Sunday, July 27, 2008

The Three Flavors of Drexel (Marvin J. Perry)

Drexel, a U.S. furniture company out of North Carolina, supplies much of the furniture for U.S. State Department residences around the world. From our experience to date, the furniture is solidly built and heavy to move (!), unlike some of our IKEA furniture.

From a recent livelines discussion, there appears to be three common furniture lines purchased: (my own labels) the American heritage, coastal compliments and garden rattan. We happen to have all three collections in our apartment so I thought I would share a few furniture details.

Garden Rattan, my personal favorite:

Coastal Compliments, brings back memories of U.S. beach vacations:

and American Heritage:

One funny story about the same furniture used around the world was recently shared on FSParent, a Yahoo group for FSO parents. It was about a family that had just arrived at their new post with only items in their suitcases. After unpacking them, the kids became really upset and asked, “where are all our toys?” The parents explained that it would take a while since UAB and HHE had to arrive at different times. The kids screamed back, “but our furniture is already here!”

Update: Although most of our current furniture is Drexel Heritage, I learned that the State Department orders from Marvin J. Perry which carries other manufacturers. They also supply Marriott hotels and Sunrise Assist Living Centers. Find company information on their website.

Monday, July 21, 2008

Getting Used to Having a Cook and a Nanny

We lucked out with our first post being in the "nanny belt" - a term used in livelines discussions for the group of countries that have very affordable household help. At first I thought having help would be an additional luxury, but now I see how - at least in Kolkata - it is a better way to get all that needs to be done in a day.

With running water that is not acceptable to drink, we switched into camping mode the first few days in our temporary apartment. Baby bottles need to be washed three times: regular water, distilled water, then boiled water. Fruits and vegetables need to be sanitized - most popular way is with bleach - before eating.

It is also rare to find everything you need at one store, since stores tend to specialize in one thing or the other. I was thinking of starting a cookie diet for the convenience but I couldn't convince the rest of the family.

Also, it is very hard to schlep Sicily around on shopping trips - no carts with seats and we have given up using the umbrella stroller on sidewalks, too much waste (of every imaginable kind) and broken masonry.

Then Bina and Krishna came into our lives and everything was back to normal. They are two very graceful Nepali sisters that have been working for Foreign Service Officers for many years. Again, we got lucky with being able to hire them. They worked for an officer that just left, so we were in the right place at the right time.

Krishna, the cook, has lived in (to name a few) England, France, Italy and Lebanon. She starts her morning by going food shopping and then comes to our apartment to cook wonderful meals. Since they are both vegetarian, she also knows how to make amazing vegetarian dishes with meat replacements such as soy flour and green papaya. After our stint as vegans (good preparation for India) we can really appreciate how hard it is to make dishes that taste as hearty and flavorful as meat dishes. The image above is of her shepards pie.

Bina and Krishna are very reliable and dedicated. After talking with some expats here for private companies, it can be very hard to find someone that is reliable. One woman has hired and fired three people so far.

Sicily has decided to help as well, since the floors need to be swept every day.

Friday, July 18, 2008

Look No Further for State Department Intrigue

And as IMDB also lists: action, adventure, drama, romance and thrills. It's State Department: File 649, the 1949 movie of a consular officer in Mongolia. Highly recommended by Kolkata's consular section chief and GSO, you find you'll want a copy to cherish forever.

Highlights include a short dramatic version of the oral exam, training at FSI and statements such as "Foreign Service Officers must keep their eyes and ears open at all times." We especially enjoyed how chic all of the Americans looked, no matter the situation.

What's in the Welcome Kit?

Since this is our first post, I was unsure of what would be in a welcome kit, temporary items offered and used until your UAB and/or HHE arrives. All posts may not offer a welcome kit and may have different items, but here is what was in ours:

6 dinner plates
6 dessert plates
6 cereal/soup bowls
6 cups
6 saucers
6 coffee mugs
2 serving bowls
6 water glasses
4 dinner forks
4 salad forks
4 dinner knives
4 tea spoons
4 table spoons
1 butter knife
1 sugar spoon
1 salt and pepper set
1 one quart pot with lid
1 two quart pot with lid
1 colander
1 skillet
1 tea kettle
1 tea strainer
3 food containers with lids
1 slotted spoon
1 kitchen spoon
1 cooking fork
5 kitchen knives of various shapes and sizes
1 small flower vase
1 hot pot
1 flash light with batteries
1 coffee maker
1 can opener
1 carving board
1 dish drainer
1 pitcher
1 measuring cup
1 peeler
1 carafe
1 serving tray
1 cutlery tray
1 bottle opener
6 table mats
1 iron
1 ironing board
1 toaster
1 ashtray
17 hangers
1 scissor
1 tool set
2 queen bed sheets
1 bed spread
1 blanket
2 kitchen towels
2 pillows
2 pillowcases
2 hand towels
2 bath towels
2 bath mats
2 paper towel rolls
2 toilet paper rolls
2 toilet soap
1 bucket
1 bucket with lid

The TDY apartment we are staying in also has shower curtains for all bathrooms and ice cube trays that are not officially listed in the welcome kit.

I took some well given advice before we left and mailed packages to our Kolkata diplomatic address (4 weeks in advance!) with things that we might have needed. Those items sent of greatest benefit have been: more diapers, dog food and treats, dog toys, more Sicily toys and books, standard medicines like Tynenol, and extra kitchen towels.

Items I wish I sent ahead: good ground coffee, safely packed Dreft laundry detergent, a few extra bath towels and scented candles.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

The Finale on Getting Coco to Kolkata

The two biggest lessons from moving the dog were: 1. each airport's customs requirements can be different in the country you are traveling to, and 2. FLY LUFTHANSA!

As I mentioned in a previous post, to meet Kolkata's requirements we had to bring Coco in as accompanied baggage not as cargo, which meant she had to be checked in as baggage with someone on the same flight.

And in order not to fly her the overwhelming DC-NYC-Frankfurt-Kolkata route, since we had to be in NYC before leaving for DHS consultations, Alan flew back to Washington D.C. so that she would fly accompanied DC-Frankfurt-Kolkata.

With all of the paperwork in hand, our biggest obstacle was putting her on the United flight from DC to Frankfurt in a series 700 crate. Ideally, the flight would have been Lufthansa with a United code share but we ended up with a United flight.

Lufthansa really gets traveling with animals, especially large dogs. We were even able to confirm her as accompanied baggage for the Frankfurt to Kolkata leg over the phone. United wasn't so easy. Every time we called we received a different answer on the series 700 crate.

Club Pet International met us at the airport with Coco in a prepared crate. She had been boarding with Club Pet while we were in NYC. Then we got really lucky.

We met the dream United representative that said the words "We'll get you taken care of" when Coco entered the airport. During the processing, another United employee ran up to our saintly United employee with a "Wait!" and started questioning Coco's paperwork and specifications. But our rep calmed everyone down and got the job done.

With the biggest obstacle behind them, Alan and Coco flew to Frankfurt after an aircraft malfunction, downed Canadian air traffic control computer and gate miscommunication just in time to miss our connecting flight. The one where we all were supposed to meet up and arrive in Kolkata together.

Since they would have to wait another 24 hours for the next flight, Lufthansa put Coco in their air-conditioned facility to wait for the next flight. She ended up in the horse pen, able to run around and sleep outside of her crate until the next flight.

In the meantime, our Consulate shipping extraordinaire, laid the ground work for not only getting Coco through customs but getting her out first.

After they landed, the spectacle at the Kolkata airport began. 7 custom agents came up to Alan and Coco to assure the situation met all requirements and as she was carted out of baggage claim in her large crate, the airport crowd started humming with questions on what the large creature was. Most often the guess was a German Shepard.

From the reaction of Consulate employees so far, she is the largest dog ever to live on the compound. So far we have been able to satisfy her with walks around the compound and ball catching on the green space. Next up, a long walk to Victoria Memorial Hall where she can visit with the stray horses, dogs and herding goats.

Photo of Coco at her favorite place in Kolkata, in the kitchen with Krishna and Bina.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

And We Arrive in Kolkata

Alan and Coco's flight from Washington D.C. was delayed causing them to miss the connecting flight, so we had two separate arrivals: Sicily and I on Saturday night, Alan and Coco on Sunday night. Each time, two people met us at the gate entrance right before the immigration control to assist us.

This assistance included getting us quickly through immigration, helping us with baggage, getting us through customs quickly, loading us in the car, driving us to our temporary apartment, carrying our massive bags to our apartment and making us feel very welcome and comfortable in our new home.

Our apartment kitchen was stocked thanks to one of our sponsors - we have a work sponsor and a social sponsor here - with milk, fruit, vegetables, beer, bottled water, butter, ketchup, chips and cookies. Of course, I went straight for the cookies.

It was hard to see much of Kolkata at 11:30pm on the drive from the airport but the contrast of the old of the new is everywhere. In our view from our apartment you can see old, beautiful historic buildings next to contemporary ones, old Ambassador cars next to new Tatas.

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

More on Moving Coco

Our Labrador gained another pound for her international check-up at Friendship Animal Hospital yesterday. Rick McGranahan is the international pet shipping specialist at the hospital and he was very helpful with us getting the right forms completed.

As I mentioned in a previous post, the Kolkata airport customs is different than other airports in India. Instead of sending her cargo, we have to send her as accompanied baggage. The hardest part in making this happen is working with the airlines, since with each of the 15+ times we called we got a different answer.

What we did learn with dealing with the airlines, is that the main reservations desk tends to be more up-to-date with pet policies than cargo. From our current information, United and Luftansa will allow for a pet and crate (weight combined) to be checked as accompanied baggage for up to 150 pounds (subject to change!).

We had two appointments at Friendship Animal Hospital one a little over a month ago to get a new rabies shot and the one yesterday for completion of the forms needed for customs.

India requires three documents (subject to change!): a rabies certificate with the vaccination more than 30 days old but less than one year old, a USDA certification and a Government of India certification. Rick had prepared the forms, so after the vet examined Coco and signed, I drove to Annapolis to get the USDA official signature.

You can FedEx the USDA form to the Annapolis office and they will send it FedEx back the next day, but because our post also needs copies of these forms several days prior to our arrival, but they can't be more than 10 days old from when Coco lands in Kolkata, the best plan for us was to drive. Whew!

To add more to the process, we are stopping in NYC for DHS consultations so instead of flying Coco to NY to Kolkata with a two day layover in NY, one of us is flying back to D.C. to get on the same flight with her from D.C. to Kolkata. We had to cost-construct this option, but luckily it was a similar price.

To help us with this twist, the hero for the day(s) is Club Pet International, another highly recommended company in the D.C. area. Coco will be boarding there for three days, they will then prepare her and her crate, and bring her to meet us at the airport.

If we were able to send her cargo Club Pet International would have taken care of all details or just the services selected, as needed. From our dealings with then so far, they are an exceptional organization.

With everything lined up, we are crossing our fingers for a painless experience. We will post more about the actual shipping hopefully with a very simple and short finale.

Sunday, July 6, 2008

Hotel Living

Although not as glamorous as the photo may seem, we are taking advantage of State's allowance of up to 10 days pre-departure in a hotel. This has been helpful for us in two ways, it helps us prepare our house for renters and serves as a test run for living out of our suitcases for a month or two once we land.

We chose a hotel in D.C. that takes large dogs without charging an extra fee. (Yes, they exist! Topaz Hotel and Sofitel are two that we recommend.) The one we are staying at doesn't have a kitchenette, just a mini-bar fridge and a tasty but reasonable room service menu. There are also several reasonably priced places restaurants within a few blocks.

Some of the disadvantages that may cause others to prefer staying in their home as long as possible: it is impossible to find that one item that is buried somewhere in your collection of suitcases... you know you may have packed that one thing but again it is impossible to find it in one of your collection of suitcases, and both your child and large dog keep going to the door since they know they must be going home soon. Otherwise, the daily room cleaning is fantastic.

Friday, July 4, 2008

Last Day at FSI Daycare

Yesterday was Sicily's last day at the FSI daycare. It was a wonderful experience for her and a great convenience for us. Finding daycare in the Washington D.C. area is very hard. It will definitely be the first thing on our list when we come back for language training.

The only issue we had with the FSI daycare was its closing at 4:30 PM. Often training classes at FSI ended at 4:00 or 4:30, but sometimes they would end at 5:00. In those cases, I would leave work early, racing to daycare to get there in the nick of time. Staring July 1st, the daycare is now open until 5:30.

The teachers are great, the facility is very nice and never once did Sicily come home with food stains on her clothes even though she ate plenty of Italian food including, spaghetti, lasagna, cannoli and macaroni. She always had a better lunch than me!

Temporary Cell Phone

In my distracted state as of late, I had the pleasure of leaving my cell phone on the roof of our car after picking up our daughter at FSI daycare. Even though it is a two to three minute drive (have this timed because of the pick up from daycare) to get to highway US 50, my phone didn't fall of the roof until we got on the highway and accelerated to about 50 mph.

The phone made a big crunch sound as it fell to the road and several cars behind us drove over it to smash it to pieces. I tried to convince everyone that I would be better off without a cellphone, but with all the logistics at hand that wasn't going to fly.

Convenience stores claim to carry cellphones that you can purchase and use with prepaid minutes, but in the four stores I went to, mostly 7 Elevens, they were always sold out. I didn't want to wait to order one online, so I then headed to the mall. The Ballston mall near FSI has several kiosks from all the major carriers that carry pre-paid phones, but as we found out they are priced for the convenience.

Thanks to a nice salesperson at one of those kiosks, we made our way up to Radio Shack which had the exact same deal as Virgin Mobile had online, a phone for $14.95 and 200 minutes for $20. In comparison, AT&T's kiosk had the To Go phone for $130 which included 100 minutes.

The phone was instantly activated by the sales person at Radio Shack. It will automatically deactivate after no use for 3 months. You can then reactivate it and purchase more minutes in the future. So I am actually prepared for our return to FSI for language training after our two year post to Kolkata. That is unless the technology changes before then.

Packing Out From Washington D.C.

One of the movers from Pullen told us that most moving companies cringe when they get a call to pack out from Washington D.C. This is mainly because of non-existent parking for the large moving trucks and the need to maneuver a lot of items through awkward arrangements.

With our one year-old and our 102 pounder both in daycare for the day, we started off waiting for two cars to be towed from the emergency no parking zone we had established 72 hours in advance, as directed by D.C.'s DOT. Getting the signs from DOT was very easy, it took about 15 minutes at their North Capital Street location.

But, the no parking signs really are not a deterrent in the city. The two cars were ticketed $50 and towed to nearby spaces. We felt bad for the car owners but otherwise the movers would not have been able to get their trucks near our house.

Luckily, the movers started packing up the house prior to the van being parked and the day quickly flew by. As I mentioned, we separated the different shipments into different rooms. This made the move quicker since they didn't have to constantly stop and ask where something was going.

Our house is only 12 feet wide, so they moved out large furniture from the first room to box up the UAB. While two of them boxed up the UAB, another two went into the dinning room and kitchen which had HHE and started boxing. A fifth person went upstairs and started boxing the HHE up there. There has been much discussion on the Yahoo group "livelines" about trying to limit the number of movers in the house. In our case 5 worked well. It was enough to pack up quickly but not too many for the two of us to monitor.

A quality inspector from the Department of State stopped by for about 20 minutes to see how everything was going. I was surprised to see her, but it was comforting to have someone else to talk to in case something was not going well.

did a great job packing and wrapping items. They mostly used paper sheets to wrap items and a variety of different sized boxes. The UAB was placed into 4 large boxes, very heavy cardboard with reinforced seams. The HHE was boxed and wrapped and placed into large wooden crates that were lined with heavy plastic. To give you an idea of the size of the crates, our 72" book case was able to fit without being put on its side. When a wooden crate was full, they nailed the crate shut.

Our long term storage items, mostly large furniture and books, were either boxed or wrapped in paper. We have a very narrow, steep staircase, so were amazed with the large items they were able to bring down the stairs in whole pieces. The storage items also went into a large wooden crate, but without the heavy plastic lining. And instead of being nailed shut the final side was clasped shut.

We had a two day pack out scheduled, because of the small size of our house. The pre-survey inspector recognized how hard it was going to be to maneuver once the packing started. Pullen was able to get everything out of the house in one day starting at 10:30 and finishing before 6:00 PM.

The next day was used to pack out our storage closet in Crystal City full of HHE items. Again the items were wrapped or boxed and put in a large wooden crate lined with the heavy plastic and nailed shut. Pullen was able to finish this packing in less than one and a half hours.

We are happy that this to-do is finally off our list. Now to the large list of other items.

Thursday, July 3, 2008

And Pack Out is Over!

It has been a while since our last post, mainly because of being caught up in the hurricane of moving. We have some good information to share now though, and will over the next few days.

The biggest milestone was getting all of our belongings packed up and out. We had a small house that had too many things in it and a 5'x5' storage closet that was packed to the ceiling.

Big kudos to Pullen Moving Company out of Woodbridge, VA. They did a fantastic job and were very fast. I have read a lot of horror stories on the Yahoo group "livelines", but Pullen did a terrific job.

As suggested, we separated our UAB, HHE and storage into different rooms. This made it easy to walk through the house with the 5 movers and explain what went were. They literally packed up everything that we had not pulled outside the house to save or give to neighbors.

Another good technique that we used was to use garbage bags and Ziploc bags to keep similar things together. I went through all of our junk drawers and dumped all of the contents into a large Ziploc bag. I put similar clothes together in a large garbage bag. This also helped with shuffling items around, since it became hard to move through the house with all the people, boxes and stuff.

The photo is of our last belongings being loaded and sealed into the large wooden create for HHE. More to come...