Saturday, September 20, 2014

Things, they are achangin'

Last week was a tough week at work, nothing felt like it went right. There was more frustration than joy and that is unusual for this position.  I think part is that our boss and boss' boss and boss' boss' boss have all changed and they're all working out how our Post runs and with that comes a certain amount of uncertainty that we didn't have the past year.  Uncertainty leads to a lack of guidance and a level of confusion that I haven't experienced before.

I'm a little off and that's OK.  Goodness knows the world doesn't revolve around my comfort zone.  If it did, we'd all stay at home wrapped in a fuzzy blanket reading a non fiction novel while sipping a pumpkin-spiced-something coffee in silence.

If I could then make it rain or softly snow, and if I only had a fireplace.... oh you get the idea.  At my core I'm a hermit.

So to make a hermit's life more comfortable we've been cleaning out and rearranging.  The biggest problem with interior designing (if I can be so bold to use that term with gov't issued anything) is having too much stuff and right at the top is too much furniture.  We've had too much furniture in this house for the past 2 years.  It's not just our daughter's move to college and the reorganization of her room, but the overall need to see the two years ahead of us and know that we needed to change things up.  Five high back formal chairs, a room rug, 2 headboards, 2 night stands, 2 bedroom lamps all make their way back to the warehouse.

Our living room is now much more open.  Our little walk-through room (really, there's no way to make that room useful) is open.  And the room formerly known as "Katherine's Room" has been dubbed "The Lair."  Bunk beds are moved in to clear floor space yet still give Katherine a place to sleep when she visits, a computer desk takes up a corner (IKEA wasn't a totally shopping loss), and a TV cabinet with TV is along the wall.  Our challenge now is finding reasonable, movable floor seating for kids.  We searched high and low at IKEA and came up dry.  The current thought is Bedouin tent seating.  That sounds reasonable, right?  Oddly enough, finding it may be even a greater challenge.  We have two years.

We're also taking this opportunity to clean out.  A large stack of shoes went out the door which allowed us to move the shoe racks to a more secluded spot.  Becca got a rug from IKEA and she's full force into cleaning her room. More items are heading out.  Books will be re-homed to the CLO library. Dusting, vacuuming, and scrubbing are a go.  Two sets of patio furniture made it to the upper deck so once I have some lighting we can sit out there in the evening and our patio isn't jammed with chairs.

Less stuff equals more room to breathe and an easier time to clean.

And a better feeling about sitting in my jammies with a cat on my lap and a coffee in my hand.

Saturday, September 13, 2014

Home Again, and the costs that go with it

Ah, home leave.  The time when you're reminded of all that is good with the U.S.  The copious amounts of food and food options (the grocery store... oh my!).  The streets with lines that don't fade after a week, and the absence of circles.  Stop signs that are followed, even at midnight in a silent neighborhood.  Weather that changes. Baristas who can spell your name.  The friendliness of everyone, especially in CA where the thought of not saying Hello doesn't seem to cross anyone's mind.

I like the U.S.  I like visiting the U.S.  I like that traveling west is easy on the body and mind and jetlag is a mild and short-lived nuisance.

What I don't like is being told that ever couple years we have to go back and we are essentially dropped on the east coast into Virginia, our home of "residence" even though we don't own a house there anymore, and are told "see you in a minimum of 20 working days, and not a day less."

Is it going too far to say it feels like being deported from home?  All our stuff and our cats and our car and jobs and school and friends (except those who have abandoned us) are in Amman.

Twenty working days (watch out for holidays, they don't count) equals at least 26 days on the ground if you arrive the evening before the first working day and leave the morning after the last working day.  We had 30 days in the U.S. to re-acclimate ourselves.

Many people plan for this trip.

Some have a family home they can return to.  A month at a family beach house or a cabin in the woods sounds divine.

Some stay with family members.  An in-law suite or a converted detached garage is a gift.  A borrowed family "extra car" can go a long way toward mitigating the cost of home leave.

Some have a savings fund dedicated to this mandatory home leave, putting their pennies aside so that the trip is paid before before they step foot on American soil.

Four weeks in the U.S. without a home, a car, or a real purpose to being there other than "go be American" is a costly venture. Having fun costs money.

Some take it on the chin and buckle down for months after to pay it all off.

We weren't going to hop from family member to family member, sleeping on floors and couches, and we weren't going to impose on my parents for a full month.  We don't have a family home to squat in. We also needed some form of transportation the entire time, something big enough for 6 and a lot of suitcases.  At the same time we got one kid off to college and another busy with her campus tours which meant visiting school after school after school because a visit can make a world of difference.  Just ask Rebecca who discovered that some of the things she absolutely didn't want, were found at places she realized she'd actually really like to go.  Don't underestimate the power of a tour and a walk around campus for a kid trying to unravel what she's looking for in a university.

And while we're still paying off our 3 year posting in the States (yes, still) we weren't able to save the amount a month of fun in the U.S. can cost.  A month times 6 people. No single hotel rooms or rented Priuses, or dinners for two. Egads.

The naysayers will argue that there are ways to travel on the cheap. Yes, there are.  There are also ways to get very heated about every dollar spent while arguing with kids over every ice cream they don't need, every ride at a carnival, every parking fee for every museum, and every souvenir.  Of course we didn't buy everything they asked for.  We didn't go to Disney or Universal while in L.A.  We managed a free tour of Sony Pictures with a friend.  We did stay with my parents for 2 weeks and ate them out of house and home.  The kids had pocket money for items they were desperate to buy and we agreed to look the other way (really.. who needs fake goo from the La Brea Tar Pits to suffocate little plastic saber tooth tigers in?  My kid does.).

And we did want this to be a fun and comfortable trip for all of us.  If we have to be there, make the most of it, right?  AirBnB provided our residence in CA.  Not knowing the city, and always hearing how terrible the traffic is, I went with a place close to the airport.  Homes further away were much more inexpensive, I know this.  I made up for a bit of the expense with a HomeAway houseboat for our place in MA. Boston is even more expensive than L.A.  Who knew? We tried cheap car rental in London last summer and it was pretty awful as far as difficulty of use and customer service.  They charged us $1000 for a scuff on the bumper.  Seriously, stay away from Green Motion - Heathrow car rental if you have the choice - and you do.  If only I'd researched them first.

Every home leave is different, and we certainly know people who go to the States every opportunity they get.  They have a plan, a rhythm, a set-up that works for long-term visits.  For us, it really is a box to check, a headache to plan, and a hit to the bank account.  If we had a big reason to go back, we would.  If we could go for a week or two to visit my parents, we would. College tours can be crammed into a quicker trip.  No one there wants to see us that much (as the lack of visits to our home in the Middle East would attest).

So we'll spend our next few months paying off the trip we had to take, and skip a couple trips we'd like to take.

Would I change the way home leave is run?  Absolutely.

- Get us to where we want to land, not an address we pay taxes to but may no longer have any sort of other connection, or a place that doesn't fit the need at this point in our life.

- Subsidize at least the direct hire's lodging and car.  You're requiring him to go back, so pick up his tab.

Here's an idea, why not treat home leave like a 1-month U.S. TDY for him with the coverage that goes with?

And really, the State Dept doesn't care if the rest of the family takes home leave or not.   Ian could have gone with the two girls... situated one at university and toured with the other, and hung out with his in-laws.  I'm not sure he would have been keen to do a month long vacation (and it has to be vacation... if he claims work for anything, he has to add days of non-work to equal that minimum of 20 days leave) on his own, but sometimes I think I should have just stayed at Post and worked because taking a month of LWOP hurts - a year working does not equal a month of vacation if you've taken ANY days off that year at all, which I had - while paying far more for that month stateside for 6 of us than I would have spent staying in Amman.  I would have kept my month of my salary.

The more I think of it, the more I like the home leave TDY idea.

Sounds reasonable, no?