Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Our Consumables Arrive!

Kolkata is a consumables post, we get up to 2,500 pounds (for a two year assignment) of things that get used up or eaten shipped to post. You have up to a year to send the shipment after you arrive, and we decided to wait until after we arrived to have a better understanding of what we needed.

If you are already at post, you can work with a company to buy the things you want, work with a friend or family member, or use your time on R&R in the States to shop and monitor the packing, which is what we did in April.

We made our list and checked it twice, but we still threw in impulse items when shopping – and aren’t those Trader Joe’s Salt and Vinegar Pita Chips awfully good?

When the crate was opened, the packing by the U.S. company wasn’t wonderful, and included discarded lunch packaging from the shippers, but at least the pita chips arrived intact!

We only used 800 pounds of our shipment, mainly since we love the local cuisine and do not have many American brands that we are dedicated to. Sometimes the commonly imported items for a post are listed on the post’s Post Info to Go page (there is one for Kolkata). If not, sometimes the Community Liaison Office (CLO) has one if you contact them. These lists describe what may be hard to find at post considering American preferences.

Our shipment included, which will tell you more than you wanted to know about our habits:

*Bay leaves – a similar spice is available but not as pungent
*Tomato paste – more expensive in Kolkata
*Canned tuna - more expensive in Kolkata
*Resealable bags – hard to find and more expensive, but perfect for keeping roti fresh
*Zatatain’s crab boil
*Vanilla extract, the good stuff – synthetic is easy to find in Kolkata
*Peppermint extract – because we love peppermint ice cream
*Pita chips and tortilla chips – arrived safely and now we wish we shipped more
*Children’s Tylenol and Motrin – even though similar medications are available for children, we feel more comfortable with the U.S. brands, since we know how exactly how to use these without seeing a doctor first
*Neosporin – found a much cheaper, just-as-good Indian alternative after we bought this
*Children’s party supplies – also available in Kolkata, unless you want a specific character like Sesame Street or Tellitubbies
*Hair dye – no wait, I don’t use hair dye
*Deodorant – yes, we use deodorant and for the types we like they are cheaper in the US
*Toilet bowl cleaner – widely available and much cheaper in Kolkata, but our housekeeper strongly prefers US brands, and we are happy when she is happy
*Toilet paper – because I am a Scott fanatic and they do have a softer version
*Diapers and wipes – Larger sizes are hard to find, since most kids are potty trained by 18 months, but Sicily is almost there. Also, we prefer the chemical-free wipes which haven’t caught on here yet, but other types of wipes are widely available.
*Paper towels – we didn’t use paper towels much in the US, but our cook loves a US brand, and we are happy when she is happy
*Dog food – we were able to get a discount by buying in super bulk
*Dog treats - more expensive in Kolkata
*Trader Joe’s toasted O’s - more expensive in Kolkata
*Goldfish – haven’t found in Kolkata yet
*Kid’s sunscreen – prefer the super screen, 50+ or more
*Olive oil - more expensive in Kolkata, higher quality oils are hard to find
*Balsamic vinegar - more expensive in Kolkata
*Sun-dried tomatoes - haven’t found in Kolkata yet
*Roasted peppers - haven’t found in Kolkata yet
*Whole-bean coffee – we heard of a vendor that sells whole-bean coffee in New Market after packing up our shipment
*Nutella - more expensive in Kolkata
*Cake mixes - more expensive in Kolkata
*Pre-made frosting - great for an instant toddler activity “making sprinkles”
*Jams and jellies – we prefer low sugar and natural, and it wasn’t until after our shipment that I found a whole bunch at 1/3 the price in Kolkata!
*Pasta, pasta, pasta - more expensive in Kolkata
*Chocolate chips and white chocolate chips - more expensive in Kolkata
*Powdered sugar - haven’t found in Kolkata
*Tapenade – another impulse buy but we ended up buying at least 10 jars
*Evaporated milk – haven’t had a need for it yet, but seemed like we might
*Condensed milk – ditto
*Brown sugar - ditto
*Marshmallows – rice crispy treats seemed like a great idea in the grocery store
*Rice Krispies – and the jumbo ones made it seem like genius
*Magic erasers – for our white walls
*Tabasco sauce
*Margarita mix – definitely an impulse buy, I think we had some later that day
*Pickles – have not found certain varieties in Kolkata and they are more expensive here
*Capers – more expensive in Kolkata

As you can see from our list, it is hard to find imported items in Kolkata, since we have such a small expat community here, and if you do the item can be very expensive. I remember finding a small package of Philadelphia cream cheese in a store once, looking a little sad and costing $9. The consequence of this is that it pushes you to find local alternatives and satisfy your cravings with new foods. Luckily, Kolkata is a wonderful place for experimenting with food.

Coco was not as excited as we were to get our consumables

Plenty of space for more food!

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Calling all TDYers: The Arlington Rap

Can't help but laugh at this performance, especially after you experience the communities around FSI. Embarrassingly, Alan and I both have brown flip-flops.

Change to Post: I later tagged this post with "dog" and "resources" since Brooke asked a great question about dogs at post. Please see comments below, in full post:

Monday, June 22, 2009

Visiting Mighty Mumbai

We were in Mumbai recently for an Entry Level Officer (ELO) exchange. The State Department provides great training opportunities for new officers; one is the ability to exchange positions with an ELO at a different post. This allows you to see and compare how they do things elsewhere; side benefits includes exploring a new location and seeing the housing.

After our research during A-100, we listed Mumbai lower on our bid list than other cities in India, mainly because of our dog Coco. We believed it would be harder in Mumbai, with the possibility of living in a high-rise apartment and lack of green space. But after the exchange to Mumbai, we see it is no more challenging for large dogs than Kolkata. In Kolkata, you rarely see people walking their dogs. There are too many stray dogs and obstacles in the way. In Mumbai, walking a dog (yellow labrador retievers seem to be most common there) is a frequent sight in the neighborhoods where Consulate employees live.

View from the TDY apartment where we stayed

Interior of the TDY apartment where we stayed

Sicily gauges possible storage opportunities

New highway being built in Mumbai to solve traffic congestion

Friday, June 19, 2009

Specific Benefits for Same-Sex Domestic Partners of Foreign Service Employees Serving Overseas

A statement from Hillary Clinton yesterday revealed the specific benefits:

"The Department of State intends to provide the following additional benefits and allowances for declared same-sex domestic partners of eligible employees serving overseas:

* Diplomatic passports,
* Inclusion on employee travel orders to and from posts abroad,
* Shipment of household effects,
* Inclusion in family size calculations for the purpose of making housing allocations,
* Family member preference for employment at posts abroad,
* Use of medical facilities at posts abroad,
* Medical evacuation from posts abroad,
* Emergency travel for partners to visit gravely ill or injured employees and relatives,
* Inclusion as family members for emergency evacuation from posts abroad,
* Subsistence payments related to emergency evacuation from posts abroad,
* Inclusion in calculations of payments of overseas allowances (e.g., payment for quarters, cost of living, and other allowances),
* Representation expenses, and
* Training at the Foreign Service Institute.

The Department also will work with foreign governments to provide same-sex domestic partners, to the extent possible, with diplomatic visas, privileges and immunities, and authorization to work in the local economy."

Read the entire statement on state.gov.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Executive Order for Unmarried Partners Federal Benefits to be Signed Today

From 44: The Obama Presidency, a Washington Post blog:
Obama Intends to Extend Federal Benefits to Unmarried Partners

June 16, 2009 at 9:23 PM

President Obama will announce tomorrow that he is extending federal benefits to include unmarried domestic partners of federal workers, including same-sex partners, White House officials said tonight.

Obama will sign an executive order implementing the change in the Oval Office, the officials said, speaking on condition of anonymity to avoid upstaging the president's announcement.

The move would give partners of federal employees access to health care and financial benefits such as relocation fees for moves. The State Department announced a similar extension of benefits last month, with Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton calling it "the right thing to do."

Read the full blog post.

Monday, June 15, 2009

Kolkata is State Magazine's Post of the Month

Download the issue.

From the website: "State Magazine is published to facilitate communication between management and employees at home and abroad and to acquaint employees with developments that may affect operations or personnel. The magazine is also available to persons interested in working for the Department of State and to the general public.

State Magazine is available by subscription through the Superintendent of Documents, U.S. Government Printing Office, Washington, DC 20402, 866-512-1800 (toll free) or on the web at http://bookstore.gpo.gov.E-Mail Us."

Sunday, June 14, 2009

The Most Expensive Place in the World for Expats...Luanda, Angola

ECA International, a HR firm located in Hong Kong, releases a cost-of-living report every year on the most expensive places for expats, and this year Angola again tops the list. Cities in Japan increased greatly during the past year, mainly because of the strength of its currency:

1 Luanda, Angola
2 Tokyo, Japan
3 Nagoya, Japan
4 Yokohama, Japan
5 Kobe, Japan
6 Copenhagen, Denmark
7 Oslo, Norway
8 Geneva, Switzerland
9 Zurich, Switzerland
10 Basel, Switzerland
11 Libreville, Gabon
12 Bern, Switzerland
13 Stavanger, Norway
14 Helsinki, Finland
15 Paris, France
16 Abidjan, Cote d'Ivoire
17 Manhattan NY, United States of America
18 Abuja, Nigeria
19 Kinshasa, Democratic Republic of the Congo
20 Baku, Azerbaijan

See more of the report here.

The Most Expensive Cities in Asia were:
1 Tokyo
2 Nagoya
3 Yokohama
4 Kobe
5 Beijing
6 Shanghai
7 Hong Kong
8 Shenzhen
9 Guangzhou
10 Singapore

At the bottom of their list were the large cities in India, with Kolkata placing 49th.
41 New Delhi
42 George Town
43 Mumbai
44 Chennai
45 Bangalore
46 Hyderabad
47 Pune
48 Karachi
49 Kolkata
50 Islamabad
51 Ulaanbaatar

Another facet to consider when bidding and planning.

More about ECA and the methodology for the report can be found in the article.

Update: Also read the post on the Worldwide Quality of Living report by Mercer and The Economist's 2010 World's Most Livable Cities.

Image from igougo.com

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

(Re)Starting from Scratch

At a "hail and farewell" party - held for officers when they arrive and leave post - last weekend in Mumbai (more to come), I immediately bonded with a woman who makes her own cheeses. Luckily enough, multiple people there also had brought their home-brewed beer. Although good beer and cheese are available in Mumbai, the prices can make you seriously consider making your own. And when you factor in the long term considerations of a foreign service career, being able to make the foods that you crave when resources may be limited, making cheese and beer is definitely a prized skill.

Another benefit of living in India is that you can easily get raw milk in the cities. In the US, many state governments have regulated milk production so that raw milk is not available to the consumer unless you keep your own cow (get that one by the home owner association). Since I was raised on a dairy farm - which since the 80s my family has no longer been allowed to use the raw milk from our own farm to make cheeses since it was not regulated by the state - I was elated when I realized I could make ricotta cheese like my grandparents had before.

The milk available in Kolkata is very fresh and rich, so much so that I only recently realized that my daughter has been drinking water buffalo milk for the last year! But boy is it delicious, and it also makes a delicious mozzarella!

Leeners looks like a good option for starting your food making endeavors. They have some great kits to try, or you can just find recipes online.

Here is my version of a ricotta, great for use in a lasagna or on a pizza:

1 gallon whole milk
1/3 cup plus 1 teaspoon distilled white vinegar
1/4 teaspoon salt (omit if you are going to use for sweets)
Cooking thermometer

1. Place milk in large, heavy pan on medium heat. Add salt (if desired) and stir briefly. Allow milk to heat up slowly.

2. Just before boiling temperature, take the pot off the burner, add the vinegar and stir gently for only one minute. The curds will form immediately. Let sit undisturbed for a couple of hours.

3. With a slotted spoon, ladle out the ricotta into colander or cheese cloth. Place so it can drain freely. Let it drain for two hours or more depending on how dry you want it to be.

4. Place in container and refrigerate. The cheese should keep for up to 7 days.


Coco's Increasing Weight

Coco's weight has been steadily increasing since she has been getting rounds of leftover roti daily. This started when we went on R&R in April and left Coco in our nanny's and cook's care. They did a wonderful job but she expects, and demands, her daily "good morning" and "good night" rotis ever since.

Bina and Krishna bring any leftover roti they have from their dinner the night before. We believe Coco will have the hardest time leaving Kolkata, with all of this loving care. This in combination with her daily lunch of rice and dahl, means we don't have to give her as much dog food anymore. And definitely no dog treats.

Since there are currently no doggie daycare or boarding facilities in Kolkata, when we go on trips our cook and nanny look after her, which is a big relief for us. This is a common arrangement for those with pets in Kolkata.

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

We Finally Have Another Post (and Pizza)!

Time has certainly slipped by since the last Diplolife post. Travel, visitors, and then waiting for that great topic to come up, all prolonged us from writing. Well, today's event definitely warranted one.

I held a pizza workshop for seven Indian cooks employed at the Consulate. Some had made pizzas before, for some it was the first time. These cooks are fantastic at what they do - fish and chips, Shepperd's pie, coq au vin and superb Indian dishes cooked with both hands tied behind their backs. It was the yeast and the pizza dough that made them want to learn more.

We focused on yeast, the right temperatures, forming the pizza dough and the variety of American pizza styles. We did hand-tossed, deep-dish and a fruit pizza. It was interesting watching these cooks who can make chapati in their sleep, switching their technique to be more gentler with the pizza dough.

We discussed typical American ingredients and I learned that fresh basil is available at a particular store in the market. Many of the ingredients for American style pizzas are available, but some are not available in Kolkata (need to get in Delhi, Mumbai, etc) including: anchovies, sun-dried tomatoes, instant yeast, squid and pine nuts. Pack them in your consumables, if you want them and get a consumables shipment.

In discussions with others also at posts that qualify for a consumables shipment, the common denominator that is missing from the local economies tend to be certain cured meats, cheeses and Mexican food. There are two companies that people here have ordered hard cheeses through the pouch with success, including The Wisconsin Cheeseman and Hawkeye Dairy, but the recent arrival of Auroville cheeses in Kolkata is my favorite choice (only to other cities in India).

At posts where there is a low to none availability of Western breads, cheeses and specific types of foods, one choice is to start making things from scratch, a topic for a future post. In the meantime, its time to start planning our next workshop, Mexican food!