Thursday, April 11, 2013

Anatomy of a Foreign Service Move: Leaving Post, Pets, and Home Leave

Previously: Packout

After the Packout: “Welcome Kits,” Saying Goodbye, and Leaving

On the last day of the packout (or the first day, or before it begins, or after it ends, depending on the post and your requested time), the embassy delivers a welcome kit. The welcome kit (so named because it’s waiting at your new home to “welcome” you when you first arrive at post) is a collection of basic household necessities: sheets, towels, dishes, pots and pans, silverware, shower curtains, iron and ironing board, broom and dustpan, mop and bucket … the things that you need in order to set up a functional household. There are regional differences in what is provided—in Cambodia, the welcome kit includes a rice cooker and a drying rack, neither of which was provided in Egypt; in Egypt, coasters were provided, as were basic consumables like toilet paper, a roll of paper towels, and a small bottle of dish soap. These items are owned by the embassy and are maintained as loaners (other than the consumables; we don’t have to give those back!) for foreign service families to use before their things arrive and after their things depart.

I usually unpack the welcome kit. There’s an inventory list that I go through to make sure everything’s there—if anything’s missing after we leave, we get charged for it, so it’s in our interest to make sure the list is accurate. I spend a day doing laundry, washing dishes, making beds, and finding a home for all the little things that are included. (The welcome kit is delivered clean and ready to use, but I wash everything anyway … I think I got that from my father.) It’s important to me to get the house feeling as much like home as possible before Alexa returns from the hotel … oh, who am I kidding? It’s important to me to make the house feel as homey as possible for my own sake.

After the return from the hotel, a new adjustment period begins. Jeff and I do fairly well; we’re adults, we know what’s going on, and this is just part of the life we’ve chosen. It’s harder for Alexa. Last time, she was young enough not to notice and not to care that things had disappeared. This time, she notices that things look very, very different around here. Her first priority on entering the house was to find the cats; she hadn’t seen them in almost a week, and she wanted to pet them. Immediately upon seeing them, she turned to me and said “Uh oh! We need to put the green carpet back!” The green carpet is a wonderfully soft and beautiful rug that we had made here by Carpets for Communities to put in the playroom. After we explained to Alexa that the carpet—just like the toys we’d discussed all week at the hotel—had left already for our new house, and we would get it back after it got to our new house, she looked around some more and said “Uh oh! The TV is gone!” And so it went. “The books are gone!” “The Daddy Giraffe is gone!” “The cushions are gone!” By the end of the night, she pointed at the white bath mat and said “Uh oh!” I said “What’s wrong, Sweet Pea? Is it that the bath mat is white instead of brown?”  Her response was heartbreaking—while sniffling and speaking bravely as if she was trying to convince herself, she said “The brown one is gone. It is going to the new house. We will get it back at the new house.” This type of statement has been made over and over in the week since the packout.

In addition to things being different at home, it is during this time that it becomes real that we’re leaving. We make our rounds saying good-bye to favorite places and people. We aren’t as attached to the places here as we were to the places in Egypt, but we do have good friends who will be remaining here. Our playgroup had a Kosovo-themed party on Friday to honor Alexa and me. Jeff made his farewell speech at the embassy’s all-hands meeting on the same day. I have a feeling our weekly Bible study meetings will take on a nostalgic air for us in our two remaining meetings. (The day after I typed this paragraph, I was surprised by a very sweet and nostalgic time of sharing and prayer at our next meeting—all focused on our family, what we mean to the group, and prayers for our transition to Kosovo.) And of course, the hardest will be watching our housekeeper and her son say good-bye to Alexa … although Alexa does not yet understand the separation that’s coming, they do understand what our departure means for their relationship with her, and I occasionally see my housekeeper swallow hard, blink back tears, and give Alexa an extra long hug.

It’s a bittersweet time for us: we’re excited about the possibilities and new adventures awaiting us at our new post, but we’re sad to be leaving good friends here. It was this way before we left the States for Egypt; it was this way before we left Egypt for Cambodia; and I’m certain that it will be this way again when we leave Kosovo for … wherever we go next.

At some point during this time, the car is picked up and shipped to our new post. We use or give away the last of our consumables. We dispose of those remaining items that we aren’t taking with us but were not able to get rid of before the packout. Embassy employees come in to inventory the furniture and make certain that no embassy possessions were packed out with our things—if they were, we have to pay for them. They check for damage “more than normal wear and tear” and bill us for the cost of reupholstering cat-scratched furniture or fixing other damage.

Then, of course, comes departure day. We experience all the things that everyone else experiences before a big trip: the planning, the packing, the weighing of the suitcases. We also have to corral the cats into their crates and attach the food and water dispensers to them. We have an embassy driver, not a taxi, take us to the airport, and sometimes an expediter meets us there. (An expediter outbound really isn’t necessary, though in Egypt we hired—at our own expense—one that specializes in pet export to help us get the cats onto the plane with minimal bureaucratic hassle, as we’d heard horror stories about “changing regulations”—often code for “give me baksheesh.”) Then comes the flight … or flights, I should say. And then we land—usually in the United States.

Side Note: Foreign Service Pets

Many foreign service families have pets. However, they are not official dependents on official travel orders, so the Department does absolutely nothing to assist in their transportation arrangements. We pay all the extra costs associated with their move. The airlines increasingly seem to want to make it as difficult as possible to move pets—my Facebook status when we finally had booked an itinerary and confirmed the cats in the cargo hold was: “We have flights--and so do the cats! We had to switch not only days, but flights ... and layover cities ... and airlines ... but we have flights! Big thanks to my ‘patience of a saint’ husband for dealing with the headaches, the stupid people, and the nonsensical rules.” It took three booked itineraries before we finally found one where the cats could come with us. Of course we could have hired a pet relocation company to handle all the hassle for us, but that would have cost thousands of dollars. Although we never would "re-home"--or worse, outright abandon--Cleo and Isis because we were moving to a new country, I no longer wonder why others often make that choice.

Between Posts: Home Leave

Usually, we go to the United States between posts. The most common pattern is to leave post in the spring or early summer, go to the U. S. for processing and several weeks of home leave, then report to the next post in the fall. That’s the schedule we were on between Egypt and Cambodia, and the schedule we’ll be on when we leave Kosovo.

It’s not the schedule we’re on this time, though, because this move is a bit unusual. We arrived here in October 2011, so we should be leaving here in October 2013, spending some time in the States, and then reporting to Kosovo in November or December 2013. However, we were asked to report to Kosovo early. That puts us leaving here in April—this month—and puts us closer to the typical spring-departure, fall-arrival schedule. However, we just went on R&R in December, and we wanted to spread out our trips to America a bit more than that, and we wanted to be in the States over the summer, if possible, when our niece and nephews are out of school. Plus, we knew that the Department wanted Jeff in Kosovo as soon as possible, not spending several weeks in the U. S. while his office in Kosovo remains short-staffed.

So we made the special request to defer home leave until the summer, and it was granted. Instead of spending a month or more in the U. S. for processing and home leave now, we spent an extra week there in December for processing, and we’ll go back over the summer for home leave. This schedule works out very well for us, because in addition to having more time with the children in our extended family, we also will have a couple of months in Kosovo before we go back. That time in Kosovo will help us make more informed choices about the purchases that we’ll inevitably make—new clothing, shoes, items that haven’t even occurred to us yet that we’ll want there that we don’t want here.

And it will help in organizing the Consumables shipment. Kosovo is one of the places—as is Cambodia—where the decision has been made that many consumable items that Americans consider basics just aren’t available. I’m not sure that assessment remains correct for Cambodia; things are available, just not consistently, and at very high prices. But we received an email from the Community Liaison Office in Kosovo listing some things that are not available there at all: peanut butter, canned tuna fish, baking soda, baking powder, coffee creamer, all but a few local spices, as well as many other items that we consider fairly basic … some of those things we can get through the APO/DPO mail system, but not all of them. So we’re authorized a special shipment (of limited weight; I forget the limit) to consist only of consumable items. When we came to Cambodia, we guessed what to put in our Consumables shipment, and in many cases, we guessed wrong: we included things that were available with reasonable consistency and for reasonable prices, and we left out things that aren’t often available or that are available only at exorbitant prices. (Don’t ask me how much deodorant costs here. Seriously—don’t ask, especially if you’re eating or drinking something on which you could choke.) In this case, since we’ll be in Kosovo for a while before going to the States, it should be much easier to fill our Consumables shipment with items that really aren’t available at all or for reasonable prices in Kosovo, items that we really do want or need there, and items that we can’t get from online vendors through the mail.

Next Up: New Beginnings

Anatomy of a Foreign Service Move, Part:
4: Leaving Post, Pets, and Home Leave


  1. You've been in Foreign Service for a long time. What do you think are good as well as bad aspects of Foreign Service?

    1. Wow, Kartik, that's a short question that would require a very long answer in order to do it thoroughly! But the short version ... the best thing about Foreign Service life (from my perspective as a trailing spouse, not the employee) is the opportunity to experience life in so many different parts of the world. It's simply amazing to hear (and sometimes learn) the different languages, to become familiar with the different cultures, to make friends from all over the world (not just from the host country), and to see such incredible historical and cultural sites, to explore them at our leisure with repeated visits rather than a one-and-done tourist trip, which is the best that most Americans will experience. The downsides, though, are part and parcel of the upside--you don't get to experience so many wonderful places without frequent good-byes and never-ending adjustments. I just begin to feel at home in our new host country ... and then it's time to figure out where we're going next. I make friends and feel like I'm growing roots ... and it's time to start going through our belongings in preparation for the next move. And if we aren't the ones leaving, it's our new friends who are leaving--we meet people one year, they move the next, and then we move the following. It's a life of constant change, and that change brings the positive of mind-blowing diversity of experience and also the negative of mind-blowing stress as we constantly adapt to circumstances that never stay the same for more than a few months at a time.


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