Sunday, December 11, 2016

Colonia Tovar Venezuela

Could you have guessed that Venezuela has a German alpine village founded by immigrants in 1843? Colonia Tovar is about 2 hours away from Caracas so it's a great weekend getaway. It's a nice retreat from the tension of living in a high crime city. Tovar is the kind of village where people gather at the town square on a Saturday night and walk home after the party.

Tovar has a variety of restaurants with decent German food. There's plenty of the local German-style Tovar beers which is also a good brand to get in Caracas. There's lots of interesting little shops and food market stands with fresh produce. We also stocked up on fresh baked bread which we haven't seen in Caracas.

Tovar is higher in the mountains so the temperature was in the 60s F. We didn't plan for it, but we were there for the first lighting of the Christmas lights in the town square so that was a happy accident. It wasn't enough to make it feel like a wintry Christmas, but it wasn't an entirely tropical Christmas feeling either. Here's some pictures:



Thursday, December 1, 2016

Strange Things Afoot - Inflation

2 1/2 months at post and "strange things are afoot at the Circle K." (Circle K is a convenience store chain founded in Texas and referenced in Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure. Be excellent to each other!)

It's already hard to find some items like milk, sugar, toilet paper, deodorant, or other various imports people actually need for a normal life. Regardless of their lack of Circle K stores, I have a feeling strange things are afoot here. Prices are all over the place from really cheap to expensive when I compare them to home.

There's 3 different exchange rates at play. It makes it harder to understand why anything is priced the way it is. I'm sure a lot of the pricing troubles are caused by these various exchange rates.

Monday, October 31, 2016

Caracas Apartment

I finally moved out of the hotel and into the apartment after 6 weeks at post. I came in at the end of the summer rush and post had to expand their housing pool again, so my assigned apartment was still being renovated when I arrived. It might be another 3 weeks until our stuff arrives including a much delayed Unaccompanied Air Baggage (UAB), so living out of 2 suitcases continues. It's good that my wife was held up with a visa issue and doesn't arrive until tomorrow.

Let's see, pack out was 1 week before departure, 6 weeks of home leave, 4 weeks in DC for training, and now 6 weeks at post to get into an apartment. That's 17 weeks of feeling homeless since the end of June. I've never lived out of 2 suitcases for so long and I'm still doing it! Well, at least we have a nice apartment to start feeling like home again. We'll get more familiar belongings delivered and then it will be a home for 2 years. After that, it's time to start the whole process all over again. :-)

Saturday, October 8, 2016

Sambil Mall and Hard Rock Cafe

I finally ventured out and went to a big mall to see how it is here in Caracas. Sambil may be the biggest with plenty of American and local stores. There are American fast food places like KFC, Wendy's, McDonald's, Burger King, Subway, Quiznos, and a few others I'm probably forgetting. There's 3-5 floors to this place depending on which area. There's a really nice Hard Rock Cafe on the 5th floor with covered outdoor seating.

Plenty of people wandered around. There were huge lines for the ATMs and banks as people need lots of cash with the inflation. The restaurants were kind of dead but the fast food places were busy. It seemed like a lot of people were there like me to mostly look around since it was a nice place to do it. I didn't see a whole lot of shopping even though the stores were full of stuff to buy.

Prices ranged from a little cheaper to a bit outrageous from my perspective. Most of it hovered around U.S. prices as far as I could tell with the exchange rate. Local wages haven't kept up with inflation so everything's probably much more expensive without dollars to transfer into the country. It's good for me that I get paid in dollars. :-) If this is what their inflation has done so far then I'm not looking forward to next year if it gets more expensive than this. Hopefully the exchange rate keeps up with inflation. Here's some pics of the mall:


Wednesday, October 5, 2016

Foreign Service Specialist Tenure


The cable was finally released with the Tenure Board results. All of my IMS new hire classmates made it too so that's awesome. I've heard tenure for specialists is a bit easier to get than the officers, but it's still not guaranteed everyone will get it. If we didn't get tenure on first review then we do get two more looks before time's up. Tenure is required to get past the long probationary period of Foreign Service employment and if you can't get it then you're let go.

Tenure isn't just about current job performance. The policy 3 FAH-1 H-2250 has the criteria for tenure and their consideration of potential for greater responsibilities:
The sole criterion for a positive tenuring decision will be the candidate’s demonstrated ability to perform satisfactorily in the occupational category in which the candidate is serving and the potential, assuming normal growth and career development, to serve effectively in the Foreign Service at higher levels with greater responsibilities in the candidate’s occupational category.
Tenure means transitioning from career conditional status to a career appointment. It also means the entry-level directed tours are done and my next move involves mid-level bidding on the next tour. It'll be like interviewing for my job over and over again to get each assignment. So it's not like work gets much easier after achieving tenure...


Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Caracas - Week 1

Shipments

I had 4 shipments out of DC for the move to Caracas. A company came the day before flying out to load my vehicle on a trailer and take it away for loading in a shipping container. They said it'd go from the port of Baltimore to Miami before heading to Caracas. It joins the rest of the stuff in Miami waiting on clearance to proceed including a Household Effects (HHE) shipment from Stockholm.

The other 3 shipments were the Unaccompanied Air Baggage (UAB), Consumables, and a supplemental HHE. If there's any HHE weight leftover then it's surprisingly easy to ship some more stuff from DC or home leave if you need to buy new appliances or anything else for the next post. It just has to be over 200 lbs of stuff or it isn't worthwhile to ship and the request will be denied. Now it's just a matter of waiting for all of the various stuff to get here which could be several months to transit and clear local processing.

Flights

The flights were good with a Miami connection breaking it in half. It's easier flying for 6 or 7 hours when the time zone doesn't change. It definitely makes going to work the next day a more wakeful experience.


Above was the only decent sign I noticed in the airport as a sort of welcome sign while waiting for my bags. SENIAT is their version of the IRS. I didn't have time for picture taking or pulling out a phone for any reason when I came out of customs. I was surrounded by guys offering me taxis or to change my dollars to bolivars since I looked like a guy lacking bolivars. I quickly found my driver and left.

Friday, August 19, 2016

Training En Route

I don't know about the other career fields but being an IMS is great for training. We have a variety of options for training away from post while overseas and en route between assignments. I just have to keep in mind which courses can be centrally funded as training while at post, which serves as another way to get a break during the tour.

Sure, we don't usually get approved for the many months of language training, but at least we can get some courses for a week or two to keep up our IT skills. I'm taking 2 courses in Microsoft Windows admin for 3 weeks. They're fairly basic but it's good to occasionally cover the basics to not miss the details of what we support.

I'd recommend taking at least 1 or 2 classes between assignments because it's an easy extension of the time in the states before heading back out. It saves the government on travel expenses for training so approval is easy unless your new post is antsy to get you there quicker. We also get nice little corporate apartments within per diem and direct billed through the lodging program. Sometimes the government has an easy button that works. I didn't get to use it as a local hire but I'm definitely enjoying the ease of it all now.





Tuesday, August 9, 2016

New Orleans

Home leave is mostly about visiting family for me. There's been a little vacationing between road trip destinations as my family stretches from coast to coast. New Orleans was one of those destinations on the Hotter than Hell Tour of the southern states. I wouldn't fight for home leave to be in the middle of summer. I would pick spring or fall if I could do that based on my family's locations. Alas, home leave is firmly scheduled between overseas moves.

We stayed a few weekdays in New Orleans hoping it'd be a little quieter and that worked. Hotels were reasonable, Bourbon Street was tame, French Market wasn't too crowded, and the hop-on-hop-off buses worked well to get around. The bus included a free walking tour of the Garden District. I have to mention I prefer the European bus tours with headphones and recorded guides including examples of local music. It's much better to hear about the city as you drive around. There's very little time to hear about a site before the next one is in view so a recorded efficiency is good since not all guides understand their job.

The City Sightseeing New Orleans buses had some good and some terrible guides. A good guide provides interesting info before or as you see it. A few really bad guides were more interested in their attempts at barely related comedy routines, interacting with a few people sitting near them, pointing out things from a previous block, and generally standing in the way of actually seeing something. A couple of the guides thought we came to New Orleans to see them so they stood in the aisle blocking the forward view and ensuring they'd be in the pictures. We asked one if he could sit down or move since he was standing near us and he said no. He said he could move a little if I needed a picture but that never works. "Hey duck... oh, never mind, it's gone already." Fortunately they were multiple day tickets and we rode the route a few times. Otherwise the self-important guide would have been a real problem.

Monday, July 25, 2016

San Diego and Back Again


We drove from my parents' home near Ft Worth TX to my son and daughter-in-law's in San Diego CA and back again. We saw a lot of the southwest region doing it that way. This was definitely a good way to spend home leave, visit some family, and really experience home in a variety of ways. Here's a few pics of San Diego, Las Vegas, and the amazing Grand Canyon. I highly recommend the Grand Canyon for any bucket list. It's an amazing treasure of our home to visit on home leave.

Sunday, July 10, 2016

Home Leave and Taxes

Some of my new hire classmates pointed out that home leave expenses are tax deductible. We need to keep all of the receipts as supporting documentation for this. It still seems odd that driving to visit family, eating, and staying in hotels would be tax deductible (only for the employee) but that's what the IRS says:

The amounts paid for travel, meals, and lodging while on home leave are deductible as travel or business expenses subject to the rules and limits discussed earlier. You must be able to verify these amounts in order to claim them. Amounts paid on behalf of your family while on home leave are personal living expenses and are not deductible.

IRS: U.S. Foreign Service Employees

The AFSA Tax Guide is another good resource for this information with tips about keeping a travel log.

Wednesday, July 6, 2016

Home Leave Finances


Home Leave Spending


Spending patterns don't just change because we live in spare bedrooms and hotel rooms during home leave. I didn't need a car in Sweden but will need one in Venezuela, so I bought a cheap used car when I arrived in the U.S. to ship to the next post. I wonder how many car changes will be needed over the years as import restrictions and opposite side driving changes vehicle requirements from post to post. Well, at least I have something for all of the road tripping I've planned for this home leave. I'm sure next time it'll need to be a rental car for this part so that'll be another budget item next time.

I've heard some people hate the required home leave because it's an expensive forced vacation. However, I love to have more free vacation and we all know it's coming so it can be budgeted for like any other expense. It's also another area where you need to expect the unexpected. I had to take an eye test to fix my driver's license in Texas and discovered I need glasses for driving. There's a few hundred dollars more I didn't plan to spend on glasses.

Advance of Pay


Even if you haven't saved up enough money for home leave, there's another way to tap your future pay besides credit cards. I found someone's blog post from 2008 about Advance of Pay and it also talks about the Foreign Transfer Allowance. They wrote: "Within 45 days before and 60 days after arriving to post, you can get up to 6 paychecks up front. You should take this loan in ALMOST EVERY CASE." I would add it makes sense if you're going to a high differential pay post where you may not be able to spend your money as easily and/or need to buy consumables and a car like I do. I'd pay off those expenses from future pay anyway so why not pull some of that pay to the present? If I was going to a higher cost of living post or a post with little or no extra allowances then this may not be a good financial tool. Either way it's good to have this option for an interest free loan of your own money.

An update to their instructions is to just fill out one JF-55 and scan it to the PayHelp email address. They were quick to add it to my paycheck and after another paycheck they started taking out the repayment, so be ready for reduced pay during home leave if you do it before leaving post. That's on top of losing any allowances you may have at post that don't get paid during home leave. I didn't request too much of an advance since it's a big chunk of a paycheck to take 6 paychecks and pay them back over 18 paychecks. But hey, I'm going to a 30% differential post so I can use a bit of that in advance.

Mindful Spending


The other thing I'm thinking about is just being mindful about my spending. A thought keeps creeping in that I don't know when we'll be back to the U.S. for this or that unique thing or food. It's tempting to just go crazy and do whatever we want. I have some broad budget targets in mind for home leave so I'm going to try to stick to that as much as I can. I don't usually have the consumer Christmas financial hangover like many Americans experience so I'll probably be good in this area. 

Wednesday, June 29, 2016

Up & Up


This Coldplay video for Up&Up includes some amazing visual compositing and looks a bit like a travel video. It's not one of their better songs and the lyrics are simple, but it's a fun video as we go up & up on the travel day tomorrow...

Friday, June 17, 2016

Pack Out

my recliner and other stuff for storage

the same spot with nothing of mine
firewood from a previous occupant which I bequeath to the next

Sure, I wrote about sorting stuff 6 weeks prior to pack out. I usually think about things early but doing them is another story. The sorting really started the weekend before pack out and concluded while the movers were packing stuff in boxes. "Oh yeah, that... uh, send it to Mars. I've always wanted to launch some of my things into space."

It was a beautiful and warm day while they were inside packing boxes and wrapping furniture. The day was colder and rainy while they were outside loading it all in crates in a big truck. I've come to expect the bad with the good here when it concerns the weather. It's always best to focus on the good and the sun when it's out as a reminder of the eventual return of goodness. It doesn't look like it's today but there's always tomorrow. :-)

Pack out is done and we have 2 weeks of loaner furniture until departure. The furniture is Ikea of course. This is Sweden and there might be a law requiring it. Everyone's home must contain a certain percentage of Ikea products or they revoke your citizenship. The couch is comfy but I wish they chose one of the nicer models of the bed. The 32" TV is adequate but doesn't compare with my monster. Oh well, it's only 2 weeks and then it's on to many other beds in other homes and hotels across the U.S. before getting to the next assignment.

Who knows when or if all of this stuff will be seen again? The storage stuff is gone for at least 2 years. The rest could fall off a ship on the way. I've seen YouTube clips of that happening. At first I thought it was scary but then I realized it's just stuff. All of it can be replaced. The pictures are all digital and can be reprinted at any time. All of my favorite music, movies, and books can be streamed or downloaded again. Clothes, furniture, and housewares can be purchased again. It's a wonderful time to be alive when all of my stuff is entirely replaceable.

Now almost all of our stuff is entirely gone. We each have 2 suitcases and a carry on. It's about time to ramble on...

Sunday, June 5, 2016

Drottningholm Palace

Drottningholm Palace is an easy tunnelbana and bus ride from Stockholm taking at least 30 minutes depending on where you start. A part of the palace is the current residence of the king and queen of Sweden. It's much nicer than the city palace so I can see why they choose to live here. The house is nicer looking and the grounds are extensive and beautiful. You can walk around the outside for free so if you want another good park to hang out in then this is a great choice.

The temperature dropped again to the mid-60s but it was a sunny and glorious day to finally explore this place before leaving Stockholm. I can't believe it's now 24 days to departure and just 9 days to pack out. I guess we really need to get busy on that sorting I wrote about 60 days out! I've written about it and thought about it but just haven't executed it so much. Next weekend is the real crunch time. In the meantime there's too many nice distractions here such as...

The palace has a public part serving as a museum for a fee. The palace is worth a visit for the free grounds, but I think the inside is a little more impressive than the Royal Palace in Stockholm. It's harder to get to as a tourist with little time, but if you're here for a few days or an entire Foreign Service assignment then definitely go see it!


Monday, May 30, 2016

Tallinn Estonia



It's 30 days to departure from Stockholm and 15 days to pack out. One final trip out of the country on the cheap Tallink ferry to Tallinn Estonia. It's an overnight trip on the boat, spend a day in old town, and an overnight trip back so it's a great adventure for a 3 day weekend. There were some noisy people both late nights roaming the halls of the boat, but it was a good trip despite that common issue. Stockholm, Helsinki, Tallinn, and Riga have ferries like this going between them daily so any of those cities can enjoy easy visits to the others.

Monday, May 16, 2016

Royal Palace Stockholm

Oh Sweden! Spring and temps in the 70s F happened a week ago but now I'm reminded of where I am. Overcast, rainy, and highs in the 50s for the weekend calls for a bit of inside tourism to inside places. Will the temps edge above 70F before leaving next month? We'll see.

Nearly 2 years later and I've finally visited the Royal Palace (Kungliga Slottet). It's not far or difficult to get to in Gamla Stan but it's just one of those things I hadn't gotten around to doing. The ticket includes 4 museums consisting of the Royal Apartments, Treasury (no pics allowed), Tre Kronor Museum, and Gustav III's Museum of Antiquities. There's also an awesome armory museum as a seperate ticket with royal coaches that I've blogged about before which is definitely worth a visit. The palace building doesn't look like much other than a boring big building. It's really too bad the Tre Kronor or Three Crowns castle burned down because that looked much more interesting from the model of it.


Saturday, May 7, 2016

Carl Eldh Studio Museum

What a difference a week makes in Stockholm. The temperature highs were in the 40-50F range last week, but it started warming up this week and hit 70F this weekend! It looks like everything turned green overnight with flowers bursting everywhere. It won't stay this warm for most of the month but it's a nice anomaly.


Sunday, May 1, 2016

Millesgården

Millesgården is just across the water on the island of Lidingö. It was built in 1908 by sculptor Carl Milles and his wife painter Olga Milles. It's now a museum with the home, antique collection, sculpture garden, and art gallery with changing exhibitions. The sculpture garden will be even more beautiful whenever spring finally blooms but it's a great visit any time the weather is nice.

Saturday, April 30, 2016

Sorting Stuff - 60 Days to Departure

It's 60 days to departure. The move is becoming more of a reality instead of a vague concept of the future. I received my Travel Authorization (TMFOUR) a little less than 90 days before departure. That document is the key to setting everything into motion since it says money is allocated for the move. Nothing much happens on this planet without money and moving is no exception.

Now I've booked my flight to the US for home leave, scheduled the pack out, and arranged an apartment through the PCS Lodging Program for a month of training in DC. That's about it. Move people, move stuff, and a place to stay while in training. That sounds pretty easy, right? There's nothing left to do but get on the plane... except of course it can't possibly be that easy!

The problem always appears to be with the stuff. Once again there's 4 categories of things to sort out. I'm moving from an unfurnished post to my first furnished post. The difference there is I can't send as much stuff which makes having stuff a problem. My new place will already be full of stuff when I arrive. The categories are the same as other moves but the breakdown will be different.

Saturday, April 23, 2016

Prince

Prince was more fun than poetic but here's some lyrics just for fun from some great songs...

Dearly beloved
We are gathered here today
2 get through this thing called life
Let's Go Crazy - Purple Rain

Open your heart, open your mind
A train is leaving all day
A wonderful trip through our time
And laughter is all U pay
Around The World in a Day - Around The World in a Day

Sunday, April 10, 2016

Barcelona Spain

80 days to departure from Sweden and one last big European vacation trip is done. Barcelona Spain was a wonderful choice to spend an entire week in one place. There's still stuff there I haven't seen after trying to hit the major tourist spots. It was a cheap 3 hour flight on Vueling Airlines. Sometimes the Swedish airlines are cheapest and sometimes it's best to take whatever budget airline they have at the destination.

There's way too many photos from a week to put in a post so I'll try to pick just a few of the best and keep this post relatively short. Lots of tapas had to be eaten and lots of art and artistic architecture had to be seen. This is another city where the hop-on-hop-off buses give you a good method to get around to interesting places outside the main city area. The Gothic Quarter near Las Ramblas was a good place to be in the middle of it all with hotels, restaurants, and plenty of walking streets.


Sunday, March 27, 2016

Modern Art Museum Stockholm

My days left here are now in the double digits. The Easter weekend is a 4 day holiday and I'm spending it enjoying Stockholm before I have to move away. Moderna Museet i Stockholm is another of the local museums I haven't been to and it is now free. It was a perfect day to go out and visit another museum. The sun was shining but it was still cool (48F) and very windy so it was good to be inside. They have a nice restaurant like many of the museums here. Here's the wonderful view from the restaurant where you can see across the water to Strandvägen and the Nordic Museum / Nordiska Museet.


Sunday, March 20, 2016

Happiness Is The Road

Marillion is an awesome band and this song speaks well for the journey down many more roads... happiness is the road.

studio version with lyrics

live version

Thursday, March 17, 2016

World Happiness Report

The World Happiness Report 2016 Update is published. The editors argue that happiness provides a better indicator of human welfare than income, poverty, education, health and good government measured separately. Roughly 3,000 respondents in more than 150 countries were asked to evaluate their lives on a ladder where 0 represents the worst possible life and 10 represents the best. For the world as a whole, the distribution is very normally distributed about the median answer of 5, with a population-weighted mean of 5.4. It's a simple concept of being higher or lower on a happiness ladder but it needs to be simple to measure people of so many different nationalities and mindsets.

I'm from the United States which is ranked #13 with a score of 7.104. I currently live at my first foreign service post in Sweden which ranks a little higher (#10/7.291). Supposedly I improved my happiness environment by moving to one of the top 10 countries but it wasn't a huge jump in position. It doesn't feel like a drastic change but I do think people here seem a little happier. It also depends a bit on the seasons here. The top 10 is dominated by Nordic countries despite their cold and dark winters. Maybe the survey is taken in the summer when everyone is enjoying the long days filled with sunshine and pleasant weather.

Sunday, March 6, 2016

Swedish History Museum

Less than 4 months left in Stockholm and I'm still trying to see everything I wanted to see around here. There are several museums on my to-do list and fortunately many of the government owned museums are now free to visit. Check the link for a complete list. I think it's great to use taxes for greater access to these wonderful learning places. The Smithsonian museums in DC are free resources for the people and it'd be great to see that model used everywhere. Museums are a great way to find out about a place and what made it what it is today. The Swedish History Museum does a good job of telling that story with a focus on prehistory, vikings, medieval, and a timeline of 11th century to today. I looked around and enjoyed the museum more than I took photos so here's a small taste of the viking era:



Monday, February 15, 2016

Ferry to Helsinki Finland

It's common in Stockholm to take an overnight ferry trip back and forth between Helsinki Finland, Tallinn Estonia, or Riga Latvia. You can easily travel overnight in a cabin, spend the day in another town, and return back home in your same cabin. The ferries are more like small cruise ships heading to a single destination. They have restaurants, duty free shops, a dance show, a band, and a karaoke bar. Watching late night karaoke of predominately Finnish songs was definitely a new experience. The Silja Symphony ferry to Helsinki is one of the nicer ones with an inside promenade for the shops and restaurants. It was recently remodeled so it was particularly nice for one of these ferries.


Saturday, January 23, 2016

Museum of Medieval Stockholm

There's a great free Museum of Medieval Stockholm just north of the Royal Palace. I finally visited it today after a year and half of being here. I tend to visit attractions when I first arrive at an assignment or when time is running out before the next move.

The museum was built underground around the findings of an excavation. It includes part of the original 16th century stone wall and some cool recreations of medieval Stockholm. There are also some detailed models and maps showing the evolution of Stockholm from medieval times. Here's some pictures of the frozen lake side of Gamla Stan and the outside of the museum before some of the museum itself:


Saturday, January 9, 2016

Athens Greece

I spent the transition to 2016 in Athens Greece. I was fighting a cold the whole time but it was still a great trip to see yet another city and country I've never been. I read a lot about the Greek mythologies when I was young so I always dreamed of seeing the Acropolis, Parthenon, and various temples built for those ancient gods. It's always amazing to be in places with such a long history of civilization and sense of time. I'll let the pictures tell the rest of the story...