PCS tips from someone who may or may know what they’re doing

Dhaka pack-out: Just a few of the boxes 

 PCS, or permanent change of station, time is upon us! We are leaving in Oman in less than three months. Yikes. We are preparing for our third PCS and, while I am by no means an expert, I have some helpful advice for folks that are PCSing, especially for the first time. This is mostly in chronological order, and I hope it’s helpful!
Make a bucket list and strategize to get it all done. For me this meant that in January I made a list of all our remaining weekends in Oman and started planning what we were doing when. I know it sounds crazy, but I wanted to make sure we could fit it all in! Or maybe you have several big purchases to make, like art, furniture, or carpets. Make a budget and start finding the best places to procure what you’re looking for.

We made sure to find time to go back to Wadi Damm

Start sorting through your stuff several months ahead of time. This way you can sell things of value that you don’t want any more rather than frantically giving them away a few days before your pack-out.

Order the essentials and ship them several weeks before you are scheduled to arrive. Do an Amazon or jet.com box full of Tupperware containers, plastic wrap, aluminum foil, parchment paper, fluffy toilet paper, and whatever else you think you might need. Along these lines, change the address for your Amazon subscribe-and-save well in advance and then your subscribe-and-save items are there waiting for you.

Don’t spend too much time prepping for your pack-out. Yes, you should carefully consider what you want to put in UAB, but that’s about it. Put your UAB in a separate, easy-to-identify location and then let the movers do their thing. In normal circumstances, there’s no need for colored post-its, a careful labeling system, or any of that. Ultimately, all your shit will get packed and it will arrive where it’s supposed to. Unless the boat sinks or something.

Pack your suitcases and then shove them away in a bathroom with a sign on the door telling the movers not to enter. This way you know how much will fit in your luggage and you have all the necessities (for us this means passports, VPN router, my favorite kitchen knife, AppleTV, expensive jewelry, clothes, etc.) all in one place and you know they won’t get packed).

Watching all our stuff get packed up during our very first pack-out in Alexandria

Ship your mattress. I am so glad we did this. Nothing is worse than sleeping on a bad mattress for two years or more.

When you arrive, say “yes” to everything. Even if you’re tired or it seems like something you might not enjoy, do it anyways. Take advantage of every opportunity to meet the community members and learn more about life in your new location. It’ll be exhausting and sometimes challenging, but you never know when you’ll meet your new best friends.

Let the movers unpack the boxes. Put all the leaves in that dining room table and be prepared ahead of time! When things are strewn all around your house and everything is covered in stuff, you are much more likely to put everything away than you would be if it all stayed in the boxes. Also, it is so much easier when the movers take away the boxes and packing materials versus having to do it yourself. Maybe the idea of strangers touching all your stuff makes you uncomfortable, but at least have them unpack anything breakable. Otherwise you can’t document what arrived broken and you won’t be able to submit a claim.

Our kitchen in Dhaka after our HHE was delivered. Believe it or not, we were able to make dinner in our kitchen that night

Our kitchen in Muscat following HHE delivery. This is a great way to make sure everything gets put away as quickly as possible. As someone who likes an organized kitchen, this is hell.

Hi, my name is Kathryn and I have a china/glassware problem.

I hope this was helpful, and it’s time for me to start following my own advice!

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How to host a holiday meal and not go crazy

2018 Thanksgiving dinner!

In November, as in many previous years, we hosted Thanksgiving. It might be too late, with Christmas being next week, but I feel like at this point I’ve accumulated a quite a bit of knowledge (mostly by making a lot of mistakes) that might be helpful to other people. I’m also going to share my stand-by recipes that I make just about every year.

Without further ado, here are my tips for hosting a holiday meal:

  • Make lots of lists. Make a guest list, a grocery list, a list of the serving dishes and place settings you’ll need, a list of who is bringing what, and a list for every day leading up to the holiday with amounts of time you’ll need for each component of each dish or facet of the meal. For example, set aside time to clean up or set the table. And set aside 15 minutes before the guests arrive to get ready yourself. Don’t forget to factor in time for keeping the kitchen under control, especially if you don’t have a dishwasher or a friend helping you with dishes.

    My to-do list. Things got crossed out and moved around, but mostly I stuck to it.

  • Ask everyone to bring something. If you’re not in the US, your group of friends might have holiday traditions that differ from your own, and ask them to bring whatever their favorite dish for the holiday is. Or, if someone can’t/doesn’t cook, ask them to bring alcohol.

    Our Thanksgiving cohost is an amazing baker, and she offered to make nearly all of the desserts. We wound up with the Thanksgiving dessert selection of my dreams!

  • Ask about dietary restrictions. You don’t want to find out that someone is lactose intolerant or a vegetarian after you’ve planned your menu.
  • Do as much as you can in advance. Go grocery shopping the weekend before, recognizing that you’ll undoubtedly forget a few things and will also need to go to the store the day before. We make cranberry sauce and gravy ahead of time, and I’ll also prep the components for various dishes (i.e. make pie crust, boil the sweet potatoes, or chop the onions and celery for dressing) up to several days in advance. Set the table the day before, decide upon and clear off your serving space, and make labels if needed. This sounds really fiddly, but I’ve found that making a cute little sign to put by the punch bowl eliminates a lot of questions, especially when you have alcoholic and non-alcoholic options. This past Thanksgiving, I surprised even myself and I had several hours to snuggle on the couch with M and watch Netflix’s She-Rah revival on Thanksgiving Day. It was marvelous.
  • Do not turn down help. If someone offers to bring something extra, come over and help set up, or stay and wash dishes, your response should always be, “That would be awesome!”
  • Always serve appetizers and pre-meal drinks. People usually arrive hungry and it’s good to keep everyone busy (and sated) until the meal is served. Usually appetizers are one of the first things that I ask someone else to bring. If you need suggestions, baked brie, antipasta platters, veggie platters and buffalo chicken dip are always popular. This past year we made ginger liquor and served cranberry-ginger punch. It was very popular and tasty.
  • Spatchcock and grill your turkey. This frees up the oven for other things, in addition to giving the turkey amazing flavor, and by spatchcocking your turkey, you drastically reduce the cooking time. If you don’t have access to a grill, at least spatchcock your bird. Remember that the turkey needs to rest for at least 30 minutes and you shouldn’t serve it immediately after it’s done cooking.
  • If you know something is going to stress you out, don’t do it! The goal is to share a meal with people you love (or at least like) and to have fun. There’s no reason to do anything you don’t want to do!
  • Not related to hosting, but still important: If you’re not living in the US and you see an ingredient you know you’ll need for a holiday meal, buy it. I spent $15 on a huge bag of frozen cranberries in August and I stock-piled plain canned pumpkin when I saw it in May. The canned pumpkin came in especially handy when it was nowhere to be found in November and I was giving away cans to friends.

    This dressing/stuffing will change your life. I’m not joking. The recipe is below!

Here are our favorite recipes, including some new favorites and others that I’ve been making for nearly a decade:

Appetizers and cocktails

Cranberry ginger punch (made with ginger liqueur): This is our new favorite holiday cocktail. Easy and a good crowd-pleaser
Sweet potato bites with feta: roast the sweet potatoes ahead of time and make the feta filling separately. Then assemble day-of
Baked brie: There are many schools of thought on baked brie, but I think this one is the best. A good friend who is the ultimate host introduced me to it and it’s awesome. Roll the puff pastry very thinly so it bakes evenly and quickly. Make sure the slits don’t go too far down the sides or your cheese will leak out
Bacon-wrapped dates: Lightly cook bacon in the pan, so it’s about half-cooked. Slice the dates, remove the pits, and stuff them with blue cheese. Wrap each date with half a slice of bacon, securing it with a toothpick. Bake at 400 degrees F for 10-15 minutes, or until the bacon is crispy and the cheese is warm.
Buffalo chicken dip: An easy crowd-pleaser; serve with celery and sliced baguette

Dinner

Bacon-shallot gravy: I’m not a gravy person and I could literally drink this
The best stuffing ever: DO NOT skip the sausage
Brined turkey: I’ve tried a number of brine recipes and this is by far the best. You can actually taste the flavor of the brine in the turkey. If I’m spatchcocking the turkey, I leave it in the brine for 24 hours. If I break down the turkey, then I do 12-15 hours. I’ve never done the whole herbed butter thing
Goat cheese mashed potatoes: I don’t know who actually has time to use a food mill.  Not me. Regardless, this goes well with turkey and also beef and lamb

Dessert

Black-bottom oatmeal pie: Like pecan pie, but better, frankly
Pumpkin pie: This recipe is my favorite for pumpkin pie, hands-down

There are other tips/tricks and recipes that I’m probably forgetting, so please consider this to be a “living” blog post, and feel free to share your own suggestions!

At home, finally

We moved into our permanent residence, and we love it here.  In our temporary apartment I never really let myself get 100% comfortable because I knew we’d be leaving, but here we can arrange the furniture how we want, re-organize the kitchen, and actually spend some time making this place feel like ours.

Our apartment is really long. Like a “huh, that’s interesting” kind of long.  We are trying to decide how to rearrange it and partition out the space because you could literally have a banquet for 25 people, at least, in the dining room.  Luckily the flooring is these huge square tiles, so I could easily map out the dimensions of the rooms and furniture.  And this is what I’ve been playing around with:

Some people (Nate, most likely) would say I have too much time on my hands

Some people (Nate, most likely) would say I have too much time on my hands

We are going to request some additional furniture, and hopefully things will be set up the way we would like in no time!

My favorite things about this apartment are the living area, which gets loads of natural light, especially in the morning, and the roof-top garden. We are lucky to have houses next to us rather than apartment buildings, so they don’t block out all the sunlight.

We might not have a yard, but this is almost as good!

We might not have a yard, but this is almost as good!

The roof has a nice, high wall (at least five feet tall) and tons of grass.  In our last apartment, the people that lived above us actually lost one of their dogs because he jumped over the roof wall chasing a bird.  So, we were always very careful whenever we took Athena on the roof there, because she could definitely put her paws up on the ledge.  Thankfully, here there is no risk of that happening, and there are these glass areas where she can look out, so she has no desire to see over the wall anyways.

Athena explores new spaces and new species of shrubbery

Athena explores new spaces and new species of shrubbery

We also have loads of storage in the kitchen, which is something I’m very excited about.  This is the first time in my adult life that I’ve had a kitchen to call my own that I don’t feel totally cramped in.  I’m starting to sound like a broken record, but I seriously can’t wait for our HHE to get here.  All our bakeware, kitchen appliances, and weird gadgets/dishes won’t need to be stashed in random places around the house and will finally have a place to go!

Our first week in Dhaka

So far, we really like it here.  Our social sponsors are awesome, the community is really friendly, there’s lots to do, the food is great, and our apartment has air conditioning!

We did a grand tour of the major grocery stores over the weekend, and I was surprised by all the things you can find here.  The commissary (when stocked, anyways) has bacon, pesto, guacamole, puff pastry, and all kinds of things you’d usually see on the shelves in a U.S. grocery store.  Some of it might be expired, but, hey, then it’s 25-50% off.  At some of the local grocery stores we saw Jif peanut butter, Smuckers jam, freshly baked challah, hard taco shells, and loads of other things.  One of the stores we went to, Lavender, had 11 different kinds of lentils!  And the spice selection is amazing.

There’s a nice bakery called Holey, which has wonderful pastries and coffee.  I had a piece of cake from there and it wasn’t as good as the croissant I’d had the day before, so I’ll be sticking to the pastries. There’s another good coffee shop called North End where we were able to buy some freshly ground beans.

In our apartment, we’ve noticed that sometimes there is no cold water.  I didn’t understand why the clothes that came out of the washing machine that were supposed to be washed at the temperature of “snow flake” (rather than 30, 40, 60, 80, or 100 degrees celsius) were warm.  Well, apparently wherever the washing water is stored isn’t immune to the Dhaka heat.  So, no cold water.  We take showers with the knob mostly on “cold” and the water that comes out of the faucet is always lukewarm.

But in the grand scheme of things, it’s not a big deal.  We have running water!

I don’t think I’ve been industrious enough in washing our fruits and vegetables… we’ve only been eating peel-able fruits raw, and apparently I’m supposed to wash them with detergent before I even peel them.  Oops.  I’d only been rinsing them.  We’re also supposed to wash vegetables, even if we’re going to cook them, with detergent too. Luckily we haven’t gotten sick yet.

Also, I vacuum every day.  EVERY DAY.  I don’t know how so much dust and dirt makes it’s way into our apartment.  Having a dog probably doesn’t help.  Plus, the tile floors are white, and Athena has black hair, so every single hair that she sheds is visible.

Before we left the US we ordered a VPN configured router, and it has been awesome.  It took us a little while to figure out exactly how to link all the computers, phones, and AppleTV to it, but it’s one of the best things we put in our luggage at the last minute.  No regrets there.

Let’s see… yesterday Athena got her first BarkBox in Dhaka!  They ship to DPO addresses (like a PO box with an American address, so we can still receive mail sent at domestic rates), but I was wary of whether or not it would actually work since sometimes we had problems with BarkBox shipments when we lived in Virginia.  And then Nate came home yesterday with Athena’s BarkBox!  Her tail was wagging non-stop.

In other Athena news, a few days ago she went running with Nate, one of his colleagues, and his colleague’s dog.  Usually she hates running, but they went over a mile before Nate dropped Athena off at home!  Apparently she went on strike while they were walking to the meeting point and Nate had to pick her up and carry her.  For some reason, the minute you put the running harness on her she won’t budge.  But as soon as she saw their running buddies, she changed her mind and had a great time.

Things are good here.  We’re all still adjusting in some ways, but we’re looking forward to experiencing more of what life in Bangladesh has to offer!

Almost ready-to-rent

The worst part of moving to Dhaka has easily been getting our house ready to rent.

Seriously, what a pain in the ass.

I used Angie’s List to find most of the contractors, and almost all of them were pretty good.  Here’s a list of everything we did to our property:

  • Repaint entire interior
  • Repaint exterior door frame and foundation
  • Power-wash, sand, repaint deck
  • Power-wash all walkways and driveway
  • Reinstall toilet
  • Replace toilet seat
  • Snake bathtub drain
  • Repair leaky faucets outside and in bathroom sink
  • Redo water connections for shower
  • Replace washing machine tubing
  • Cap dishwasher output valve and remove connection
  • Repair drywall in master bedroom
  • Caulk bathtub
  • Caulk kitchen sink
  • Remedy leaking problem in bathroom and bedroom windows
  • Caulk exterior bedroom windows
  • Replace deck railing
  • Replace deck stairs
  • Weed garden beds
  • Replace mulch in garden beds
  • Fumigate interior and exterior
  • Steam-clean carpets (still to be done)

The items in bold we did ourselves, and it probably doesn’t look like a lot.  But I power-washed, sanded and repainted the deck all by myself.  It was mind-numbingly terrible and only confirmed that I really hate painting.  The worst part about all of it was that I skipped FACT training so I could spend a few more days in the office and then finish the deck.  So every time I talked to Nate he’d tell me what a great time he was having, when I was not exactly having fun working on the deck.

The deck, partially painted.

The deck, partially painted.

The painting company I used for most of the interior work was less-than-stellar.  They were supposed to come on a Monday several weeks ago to paint the entire interior.  Monday came and went; they never showed up. Finally they came on Friday, the same day as my mother-in-law’s retirement party, and the day before our going away party.  They worked from 8 am until 6:15 pm, and left absolute destruction in their wake.  We got to the retirement party late and stressed out, and then had to go home to clean all the floors, which were a mess. On Sunday the painters showed up at 8 am, when we were still asleep.  They scrapped most of the paint off the floor, in addition to the floor finish in several areas.  They also primed a wall in the kitchen that needed primer before being painted, which the original painted neglected to do.  A few days later the company owner came back (again) when I sent him an email telling him he needed to fix the floors where they’d ruined the finish.  At this point, I got a pretty surly.  But after threatening him with a bad Angie’s List review, he started responding a lot more quickly and was more courteous.

Ultimately, the painting that needed to get done got done, with Nate and I painting the trim, doors, basement, and doing ceiling touch-ups. In fact, I think Nate is at home now painting what’s left of the basement.

One of the most noticeable changes was the new toilet seat. I never had to hear the toilet seat slam down after that.  And I did it myself!

The one thing we just don’t have time to do is steam-clean the carpets.  Our property manager said he has a company who does it inexpensively, so we’ll just have them do that after we’ve moved everything out.

It’s too bad that our house and yard look the nicest they’ve looked since we moved in and we’re not even going to be living here anymore.  But, hey, if it means our home will attract potential renters more quickly and easily, then I’ll take it!

Would you like a vacation, a car, or a door?

We are going to rent out our house when we move to Bangladesh, and now that we have refinished the floors, we are moving on to the next item on the we-should-probably-fix-that list: a new front door and storm door.

Our current front door is crap.  It serves to close the opening in the front of our house and that’s about it.  It’s so drafty, last winter I sealed it off with that plastic stuff you put around windows with double sided tape and told Nate we were only using the back door until spring.  Also there’s a huge glass panel on the top half of the door that’s begging to be punched through.

So I did what I usually do when we need to fix something around the house: I turned to Angie’s List.  Yesterday morning a contractor came over to provide a quote for replacing the front door and installing a new storm door.  I should have known it would be bad when they offer $250 off per door to Angie’s List customers.

Even so, I was not prepared. The poor salesman quoted over $4,000 for our main entry door and storm door.

rws

Yes, that is a comma, not a decimal point.  And I picked out the absolute cheapest doors they had!

It cost less than half that to refinish all our wood floors.  We could purchase a used, trusty SUV in Dhaka for $4,000, or go on another trip to Vietnam.  We could re-do part of our kitchen, or fix up the deck and install hardwood floors in the sunroom. There are so many other things I’d rather spend $4,000 on.

Why on god’s green earth would we spend that much money on a fucking door?  Especially when we’re moving in 8 months?

If I’m going to spend $4,000 on a door, that thing had better be able to sing, dance, and make me a sandwich.

Needless to say, our next course of action is to check out the door installation services at Home Depot. As much as the salesman derided the quality of Home Depot doors, they can’t be that bad.

 

 

I blinked and a month happened

It’s September.  September 2nd, to be exact.

Flag Day was over a month ago.  People, time is flying by.  We leave for Dhaka in eight months!  It sounds so far away, but shit is getting real faster than I expected it to.

So, what have we been up to?  I went to visit my family in Wisconsin for a long weekend, and Nate had to stay behind, unfortunately.  But I brought back loads of cheese, sausage and brats, so he didn’t miss out entirely.

Labor Day weekend was nice, and we went to the farmer’s market in Del Ray and, while we were in the neighborhood, bought Athena a pretty new leather collar. We met up with a bunch of Nate’s friends from A-100 at a middle eastern food festival on Saturday night, and that was super fun.  We went for a hike around Pohick Bay, and Athena had an absolute blast; we brought her home soaking wet and covered in sand, seaweed, and mud.  That afternoon Nate smoked ribs and a chicken on the grill for four hours and they turned out really well.  We also managed to bring the wrong key with us on our long run, so Nate had to break into our house.  I took pictures of Nate breaking in, but I’m not going to share them.  That would be stupid.  Instead you get another Athena photo!

Athena: doggy fashion trend-setter!

Athena: doggy fashion trend-setter! Also, toys do make the best pillows.

Oh, and I quit my part-time retail job!  While I will miss being able to buy beautiful clothes at a ridiculously low price, I’m happier having my weekends back (my checking account is also relieved).  No more on-call shifts, no more being polite to people who don’t deserve it, and no more stress about getting weekends off!  That brief foray into the world of retail was fun while it lasted (usually), but I’m glad it’s done.

We’ve been busy, and life is good!  Now if only that nice fall-like weather would come our way…

Reality: yard work

We have a large yard.  By Northern-Virginia-close-to-the-metro standards, anyway.  In most of the rest of the country, a third of an acre probably isn’t a big deal.   But it is for us, both literally and figuratively.

Back in 2010, the first thing that drew us to our current home was the yard.  And we know that when we rent out our house, the yard will be an important factor.  A big green oasis, t’s a dog owner’s dream!  Plenty of space to run around and have playdates, trees that provide cool shady spots, and areas along the fence perfect for basking in the sun.  People with human children would probably like it too.

We let the yard go wild when we were in Southeast Asia last month, and it’s taken us several weeks and four separate mowing sessions to, uh, tame the beast.   Yesterday we spent most of the evening outside mowing, weed-whacking, raking, trimming trees and bushes, uprooting trees, and weeding.  Now that Nate will be around on the weekends, we have lots of yard projects we’d like to do, like putting brick pavers around the garden beds, finally building a fire pit, and other stuff I’m not remembering.  Athena had a fun time with a tree as her new chew toy.

Yard work is exhausting, but it’s rewarding.  The results of your efforts are immediately visible, and I am all for instant gratification.

Also, if anyone has any advice on how to install fieldstone borders around our garden beds (aside from hiring a contractor), I’m all ears!