Sunday, June 29, 2014

Arrived In Sweden

We arrived in Sweden on Friday and it's been a non-stop whirlwind of a weekend getting settled in and acclimated to the new time and country. Above is one of the many graffiti marks I found during our walks even though crime isn't a big issue here. I'll start this post with the flights.


We arrived at Heathrow Airport in London with just about an hour to transfer to our flight to Stockholm. We were on a big 777 aircraft but they decided to unload us with a staircase and buses to the terminal. We then had to go through international transfers security and they had all sorts of fun with our bags even though they let us keep our shoes on.

My bag was full of electronics with a fold out for the laptop to ease scanning. I folded it out at Dulles and it went through without extra scrutiny. Heathrow decided I needed to remove the laptop and any other "large" electronics which they asked if I had an iPad. I have a 7 inch Google tablet so I said no and left it in there since it wasn't "large" in my opinion. I also have a Bose SoundLink speaker I left in there too. They scanned it and rejected it for extra screening. I had to unpack all of my toys electronics and they spread them out in a bin to scan them again. This added a lot of time.

Apparently they also asked my wife and daughter if they had iPads or they didn't think of large electronics either so they left in their 10 inch Google tablets even though they also removed their laptops. Their bags were also rechecked. The security personnel were in no hurry either. We ended up getting down to our gate just in time for boarding so I guess their lack of concern for our departure time was justified. He kept saying we'd make the flight when we told him we had 15 minutes left.

We arrived at Stockholm and collected our 6 big bags for 3 people and met my wonderful sponsor and 2 helpful drivers. She brought 2 vans to transport us, our luggage, and our pets. We had to ship our pets since we traveled on British Airways (codeshare with American Airlines). This required driving out to the cargo terminal through their vehicle and personnel security to get the paperwork on the pets. Second, we had to drive over to customs to fill out a form and get an approval. Lastly, we went back to the cargo terminal through security again to show the approval and finally get our very confused pets. The chihuahua was happy to see our daughter but the cat seemed to be kind of dazed. She finally started making some noise halfway through the drive to the city and seemed to be fine once we let her lose in the apartment.

It cost us about $1,200 to ship them when we left and then there was a processing fee at the receiving end we didn't know about. I thought our costs just doubled when she said it was 1,200. However, she handed us our first bill in Swedish Krona so I had a sigh of relief when 1,200 SEK ended up being about $178. Mentally it's still hard looking at the numbers and translating it into the dollars I get paid.

The Apartment and Phones

Our apartment is unfurnished so they provided us some temporary Ikea furniture until our stuff arrives. We have beds, a couch, a chair, coffee table, end tables, a few lamps, and a dining table with 4 chairs. They also provided a loaner TV with a DVD player and some kind of antenna box giving us 5 channels, one of which is CNN International. It's all very basic but it works just fine for us.

Phones and getting some sort of Internet access were top priorities for my family after getting some dinner. I won't be able to order internet service for the apartment until I get a Swedish personnummer and identification which is like a U.S. social security number. I was able to buy 2 prepaid SIM cards and successfully got mine and my daughter's phones setup with data and Swedish phone service. We can only use prepaid and can't have a phone contract without a personnummer. My wife's phone took longer because I had to call AT&T over Google Voice and cancel our service to get an unlock code for her contract phone.

I'm WiFi tethered to my phone with my laptop right now but I couldn't turn on the tethering on my wife's or daughter's phones because AT&T is really annoying with their software mods. Those phones won't allow it because they're looking for permission from AT&T even though tethering is free with our Comviq prepaid service. The phones have been unlocked by AT&T to supposedly free us but they will forever have their claws in two of our phones. I hate contract phone equipment. I found convoluted instructions to root the phones and mod them to allow it, but I just added data to the Internet dongle the embassy loaned us and got their laptops working quick and easy.

Sorry, my geek side got distracted and lost focus on the apartment. I should probably make a whole other post on it and some of the oddities of an old European apartment with European appliances. The apartment is nice with a lot of character we love so far. Here's the only appliance we need to pull out a translator for:

the dryer - skön is shoe according to Google Translate or beautiful or comfortable according to other sources

We're in a great neighborhood with lots around us easily accessible by bus and a nearby metro station. We thought the metro in Washington D.C. was good, but this is even nicer based on our Sunday ride around.

Above is a typical street in our neighborhood. We had pizza here at Pizza Hörnet by George. Hörnet means corner so I was disappointed there weren't hornets available as a topping. We were a little surprised when we got whole unsliced pizzas. We saw people cutting the things up with forks and knives. Can you still call it pizza if it lacks slices? Apparently our simple American way of picking up pizza slices with our hands isn't how things are done here.

Another thing not done here is tipping. This is going to take some getting used to since several times they've given me an option to add to the charge amount. Typically nobody tips or they just add a SEK or two to round out the amount. Don't feel bad for their waitstaff because I'm told they make a living wage. It's apparently a lot better than the crap wages we pay in America and force our poor waitstaff to beg their customers for more money. Also, the food is already very pricey so I'm glad I don't have to throw a big tip on top of an already large number! Maybe it won't take long to get used to it...

My wonderful sponsor helped us settle in to our apartment Friday and then came back Saturday to take us to a bigger grocery store for a first stock up and answer our million questions. She also showed us how to buy the metro cards and how the system worked here. It's very similar to Washington Metro. The one nice thing is being able to buy a 30 day pass with unlimited rides on everything. Those passes are our new cars with our very own fleet of drivers.

My sponsor was an awesome help with many tips about groceries and other useful info such as carrying coin around in case you need to go to the WC. The water closets (toilets) here are usually pay toilets. I saw a fancy standalone one on the side of a street. Yes, you have to pay even in the stores and restaurants where you're already a paying customer. There are so many little things about everyday living we take for granted that are just... different... when you go to another country. A tourist passing through doesn't have the same experience as living here. My wife went into the grocery store and was shown an odd shaped blue bottle with foreign words on it when she asked someone if one those things on the shelves was bleach (blekmedel). Fortunately for us, finding bleach or any other normal things we try to do in a foreign country that ends up being... different... is fun for us!

Wandering Around

Sunday we rode around the metro and buses and checked out some shopping areas near the central station. Below is Drottninggatan (Queen Street), which is a pedestrian road of shops we walked down. It's the end of June and the high this weekend was upper 60s and lows in the lower 50s. It's basically twilight all night. The sun is up during the day but it's been mostly cloudy this weekend so we didn't see a lot of sunshine. You do see shorts but they're usually wearing a light jacket too like in the picture below. This is definitely not the heat we were feeling in Virginia before we left.

Our daughter just had to go to the only Starbucks in all of Stockholm. I don't think we'll have to run down there much because it tasted a little off to her and the price was a bit steep. A venti Frappuccino was 65 SEK. That's $9.65!!! I definitely need to get the cost of living allowance started on my paycheck ASAP!

We have a lot of exploring to do and I could probably write much more in this post but it's already getting late. I have to get up early tomorrow and go to work for the first time after finally finishing all of my training. Yay!

Thursday, June 26, 2014

Pets Are Gone And We're Next

My wife finished all of the pet work and it was definitely some work. Our dog and cat had to be RFID tagged before their latest rabies shot. That was already done. Then they had to go to the vet within 10 days of departure to fill out the Swedish forms which was done on Monday. It can't be done any earlier so they know the info is as current as possible. Read my friend Brian's post about Pet Panic on how the deadlines for India are in conflict with the normal usage of a calendar.

Hmm, I wonder if my phone's NFC capability can read their RFID tags... a Google search tells me I can't because they operate on different frequencies. Darn, I wanted to do my own "cat scan" when we get there to verify they didn't spray paint a replacement cat. :-)

The vet was done early on Monday because the airline wanted the vet's paperwork earlier than when they were dropped off to fly. They didn't tell her this until late last week after already talking to them several times about what was needed. She faxed the paperwork to British Airways for a pre-check where they said it needed a correction so it was back to the vet to fix it. She tried emailing them a scanned copy but their email was down (in 2014?!?) so she had to revert to faxing it (in 2014?!?).

Tuesday was spent driving to Richmond to get USDA approvals on the paperwork in person. Scanned or faxed copies aren't adequate for whatever archaic reason. FedEx wouldn't have been quick enough for us and we didn't trust that there wouldn't be a problem with giving the paperwork back or losing it. She had an appointment but there was still an hour or so of waiting before they handed the paperwork back with their USDA approvals.

Our flight is this evening with about 7 hours to London and another 2 1/2 to Stockholm. Our layover is only an hour, which isn't long enough for the European Union entry processing of our pets. They wouldn't let us carry them on the plane with us so their flight plans deviated from ours. They left on a flight last night and will be on a different flight to Stockholm tomorrow morning arriving about an hour before we do. It was around $1,200 to ship them both this way.

I'd like to imagine that they're currently touring London with the breeze in their fur on top of a doubledecker bus. However, given that the cat was already trashing her crate trying to get out because of the car ride, I can only imagine that they're not having a good time at all. Hopefully there's nice people in London taking care of them as they process them. Once these pets are no longer with us then I seriously doubt we'll continue to have pets in the Foreign Service.

This morning we're packing back up our suitcases, wandering around here for one last time, and then heading to the airport to go catch up with our pets!

Saturday, June 21, 2014

Homeless and Carless - 4 Days To Go

We're homeless and carless! OK, we're not literally homeless because we're staying in a hotel and we're not truly carless because we rented a car. My wife still needs to run our dog and cat to a predeparture vet appointment. She also needs to drive down to Richmond to get approval from USDA for pet export to Sweden. I rented a car from the airport so I can just turn it in on our way out.

We're not paying for our own housing at this point and I don't know when I'll have to do that again. It's a nice feeling. We have to pay for the rental car because we need it here but then we can just pay for buses and subways in Stockholm. It's a nice feeling that we won't have any surprising car repairs in our future. The only things we have to worry about right now are ourselves and the stuff in our suitcases.

I made it to our old place in time to see them pack the last of the storage items. It was kind of weird watching that stuff get carried away. We don't know how many years or decades it'll be until we live in the states again and request the return of those storage items. It'll be like getting a bunch of presents and memories of the past when we finally reopen those old boxes. It's like storing things up in an attic or a neglected closet except we won't be able to pull things out anytime we feel like it.

Selling Cars

We didn't have the time to properly clean up, advertise, and show our cars to sell them. It's kind of hard when you're actively using them and lack free time to deal with the entertainment that private buyers provide. I also worried about a buyer messing up the paperwork and not transferring the title. It may sound like a weird worry but my dad sold an old car when I was young and the new owner didn't transfer the title. The police called him a few months later to say he needed to remove his broken down car from the side of the highway or they'd impound it. He explained it wasn't his anymore and they could do whatever they wanted with it.

I want every aspect of Virginia residency gone so they won't have any rationale for taxing my income after we leave. This helps reestablish Texas residency. They were older cars and long paid off so I think we've used our money's worth. I didn't mind just getting the trade-in value as long as it's quick, easy, and relatively fair. If they were newer cars with loans on them then we'd probably have to go with private buyers to recoup the money in them.

There are some easy car buying services around here including CarMax, which is pretty much all over the country at this point. We previously bought a vehicle at CarMax and it was a good experience so I thought of them for selling our cars. Here's an article that explains how CarMax does so much volume which allows them to provide better offers to certain kinds of sellers: Should You Sell Your Car At CarMax? Last week I took the better one of our cars to another place and CarMax in Reston to compare their offers. CarMax was the better offer by $500. The offer was only valid for 7 days but they ended up appraising it at the same amount again today which was almost 2 weeks later.

Both of the cars had been in accidents which hurts their resale value. CarMax has a very streamlined operation with no haggle prices on buying or selling. They inspect them and put the results in a computer that also gets the accident records. Their system gives them pricing based on actual demand for that vehicle in that condition so it isn't something made up by the appraiser. Apparently it's fairly accurate for them to keep tight profit margins as they sell lots of cars to buyers and auctions. We did get around the blue book trade-in value for both of them after about 2 hours of waiting. There were several people in line ahead of us, otherwise we might have been in and out with our checks in about an hour!

I'm sure we could have made more money in a private sale but then we'd have to do all of the work to make that successful and lined up with our needs and departure. This was the easy way out for us. That's another major task done today and one less thing to worry about as we leave Thursday. Just 4 more days and a wake-up!

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Predeparture Allowance - 9 Days To Go

We're all packed up and living in a hotel now since this is the start of our 10 day predeparture allowance. The movers don't come until Thu and Fri but I want the full use of my predeparture allowance. I haven't been collecting per diem as a local hire so I'm taking advantage of the one allowance I do get during training. It gets us out of the chaos of our apartment to a simpler environment. We can better figure out if we've forgotten to pack anything this way. We'll also stage things better for the movers instead of being organized for living there.

Most of my classmates have been living in temporary furnished lodging and collecting per diem since February so this is old news to them. One interesting tidbit about their per diem is it drops over time to 50% at 61 days and 25% at 121 days. The State Dept lodging program companies take this into account so people don't have to make up the difference. I don't understand the logic for providing per diem but then cutting it over time but that's the system. Meanwhile, I've collected 0% per diem over the same timeframe just because I already lived in the local area when I was hired. That's the rules even though we sold our house over 2 months ago and needed temporary lodging like everyone else.

My non-local hire classmates also received 10 days of predeparture allowance but it was for any temporary lodging expenses prior to arriving for training, so hardly anyone knew about it to properly take advantage of it. Many people tried to stay cheaply with family and friends because they didn't know their hotel and food expenses would be reimbursed for up to 10 days. It's definitely a big challenge for new hires to try to figure out what will be reimbursed when they haven't even inprocessed to the job.

Thursday, June 12, 2014

Housing Pictures > A Thousand Words

The adage of a picture is worth a thousand words minimizes the true value of a picture in my opinion. Maybe it doesn't take into account inflation since it's an old phrase. One set of pictures I try to take during a move is a visual inventory of our stuff. Another useful set of pictures is what the nice housing people at post can provide.

Visual Inventory

We didn't have digital cameras when we first moved with the military. Who wants to mess with developing film or the expense of Polaroids for household stuff? We only had the inventory sheets on which the moving companies always checked off that every side of our stuff had marks and scratches. They also wrote in that they couldn't verify if electronics worked even if they just saw me unplug the working TV. I forgot to take pictures for our short local move from the house to the apartment so there are some new scratches here and there. It's mostly old furniture so we don't care about that as much as things going missing or arriving broken.

I quickly wandered around the apartment with my phone's camera and they're automatically saved to Google cloud storage. It was the fastest I'd ever taken inventory pictures. I even remembered to get some of the model/serial numbers for the electronics.

Another nice thing about our digital age and buying things online is having a lot of our recent purchases in emails to prove what we bought and how much we paid. I always intend to keep the receipts but can't always find them after I've filed them somewhere. Receipts are definitely good to have with the pictures.

Some people suggest taking videos and describing your things while you do it. That sounds like a bit more work and I don't go too crazy with move preparations. Selected still shots are easier to send to insurance companies instead of cutting down a video or saying "just watch for 20 seconds around the 12 minute mark and look close because it blurs a little as I'm spinning wildly around the room."

Hindsight is 20/20 so I may regret not having a video I can overdub with some sappy remembrance song and describe how everything was horribly destroyed in transit or is forever lost at the bottom of the ocean. Reference this NPR story Lost, Then Found: Shipping Containers On Seafloor. Yep, this is how our belongings make their way overseas...

Provided Apartment Pictures

We're moving into a Stockholm apartment they picked for us and it's hard to see how our stuff fits into it when we've never seen it. This is even more important with Stockholm being one of the few unfurnished posts. They provided an initial set of pictures which mostly consisted of one angle of each room along with a separate list of room dimensions. Some of the rooms could be used for different purposes so it was confusing trying to keep the 2 correlated since I've discovered the names didn't match.

We just got an excellent new set of pictures of various angles in the rooms that were just taken after the current occupants left. This is where a picture is worth way more than a thousand words. I think the value increases exponentially when you have multiple pictures so 3 pictures may really be worth 9,000 words. Does anyone really want to know the exchange rate on multiple pictures to words?

There's a very narrow 3rd bedroom about 6 feet wide that we were going to use for the spare bedroom. However, the dining room has sliding doors that can close it off and I'm told the previous occupants used it as a bedroom. I think it would make for a better guest bedroom. It has a small balcony which means our daughter wants it as her bedroom. There's 2 other big bedrooms to choose from so we'll see.

The living room has 2 areas so it appears we can use the smaller part as the dining area. The narrow bedroom can be demoted to a computer room or storage. I'll post pictures after we move there and replace the sparse temporary furniture with our stuff. Only 14 days to departure!

Saturday, June 7, 2014

IRM Graduation - 19 Days To Go

Here's some ramblings on various topics as we have just 19 days to departure...

IRM Graduation

Yesterday was graduation from the core track of Information Resource Management (IRM) training. We had a little ceremony with the Chief Information Officer (CIO) to hand us yet another certificate. FSI never fails in giving you a certificate anytime you complete something. I don't need that kind of recognition and am glad we didn't have Kindergarten graduation when I was young. I would have been the smart ass kid asking why it's a graduation if we're coming back to the same place for more of the same. If I'm ever called a smart ass then I usually say it's better than being a dumb ass. As you can guess, I get called a smart ass a lot and it's usually by my wife. :-)

It was nice having this little ceremony with all of my friends of the past 4 months just so I could see everyone and share in our collective excitement for the future. They decorated the walls with these interesting paper flags with our names on them. It was a nice touch to a simple event and we took turns taking pictures with them. They seemed to be more popular than the certificates.

Some of my classmates leave at the end of July and a few don't leave for several months after that depending on when their post is ready to receive them and the status of their visas. They'll take additional training requested by their posts or other odds and ends to prepare them for their jobs to fill any available time. This is why a "graduation" feels a little silly because nobody's leaving yet and some still have additional training under IRM. We're one of the lucky ones that get to leave on the first day we can after the mandatory overseas security, basic medical, and supervisory training. We only have 19 days left!

Moving Company Survey

The moving company surveyed our temporary apartment this week. It won't be any different than any other military move we've done other than we're not taking everything. We've crammed our house full of stuff into an apartment after we sold it so there's a lot of stuff already boxed. They claimed if it's boxed well enough then they'll just seal it up and take it but we'll have to make sure they don't do that. We only packed things good enough to move a mile and not for long-term storage or the move overseas so they'll just have to repack it all like we told them. Fortunately the apartment is small so they can't split up to different sides of the house since only my wife will be home to watch them.

Cell Phones

I checked on the status of our cell phones and our AT&T contracts. I bought a Nexus 5 recently from Google which is off contract with any carrier so I can just slap a prepaid SIM in it when we land in Stockholm. SIM cards with the local carriers are immensely cheaper than international roaming which must mean they make a killing on anyone that roams with their U.S. number instead of buying a local SIM. We'll use Google Voice to text to the U.S. for free. Unfortunately it won't allow calls over cellular networks but we can call U.S. numbers with our computers. There's also Google Hangouts and Skype for computer to computer video calls.

My daughter had a contract phone but she already messed up that one so she's currently using my old Samsung Galaxy S3. We had exchanged SIMs to move it to her line and the contract lock is tied to the hardware instead of the line so I was able to request an unlock code. They emailed it to me since that phone was already paid off on my line. We'll have to pay a cancellation penalty for the phone she broke since the subsidy contract on her line isn't actually over. At least we can slap a SIM in the Galaxy S3 so we'll have 2 out of 3 working phones when we land.

My wife's phone is the same one on her line for the subsidized contract. Now this one is tricky. They'll give us an unlock code... several days after we cancel the contract and pay the subsidized phone penalty. She needs her phone and that number right up to our departure so I can't cancel it until we leave. Then I can request the unlock code and get it in a few days but she'll be without cell service until I can get that code or needlessly buy her another phone. It's a Galaxy S4 Active so I haven't found anyone online successfully unlocking their own phones for free (some phones have simple hacks). It's just not worth trying a paid service to unlock it if I can get a free code with just a little patience for what's still a nice phone.

International Driving Permits

Another thing we've done this week is get international driving permits from AAA. They're only good for a year but they said it's easy to renew through the mail with updated passport photos to glue in. It really isn't anything fancy other than the AAA stamps they put in it. It's just a little passport looking booklet describing that we're U.S. licensed drivers in 10 different languages and you have to carry a U.S. license with it to be valid. It was only $15 and they gave it to us about as quick as the walk-in. It's probably worth it just to have the translations booklet with our picture in it for a foreign cop to read if we're ever pulled over and can't speak the language. Hopefully that just never happens but it's good to be prepared.

This brings up the other problem of moving overseas combined with changing our state residency. We sold the house and the cars will be sold off soon. This cuts our ties to Virginia as our most recent residency so we can reestablish ourselves back in my home state of Texas. We started using my parents' address for bank accounts and other important things to demonstrate intent. We also tried to get Texas driver's licenses when we were there for Christmas, but they wouldn't let us since we had vehicles registered in Virginia. We would have to register them in Texas or get rid of them before they'd issue us licenses.

Here's the next potential problem. We're leaving Virginia and going directly overseas without going back to Texas. We'll be stuck with our Virginia licenses until our next visit, which isn't planned until we have home leave in 2 years. I've read on Trailing Houses (Facebook group) that Virginia has revoked some driver's licenses if they correlate a change of address with our driving records. For this I may have to use the pouch address instead of the DPO address for our post. Otherwise we'll just need to contact someone at the DMV that understands the Foreign Service to request a special exemption for keeping our licenses active. The Foreign Service relates to military service in many ways but it doesn't always get the same automatic protections and exemptions as when I was in the military. It seems we'll be constantly explaining that the Foreign Service exists.