The Trek to Tbilisi

I started to get anxiety about our travel to Georgia a few weeks before we actually left.  How would Abby do? How would the cat do?  Most importantly, how would I handle it all?  We do our best to be as prepared as possible, but you can only do so much, and we’re humans, so we make mistakes.

This was our first time flying with Annabelle, our cat, in the cabin with us.  Previously she has flown as excess checked baggage, but the airlines we were using this time did not allow that option.  She is not a great traveler, and we were quite concerned that she would howl and make noise the entire time.  We took her to the vet in Orrville for our required health certificate and asked for suggestions, and he recommended a mild sedative for her.  Thank you, thank you, thank you, kind vet.  Annabelle was calm and quiet from the time we left until we arrived at our house in Tbilisi.  A miracle!

passed out kitty
(Disclaimer – not a real photo of Annabelle)

My mom wanted to take us to the airport, but we had too many bags for one vehicle so we also hired a van to help transport our luggage.  This was our first time flying with Abby’s new convertible car seat (we purchased the Britax Boulevard Clicktight).  It is a beast, weighing in at almost 30lbs.   Since the new seat doesn’t click into our stroller like the infant seat did, we used a bungee cord to latch it to the stroller and we pushed it like that, while I wore Abby in my Beco.  This was the most convenient way for us to move through security, because they allow me to walk through without removing Abby, and they also didn’t require us to take our stroller/car seat contraption apart.

Our first flight was short and sweet, and we arrived in Detroit only a few minutes before boarding began for our flight to Amsterdam.   The seat arrangement was 2-4-2, and originally we were assigned 3 seats in the middle section.  There are rules about where a car seat can be on the plane, and I didn’t love the idea of how we would have to set up if we were in the middle section.  We switched so that we had the aisle seat of the middle section and then the aisle and window seats directly across from that.  We put Abby’s car seat next to the window and took turns sitting beside her, which actually worked out really well (during my time in the other seat I got to watch an entire movie!).   Abby did pretty well, but because her car seat is so big, we couldn’t position it rear-facing with a nice recline, and I think that contributed to her lack of sleep on that flight.

We arrived in Amsterdam about 7 hours later, landing at 5:30am local time (about 11:30pm EST).  Abby and I waited with all of our things while JR picked up our gate-checked stroller.  Or so we thought.  Apparently, our stroller didn’t make the flight.  This is the second time that has happened to us!  What is the point of gate-checking an item?  I was too tired to fully express my rage.  I calmly asked the attendant where we should go to file a claim, as I was certain our item wasn’t really missing, as much as it was just sitting in Detroit.  She was insistent that we could not file a claim in Amsterdam, we would absolutely have to take care of it with Delta/KLM in Tbilisi.  When I explained that there is no Delta/KLM at the Tbilisi airport, she was like, oh well, bummer for you, try there anyway!

Okay, so no stroller, nothing can be done at the moment, moving on.   I’m not sure we could have physically moved through the airport without assistance.  I asked her if she could call one of the golf carts over.  She said, oh sorry those cannot transport baggage.  She also said Abby and I couldn’t ride on them anyway because they can’t transport babies.  So basically those golf carts that always look like an ideal way to move through an airport are completely useless, in my humble opinion.

She brought us over the wee tiniest luggage cart we’d ever seen.  Sigh.  We loaded up and tried to locate their Baby Lounge in the airport, which I’d read about online.  It was pretty glorious.  It’s a separate large room with a long counter and sinks for changing babies, and then 8 sleeping pods.  Here are some photos:

IMG_0635 IMG_0636

Amazingly, Abby went right to sleep in one of these cribs and slept for over 3 hours!  This was quite a feat considering that you could hear EVERY sound in this room, including one dad who was coughing like he had the Black Plague.   One minor complaint – the seating for adults leaves a bit to be desired.   You can see where a person could sit beside the crib, but I wanted to sleep, not sit.  JR and I contorted ourselves into some crazy different positions using our carry on bag and the floor to try to get a few hours of sleep.  I also seriously contemplated crawling in the crib.

Finally, it was time to leave Amsterdam and board our final flight to Tbilisi.  The flight took about 5 hours, and we were all exhausted.  Abby’s car seat did not fit in the seat rear-facing, so we flipped her around and she slept almost the entire time, which allowed us to sleep as well.  We landed in Tbilisi around 5:30pm local time (9:30am EST).  All of our luggage was there – hooray!

Of course, when we spoke to their lost and found to fill out a claim for our stroller, the employee was shocked that we didn’t handle it in Amsterdam.   He insisted the claim form should have been filed with KLM there.  I was displeased.

angry little girl

Thankfully, the Embassy driver was able to help us file our claim, and he and JR’s work sponsor took us to our TDY house where we feasted on homemade chicken noodle soup, salad and bread (thanks to our fantastic social sponsor Laura!) and promptly passed out.

We did not have internet or a phone at first, so I was unsure where to start hunting down our stroller.  Sunday morning, I sent my Mom a FB message (using JR’s work phone) with all of the information and asked her to look into it.  Amazingly, the stroller was found in Detroit and delivered to our door Monday afternoon.  Two takeaways from this trip – gate checking is not a guarantee that your item will arrive at your destination, and my mom can get things done for me even from thousands of miles away.  Thanks Mom!

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!

 

Happy things

We’ve had some exciting developments in the last few weeks.   My mind has been all over the place with preparing to leave Kosovo, making plans for home leave, and thinking ahead to what needs to happen when we arrive in Tbilisi (pesky little details like finding a job and a nanny), and we were also away for 9 days on our road trip.

Almost immediately after learning we’d be moving to Tbilisi, we reached out to the CLO (Community Liaison Office) there to ask to start receiving their newsletter (talks about events happening, things to see in the area, and a classified section for cars and other items for sale).  We enjoy receiving the updates to give us an idea of what life will be like for us.  We were also loosely keeping an eye on the cars listed for sale.   JR has loved his our car since he bought it in Columbus several years ago.   It’s a VW Passat and it’s been paid off for a while, so we didn’t really plan to buy something new.   The government will ship one POV (privately owned vehicle) for us to our next post, just like they shipped the Passat here.  So that was really the plan all along.

Until we saw the listing for a 2008 Toyota Rav 4.  We both like Rav 4s, and this one had really low mileage, one-owner, and the price was reasonable.  Operation Convince JR to Buy a Car began in earnest.  Somewhat surprisingly, he immediately agreed to list our car for sale here, and said as long as we could sell our car, we could buy the new one.  The catch was that we had a very limited time frame to figure this all out, and not much time at all for our car to be on the market.   But I can happily report that we have sold our car, and signed a contract to buy the Rav 4!  A great bonus is that the car will be ready for us upon arrival, so we won’t have to wait a few months to have a vehicle in Tbilisi.

I applied for four EFM (eligible family member) jobs there, and had a phone interview for one of the positions that sounded really interesting.  They offered me the job and I quickly accepted.  My start date won’t be determined until my security clearance is sorted out, but it is a huge relief to have my employment figured out already.   The newsletter also advertises available nannies, and we found someone to interview and hire – all over e-mail and Skype.  I feel like we are already so ahead of the game for Tbilisi!

But I saved the best update for last.  WE GOT TICKETS TO SEE GARTH BROOKS WHILE WE’RE HOME!!!  This is really like a dream come true.  You may recall that I have always, always hoped for a chance to see Garth perform live.   I’m like, Jessie Spano excited over here.

sbtb

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!

 

Our next assignment!

A few hours after I hit publish on my last post, JR received notice that more positions had been assigned.  We quickly opened the document and searched for our last name – and we were THRILLED to see that we are headed to our first choice post: Georgia!

Not this Georgia georgia

But this one Tbilisi_sunset-6

We’ll be living in Tbilisi, Georgia located at the crossroads of Europe and Asia.  The bidding process was a bit stressful and difficult for us.  As early as this summer, we started to get a general idea of which posts would be likely to have openings for JR’s level and position.  A list was released in August, but only employees currently serving in CPC posts (critical priority countries, such as Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq, or Yemen, that are one year unaccompanied tours) were eligible to bid at that time, because one benefit of serving in a CPC is priority bidding for next cycle.  So, although there were quite a few places on the list that looked good to us, we knew we had to wait and see which spots remained after the priority bidders were assigned.

Our official list came out in October, and we had two weeks to submit our bids.  Prior to that, JR had been in contact with some of the posts that interested us, and we were doing a ton of research, looking into things like the job details for JR, salary (different at each post because of differentials like cost of living and hardship), spousal employment, language requirements, if malaria medication was required, safety, housing, quality of life, etc.  We created a very detailed spreadsheet that listed all of those things, and more, and then used various resources to fill in the blanks.

JR had to bid on at least 3 and no more than 8 positions.   He had to bid on one CPC, one post in Africa, and one priority country (Haiti, Bangladesh, Liberia, among others).   Needless to say, we had many difficult discussions about how we wanted to rank the posts and which posts we should try to avoid.  Ultimately, we were able to agree and we felt good about our chances of being assigned to one of our top spots.

Then the real waiting started to set in.  Lots of rumors and talk about who was assigned where, when we might find out, past stories of people getting unfortunate assignments – it was nerve-wracking!  We also thought we would know by the first week of December, and then there were multiple emails about how we might have to bid ALL OVER AGAIN in January, although thankfully that is not the case for us.   Knowing we are scheduled to leave Kosovo in early May, it’s been challenging to not know which continent we will be living on in six months, whether or not we’ll need to be in DC for language training, and so many other things.

BUT – this story has a very happy ending because we are so excited that we will be working and living in Tbilisi.  We have heard great things about the mission and the work being done there, and we think it will be a good fit for our family. Neither of us have visited Georgia before so we are incredibly excited to explore a new country and region!

315_9822TbilisiGeorgia