Can you believe how nice that man was? This is amazing!”
  • Many people we meet think we live in the state of Georgia.  Even though I always try to say “we live and work overseas in Tbilisi, Georgia” hoping the “overseas” part will tip them off, we still confuse people.  A nurse at the doctor’s office asked if I was local and when I said “No, I actually live overseas in Tbilisi, Georgia, near Russia” she said “Oh, so you drove up here then?”  Well, not exactly.  JR had a similar encounter where he told someone we live overseas in Georgia and she replied,”Goodness, I bet the South is having better weather than we are right now.” It’s understandable that strangers are confused, some of our own family and friends still think we live in Russia.  To be helpful, see the map below.  Georgia borders Russia, Azerbaijan, Armenia, Turkey and the Black Sea.

map

  • The Price is Right.  Enough said.
  • We have some really nice grocery store options here, but there is still something that blows my mind when I see the cereal or bread aisle at Buehler’s.  So. Many. Options.  Also, every single fruit or vegetable is practically without blemish. It’s overwhelming and amazing.
  • My sister came home the first weekend we were in town to see us and take care of some wedding planning.  I was super excited for cupcake tasting with her, and I also went to her florist appointment.  The wedding stuff made me nostalgic for my own big day, so I made my whole family watch our wedding DVD – the ceremony and the highlight reel – just to get everyone in the spirit!
  • At one point JR was looking at our credit card statement and said “How many times have you been to Dairy Queen?”  I told him to stop judging.lay-off-me-im-starving-gif
  • I was on the hunt for a pair of sandals for our nanny’s son.  One night JR said, hey we have some down time, why don’t we run to Target and you can get the sandals and I can pick up some beer. Note that this was my first trip to Target in about 9 months.  $204 later, we walked out of the store with a six-pack, no sandals, and a whole bunch of other stuff that I really, really needed.

That sums up our R&R –   family, friends, Dairy Queen, explaining where Georgia is located, and overspending.  It’s a long haul to return home but we’re grateful for the opportunity to do it.

Catching up

We are already more than halfway through our visit home and like always, it amazes me how quickly it passes!  More than a month ago, we were making our way to Ohio.  We had a really smooth day of travel and received so many compliments on Abby.  She was so quiet, smiled at everyone, and made traveling a breeze – except for one minor hiccup.  We had about 2 hours left on our Frankfurt to D.C. flight, and I picked her up to carry her to the bathroom.  She chose that moment to spit up – an unreasonable amount – directly down my cowl-neck sweater dress.  I stood there frozen as I felt it run down my neck, chest, and pool in my belly button.  Abby and JR were not bothered in the least but I was horrified and stood in the aisle in shock for quite awhile.  Cleaning myself up in the tiny airplane bathroom was no small feat.

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We’ve been really lucky so far, but I’m already nervous about our return travel because since we’ve been home, Abby is increasingly on the move. She half scoots, half crawls all over the place.  It’s going to be much more difficult to contain her now that she’s on the go!

This trip has been all about spending time with both of our families.   We were happy to have a nice Thanksgiving in Dayton, and we’ve been going nonstop since then.  JR had to be in DC for two weeks for training, so Abby and I kept ourselves busy visiting with family and friends and shopping.  A lot of shopping.  Kohls and Target are addicting!

A few months ago I applied for a job – basically it’s another program the State Department is trying out to employ more spouses overseas.   There are hard-to-fill consular jobs at some of the embassies and they want to try to fill those spots by qualified spouses.  You can learn more about the program here.  Honestly, it’s a bit confusing and it feels like a lot of hoops to jump through when we have no idea if we’ll end up at a post with a position available. At the same time, I don’t want to miss an opportunity for work, and from what I’ve read about consular jobs, I think I might really enjoy it.

The first step was to take an online exam with four different parts.  It wasn’t easy and many of the questions were awkwardly worded, so I didn’t have much confidence, but I did pass.  Next I was asked to participate in an oral assessment/interview in D.C.  Travel to DC is not provided, so we wanted to schedule my interview during a time we would already be in the States.  Since JR was going to be there, I decided to make a long weekend out of it and had my interview on a Friday morning and then planned to spend the weekend with him in D.C. while Abby had quality time with my family in Ohio.

I had to be at the interview at 6:50am on Friday – seriously?!  I almost showed up like this but JR  talked me out of it.

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I was with two other people and first we did a 45 minute case management exercise where we reviewed several hypothetical office issues and drafted a recommendation.  After that, I had to wait for about 20-30 minutes before they called me back for my actual interview.  It was nerve-wracking because the two women interviewing me read from a script and explained that they would not be providing any feedback, or really engaging with me in any way outside from asking questions on the script.  I’m used to a slightly more relaxed setting and some back and forth, and that was not happening here.  They just looked at me stone-faced and offered no reaction to my responses.  I waited another 30 minutes after I was finished until I was called back and told that I passed.  Hooray!  Except I’m really not sure what happens next.  From what I gather any employment will all depend on where we end up (we really have no idea right now, which is kind of disappointing because we had hoped to have our assignment already  – possibly another blog post by itself) and what type of jobs are available at post.   So, it has the potential to be a good thing but we won’t know for a while.

The rest of the weekend in D.C. was really wonderful.  Our dear friend Jessica was in town, and she recommended that we have dinner with her at Founding Farmers Friday evening.   We aren’t food critics at all but it was delicious.  They had bacon lollipops.  Genius.  I was also excited to catch up with my friend Sam over a boozy brunch that Saturday.

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The best part about the weekend was just having down time with JR, being able to eat dinner without rushing, and sleeping in!   It was great, but I was also happy to get back to Abby.  Now we are full speed ahead to Christmas, and looking forward to presents, baking cookies, and maybe even Abby’s first Santa visit!

Being Home

I’ve been home for almost three weeks and it feels like time is flying by. Which is great because I can’t wait for JR to be here, but also a little concerning because I’m not totally ready for the baby to arrive. I mean I’m definitely over being pregnant, but the whole newborn thing is still a bit intimidating. Surely we’ll figure it out.

It’s been strange, but really nice being at home. I spent all of my college years living with roommates, and once I graduated, I hoped to never have a roommate again. Right now, I have two of the best roommies ever. They’re quiet, they offer to cook me dinner, they let me borrow their car (I’m rocking that minivan), and I love spending time with them. I feel pretty lucky to get this extra time with my grandparents (and all of my family). It reminds me of how much I miss all of them, living so far away.

Last weekend, my aunt Krissy and my sister hosted a wonderful baby shower for me. JR’s family came up, and I was also able to see my extended family (we’re kind of a big a group). Everything was so nice and I was overwhelmed by the generosity of everyone. I’m not sure where we will put all the great baby gifts, or how they’ll all get back to Kosovo, but this baby will surely have everything he/she needs! I failed to take even a single photo during the party, but it really was beautiful!

One of my best friends from high school was in town last week, and I was finally able to meet her baby boy! Normally when we see each other, it’s a quick visit because we are both busy trying to see all of our other friends and family. This time we were both in town for a whole week and we managed three visits! It was so fun to catch up and spend quality time together. I think overall, that’s been the nicest part of being home. My visits with friends and family don’t feel rushed, I’m able to actually spend a lot of time with the people I care about the most.

Speaking of which, I’m off to Columbus for the weekend to see some of my favorite people in the world!

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:

beach

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!

baby 2

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

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!!!