Home Leave

Our first home leave was fun, busy, and expensive, so basically exactly what we predicted.  We were all ready to leave Kosovo (although right now I’d give my right arm for some fresh bread from our little bakery) and our travel home was uneventful.  From the time we set foot in Ohio, we had a pretty crazy and ambitious schedule.  Of course, nothing could stop me from getting a strawberry margarita as soon as possible.  Oh wait – the first time I ordered one the restaurant did not have a liquor license for Sundays, and the second time I tried the server told me they were all out of strawberries.  Soul crushing but I did eventually have one and it was everything I had hoped it would be. kanye

Only a few days after we recovered from our jet lag, it was time for Abigail’s first birthday party (only 2 weeks after her actual birthday)!  We had a family party at my grandparent’s house and it was simple and perfect.  She was totally uninterested in her cake, but I can assure you she has since come around to the idea of sweets!

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The following week JR, Abby and I set off on a little American road trip.   We figured if we could do the same through Eastern Europe, the U.S. would be a breeze.  Our car (generously loaned to us by JR’s dad) was so ridiculously full I wasn’t sure we would make it out of the driveway.  That’s what happens when you will be on the road for more than two weeks and some of your family members, who have smartly chosen to fly, use you to haul their extra stuff (if you know my mother, you know this included a box fan, because she can’t sleep without one).  We started off with a night in Dayton with JR’s family and to pick up his dad, who rode with us to Gatlinburg where we met the rest of my in-laws.  We rented a large cabin about 20 minutes from the city, and it was perfect for our big group – 11 adults and 8 kids from ages 1-12.   Each of the 3 levels had two large bedrooms and bathrooms, and living/family room space with TVs, pool table, foosball table, and an awesome theater room.

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JR’s brother and sister-in-law (A & S) live in South Knoxville and love kayaking and rafting, and offered to take the whole family on a white water rafting trip (many thanks to my sister-in-law Joanna who stayed behind with the little ones!).   It was so much fun.  We had perfect weather and such a nice afternoon with everyone.  We spent the rest of the weekend relaxing, making meals together, watching the kids play, and a little bit of time exploring Gatlinburg (it was very crowded over the holiday weekend).

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We had a little scare at the cabin when we saw a copperhead snake laying in the pathway where the kids were chasing each other with water balloons, which led to a scramble to get rid of said snake and the loss of a kitchen knife.   Despite the deadly snake scare, it was hard saying goodbye – JR’s family is big and spread out, and it’s really hard to see everyone, but we always have so much fun when we do and it’s especially fun for all of the cousins to play together. We definitely hope to repeat this trip again in the future!

After Gatlinburg, we spent two nights in Knoxville with A, S, and their daughter Katie, who is 5 months older than Abby.   JR went to college there and was happy to be back, even for a short visit.  We were able to meet up with two of his friends and their son, and we spent the rest of our time watching Abby and Katie play in the pool and run around the yard.  The second night of our stay was the toughest of the whole trip.  Abby woke up around midnight screaming and crying and could not be consoled.  JR handles these moments far better than me, I didn’t know what to do.  I felt terrible because she was waking up the whole house (they also have a one-year old), and it seemed like nothing would settle her down.  I told him we needed to get in the car and drive.  He said, drive where?  I was like, I don’t know, to a hospital?!  Clearly something is wrong!  Obviously nothing was wrong, she was just having an off night and I don’t handle lack of sleep well.  Eventually, he was thankfully able to get her back to sleep.

The rough night meant little sleep for all of us, and a less than ideal start to the next morning.  The biggest problem was that was one of the only days of the entire road trip that we had a really tight schedule.  We had to drive over 5 hours and make it to North Carolina in time to visit with our friends and put Abby down for a nap, all before meeting my Dad and other family for dinner at 5:30 that evening.   Although she did fine for the first part of the drive, the last 2.5 hours were torture.   Ideally we would have been able to stop and take a long break, but we just couldn’t and I felt terrible for her (and us).

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Thankfully, she crashed for a long nap when we made it to our friends’ house and we were able to relax for a bit before we had to leave for dinner.  Our visit with my Dad and family was short, but I’m so glad we were able to see them while we were there.   We also had breakfast with them the next morning before starting our drive to Florida.

Even though we wanted to drive 6-7 hours that Friday, JR and I were determined to have a better travel day and let Abby dictate our schedule.  Let me just say, thank you Cracker Barrel!  We stopped there after her morning nap and it was great.   We took turns inside at our table, ordering and waiting for food, while the other person played outside on the porch with Abby.  She waved at everyone, rocked in the tiny rocking chairs, and walked all over.  We were there for at least an hour, and it was well worth it.   She was perfectly content to get back in the car after that and even took a long second nap.   Just outside of Jacksonville, we saw an exit with a few hotels and decided we should stop for the evening.   First we tried the Hampton Inn and Suites – I ran into the lobby to ask if they had suites available, and if I could see one first because it was pretty critical for us to have a room that had a separate place to put her pack n play so we didn’t have to go to sleep at 8pm with her.   It wasn’t until I checked out the third hotel – a Fairfield Inn and Suites – that we found a room set up that would work for us and we called it a night.

Saturday was our final leg of driving and we were so excited to see the beach, my family, and to hand Abby off to another adult.  Ha.  Just outside of Sanibel Island, we stopped at a Publix to stock up on groceries for the week.  Abby was thrilled with her ride.

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We failed to consider just how full our car already was, so the final stretch of our drive was ridiculous as I sat in the back seat covered in groceries.  We seriously could not have fit one more item in our car!  Finally, we were driving over the causeway and onto Sanibel Island.  My parents, brother and sister arrived less than 20 minutes after we did, and we settled into our condos (we rented two ground-floor beachfront condos that were next door to each other).  The set up was perfect and we had the best week.  We rented a canopy for the beach and set up our chairs, along with a small plastic baby pool and toys for Abby, and relaxed every day.

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We know how fortunate we are that we were able to spend a week there together, and especially that we had 4 other adults with us who were fighting over Abby gave us a much appreciated break.  Even better, my mom had offered to fly Abby back with them as a lap-infant, saving her (and us) from a long return trip back to Ohio together.

A highlight of the end of our vacation was SUPPOSED to be a a Garth Brooks concert, which you may recall I’ve basically waited all of my life to attend.  Well, Garth’s team failed to consider the Stanley Cup in their venue selection and this led to the concert being completely canceled since Tampa’s hockey team made the finals.  It still hurts to discuss. I sent Garth a strongly worded message on Facebook but he hasn’t replied yet and the whole horrible situation has completely changed my opinion of him.

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We finally made it home (no thanks to me – I probably drove a total of 4 hours of our 16+ hour return trip and constantly asked “are we there yet”) and used the next few days to do finish our consumables shopping, which included two separate trips to Wal-Mart and 6 full carts and a trip to The Party Shop in Wooster to pick up JR’s 17 cases of beer.  Not kidding on that one.  We had two of the nicest, slowest older gentleman handling our pack out on this end, and even though it was only consumables and 300lbs of UAB, it took them almost the same amount of time as it took the Kosovo movers to pack up our entire apartment.

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As one last American hurrah before our departure date, JR and I spent a long weekend in German Village, where we lived in Columbus before we moved.  We rented a fantastic apartment on AirBnB and enjoyed eating and drinking at our favorite places and meeting up with our friends for dinner and a comedy show.  It was perfect, but a bit bittersweet for me because I loved our life in Columbus before starting on this crazy foreign service train, and it reminded me of the things I miss.  I’m incredibly grateful for the time we were able to spend at home, reconnecting with everyone, and especially for Abby to have that time with our families, it was worth the busy schedule and extra expenses!

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A pretty successful packout!

We had our packout on Monday.  We packed out quite early – almost 3 weeks before our departure – because it was basically the only day JR could be there given his current work schedule.  There is always so much going on during pack out that we both wanted to be present to handle any issues and to ensure things were being packed properly and sent to the right places (either onward to Tbilisi or to a storage unit).

To prep, we spent the last few months going room by room and getting organized.  This included donating or throwing away a lot of extra stuff.  I also made a list of the main things we would want to have in our checked luggage, and which items we’d want in our UAB (air freight).   I packed clothes and items for the baby for the next 3 weeks and for home leave.   She has the least amount of stuff because almost all of her summer clothes are at my mom’s house, so she’ll have much more on our return trip.  Then JR and I did the same for ourselves.  It’s kind of pain to use valuable suitcase space on work clothes with such a short time remaining at work, so my coworkers will see me repeating outfits during my last few days.

Once our suitcases were packed, I designated the bed in the guest room as our UAB pile and we started placing things in there.   I included most of my work clothes, shoes, hangers, a laundry basket, and then a bunch of kitchen items like baking sheets, pots and pans, food processor, rice cooker, some tupperware, ziplock bags, and other miscellaneous things.  Other important items were Abby’s high chair, bath tub (I assume at some point she probably outgrows the little Fisher Price Whale Tub, and it may well be while we are home, so who knows how useful it will be once we get to Tbilisi), her play mat and extra books and toys.

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UAB, first round

While we were doing all of this, we were also tossing things in the laundry room or bathroom – my designated “safe” zones that would be shut off completely from the movers.  We kept our passports, keys, phone chargers and a bunch of miscellaneous stuff in there, and we continued adding things even once the movers arrived.   Our social sponsor in Tbilisi has kindly offered to accept a few packages for us before we arrive, so right before we leave we are going to mail a few boxes with sheets, towels, some of our work clothes, and the toys we kept here for Abby.

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The laundry room of shame

On the morning of our packout, we loaded up Abby and her pack n’ play and dropped her off at the nanny’s house for the day.  When we arrived at home, we did a final sweep through the apartment to make sure all of our important items were in their designated places.  This is about the time the nanny texted me to say that we’d failed to pack a single binky.  We also forgot her snack cup and sippy cup.  #Momoftheyear.  Thankfully our nanny is amazing and it didn’t cause too much of an issue for her or Abby.

The movers arrived around 9am.  I was expecting 4 guys but 8 showed up. They started working immediately, and like always, I was shocked by their speed.

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Although we have a total weight limit of 600lbs for our UAB, the plan is to split our shipment with 300lbs from Pristina and 300lbs from Ohio.  So we had our primary UAB pile, and then if we were underweight, I had another pile/section of things to add.  Even with all of that, we were only at 220lbs.  This led to me running around the apartment scooping up more things to add to UAB.  In the future, I’ll have even more things ready to go if we are underweight, because by the time we realized we could add more, most of the kitchen and Abby’s toys had been packed, and those items would have been the most beneficial to add to our UAB.

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The movers making a box to fit our big TV.  Pro tip:  Keep your TV boxes!

And just like that, it was over and all of our things were loaded into the van.  With our living room furniture gone, we had to improvise a bit to watch House of Cards.

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The next day the warehouse guys dropped off a living room set and a bed for us.

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Now we just need to survive the next two weeks sharing a queen-sized bed and two pillows.  And see if the movers will come back to pack up the box they forgot.  🙂

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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.

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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:

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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!