Home(less) Leave Part 3

For our final part of home leave, we stayed with my husband’s family for two weeks. It was full of time spent with family, going to doctors appointments, and so. much. shopping.

My husband’s parents are basically saints and very easy going people. So staying with them was incredibly easy. They were having their kitchen renovated so we were eating out or barbecuing the whole time. We also got to break up the visit by staying with my brother-in-law and his wife at their new house for a few days while the floors were refinished. Of course we had a Philly cheesesteak and lots of Wawa pretzels and hotdogs while in South Jersey.

We had some doctors in the area that I had seen before (eye, ear, dentist, and dermatologist), so we went to see them for our annual checkups. I had my women’s doctor appointments during that time as well. We wanted to take preventive measures to ensure that everything health-wise was fine before heading to our next post.

And the shopping. So much shopping. Mali is a consumables post, which means we have 2,500 lbs of items that the government will ship to us (we have to purchase the items ourselves, of course). Usually included in consumables are liquids over 16 ounces, no perishable food, and household goods that are either cheaper in the U.S. or that you cannot find outside of the U.S. We went to Costco two times to stock up on consumables. Items such as dish soap, laundry soap, and hand soap are way more expensive and not great quality in Mali, so we bought lots of those types of items. Additionally, shampoo, cleaning liquids, canned goods, and cooking oils were purchased. My mother-in-law, a pro at consumables shopping from living 20+ years overseas, went with us and helped guide us on what we would need. She is also a savvy shopper, so she pointed out what are good deals that we should take advantage of. We left with half of my in-law’s living room full of stuff to be picked up and shipped to us.

We had a small clothing allowance due to the fact that we were moving between posts with extreme weather variations. We took advantage of this and got clothing that is appropriate for Mali’s very hot climate. Lots of flip flops, sandals, and lightweight clothing were purchased. In fact, we bought so much stuff that we ended up mailing ourselves a few more boxes full of things we purchased during that time.

We took a couple of day trips to Philadelphia and Ocean City (with a winery stop along the way back), and also got to celebrate my father-in-law’s birthday during our time in south New Jersey. It didn’t feel like a true vacation during our last leg of home leave because of all the appointments and logistical stuff we needed to do, but we got to spend time with family, which is priceless.

Home(less) Leave Part 2

For our next part of home leave, we traveled from Seattle to Washington D.C. for 2 days, and then to New Orleans for 4 days. Before we left my mom’s house we mailed a few boxes of stuff and left two suitcases with her, as we wanted to travel as light as possible for the rest of our trip. Lugging multiple bags around and baggage fees are no joke!!! Plus it was difficult to cram our two checked bags and carryon per person into an Uber.

During our short time in D.C., we met up with some old friends for dinner, upgraded my phone, and did some sightseeing and touristy stuff. The weather was glorious, so we were very happy to be outside and get our steps in. Also worth noting is we had the best crab cakes we ever tasted at Old Ebbitt Grill.

New Orleans was our next destination after D.C. We had been there 9.5 years ago prior to going on a cruise, but there was still so much more to see and eat. Our goal was to have as much good food as possible during home leave – and we definitely accomplished our goal!! There was so much walking during home leave that somehow, miraculously, we did not gain more than a pound or two during that month. In New Orleans, we had beignets, gumbo (3 times), fried chicken and biscuits, fried catfish, and of course shrimp creole.

Our first night we went to Bourbon Street to have some Sazerac and listen to some jazz music. Day 2 we went on a riverboat cruise, Day 3 we went to the World War 2 Museum, and Day 4 we went to the Oak Alley Plantation. All of these activities I highly recommend- and the weather was perfect the entire time. The final day we left early to finish off our home leave with my husband’s family on the east coast.

Our break in between visiting family was exactly what we needed. Although home leave is supposed to be about reconnecting with friends and family, sometimes the best solution is to break it up if possible and have some time exploring more of the U.S.

Biggest and best oysters I ever had
Somewhere on Bourbon Street
Natchez
Oak Alley Plantation

Home(less) Leave Part 1

One of the rules for foreign service officers is that between post assignments, they must spend 20 business days in the United States. It provides a chance to reconnect with the U.S., to friends, family, and loved ones. Also, it allows for those serving abroad to see their usual doctors, get their fill of American food that they missed during their tour, and in general have a much needed break between assignments.

For those who do not have a furnished house to return to, that often means four weeks of sleeping in hotels, sofas, and uncomfortable beds and/or being a long term guest in someone else’s house. Often it is very expensive, as rental cars and hotels and going out to restaurants for a month can add up. Not to mention baggage fees, doctor appointments, shopping for consumables, and other personal electronics or clothes for the next two years.

We chose to split our home leave in several parts. Our first stop was the Pacific Northwest, where we spent a week with my mom in Washington state. After over 24 hours of travel, we arrived in Seattle. There was a mixup with the rental car company, and long story short we were stranded in Seattle for a night. It ended up being a blessing in disguise because we were so tired. Driving 2.5 hours to my mom’s house could have been dangerous.

Over the span of about a week and a half, we had our fill of Mexican food at almost every Mexican restaurant in my mom’s small town, my mom’s cooking, and seafood. It was glorious. One thing that was a culture shock to me was restaurants. The more reasonably sized Ukrainian portions were just perfect for me, as were the lower prices. But, lucky for me my mom and I shared most meals out. We also got the chance to help my mom out with some projects in her house and got her a more cost effective cable alternative, Roku. During our stay with her, it was Mother’s Day, which was nice to be able to actually spend Mother’s Day with my mom for once!!

My mom lives in a beautiful area near the Olympic National Park, so pretty much every day I took a walk through the forest. My husband ran outside most days as well. It was nice to be in a chill, peaceful area that we welcomed being in nature after city living for two years. All in all, it was a great start to our home leave. Below are some pictures from the PNW.

You’ll Always Remember Your First Post…

When we first arrived at post, quite a few of my husband’s colleagues would refer back to their first post with such fondness. I can completely understand that now in retrospect. We lucked out with Kyiv as our first post, and I will always be fond of the beautiful city.

Our neighborhood had such a great feel – children played in the parks, families walking around. Our local coffee vendors knew our order and left water bowls outside for dogs. One time I walked past a local coffee shop, and the owner flagged me down to return our dog’s tag that I didn’t realize was missing, but fell off a day or two prior.

The people of Kyiv also impressed me with their incredible work ethic and attention to detail. They were so polite, genuine, and helpful. My Russian tutor was one of those people, who would step in to quickly help with a reference of where to go, recipes, and advice on general cultural norms. Plus she gave me the best birthday gift- an oil pastel she drew of our dogs..

Another great thing about Kyiv was the convenience of so many things and the low cost of living. From Uber to Metro to the Tram, there were a ton of inexpensive and convenient ways to get around. iBoxes around the city were easy ways to pay for internet and cell phone. Glovo and Zakaz were easy ways to get food delivered.

My husband also made a great group of friends, a mix of expats and locals, at a local park where we took our dogs. They included us in many activities, such as hikes, snow sledding, and a birthday party. Their send off to us was a tree planting ceremony at the park, where they planted two trees and named them after us.

Finally, I have to say the fellow EFMs and colleagues of my husband and I were supportive and always there for us with answers to any questions or needs. Even through COVID, our amazing CLO office scheduled virtual events and did their best to keep the community engaged. I heard that if you stay in the foreign service long enough, you will run into each other again, and I sincerely hope so.

Until we meet again, Kyiv. You will always have a special place in my heart.

Getting Ready to PCS – Purge time!!

Welp, the clock is winding down on our time here in Ukraine. There is something bittersweet about getting ready to leave a place we have called home for nearly two years. This place is the place where we got our two fur babies, I experienced living outside of the U.S. for the first time, and I have seen my hubby live his dreams of working in the foreign service. I made this apartment our home little by little. We have framed photographs of our travels in Ukraine and Latvia, and have gotten some Ukrainian souveniers as keepsakes of our time here.

Along the way, I have lost track of just how much stuff we bought since we came here. We have a limit of 7,200 pounds of stuff we can bring with us from country to country. We started with over 1,000 pounds to spare, thanks to my Marie Kondo efforts in Florida prior to packout in the spring of 2019. Then, as I had some fun money left from my paychecks, I began to buy more and more stuff for the house. We have more storage space here in Ukraine than we did in our Florida apartment, so I didn’t think about the weight of the items when buying them.

I have recently begun to panic that we bought too much stuff along the way, and that we are most likely over our 7,200 pound HHE limit. So, the purging has begun. “Neutral” (i.e., not sentimental) items, items we have duplicates of, or items brought with us from the U.S. that we haven’t used in the past two years have slowly been donated in the last two or three months. We will continue to donate for the next month and a half until we packout. Stuff that is crammed into drawers or cabinets is in the process of being whittled down so stuff fits comfortably. Stuff that has been damaged or “loved on” by our dogs – bye bye!!

I want to have ample weight available to buy keepsakes from our next post. Although it pains me to think of the money on the stuff we donated, we probably have enough items for two households and honestly don’t use the stuff we have donated thus far. The thing that keeps me going is if I keep on purging, we will not get a bill from the shipping company for being over the weight limit. Home leave and shipping two dogs to our next post are expensive enough!!

Winter in Ukraine

Our first winter in Ukraine was unusual to say the least. I think we got maybe an inch of snow, if that. This winter is more like what I imagined a Ukrainian winter to be like. It has been about the same, if not milder, than the Boston winters I experienced for eight years. I have been so happy that for the first time in years, it actually feels like winter outside to me! A bonus, our pups LOVE the snow and also have been so happy all winter!!!

May be an image of dog and snow
May be an image of dog and snow

Lucky for me, my husband takes the pups out every night and most mornings before work so I don’t have to freeze my behind off.

Ukraine in the winter is just as beautiful as it is the other seasons. Sledding is a BIG deal here, and there are endless amounts of hills to sled. If coming to Ukraine during the winter, or moving here as your next post, I HIGHLY recommend bringing a sled.

May be an image of snow, tree and nature
Botanical Gardens
May be an image of one or more people, snow, nature and tree

Before moving to Kyiv, we were advised that the roads would be icy. That is the truth!!! To be honest, it is kind of funny seeing my pups slipping and sliding on the icy parts of the sidewalk or driveway that I am so careful to steer clear from. We were also advised to get yak traks. We bought yak traks, but they were more of a pain to put on and not easy or intuitive to walk with, so after day or two of use, I put mine away.

In an effort to share what has helped me survive the Ukrainian winter, here are some key things I bought that have been completely worth every penny:

Image result for columbia ice maiden ii
Colombia Ice Maiden ii boots

Image result for patagonia women's down with it parka
Patagonia’s Down With it Parka
Image result for north face gloves women
North Face gloves – Buy multiple pairs of these!!

Where to Next???

It was a conscious decision made by my husband and I, and we are going in with eyes wide open and with optimism that it will be a fulfilling, wonderful post for us. So, for those who have been waiting for the news just like my husband and I, our next post is Bamako, Mali!!

So, why Mali? Well, to be honest it is one of my goals to live on as many continents as possible. So, we can mark Africa off our list!! Another goal is to be debt free by the end of our tour in Mali. There will be great opportunities for regional travel. The time zone is only 4 hours from the east coast, which makes communicating with family and friends a little easier. There are great EFM opportunities. Finally, it was highly recommended by one of my husband’s A100 classmates

Here’s some information about Mali:

-The official language is French
-The population of Mali is 19.1 million
-67% of its population was estimated to be under the age of 25 in 2017.
-Mali’s climate is tropical, with March to May being the hot, dry season. June to October is rainy, humid and mild. November to February is the cool, dry season.
-The country’s economy centers on agriculture and mining.
-Cotton is the country’s largest crop export and is exported west throughout Senegal and Ivory Coast.
-Some of Mali’s prominent natural resources include gold, being the third largest producer of gold in the African continent,and salt

Bidding Season Round 2

With baited breath my husband and I have been waiting for the bid list for our second post. Due to extenuating circumstances (ahem, COVID), our bid list was sent a little later than expected. At long last, we received the bid list around close of business on Friday. For the past three days we have been researching what has been written or said about each post by fellow foreign service employees or EFMs, looking at YouTube videos, and having multiple discussions about ranking each post. Here was our process in deciding how to rank each post:

1) I created an Excel spreadsheet to put vital information about each post. There were various columns for differential pay, COLA (cost of living allowance), notes about housing, pets and employment found from websites, other blogs and colleagues that are at those posts currently.

2) I watched several YouTube videos by searching the city and country. I randomly selected videos to give me a good feel of the city. This way I could get a sense of if I could see myself living there.

3) Filtering through what we read or heard about each country and adding in the vibe of the country, we revised the list several times. We had conversations about post size, and how that might impact my husband’s job tasks, the climate, housing, vet care, cost of living in each post, and whether I would be able to find EFM employment easily were our top considerations.

For us, our pets are our babies, so they are important to us. We need to make sure vet care is good, that housing at our future post allows dogs, and that housing has parks nearby or green space for our dogs. We also have financial goals that we are working on, so post differential and EFM employment are important to us.

We came to an agreement in the ranking of each post. The top one was a a surprising pick for the both of us, and I have a feeling we will get it. Hopefully we will hear by the end of July where we are headed next!!!

We got another dog!!

Whelp, give an inch, take a mile. That is what happened when I let my husband talk me into getting a dog…and then one dog became two dogs.

For months my husband has said “Mila needs a sibling.” I said “No, I want to keep her as an only child.” I also said it would be a pain to move every couple of years with two dogs versus one dog. Not to mention the added expenses of having a second dog.

In April, with his eyes still on the goal of adopting a second dog, my husband happened to find the most adorable male German Shepherd puppy. Too cute to pass up, I finally relented. So here he is, the newest addition to our family, Maks!!!

Riga Trip Part 3

On our final day in Riga, My husband and I went on a private tour to Kemeri National Park and Jūrmala. It was a sunrise tour, and tour guide picked us up at our hotel bright and early at 5:30AM. After a stop for coffee and pastries, we were on our way.

Kemeri National Park at sunrise was absolutely breathtaking. We entered the park through a forest, and shortly thereafter saw a clearing, and an extensive boardwalk. Our timing was perfect- we were able to see the moon go down on one side and the sun rise on the other side of the boardwalk.

Sunrise in Kemeri National Park

About two-thirds of the way through the boardwalk was a three story lookout. There were just two other people in the park besides ourselves, so we enjoyed the relative silence and peace (relative because the two other people decided to launch the drone at the lookout, which was quite noisy).

The boardwalk extended through the forest on the other side of the park

After our trek through Kemeri National Park, we drove to a rural beach in Jūrmala.

Jūrmala had varied architecture- from Victorian-to modern. It was interesting to drive through the town and listen to the history from someone who grew up close to there. According to our guide, Jūrmala is beginning to undergo renovations of many of its historical buildings. Unfortunately I forgot to photograph some of the houses, but they were very cool to see.

After our excursion, our guide drove us directly to the airport, where we caught our flight. It ended up being a great holiday, and I highly recommend visiting Riga, Kemeri National Park, and Jūrmala if one has the opportunity to!