Saturday, July 31, 2010

Do You Believe in Angels?

A few weeks back, we planned to meet up with another FS family, one we knew through blogging but hadn't actually met. (I won't tell you who they are, but her first initial is "A" and he is better known by his nickname, "Fits Crap in Minivan.")

We were going to meet at our hotel one afternoon. Afternoons, as you will know if you have kids, are fraught with danger, because you never know if your child will be in pre-dinner meltdown mode or post-nap snuggly mode. So I warned the kids in advance: "We are going to the hotel courtyard to meet a new family. He works with daddy, and so you MUST behave, or face dire consequences." With such a threat in place, we headed down to the courtyard to meet A and her husband.

I was armed with sparkling water (no sugar) and pretzels (again, no sugar). I also brought bubbles (but no wand, duh) and some sort of battery-powered kid toys (but no screwdriver to open the battery compartments, again, duh).

We talked for quite awhile. Mr. Fitscrap and Bart discussed DSS and RSO, ATA and WFO, while A and I chatted about UAB, POVs, CLOs and REOs. That sorta important government stuff. (EF'M, you would've loved it.)

All the while, the kids ran around, shouting and playing and generally being quite good, if a bit loud. No matter though, because we were the only ones in the courtyard.


The door opened, and an older gentleman walked into the courtyard, book under his arm, prim wife beside him. They looked at the kids, and the wife gave the husband a knowing look. He disappeared inside, and my heart sank. He's going to complain about noisy kids on the patio, I thought. Grumpy old guy. We kept chatting, but I was on edge, waiting for the hotel staff to come kick us out.

The man returned, carrying a small bag. He sat at the table behind us and set his book aside. Then he reached into the bag and pulled out a pile of colorful somethings. He proceeded to turn those bits of color into balloon animals for my kids. He made puppies for the girls and swords for the boys, while his wife looked on, smiling now. He made a purple braclet for Ainsley and a hat for Shay. He kept going for thirty minutes or so, creating these magical toys while my kids looked on. Once they were happily running around hitting each other over the head with a near-endless supply of swords, he put the bag away and started to read his book. Ainsley pulled up a chair at his table and stared at him in wonder. Shay interrupted his reading to do a juggling demonstration, which the man enthusiastically applauded.

We four, the Fitscraps, my husband and I, continued to chat as if nothing unusual was happening. But I tell you: the sun got sunnier when that gentleman appeared on the patio with his bag of balloons. The birds chirped; the flowers grew. Even the government acronyms became clearer.

Sometimes, just when you least expect it, God throws an angel down to walk the earth beside you. I got my angel that day.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

And The Grand Total Is...

Yes, folks, home leave is officially over. My husband has to work all week, and then we're off to Jordan. So I am left, once again, in a small hotel room with four small beasts,and I'm ready to tally up the financial damage these past few weeks have done.

A friend of mine estimated, last spring, that she and her family spend $10,000 every time they visit the States. Sounds like a lot, but it's a reasonable estimate, and I was aiming to save almost that much in a special account I set aside just for home leave expenses - we do NOT like to go into debt for vacations. By mid-June, we'd saved about $8000 (go us!).

So here's where I open my wallet and show you how much home leave costs. (Not my purse, mind you - that thing is scarily full of restaurant crayons, old receipts and stale gum. You do not want to peer inside my purse.)

The credit card receipts are still pouring in, but here's the tally, close as I can figure:

$2800 - rental vans in two states
$1000 - vet and Casey travel fees
$3000 - lodging (despite the fact that we usually stayed with benevolent relatives)
$1500 - Target has, of course, its own line item on the budget
$200 - Starbucks. Also a line item.
$150 - US Postal Service (gotta get this stuff to post somehow; should've requested a supplemental shipment)
$2000 - restaurants and grocery stores (Wegmans! Trader Joes! Wegmans! Trader Joes! Wegmans!)
$100 - haircuts
$100 - movies, in real movie theaters. With popcorn. Yum.

Wow. That's a lot of money that just flew out of my pockets in 6 short weeks.

And I haven't even counted money spent on tires and sheet sets and blenders - close to $1000, I'd guess.

Or the computer I still have to buy and ship.

Or the transit insurance on our HHE that came due in July (likewise the car insurance).

So I guess, when we get to post (and after we write checks for the community association and other necessities), my first task will be to start putting money back in that savings account, in preparation for our next trip to the States, whenever that may be.

For interested FS folks, you can open up a "custom savings account" in addition to your regular account at SDFCU. You can't name it anything fancy, like "vacation" or "new car," though that would make it easier to track, I think. They just call it "custom." But then you can earmark funds toward whatever you wish.

Anyone else have ideas on how to save for home leave or exotic ski vacations in Lebanon? Anyone else want to 'fess up how much they spend on home leave?

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

If I Had a Couple Million Spare Dollars....

... I'd buy a house on a lake somewhere.

That's more or less what we've been doing this past week or so - hanging out at various bodies of water in New York State. It's been great fun.

The problem is, when you're running from lake to lake, you have no time to blog. And now, there is simply too much to blog about. We've been that busy.

So, without further ado, a few highlights:

We spent the better part of a week at the Mirror Lake Inn at Lake Placid. It was kind of a splurge, but definitely worth it, and I hope we'll return some day. It's not the most kid-friendly hotel (too fancy for that), but they have a private beach, with rafts to swim to and kayaks to paddle on. So the kids were thrilled. They spent many an hour paddling out to the rafts with their Nana just so they could jump off of them. Even Kyra loved it. And on the last day, Shay was even allowed to take out his own kayak.

The boys went to an Olympic show with Pop and their dad. They got to watch ski jumpers train by skiiing down hills and flipping into a swimming pool. Shay got called up for a contest, which he won: two free tickets to the Olympic Gold Medal Experience. So the next day, Bart and I took the boys back to the ski center, and we all got to try out a wheeled luge (except me - I was wearing flip-flops, which apparently aren't so great for braking). Then we learned how to bobsled, and we got to practice on the athletes' starting track. We also toured the ski jump complex, riding the elevator to the top, and we took a tour of the athletes' living quarters and training facility.

Shay was excited to learn that one of our tour guides is training as a marathoner. The other was a former skeleton driver - yikes.

From Lake Placid we went to Alexandria Bay, on the border with Canada, for a family reunion. I didn't know a single person there, but they couldn't have been nicer. The kids met loads of cousins and spent a couple of days playing baseball, swimming and generally running around. We took a ferry to Boldt Castle, but we didn't have much luck exploring - there's always at least 1of4 having a major meltdown by this point in our summer, so I had to bring several kids out of the castle before I could finish the tour. Ainsley and Kyra were particularly fascinated, looking for princesses behind every rock and tree. The boys seemed interested in the tragic history behind the castle.

Later we went on a nighttime boat tour of the 1000 islands. Our budding photographer Shay took zillions of pictures of houses built on tiny islands in the middle of the river. Ainsley kept asking "Where castle go?"

Now we're back "home" at Nana and Pop's. We spent one day at Cooperstown, visiting the Baseball Hall of Fame and the Farmer's Museum before heading to the beach for a picnic, a swim and s'mores. Another day was spent at the Utica Zoo. One day was passed underground at Howes Caverns. And of course there were those critical hours I spent at the hair salon.

Just typing this not-complete list has left me exhausted. So I'm off to bed, I hope, and I'll finish this up later. Here are a few photos of Lake Placid. I'll try to get more up, but you know: I still haven't sorted and posted our Seattle pix. So don't sit around hitting your refresh key or anything like that.

Thursday, July 8, 2010

R&R vs Home Leave: A Primer

If you work overseas for State, there are two kinds of vacations you'll get: home leave and R&R.

Home leave is what you do between posts. That is, you finish up one overseas assignment, and before you start your next assignment, you are required to return to the States for a break. I believe the thinking is that if you return to the States, you'll stay "American" - that is, you'll remember why it is you're serving this great country of ours. Also, you'll be able to stock up on inexpensive chocolate chips and choose from a wide variety of shampoo, both key reasons our country is such a wonderful place to live. (I'm pretty sure the Boston Tea Party had something to do with my right to choose between black, green and passion tea in my shaken iced tea lemonade.)

R&R is something you do during your overseas tour. Most posts these days are 3 years long, with 2 R&Rs, which you can use to return to the States or go elsewhere. While in Beijing, we used 1 R&R (which is basically a free plane ticket, but nothing else) to go to Thailand, and one to go the States.

I'm only now realizing that R&R is a whole different beast from home leave. And frankly, home leave kind of stinks in comparison.

See, when you return to the States on R&R, people have all sorts of questions for you. What's it like over there? Can you speak the language? Can you drink the water? Who are your friends? Where do you shop? And you can answer those questions, because you've been living there.

When you're on home leave, you don't know a thing about your onward assignment, other than what you've read. So you can't answer anything. And you realize you don't know anything. And you get kind of stressed out. And possibly even grouchy. Or snappish. Because you don't have any answers.

When you're on R&R, you know what you need to do. You come home armed with a list: buy flax seed and vanilla. Go see the dentist. Buy a year's worth of socks and underwear. Whatever it is, you know what you need to accomplish. Because you've been there.

Compare that to home leave. Do I need to order diapers? Shampoo? A swimsuit? Don't know if I can get those things there or not. Should we go to the dentist, or wait and find one there? If we wait, maybe there won't be one. Don't know. So the list sort of languishes, not getting crossed off, but floating there in the recesses of your mind. Making you stressed out. And possibly even grouchy. Or snappish. Because you don't have any answers.

And then there are the kids. Whose crazy idea was it to bring kids on home leave, anyway? "Go home," Ainsley tells me every day. She wants her house, and her crib and her ayi. Who can blame her? I'm having trouble explaining to her that we're actually kind of homeless right now. As for the older kids, when you're on R&R, they're excited to see family, but they also want to go back home and see their friends. But now, on home leave, they know they won't be going back to their old house, and their old friends. So they can't understand why they need to move back overseas anyway, when they already have a house and a school and friends right here in Virginia. Although they're excited about the upcoming journey, they don't really want to start all over in a new place. All of the uncertainty leaves them stressed out. And possibly even grouchy. Or snappish.

Are you seeing a pattern here?

We have a couple more days here in NoVa before making the journey north to visit the next set of relatives. We've had loads of fun so far. We went to a baseball game with relatives on the Fourth of July, but we drove home before the fireworks started (after three consecutive Chinese New Year celebrations, we're kind of over the whole fireworks thing, anyway). The boys had a sleepover with their aunt and uncle. We met up with old friends at a nearby playground, one of our old haunts. We ran through the old neighborhood, knocking on doors (Larry? Pam? Gina? Where are you guys?). We've been to Wegmans twice (oh, Wegmans, how I did miss you!) and we can't stop fighting over those grocery carts with the car in front. We went to the Air and Space Museum out by Dulles. We rode on the metro. We strolled through Eastern Market. We ate on the patio at Mr. Henry's. We ordered takeout from Sunflower. We even - the kids count this as fun - went to Chuckie Cheese.

So that's home leave so far. We're doing exactly what we're supposed to be doing. We're revisiting our version of America, enjoying ourselves immensely much of the time. But we're also crammed together, 6 to a hotel room, which means we're stressed out, grouchy and a tad snappish. This means, of course, that when it's time to climb on that plane for the long uncertain journey forward, we'll all be ready. Ready to go home. Whereever that may be.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010


It's hot here. Really, really hot. And the kids are currently squabbling about some toy or another here in our little hotel room.

Loads to tell you about, if only I had the time to write. Alas...

But here's something: I have an article in the most recent issue of the Foreign Service Journal. You can find it here.
Please. Write your own stuff.