Another pack-out survived

This one was not horrible, but could have been better.  It would have been stellar if the movers hadn’t arrived a full 2 hours early.  We could have used that time for a lot more organization.

Despite the hectic 45 minutes of UAB prioritization, we only visually over-estimated it by 80 lbs., and thus I had to sacrifice my media PC and some kitchen tools in order for Son’s toys to make it in, but that’s what we do in the FS… make the kids’ transitions easier.  I think we’ll probably end up mailing a medium (30-40 lbs.) package via DPO of linens, extra baggage weight we won’t immediately need, etc. in order to stay under the 50 lbs. airline restriction (however, up to 70 lbs. only runs us another $60 per piece, so if postage gets expensive, maybe we’ll just eat that $60 for one fewer errand on our agenda).

So, that said, our stuff is en route, and we’re leaving on a jet plane in just a few days.  I can truly say that I am not looking forward to 14 hours in a flying tube, but that’s the price we pay.  Maybe one day we’ll have accumulated enough miles for upgrades all around.  A boy can dream…

I’ll most likely be checking in from our rest stop, only because of its sheer awesomeness, but don’t expect anything but pictures and semi-coherent words… jet-lag is a beeyotch for me, and if my flight to London with Son is any indication of this flight, there will be little sleep for anyone but him (H is for Hell).  Thank god for drugs… (for ME, not him).

Surabaya, ready or not, here we come!

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The Foreign Service Nightmare: Traveling with Pets

Anyone with a furry companion in the Foreign Service knows that the title to this blog post is NOT hyperbole.  Traveling to post with pets can be one of the most stressful, excruciatingly frustrating, and downright awful experiences one can have in the FS.  I really, truly mean that, from the bottom of my heart.

We are flying in early June to our next post: Surabaya, Indonesia.  Fly America act has a couple of restrictions on us, as do contracted routes.  We had a couple of options for routes that might let us take the dogs as accompanied baggage: Korea and Japan.  We were foolishly hopeful.  Enter airline and country restrictions.

Korea will not allow any pets over 75 lbs. (pet plus crate) to transit their country.  Since my Lab is 80 lbs. on a particularly trim day, that wasn’t going to happen.  His crate weighs 24 lbs, so he’d have to lose 29 pounds in roughly 1.5 months.  Not gonna happen.  There goes option 1.

After much leg-work by my wife, we were able to find some flights through Narita (Tokyo) that looked promising, all on United and ANA (codeshares).  The timings were OK with temperature embargoes, but we were faced with an overnight layover in Narita, and neither United nor ANA had overnight accommodations for pets.  We’d have to import the dogs into Japan for a period of less than 18 hours.  I called the Japanese embassy here in D.C. and spoke with the agricultural attaché who very politely informed me of the impossibility of this, since while we would meet all of the entry requirements, we’d have had to apply for an importation permit 6 months prior to arrival after jumping through numerous hoops.  Hence, the earliest our pets would be able to transit Japan on this route would be October, a full 4 months after we arrive.

So then I did some frantic Googling about PCSing with pets, both through the military and with State.  After many different search terms, I came up with an interesting site: www.actionpetexpress.com.  I read through the pages, looking for the information I needed.  Sure enough, there was a link on the left side that said “State Department” and that page had a link to one of the FSO blogs I read, The Diplomatic Mama.  She had shipped a cat directly through Qatar Air cargo to Bangladesh, without a “Pet Relocation Service!”  WTF?

I called Jerry over at Action Pet Express, we chatted for a bit, and he asked me to email him some information so he could put out some feelers on prices/routes.  As it turned out, the only option was KLM (our preference), and he put me in touch with a broker to work out the details.  While I’m paying a small broker fee just to book the tickets (~$200), it’s still costing me a hell of a lot less than Club Pet International (State’s “preferred” shipper) or even All Pet Travel (the ones we used last time to the D.R.).

Jerry also clued me in on a little factoid that I’m sure will be helpful:  the DOD Diagnostics Lab at Fort Sam Houston does the rabies titer test for ALL USG employees.  The only quid pro quo at the moment is that the EU and Korea don’t accept their results.  The cost is $55 per sample, plus shipping.  Overnighting through UPS for me ran $75 for both samples (you can 2nd-day air it with a Cold-Pak and a cheap, soft-side cooler).  Together, I got both dogs done for $90 less than it would have been for ONE dog through our vet.  Keep this in mind when you need a titer test for your dogs or even yourself.  Overall, Jerry was a pleasure to speak with, a fountain of knowledge, and gave me all of this advice and access to his connections gratis.  Thanks Jerry!

Basically, despite the efforts of State, AFSA, and AAFSW, PCSing with pets is still a nightmare.  The airlines say they’re trying to help, but they still make interlining (an important term to know if you’re codesharing) a giant PITA.  With a large majority of posts only accessible via foreign carriers (especially in Asia and Africa), this presents a huge problem for FSOs and their families.  If you’re flying on United or American on the first leg (which you usually do), you can almost forget about getting anyone to interline your pets.  Both airlines tell you to check with the codeshare carriers, and the codeshare carriers tell you to check with American or United.  It’s an infinite loop.  If you’re flying to Asia or Europe, start planning your pets’ routes and researching the requirements the second you get your assignment.  I’m not kidding.  Had we been aware of Japan’s 6-months quarantine in country of origin after the first rabies titer test, we’d have gotten that shizz done waaaaaay on back in October and transited Narita with the dogs in tow as excess baggage and not be paying $2,200 for cargo fares.

Ahh, dogs.  Almost as annoying/expensive as having a car in the Foreign Service.

I Love That Dirty Water….

…And I hate what happened in my home away from home yesterday.

In case you’ve been living under a rock or lack access to modern media formats, two explosive devices detonated at the finish line of the Boston Marathon, killing three and injuring some 200 others.  This hits particularly close to home for me, even more so than the Sandy Hook shootings which occurred no more than 25 miles from many of my relatives’ houses.

See, I used to go to the Marathon every year.  I used to get as close to the finish line as possible.  I know that Marathon Sports in front of which the first device exploded.  I’ve watched the marathon from that exact spot, I’ve walked that corridor hundreds of times, Marathon Day or any other day.  If I still lived in Boston, there’d have been a good chance that my wife, son, and I would have been there.  And knowing me, we’d have been very near the finish line because there’s nothing cooler than screaming out encouragement to hundreds of completely insane strangers who have just completed one of the craziest of physical feats (Seriously, 26.2 miles?  I’d be dead after 6).

The three dead and 200 injured luckily didn’t include anyone I know.  I have plenty of friends still in Boston, and through whatever higher power, none of them were there.  The runners I know either finished before the blasts or weren’t allowed near the site after the blasts.  For me, everything worked out.  For some other families, everything went wrong.

What kind of cowardice would drive someone to blow up hundreds of people who are wildly cheering on and encouraging thousands of perfect strangers to push just a little harder and cross that finish line?  Who would think that blowing up IEDs at a Marathon would send any kind of message other than the fact that the perpetrator is a sub-human psychopath with no regard for the collective community and mass showing of good will that is a Marathon’s cheering section?  Seriously, what the f*ck?

I’m too mad and too heartbroken to try to place blame, but I do know that the 24-hour news culture has something to do with it.  Just like Aurora, CO, Sandy Hook, CT, the VA Tech shootings, the DC snipers, and even Columbine, this incident will be the center of the media universe until the next big tragedy comes along (or worse, until we are desensitized enough that we don’t care anymore).  If it wasn’t an international or domestic terror group trying to “make a point” (And what point would that be?  Running 26 miles sucks and is really hard?) or trying to chip away a little more at our sense of security and freedom, and it was some disgruntled individual or individuals, don’t you think that maybe the media coverage they are getting could have in some way influenced their decision to carry out this horrific act of senseless violence?

But here’s the thing: this event didn’t scare us.  Bostonians are tough bastards, and rather than tuck their tails and run and hide, hundreds of first responders and spectators rushed TOWARDS the explosions and helped to care for the wounded, helped to provide access to the ambulances by tearing down the fences and barriers and clearing the debris without regard for the potential of other blasts.  Doctors and nurses who had JUST RUN 26.2 MILES ran straight to the medical tents and began triage and treatment of the wounded.  No water, no rest, no nothing.  Just instinct, adrenaline, and good will.

So f*ck you, whoever did this.  I hope you’re caught, prosecuted, and never again see the light of day.  And guess what, YOU DIDN’T WIN.  We won.  Boston won.  The American People won.  While we lost lives and limbs, we showed the world that there still is hope for humanity and American society.  We banded together and helped our fellow man, woman, and child.  Just like we do every time something this horrific happens.

I’ve never been prouder of Boston.

Language Training Redux

Well, dear readers, I now have an excuse for not updating this blog as often as I should: bahasa Indonesia!  Yep, I’m back in language training.  The same language training that damn near killed me last time around.  I’m happy to report it’s going better this time.  Something about my head being in a different place, I guess.

I’m enrolled in the FAST course at FSI, a survival-skills language course of sorts.  It’ll give me a basic knowledge of Indonesian, with the capacity to communicate on the most basic level.  It’s an 8-week course, and I’m lucky to be in a class of mostly EFMs.  I’m strongly considering extending that training by 4-6 weeks, as there’s only one FSO who is receiving the full 24 weeks of instruction, and my extending won’t be a burden on the department’s already-strained resources.

Thus far, I’m picking up and retaining things a lot better.  I can form simple sentences, am beginning to understand the roots and affixations (and their purposes and meanings), and more or less get the structure of the language and its syntax.  I also think that I’ve at least picked up some words from my wife and the constant drone of Indonesian TV in the background (my wife watches it all the time) at least has me recognizing some words and getting a feel for the cadence.  I also found some open-source language materials and texts, so I will be using those to further my learning.

In other news, I may actually start working in a kitchen soon.  I’ve been in discussion with a local chef who runs a teaching-oriented restaurant and culinary workshop.  He’s looking for some help in the kitchen both for dinner services and for the cooking workshops.  He’s been impressed enough with my chops (literally, heh) after seeing me work in 2 cooking classes here at Oakwood, that he’s considering offering me some hours.  Sa-weet.  I’m keeping my fingers crossed for this one, as I feel it’s a real foot-in-the-door opportunity for me.  I have always wanted to work in a commercial kitchen, and this is as good a chance as any.

My shoulder is now about 75 percent healed/rehabilitated.  Well, it’s 100 percent healed, but I’m only at about 75 percent mobility and strength.  Most of the deep surgical pain has ceased, the infection seems to have cleared up, and I’m really only left with the muscle pain that comes with trying to regain my full range of motion.  My only setbacks have been when I pull or aggravate something in the joint, but these are just a few minutes of pain and my confidence level with my left arm has soared recently.  I’m pretty much fully capable of everyday activities again, pain-free, and working to get back to sports.  I’d really like to be able to swim and surf in Indonesia, and possibly get back into golf and tennis.  A healthy left shoulder will be helpful in all of these things.

So there’s the update.  We’ve got a lot of work ahead of us before our June departure.  The dog shipping thing is a long, expensive, and painful process, but that’s another post altogether.  Let’s just say that if you’re thinking about a career as a diplomat, you should really reconsider your stance on pets if you have them.  While they’re part of the family and a good source of continuity between moves throughout their lifespans, they’re damn expensive and complicated to move around with you.

Mahalo.

My first week of language training was….

….non-existent.  I went in Monday for orientation despite the beginnings of a cold rearing its ugly head.  Sat thru the administrative stuff (no, it didn’t change since September, though there’s rumors of a new intro video being produced, so you have that to look forward to), sat through the Thai/Indonesian orientation, sat through the Indonesian orientation/goal setting, went home at noon, didn’t go back again last week.

That lovely cold took me and Son out this week in the worst way.  Missed 4 days of training, Son missed 5 days of school.  104-degree fevers and a hacking cough kept us worried and Son up all night most nights.  A nasty sore throat and sinus pressure-qua-infection kept me miserable and out of class.  We’re finally feeling better, but now the Wife has it.  Hooray for infectious diseases in close-knit communities!  As the director of Son’s school told me, “There’s something going around.”  Thanks for that tidbit!

So, I missed week 1 of 8 in Indonesian training.  But I made 500 flash cards, and think I can recall about 50 of them.  I can also put basic sentences together: Saya orang Inggris.  Saya punya istri.  Nama istri saya Joanne.  Saya tinggal di Oakwood di Falls Church.  Saya mau perjalanan ki Indonesia.  Good times.  Tidak buruk.

Despite feeling like death this week, I was at least a little productive in learning.  So that’s nice.  I was totally off the cooking bandwagon, however, and we mostly scrounged for food in Chez Expat Chef when we weren’t getting delivery or take-out.  Did manage to pull together a taco salad on Friday with an amazing creamy cilantro-lime dressing.  Mmm-mmm.

Still feeling the effects of being sick for a full week, that’s about all the blog-posting goodness I have in me.  You’ll have to wait until next week when I’m on the verge of suicide from the EPAP application process (I passed the writing exam, natch) and beating my head against my Kamus Bahasa Indonesia for another post.  It may even be whinier than this one.

Mahalo.

My long absence

Indeed, it has been a while since I last blogged.  The recipe the other day was a cross-post from my other blog, and was actually an error.  For whatever reason, when I posted that recipe to the other site, WordPress also overwrote the 1,000-plus word post I had written on this site.  Humph.

Anyways, I’m trying to get back into blogging.  I promise I’ll write more as the days get longer.  I’ll have a lot more to say since I will be starting the FAST Indonesian course at FSI in February, dealing with selling 2 cars, packing out, shipping dogs, and basically uprooting again come June.  You know, the fun stuff.  I think it may be easier this time since it isn’t such a novel process anymore.  But we all know that there are always snafus in the Foreign Service life, and well, we’ll just cross those bridges when we come to them.

The reason for my blog silence was that I underwent shoulder surgery on 12/21.  Merry freaking Christmas to me.  My holiday was spent in a Percocet-induced haze, and may have involved some presents being opened, some napping (err, passing out), and a whole lot of cryo-therapy for my surgical site.  It was arthroscopic, so the surgery wasn’t that invasive, but I had a lot of damage in the shoulder due to repetitive dislocations over the last 18 years.  It wasn’t pretty.  To top all of that off, I developed an infection in the shoulder last Sunday (so not only was my shoulder throbbing but I also felt like death due to hefty doses of antibiotics and had to watch the Patriots lose to the effing Ravens – I may have asked my wife to kill me at several points in the day; luckily she didn’t oblige).

I’m currently in physical therapy, trying to regain the range of motion I used to have, and spend inordinate amounts of time each day stretching out the muscles around my shoulder.  It’s excruciating at times, but necessary.  I’m looking forward to having a shoulder that no longer slips out at will, and maybe even get back into swimming and surfing when we get to post.  A boy can dream, right?

Otherwise, things have been pretty normal, and that is good.  Being in the U.S. is kind of centering for me.  I have a different set of priorities here, and it helps me re-focus and re-energize for our next tour.  Living in SE Asia will be an interesting and rewarding experience, for sure, but it will also be draining and frustrating.  Overseas life is just like that… unless you’re in Europe or Australia, it can be difficult to navigate daily life (I’m sure Europe and Australia have their share of problems too).  For me, I’ll have the added stress of not speaking Indonesian very well.  The FAST course is basically survival language capacity.  I’ll need to take classes over there in order to improve, and I do believe that to be in the cards.

For now, I’m going to enjoy my last few months in the States, keep seeing friends old and new, and mentally prepare myself for the ensuing chaos May will surely be.

Potage Parmentier

Winter has arrived in DC in the form of a cold snap (eff you, 20 degrees) and some trace amounts of snow this past Wednesday and coming this afternoon.  With these events has also arrived my desire to either hibernate or make a lot of stews and soups.  Since I can’t rightly do the former, I’ll stick to the latter.

Perusing the Farmer’s Market in Falls Church this weekend, I came across some beautiful leeks.  Feeling the cold in the air, I quickly decided to grab 2 bunches with a lovely, luxurious soup on my mind.  We made our way through the rest of the market, I picked up a few more ingredients, and then we went home to warm up with coffee and blankets.  I let the leeks sit in the fridge, almost forgotten until I went o a physical therapy appointment on Tuesday morning.  After crossing the ice planet Hoth (i.e. the 2-block walk to the office), I resolved to make those leeks into something to take the chill out of my bones.

Enter potage parmentier – potato leek soup.  It’s so deliciously simple that it should be a staple of everyone’s winter diet.  And if you live in a tropical environment there’s vicchyssoise – a cold version that’s just as lovely.  Each time I cook this soup, I channel the spirit of Julia Child because her recipe is still the best.  I’ve tweaked it a little over the years, but it’s more of an homage to her than a change on perfection.  I also usually conjure up this SNL skit whenever I make a JC recipe, as it’s so hilariously perfect.

The recipe is so basic, and I’m pretty sure you can find all the ingredients just about anywhere in the world.  I found leeks on a regular basis in the D.R., and while no one there knew what to do with them, I savored each opportunity I had to work with them, as they are one of my very favorite vegetables.  Here’s what you need:

  • 3 leeks, trimmed and thoroughly washed, then thinly sliced (white and light green parts only)
  • 4-5 russet potatoes, peeled and cut into half-inch half moons
  • 1 stick unsalted butter, divided
  • water
  • 1 pint good vegetable or chicken stock
  • 1/2 cup light or heavy cream
  • fresh chives, chopped (for garnish)

JC’s recipe calls for you to throw all the ingredients in a pot, cover them with water and stock, and simmer for 30-45 minutes to cook the potatoes through, then blend it in batches (or hit it with an immersion blender) to purée it.  I prefer to slowly sautée my leeks, covered, in 5 Tbsp butter and a generous pinch of salt for about 20 minutes before adding the potatoes, water, and stock.  This brings out some of the sweetness of the leeks, and makes their presence a little more forward in the dish. Your mileage may vary.  Whichever method you use, you’ll want to finish the now-creamy soup with some cream and the remaining butter while adding salt and fresh cracked black pepper to taste.  Ladle out into bowls, garnish with the chives, and serve with a good crusty French bread (boulés are a better choice than baguettes here).

For the vichyssoise, you can follow all the same steps, but skip the cream until serving time.  You definitely want to add the last bit of butter an incorporate it into the soup, however.  Let it cool to room temperature, then chill overnight in the fridge.  When ready to serve, let it sit for about an hour, add the cream and mix well.  Ladle into bowls, and garnish with chives, as above.  You may also want to consider garden or field cress as a garnish, as its peppery flavor complements the soup nicely.

As I roll through my winter repertoire, I’ll try to update this site with some of the soups and stews I concoct.  Everyone should have a few good winter dishes under their belt to survive these long, cold days until Spring finally arrives.