Welcome to the Wandering Drays!

Not all who wander are lost...

Welcome to my blog dedicated to my family and our crazy foreign service life. Never content with staying in one place, we are excited to share our journey. We've survived two unaccompanied tour (Baghdad 2010-2011 and Baghdad again in 2015-2016), multiple TDYs, and enjoyed a two-year family assignment in Cairo, Egypt. The fab hubby is currently learning Turkish for our next assignment...Istanbul, Turkey! We leave for Turkey sometime in summer 2017. I write about what I know. Which is mainly kids, tween drama, gross pets, dealing with lots of government info, our moving adventures, being a nurse, yoga, running, living on too-little sleep, and an addiction to coffee lattes. I hope you'll enjoy this glimpse into our lives.

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Growth and Baseball

Swimming and baseball and popsicles, and bike riding and running and playing with friends.  That's summer for the kids at our house.  And while I complain incessantly about Ohio and it's weather, this summer so far has been good for the kids.  With that one little exception of course - Jason's not here. He gets to enjoy the lovely weather in Baghdad [yes, sarcasm]. But I won't dwell!  I won't sulk (too much)!  I won't get all giddy when I realize he's just 21 days out from being home and enjoying the end of summer with us.  [Lies!  I will get all giddy!]  Six glorious weeks of home leave and pack-out.  Really, I can get excited about pack-out (*shudder*) if it means time with my hubby.

This is the last summer for the kids that will be what they "know."  After this summer, life is going to be dramatically different.  This is the summer where they open the front door every morning and hop on their bikes and ride down the street to the friends' houses they've known for years.  We lived here long before the year we spent in Los Angeles, and returned home to friends and a school that they knew when that year was over.  Truly, Los Angeles probably felt more like a vacation to them than a year away.  Although Owen told me yesterday he really felt like Los Angeles was more his 'home' since he loves the sun and the ocean and the outdoors and the Dodgers so much.  I had to giggle, because I've always said Los Angeles always felt more like 'home' to me since I love the sun and the ocean and the outdoors and an overabundance of Starbucks so much.  I really miss the on-every-corner Starbucks.

And Baseball.  Yes, baseball.  Before May, Owen didn't even know the rules to baseball.  He's 8 years old and we've moved two of the last three years - each time in the Spring during  baseball season.  This year was his last chance to learn to play before it would become (sadly) more competitive and difficult to get into.  He wanted to play so badly!  I didn't know if I'd be able to get him to the practices and the games, but my fab in-laws helped out all season, as did the parents of one of Owen's best buds.  Plus, the ball fields are only 1/2 mile down the road, near the park, and he was able to ride his bike there for practice.  Backpack filled with his glove, hat, a snack, and a bottled water.  It was pure Americana.  A little slice of what life should be.

I'm not going to lie and say it was easy for him.  We're not a sports-oriented family and he's never watched games on TV.  He likes the Dodgers mostly because they're from L.A.  He struggled to learn the rules and had difficulty batting.  But every day he'd put on that backpack and head to the fields with a "Goodbye, Mom!  See ya after practice!"  The games started and he was in the outfield, doing his best to pay attention but still having trouble keeping up with what was going on.  He got up to bat and struck out, and then again, and again.  It was heartbreaking watching him struggle, but profound watching him grow and mature and pull himself up and try it again.  All the parents watched him and cheered for him each time he got up to bat.  His buddies patted him on the back and told him he'd get it.

And then, his practice starting paying off.  He got pulled infield to play catcher, and loved it.  He'd call out plays as the team threw out runners at first base.  He got up to bat and hit a single.  He got up to bat and hit again.  He'd strike out another time but get out there the next and hit.  He was so proud one night when he had two RBIs and made it to home base himself.

But no matter what, he loved the game.  And he was excited to be part of the team.  On Sunday night I had to tell him that I couldn't take him to his game on Monday since I had to work.  He was so upset!  He said "MOM!  I'm the CATCHER!  The team has to have their catcher!  I can't let them down."  Thankfully, our friends were able to help out and got him to the game.  It was the first time he'd played a team sport and really 'got it' about what it means to be a part of the team.

Last night was his team's last game.  They were tied 7-7 in the last inning.  If they'd won, they would have gone on to the championship games.  Sadly, the other team batted in a run, winning the game and eliminating Owen's team from progressing to the final games.  Heartbreaking.  But they'd had a great season, and we managed to celebrate - DQ style (DQ in McDonald sponsored the team) with ice cream of course.

The team enjoyed their success today, participating in our town's 4th of July Festival parade.  It was the last thing they'd get to do as a team together this summer.  Owen had quite the roller coaster of night, enjoying the parade but barfing in a friend's car when he didn't feel well. (Sorry, Dave.) Too much candy?  Honest-to-goodness sick?  We'll never know, because I gave him some 'tummy medicine' (I always keep anti-puke medicine on hand) and tucked him in bed.  As I kissed his suntanned cheek and ruffed his sandy brown hair, I realized he's grown quite a bit this summer already.  Maybe not so much in height, but certainly in maturity.  I look forward to seeing the person he will become.  Who knew that baseball would bring such great qualities out in him?

Friday, June 24, 2011

Week Ending 6/24/11: FS Rodeo/Round-Up/Relaying the Blogs! In One Concise(ish) Entry

Summer.  Brings vacations.  Brings home leaves.  Brings a much needed break from the day-to-day.  Brings...exhaustion?  Brings...awesome yet scary family reunions?  Brings...stress?   Brings...mega monstrous money-sucking excursions?

This week's State Department Round-Up is dedicated to those vacations and home leaves we love (hate/love/hate/love) to take with our families.  To visit our families.  Back in the States or elsewhere.  Our family hasn't yet been out-of-country, but we do know vacations.  We know how to create a budget and blow it the first day we travel.  We know how to plan the entire trip but not double check that the  Amusement Park we're planning the entire vacation around is indeed open on our days of travel.  But, honestly, mostly, we know how to have fun.

I know I'm worried about a few things coming up just for our initial trip to Cairo.  Can you say 12-hour flight with three kids (age 8 years, 6 years , and 10 months) and a dog?  Nomads by Nature wrote a great piece this week outlining a crappy heinous flight with kids and cats in tow.  I can't say it made me feel any less nervous about our upcoming travel, but it does make me realize that we're not the only ones attempting travel insanity.

Speaking of travel insanity, Shannon over at Cyberbones writes about traveling alone with her three boys and her worries surrounding her travel.  I hear ya, sister!  On the flip side, Dave ALSO at posted at Cyberbones this week, detailing a lovely excursion to Kumbali while the family was away.  I wonder what he bought for Shannon...

How about Disney?  I don't think I've ever met a family who didn't attempt at least ONE trek to the World's Happiest Place!  Spectrummy Mummy pulled out an archived blog on a past vacation for us!  And Whale Ears and Other Wanderings is currently enjoying some time in Disney.  Disney Magic indeed.

But if you're looking for some more 'homey' home time, check out Bryant Blogger this week - they've opted to enjoy life at home for a vacation this summer.  Sara at Wife Mommy Woman mentions she's already thinking and planning their first home leave from Costa Rica for later in the year.  Makes me realize I should start stashing cash away in a special savings account for home leave.  Sara also pulled an archived blog entry, hashing out the harrowing tale of their most infamous trip! I. HATE. MOUNTAIN. DRIVING.

Kate at Pulling Stakes was able to take a moment from shoe shopping and Facebooking to let us know they're headed back home for the rest of the summer.  They'll be enjoying Spokane, WA before heading off to assignment in Brasilia.  Stephanie of Where in the World Am I? is staying put in India this summer.  But she's got a great tale about purchasing rugs.  Part One and Part Two.  I would need a vacation after the headache.

Nomadic Dan at 110to220 has a tale about his HHE's solo vacation off-roading in Russia.  Once it gets a bath, he'll have it back in one piece.  Too bad a camera wasn't mounted on it.  Heather at Way Off Base has no plans for vacation as of yet, but she does have a rockin' set of shoes for vacationing/traveling in.  Perhaps she and Kate at Pulling Stakes should get together!  Heather also has a GIVEAWAY! celebrating BFFs.  Go there now and enter!  No, wait.  Don't.  I plan on winning it!

As far as I'm concerned, Jill at The Perlman Update has topped my awesome car-packing skillz.  She's embarking on a long trek east to the new family home in NoVA.  For the past two week's she had one very long vacation (haha) with her three kids in a single hotel room.  More. Wine. Please.

Jen at the Dinoia Family just celebrated the last day of school.  She's taking the kiddos to museums, parks, and the library. Yes!  A perfect, relaxing summer.  Becky and her family at Small Bits just completed pack-out.  They've done so much traveling lately and are now about to embark on a journey back to the US to prep for their next overseas assignment.  I'm sure they could use some down-time right about now.

Ashley at Sherwood Family Nonsense pulled some archives for us on their fab vacations/home leaves.  They are currently in Cairo, and I wish our paths would cross.  But they'll be leaving just before we arrive.  Luckily, they managed to make time to see the pyramids!

In other news, Lisa at What Were We Thinking? will be spending her summer with her three boys learning Spanish.  So fun!  Jacqueline at Pryor Adventures enjoyed a day-trip with the family.  They're in Laos on their first assignment.  Sadie at Sadie Abroard just finished up her first much-deserved R&R.  Her musing are beautiful to read.  And don't forget about Kolbi at A Daring Adventure!  She and her husband spent his birthday studying Chinese.  Jealous?  She's got a mind-boggling test this Monday.  More. Coffee. Please.

If you're a Kindle user, you can now get your Diplopundit fix via your Kindle!

And celebrations are in order!  Denise and her husband at Beyond the Cornfield welcomed the newest FS baby.  We've all been waiting for the news!  Welcome, Avocet!

Finally, since this is still a part of my blog, I'm entitled to flagrantly show off the cuteness of my kids.  I've pulled some photos from some of our favorite past vacations, including Great Falls (VA), Sequoia National Forest (CA), and Long Beach (CA).

Thanks to everyone who submitted a posting.  If you have one and would like me to add on, please email me.  It's really that easy.  Enjoy your week, FS bloggers!

*UPDATE* I can't believe I forgot two of my favorite postings this week!  3rdculturechildren has a lovely photo blog of a beach in Brazil that must must MUST be added to my bucket list.  And earlier this week, I adored their posting on all the excuses to dress up in Brazil.  It's like a never-ending vacation!

First day of summer 2011.  Off to the pool!

Big brother is off to the pool as well!

Kellen's first vacation!

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Running Therapy

Sept 2009.  I had to dig this up from some old photos.
Rusty and me.  Long Beach, CA.
One of my favorite places to run.  And frolic.
Rusty always liked to do both, too.
Running.  It's one of my passions.  When Jason was home on leave, I was able to pound out some extra miles since I didn't have to run with the baby, increasing my distance in preparation for a 1/2 marathon I'd like to run in NoVA in August before our move to Cairo.  My fab in-laws are taking the kids so Jason and I can head out to D.C. together for a few days; he has some stuff to do for State; I'm just tagging along for fun and a run.  Of course, anything that justifies a nice little 4-day weekend away from home with the hubby (NO KIDS) is a great excuse.  We haven't had a vacation alone in years.

But once Jason returned back to Iraq in early-June, I found myself trudging along, just trying to get through the days.  It's been hard; the kids are out of school; I'm working a few more hours in the ER; somehow I'm buried in laundry no matter what I do; Owen has baseball nearly EVERY.BLEEPING.NIGHT.  (But I admit - I love watching him play, and I'm so very proud of him!)

I can overcome all of this; I've done it before.  But the biggest heartache for me is missing our dog, Rusty.

What I've never mentioned is that my last long run (8-miles) was the run I received the call that Rusty had been hit by a car.  I was 7 miles into the run, and more than a mile away from my car. I was high on endorphins and really enjoying my stride, only having had to walk a small bit of it.  Then the call came in on my iPhone.  I had to run as fast as I could to get back to my car.  And I couldn't do it.  I had to walk part of it, and I hated myself for not having the strength to get home to my family, to be there to comfort the kids, to get to the vet with Rusty faster.  It was the longest mile of my life.  My heart aches whenever I think about it.

I didn't run or work out once the entire week after Jason left.  I kept telling myself I was too busy.  Too much going on.  Not enough time.

And I realized I was just making excuses so I could avoid running.  I was trying to forget that moment when I was running and the call came.  Of saying "Hey, honey, what's up?" and Jason telling me I needed to get home as fast as I could.  Oh, awfulness.  If I ran, would I keep reliving that moment?

My mom came over this week for a few days and stayed with me and the kids.  It was nice outside and I could feel the pull, the lure of the pavement.  My feet were aching to move.  I wanted to put on my headphones and stretch out my stride.  Feel the sun on my shoulders.  I laced up my sneakers and told mom I'd been back in about an hour.  That's what it took; I allowed myself that hour to work out my feelings.

Because sometimes you have to look heartache in the face and acknowledge it and accept it. I couldn't avoid it any more.  I hurt; the thoughts tumbled through my mind...Jason had to leave the next AM on a plane back to Baghdad.  Our family didn't get to heal together.   I hurt whenever I think about how the kids reacted when we told them Rusty died.  I hurt whenever I accidentally call our new puppy (Starbuck) "Rusty."  I feel guilty that I love the new puppy so much and that I love her so easily.  I miss my husband terribly, and we've only got a few weeks to go, but the days drag by so slowly at times.  I don't feel strong all the time; sometimes not at all.  And it just hurts.  All these feelings; they washed over me on that run.  But it was so much better than trying to feel numb like I had the preceding week.  I always tell the kids it's not good to bottle up feelings; why do I so easily allow myself to avoid my own thoughts?

I finished five miles that afternoon.  I don't remember it being difficult or easy; I just remember feeling that I had worked out some things in my mind; I remember feeling good.  The next day I laced up the sneakers again, and this time it wasn't so melancholy.  I hit a fast stride and pounded out a quick three miles.  I took some photos along the way, and enjoyed the trail.  I suppose running for me is the best kind of therapy.  I can use it to work out my feelings or my thoughts; I use it to celebrate, or to mourn.  Sometimes I just run to enjoy the run.  Just me, my music, my sneakers, and my thoughts.

Millcreek Park, somewhere between
1/2 and 1 mile into my 3-mile run.

The most inviting trail.

Beautiful running trail.

Almost to the end.

After I finished my 3 miles.
Awesome feeling.

Saturday, June 18, 2011

FS Rodeo...err...Round-Up!

Well, thewanderingdrays.blogspot.com is hosting this upcoming week's State Department Round-Up.  As I've never done a weekly Round-Up, I am a weensy bit nervous it might end up being more of a Rodeo.  And I don't want to end up feeling like I got kicked by a bull.  So, I'm putting the world out early.

Here's the nitty gritty for the upcoming week's submissions.

*Submissions are due to me no later than 11:59PM EST Thursday, June 23rd. (And dude, if you're late, it's ok.  Send it anyway.)

*Email me or you can post your link on this blog entry below in the 'comments' section (preferred method!).  You can also contact me through Facebook if we're FB friends.  If we're not FB friends, why aren't we?

*This week's optional theme is:  Vacations/Home Leave.  Nice and broad/vague/open, eh?  It's summer and that means it's also travel season!  I know lots of FS folks are traveling or in the process of planning a vacation or home leave.  Where are you going this summer?  Where have you been in the past?  Any suggestions on planning a great vacation?  It's a broad theme.  Take it and run with it, should you choose to accept this assignment.

We just recently celebrated my husband's last home leave from Baghdad in early June with a family mini-vacation in Pennsylvania.  And while we thoroughly enjoyed it, a little bit more planning would have gone a long way (see photo below).  Maybe you have suggestions that will help to avoid National Lampoon's Vacation moments like these!

*Of course, as always, should you choose not to write on the optional theme, no worries.  That is the nature of optional.  Please submit any blog post on any topic.  We love FS Blogs!

National Lampoon's Vacation kinda moment.  Don't let this happen to you!

Thursday, June 16, 2011

A Bittersweet Beginning

There's nothing like little puppy teeth with little puppy breath and little puppy fur.  Last week we welcomed a new little toy fox terrier to our home, and proudly named her "Starbuck." She is smart, and sweet, and cuddly, and sassy, and playful - aren't all puppies? - and absolutely loved by our children.  And I have to admit, I love her too.

I was worried about announcing her arrival on the blog or even on facebook, for fear that someone would judge us for adopting a new puppy so soon after the painful loss of our beloved chihuahua, Rusty.  But who can fairly judge someone's heartache and pain?  I suppose I even felt a little guilty loving this little girl so easily, when there is still that ache left from loss.  But she is a perfect fit for our family.

Jason and I talked about waiting to adopt a dog - we thought time might heal a broken heart.  Jason is due back home in late-July and that is when we anticipated beginning a search for a dog in earnest.  But when we reviewed the requirement for dogs to enter into Egypt, we realized there wouldn't be enough time to get the shots needed to travel with a pup to Cairo in September.  We decided we wanted a puppy, even given the time constraints, so we began a puppy search early last week.

I found a litter of toy fox terriers listed in Akron - about 40 minutes from our home in Ohio.  The owner sent photos and I forwarded them to Jason.  Jason actually did the legwork of researching the breed - small enough to travel foreign service style (in-cabin carry-on!), great with kids, not too small (she'll get to be about 6-8 lbs).  When I saw the puppies, I was overwhelmed!  But Jason, despite being 11,000 miles or whatever the obscene distance it is to Baghdad was ready at his phone and computer.  I took pics of the pups and sent them to him.  I watched their behavior and interactions.

One stood out among all the rest.  This sweet little girl kept jumping up and climbing on top of the litter to get out of their pack-in-play.  She'd follow me around outside and was observant of everything around her.  I snapped lots of photos and gave Jason a play-by-play of her actions.  Yes, folks; you can indeed pick out a family together pet despite distance.  Jason and I decided on her.  The name "Starbuck" fit her perfectly.  Jason and I have such fond memories of meeting up at Starbucks over the past few years.  And since I love to keep a photo blog and keep a record of my Starbuck's lattes' journeys, well, it just fit.

We've now had her for nearly a week.  She's learning to potty-train litter-box style (Jason read about this and recommended it since we'll be limited on green space in Cairo); has successfully learned how to avoid our ancient cranky cat; and equally plays and chases all the kids.  Even Kellen adores her and she adores him.  Actually, I'd say she adores Kellen the most (but don't tell our other kids).  At night she snuggles up with Owen for a few hours while I finish up the house stuff after the kiddos have gone to bed.  Then she has a little snack, takes a potty break and climbs into bed with me for the night.  She helps me with the late-night loneliness when the kids are sleeping and I'm trying to unwind my head and get to sleep.  I'm overpowered by her fuzziness.  I have to pet and love her.  She nuzzles up under my chin or just behind my head.  Such a little lovebug.  In fact, as I sit her writing this she is snuggled up on my lab taking a much-needed puppy nap (after spending a hour attacking my feet and toes).

My only true regret is that Jason is not here to enjoy her.  Sure, he'll be home in 5 weeks and will love her, I just know it. But it would be so much better if he were her right at this moment to marvel in her amazing puppiness with me.  To see how happy she makes all of our kids.  But no matter how I look at it, she IS the right pet for us, even though she arrived here weeks earlier than we had anticipated adding a new pet to our family.

And so I hope people won't judge and think we didn't love Rusty enough or care enough to wait whatever their acceptable time limit is before getting a new dog.  Because we loved him so much.  And our loss still hurts; our new puppy doesn't change that.  But this puppy is a bittersweet new beginning as we prepare for our travel and new life abroad.  I hope she'll be as happy and feel as loved as Rusty did with us.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

"We Don't Do That Here" -OR - Epiphanies of an Inexperienced Non-D.C.-Area EFM (Part One)

Let's say your really cool spouse (I'll call mine Jason) and you decide you'd like to live the dream and move someplace (non-specific, really anywhere) overseas.  How ya gonna do it?  Department of State, of course.  Nearly three years ago, after a long journey just to get the interview for the dream job, my really cool spouse began his training for his career with the State Department.

Leaving me and our (then) two children behind in Ohio while he started said journey.  For 10 months.   And we had absolutely no, nada, zilch that is! understanding of State and it's vast resources and projects.  I waited patiently for the info that would rarely come.  It would bounce it's way to me via my husband in snippets - an informational CD I promptly lost and never watched (bad Heather), an email forwarded by the hubby from his CDO (Career Development Officer), a packet of papers he uncrumpled from the trunk of his car.  I think I was living in a fog of belief that all things would arrive all wrapped with a big lovely bow by State and just fall together.  Here's the good news - it does [eventually] all fall together.  Here's the bad new - you have to work your tuckus off to make it all [eventually] fall together.

If you're a new EFM (Eligible Family Member) like me, it's a very scary Foreign Service World.  And here's where my itsy bitsy piece of expertise [cough cough] comes in.  We are not from the D.C. area.  And we've never picked up and moved there, although we could have many times during my really cool spouse's training.  You see, nearly everything in State originates from D.C.  And we are so far away and out of the D.C.-Loop.  So, I have what you might call an outsider's perspective of FS life.  And I've amassed most of it from the cozy confines of my couch in Ohio.

If you're still interested, read on.  Because I'm about to summarize all the information and intel I have managed to scrounge up in the past three years with my husband, my trusty MacBook, and a lot of emails.

1.  If you are an EFM, you WILL do so much more with your spouse's new career than you did before he/she joined forces with the Foreign Service.  FS is cozy.  Sure, there are thousands of participants, but I'm telling you, whatever State niche your spouse is involved in - you will see many of the same names/faces/people over and over again.  Jason spent 10 months training in DC and then we were assigned domestically in Los Angeles.  There, two others from his training class were assigned with him.  And of the peeps he met in L.A., two of them ended up in Baghdad with him.  Meanwhile, another from his training class arrived in Baghdad with him.  And since then, I've cyberly met the spouses of two guys he works with - not even realizing initially that Jason knew their spouses. (Get the picture?)  It's a closer-knit group than you may be initially comfortable with.  But then you'll start to realize how important that group is to you.

I made the mistake early on of not thinking I'd need any sort of support group to get through this.  Sure, I joined a Spouse email group, but I did so only because I thought they might post some info I'd need.  I never thought I'd make friends through it, or seek support and solace from those going through the same thing.  Or organize a world-wide running event for we spouses (Yes, I did!).  I'm glad I was wrong.  Don't make the same mistake I did at the beginning of my husband's career.  Reach out and meet and do it early.  It's actually way easier than you think.  FS is cozy and comfortable and accepting.

2.  Taming the paper beast.  Becky at Small Bits is hosting the FS Blog Round-Up this week, and this is her optional theme.  So, here's my two bits for her Small Bits....You will receive an OBSCENE amount of paperwork for State.  All those jokes about the government needing everything in triplicate?  I wish it were that easy.  Whatever you do, keep a copy of what you fill out.  Because I guarantee you will need it again in the future.  It will be lost, claimed never to have been received, claimed to have been filled out incorrectly, end up on the wrong desk, in the wrong department, and even in the wrong country.  Horrific?  No kidding.  Up until recently, I had manilla folders out the ying-yang for every conceivable issue.  Kids' School applications.  Medical Clearances.  Medical Insurance.  Overseas Car Insurance.  All the household stuff you had before you enter the FS World x100.  

Get a scanner.  Make sure you have a decent computer.  Back up your files.  I just got a scanner and it is a life-saver.  It's saved me at least $100 at Kinko's in the last month.  You might think that you can get away with out it.  But you are flat-out wrong.  All those forms you fill out will have to be done again and again and again.  Unless you've already got them on your computer.  I should have bought one the moment Jason's congratulations you're hired letter came in.

Which brings me to my next point on taming the beast - whenever you can, email, DON'T FAX.  Government faxes are like teenage boys standing in front of the refrigerator.  Everything gets eaten and there is no proof any of it ever existed.  

Some other tidbits.
*Government offices are open 8am-4:30pm typically.  Don't call between 11 and noon.  You'll never find a live person it's lunch time.  Call in the AM, because by 3:00pm, everyone is already thinking about what they need to do to get outta there by 4:30.  Call on Tuesday or Wednesday.  Monday and Friday are the worst (Monday every office is hammered with new requests; Friday everyone is thinking about the weekend).

*CC as many people as possible on any requests and follow-up as much as you can to get what you need done.  A fellow spouse once told me that getting correct orders and packout and passports and travel required you to be a complete b*tch and to CC everyone.  She's right.  Although I haven't had to do the b*tch thing yet.  But coming close to tears seems to move people on occasion.

*Get stuff done early.  We waited until the last minute to get med clearances the first time and it was tough.  There's a lot of paperwork involved and if you aren't in the DC-area, you have to use your non-governmental-I-Have-No-Idea-What-You're-Talking-About family physicians and medical groups.  It just means you'll have to fill out more paperwork because you didn't get it done right the first time.  But squeaking in on the last-minute is always painful.  Really, plan ahead.  It will limit the amount of paperwork you do in the end.

Which takes me away from the paper beast and back to my intel on FS.

3.  If you aren't in the DC-area, be prepared to have to do a lot of research on your own.  There is no big "Welcome to State, here are your passports".  Really.  Last week we [finally] managed to process the paperwork needed to get dip passports and regular travel passports for the whole family.  NINE PASSPORTS total.  Just getting the information about how to get passports involved me emailing a fellow spouse and saying "I'm lost.  Help!".  Who then emailed me the info and got me in contact with an HR rep who got me the Special Issuance Office for passports.  Because dip passports get processed differently.  But the process CAN originate in the same facility as regular travel passports.  In a local post office for instance.  Like in Niles, Ohio.

The poor postal worker didn't know what hit her.  It's complicated enough processing five travel passports for a family.  But then we hit her with the "we need diplomatic passports, too."  Her prompt response was "We don't do that here."  We calmly tried to tell her, "Yes, you do." Her answer?  "Well, as far as I know, we don't do that here, because I've never heard of it."  Thankfully, I had my stuff all sorted out!  I had pre-filled out the forms and printed them out; I had the letter that's now required to process the passports fee-free for us (Otherwise, we could have kissed an additional $450+ goodbye), and I had printed out the email instructions on how to obtain dip passports when applying at an alternate location (as in not at the D.C. Special Issuance Office).  A little over an hour later, we were headed out the Post Office door, feeling mostly confident that we had done it correctly.  I'll let you know when the passports arrive.

And Finally.

4.  Pack-Out sucks.  There is no way around it.  We've done it domestically twice in one year.  The first one was done just three days after finally receiving orders.  So not awesome.  Can't wait to see what it's like to move it all overseas [sarcasm]. You will spend money you don't anticipate spending.  It will be a lot.  You will forget to pack something.  You will pack stuff you don't need.  Things will get mixed up.  A lot.  And you'll arrive wondering why you needed so much stuff; yet, at the same time, you'll wonder why it seems you didn't pack enough stuff.

Ok, that's it.  It's not much, but it's what I got.  I marked this as Part I, because I fully intend to expand to additional editions, after we've moved to Cairo and again after we go on our first Home Leave next year!  Here's to a great pack-out.  Because I kinda feel like we deserve it.

$435 worth of stuff.  Mostly baby stuff on this trip.
Stocking up for Cairo!

Impressive packing skillz.

Thankfully, I had no other adult with me.
Because this is the front passenger seat.

I even packed around the baby.
It's hard to see, but the floor in front
of his car seat is packed.

Monday, June 6, 2011

It's Just Six Weeks

Jason returned to Iraq yesterday.  I dropped him at the airport and it's the first time I managed to do so without sniffling into tears as soon as he walked into the terminal.  To be fair, I always wait until after he's out of the car because that kind of emotional reaction is beyond wrong.  Emotional blackmail.  HE'S the one who has to go to be without his family.  In a foreign unwelcoming country.  Alone.  He knows I get all weepy, but I still make sure not to show him.

It was especially hard to see Jason leave this time.  Or beloved chihuahua, Rusty, was hit by a car in front of our home the day before Jason left.  Jason and I took him to the emergency vet clinic and found his pelvic was fractured in three places.  It was one of the hardest decisions we ever had to make.  He was put to rest by the vet and didn't suffer; I know we made the right choice.  But now we're left with another void. 

Jason found Rusty for our family when out shopping at a sports store when we were assigned in Los Angeles.  There was a local rescue shelter holding a pet fair outside of the store and there he was.  We adopted him within a week. Rusty spent sunny days with us at the dog beach in Long Beach.  He slept so far under the blankets with us that you wondered how he could breathe with feet next to him.  He vigilantly watched the kids while they played outside.  He was territorial but friendly once he knew you were welcome in our home.  He made the long car ride with Jason (while I cruised high above in a plane) from L.A. to Ohio and then to DC with Jason to enjoy some time with him and keep him company while the kids and I stayed in Ohio and he finished up his pre-Iraq training.  And now our sweet family companion is gone.  

It's just six weeks, and we've done 12+ week separations so many times before. But it's wearing thin and I fear these last six weeks will seem like an eternity.  In the past three years, we've really had only 10 months together as a family. We're very ready to get to be a family again.  And while Cairo will certainly be a different venue, it will be the most normal of family togetherness we've had in years.

It's time.  We've been waiting for our first family accompanied overseas assignment for so long.  Cairo was in fact one of our top choices and we really are so excited about it!  We actually have orders and can start planning travel.  We applied for passports - both regular and diplomatic - while Jason was home (Goodbye, $760).  I am in the process of applying and interviewing for a job in Cairo.  I've finished the applications for the kids' school.  And we're awaiting housing assignment, and trying to figure out what to pack in our UAB and HHE.  I'm about to hit Target and stock up on the wipes, diapers, and formula we use.  I know we're lucky - almost everything we need can be purchased locally in Cairo or shipped to our APO box (Love you, amazon.com and target.com!), but I like to be super prepared before we get there. Plus, the shopping and the stocking up and the planning take my mind off Jason's return to Baghdad.

And there it is again.  A reminder that we still have six more weeks until he comes back to us.  Permanently.  So we can start our life together.  Again.

It's just six weeks, right?

Long Beach, Valentine's Day 2010.  Rusty was
such a good companion to Jason.
San Pedro tide pools, New Year's Eve 2009.

You can't see the kiddos in this photo but he was vigilantly
watching over them and their every move.

He was the perfect companion for the kiddos.

The three men I was likely to find
in my bed this past year...

Friday, June 3, 2011

It Started As a Griswold Family Vacation

When you spend two months planning the perfect family vacation, it's no surprise that you get a teensy weensy upset when it doesn't go as planned.  At all.  However, what started out as a crazy National Lampoons-style Griswold Family [Mini] Vacation ended as a great two-day Dray Family [Mini] Vacation, with full sanity intact.  Mostly.

It's fun to act like a kid.
Jason's been home on leave from the mean-old Baghdad, and we've enjoyed every minute of it.  This is the first Leave I didn't focus on the countdown-till-he-leaves-to-go-back-There.  Maybe it's because it's his last Leave and the next time he's home it will be permanent (!!), or maybe it's because I'm getting good at this gig (doubtful), or maybe it's because I'm just plain tired of being so emotional over it (likely).

But in any case, we wanted to spend a few days away from our home with the kiddies and give them a sweet little mini-vacation.  I am awesome at planning vacations, whether long or short.  And I jumped into this planning full-on Heather-style.  We decided to keep the drive short and chose Western Pennsylvania, just outside of Pittsburgh, in the beautiful Laurel Highlands area.  We've taken the kidlets to Idlewild and SoakZone each summer we've been in the area, and it's only about 2 1/2 hours away.  If you're reading this, and you're in the DC-area and have young kiddos, we highly recommend it.  It's only about 2 1/2 - 3 hours drive from your direction as well.

Idlewild is one of the the last of the dying breed of great family amusement parks.  Small, kid-friendly, affordable.  The water park is INCLUDED in the admission fee ($25 through AAA, or $32 at the gate).  Parking is free.  They even have grills for use.  For free.  Anyway, I also booked reservations at The Log Cabin Motel in Donegal (about 20 minutes from Idlewild), as there is an adjacent Animal Park/Reserve there.  The Kids LOVE this place.  Plus, Ft. Ligonier is nearby, getting my husband his history fix (nerdy nerd nerd), and I figured I could find some fun shopping in the area.  Perfect, right?

We took the kids out of school THE LAST DAY OF SCHOOL.  Packed up the car (you'd think we were moving to Cairo at this very moment with all the crud we jammed into the SUV).  And left our home two hours later than we planned.  As always.

OH, Sh*t.
Imagine our surprise when we approached Idlewild and noticed the parking lots.  Were. Empty.  We pulled to the gate.  Shocked.  Idlewild was CLOSED.  Griswold-style at it's finest.  Turns out that the park was open over Memorial Day weekend, but closed during the week until the following weekend when it would open fully for its season.  I had only checked (very quickly) to see that it was open beginning the last weekend in May - didn't read the print to see that it wasn't open during the week.  I honestly almost lost it.  I am ashamed to say that big tears welled up in my eyes. I wanted this to be the perfect vacation for the kids. Jason whispered to me "don't make a big deal of it, and the kids won't either".  I sucked it up.  Fast.  The kids were upset, but Jason promised them a good time and he delivered.

We drove to historic Ft. Ligonier and Owen (who is obsessed with George Washington) got to tromp around the Fort with his new [fake] coonskin hat and wooden gun.  Abby wasn't so keen on Ft. Ligonier, but she managed to enjoy it nonetheless, with visions of a promised water park dancing in her head.  A kind worker at Ft. Ligonier gave us directions to a local pool and we drove there next.  It was underwhelming to say the least.  But the kids loved it!  The water wasn't too deep, the bathrooms were clean, the grass was soft along the banks, and there were floaties to rent.  Plus, Daddy swam with the kids - their favorite! - and tossed them into the water and encouraged them to show off their swimming skills.  I ignored the beer snack bar (I don't know if they sold anything BUT beer) and brought in our own snackies (Combos and Nacho Cheese Bugles) and drinks (Capri Sun pouches) and we dined as if were owned the pool ourselves.  Owen did some rad moves off the diving board.  Dinner was McDonald's (Like I said, this vacation was all about our kids!) and we checked into the hotel late, about 8:00pm.
Kellen got a coonskin hat, too.
Historic Ft. Ligonier.

Owen loved it here.

Rad moves.

The hotel is awesome for families.  TACKY TACKY TACKY!  Bunk beds made out of logs, 'minky' animal blankets, horseshoe nailed to the wall as a toilet paper roll dispenser.  A total kids haven.  The next morning we beelined to the Animal Park/Reserve.  And thoroughly enjoyed petting goats, a wallaby family, camels, and llamas.  We stared at the tigers and emus.  Abby, when she was three years old had been at a petting zoo and had been surrounded by a swarm of goats (I kid not) and has been terrified by goats ever since.  This time, she conquered her fear, at least a little, and fed and petted some baby goats.

Even I loved petting the wallaby family.
No longer afraid of goats!

Kellen is actually bigger than the baby goat.

Too much candy.  Obviously, Daddy's treat.

Abby and her new airline-approved carry-on Trunki.
She can't wait to fly to Cairo!

Then we drove to Ligonier and ate lunch at the Ligonier Tavern that actually catered to both adults and children with their delicious menu.  We walked the town, shopping in the marvelous boutiques and shops.  Kids ate candy.  Lots of it.  And I found a local coffee shop ("Abigail's" - much to Abby's joy!) to soothe my latte desires.  We drove home and Jason promised the kids he'd take them to a movie the next day.

Things learned on this vacation:

*Jason is dazzled by my Matrix-style ability to avoid Kellen puke.  Baby barfed just a little at the animal park, probably due to the intense heat and humidity.  And I avoided it all, despite it's initial trajectory in my direction.

*You will never remember to pack everything needed. Plan to blow at least $75 at Target along the way.  When you realize you forgot baby swim diapers, towels, hydrocortisone cream, flip flops, and baby toys.  You'll still think of more things you forgot when you're pulling out of the Target parking lot.

*There is never a Starbucks when you really need it in rural Pennsylvania.

*History is cool.

*You have to remind yourself after packing and unpacking and repacking the car...don't forget the kids.

*It's fun to act like a kid.

*Makeup is unnecessary on vacations such as these.  But deodorant is never optional.

*It doesn't matter where the baby sleeps so long as he sleeps.

*You will spend three times as much money as you originally budgeted.  And when your plans go kaplooey (such as our "OMG, the park is closed" moment), you will spend even more.  Get over it.

Finally, the most important thing.  And I thank a new FS friend for reminding me.  It doesn't matter where you are on vacation, so long as you are there as a family.  After a long long LONG year+ of separation, we completely enjoyed our Griswold-style family vacation. Together.

Even at the beer pool.