Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Foreign Service and Personal Finances

One big thing I look back on at the end of the year is personal finances. This year I'm sharing something about that since it was a big transition year. One thing we debated for a long time was if we could afford to take the plunge into the Foreign Service. We had great paying Civil Service jobs in the DC area, but our pay was offset by the great sucking expenses of DC area living. It made us wonder if it was truly worth it to stick with those careers.

I heard from many of my new hire classmates that it was a pay cut for them to join the Foreign Service. This was true for me and very true for my wife as she became a "trailing spouse" and quit her job. I knew she could eventually get some sort of embassy employment but nothing like she was making before.

The pay you may see on the job advertisement isn't the only consideration for this kind of career. The Foreign Service has many monetary benefits to ease living overseas. We get a cost of living allowance in high priced countries like Sweden and there's other pays to offset hardship conditions in other countries so each tour is financially different.

They provide us housing and utilities while living overseas. I don't mind not choosing our housing but that trade-off isn't for everyone. We're also not building equity in a house since we sold ours. I think it's worth it since we don't have the headache and expenses of renting out a house from overseas.

I knew I couldn't compare working in DC to working abroad because our spending patterns would change. Overall, the added benefits and changes in spending have worked out as I expected. Here's a peek at that in case someone else is grappling with the same decision.

Friday, December 26, 2014

First FS Post - 6 Months Later

It's hard to believe we've been in Stockholm 6 months already! That's 1/4 of the way through my first Foreign Service assignment. We've traveled around Europe a little and each time we return to Stockholm it feels a little more like coming home. It's amazing how quickly we adapt and settle into new routines. Seemingly different surroundings can become comfortable in a short time by fully living in the new place. Here's some thoughts about this place and time so far...

The darkness this time of year is a little weird but tolerable. The picture above was at 2:30PM before the impending sunset. The sun was up from 8:45AM to 2:50PM. In contrast, Washington DC had sun from 7:25AM to 4:51PM. The noontime sun sits low on the horizon if it's not overcast and hidden. The weather makes a big difference so we feel like hibernating when it's overcast most of the time.

Thursday, December 4, 2014

Civil Service to Foreign Service Finally Done

Yes, I started with the Foreign Service back in February of this year. Yes, I brought along copies of my personnel record and filled out tons of typical government paperwork showing my 2 1/2 years of civil service time. No, it didn't all magically transfer over on my first day. This is still government work.

I took the suggestion from another blog (see Not Everything Transfers) and my new hire classmates on submitting my last civil service leave and earnings statement to speed up the transfer of my leave balances. I submitted it to payroll help and it worked wonderfully to get my annual and sick leave credited. The rest of the official transfer was soooo much slower.

Saturday, November 29, 2014

Julmagi på Skansen

Julmagi på Skansen translates to Christmas magic at Skansen. I didn't see any magic but it was a sunny cold day for strolling around the Christmas market at the big outdoor park. We picked up some local food items after taste testing a variety of interesting things. There were elk and reindeer meats, cheeses, breads, jellies, and a home brew beer being cooked over a fire.

We really enjoy the varm glögg (hot mulled wine) every time we find it. This one came with a flat gingerbread heart. We hit the donut stand several times because they had little freshly made sugar coated donuts in a paper cone. It reminded us of getting hot malasadas in a paper bag in Hawaii. it's a lot colder outside here but the memories warmed us up along with eating the warm treats.

We stopped by the fire pits every now and then to get a little heat. I didn't take too many pictures but here's some people dancing around a tree with a band playing Christmas songs and one of the many fire pits.

Friday, November 28, 2014

Stockholm Lights

Daylight is getting shorter with an 8:13AM sunrise and 2:58PM sunset right now. The shortest day of the year will be here on Dec 22nd when it will be 8:44AM and 2:49PM so not too far off from how it is now. The sun is usually hiding behind overcast skies so there's only been a few hours of clearly seeing the sun this month. The temperatures have stayed a little bit above freezing and we really haven't had any snow yet so it's not that bad of a winter here so far.

Winter, cold, and dark dreary skies aren't too hard to deal with for a few months anyway. The real time to ask how it is will be after it's getting warmer everywhere else and winter is still dragging on here. That's when we may not enjoy it as much. Until then though, we can walk around and see a bit of how the Swedes deal with the darkness by putting up a bunch of lights around the city. Here's some pictures. A few may look like they're inside a mall but they're all outside.

Saturday, November 15, 2014

Rome and Florence Italy

I assumed at some point in life we would travel to Europe and visit Rome. We looked at flights and prices from the U.S. several times and it always seemed so far and too expensive. A nice benefit of joining the Foreign Service is moving closer to other places we've always wanted to visit. We finally went to Rome for a week and it was just a 3 hour flight from Stockholm.

Rome was a bit more crowded, faster, and aggressive than Stockholm. It was also warmer and brighter than the shorter daytime we're experiencing in Sweden. During the off season for tourists is a great time to visit Rome since I can't imagine visiting there in the heat and crowds of summer. It was crowded enough for us this time of year. The weather was great for a light jacket in the morning to take off during the day and the rain on a few days didn't slow us down much.

We visited the Capuchin Crypt and Sistine Chapel but weren't allowed to take pictures at either of them. I posted some pictures from my phone on Facebook for family and friends but these are pictures our daughter took with a better camera. She took a gazillion of them so I'm just posting a select few. I'm sure they're still too many. Click on them for bigger pics.

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Vasa Museum

We had our first friend fly from the U.S. to visit for the weekend. We spent most of the time checking out different restaurants and bars for the Stockholm Jazz Festival with a wide variety of jazz bands. We did many of the basic tourist sites that can be done in a couple of days. I already posted about most of them like the Gamla Stan area. The new one we hadn't seen was the Vasa Museum since we've saved many of the museums for the winter when we're more likely to do indoor activities.

Located on the island of Djurgården, the Vasa Museum displays the only almost fully intact 17th century ship that has ever been salvaged, the 64-gun warship Vasa that sank on her maiden voyage in 1628. The Vasa Museum opened in 1990 and, according to the official web site, is the most visited museum in Scandinavia. (Wikipedia)

Here's a few pictures but it's mostly one of those big things you have to see in person:

Monday, September 29, 2014

Lisbon Portugal

I had to go to Lisbon for a week of information systems security training. Life is just so rough sometimes. :-) I hung out for the weekend before returning to Stockholm. I had a wonderful time and highly recommend it for a vacation based on just the weekend.

We started down at the docas (docks) to eat at one of the nice restaurants. It's near the 25 de Abril Bridge built by the same people that built the Golden Gate bridge in San Francisco. Lisbon feels a bit like San Francisco built over many hills with trolleys rolling around town.

Saturday, September 6, 2014

Monteliusvägen in Stockholm

Here's pictures of our walk towards and along Monteliusvägen in the Södermalm neighborhood. It was a beautiful day for a walk!

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Berlin Germany

We took our first of many weekend excursions to another country. It was slightly more than an hour to fly to Berlin which is about how long it'd take to fly from San Antonio to Dallas. Flying around in the European Union feels strange because we didn't have to show passports. I didn't really expect to get around as freely as moving around the United States. Sweden isn't a part of the Euro economic zone so sometimes I forget they're a part of the EU since we did have to get different currency.

The other odd travel thing about Berlin is their transit system with proof-of-payment enforced with random spot checks we never witnessed. There's no turnstiles or any other kind of barriers or toll attendants. There's just fare machines on the platform to buy tickets for 2-3 euros. If undercover Kontrollers catch you not paying then the fine is 40 euros. We bought 72 hour city passes for our tourist weekend which included various discounts and unlimited transit rides. I felt kind of ripped off because it seemed like we could just wander on and off the rail system without it. The bus drivers didn't seem all that interested in the validity of the tickets we flashed them.

Berlin was an interesting trip. We obviously spent some time on the Berlin Wall and the history of the city but we also just soaked in Berlin and did a little shopping since things there are a good bit cheaper than expensive Stockholm. OK, enough writing. Here's a variety of pictures from the trip.

We stayed at Hotel Gat Point Charlie with these cool light boxes over our beds.

Thursday, August 28, 2014

Stockholm Apartment

Our apartment is finally looking like our home. I hadn't really posted any pictures of it. I was waiting until it had our stuff in it and didn't look like we were still moving in. Our daughter's bedroom may never be finished because we're not doing it, but we finally finished the rest of it. First, here's a picture near work of the lovely day outside. There wasn't any rain and it was a nice warm 64F. It's been more rainy and overcast so it was a nice break. I'm having some fun with the panorama feature on my phone (click to enlarge).

Friday, August 8, 2014

Household Effects Delivered!

Our Household Effects (HHE) were delivered today! My wife did most of the directing in the rooms and I mostly marked off the items on the list as they came up the elevator over and over and... I saw the scene below at least 50 times. I sat a good bit but still ended up hobbling around on a crutch to help keep an eye on the action around the apartment.

Sunday, August 3, 2014

First FS Post - 5 Weeks Later

Blogging and many other things were sidelined by knee problems, so I'm finally writing an update about how we're settling in at our first post and Foreign Service assignment after 5 weeks.

Saturday, July 12, 2014

Swedish Summers

Summer Vacationers

They're not kidding when they say Swedes are on vacation during the summer! Salaried employees start the year with 25 days of annual leave whereas Americans earn their leave throughout the year. Most Swedes take 3 to 4 weeks of vacation during July and August. Many companies require employees to take at least 3 weeks off during that time and many places actually close down.

We're coming across more restaurants we can't check out because of their stängt (closed) signs. Our corner bakery just had a half-off closing sale because they shut down for the summer. The buses and remaining open places away from tourist areas are noticeably less crowded. It's weird that the nicer weather means there's less people around enjoying it. We still see many people in the parks and along the waterways soaking up the summer sun but it seemed like there were more people around last weekend.

I've heard many people in Stockholm have places in the country and they head out there to enjoy the weather. There's also a lot of people that travel to other countries during this time and I don't fully understand that one. The weather here is nice now with a recent high of 81F feeling very hot without any air conditioning. It's been around mid-70s on average since we got here so I don't understand the Swedes missing the few good months of the year here instead of escaping in the winter.

We plan on doing our traveling during the less desirable months so we can get away from a dreary winter. That's our plan at least even though the first thing we're working on booking is the Ice Hotel near the Arctic circle in Sweden. It looks like the rest of Europe picks now to swarm Swedish tourist spots and museums so maybe we'll save some of those local places for later in the year.

Saturday, July 5, 2014

First Work Week and Gamla Stan (Old Town)

I started work this week and am already using a good variety of the training they gave us. I've done a bit of everything including systems administration, communications, and tipping fiber connections on a new network cable run. Tipping fiber isn't something that comes up often, but I was lucky enough to get to do it again in my first work week. I've already been in some other things they didn't teach us, but overall I would have to say the initial training at FSI was well matched for starting work as a newbie. Probably only my classmates are interested in these work bits, so let's get to some fun parts of living in Sweden.

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.

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 dumbass. As you can guess, I get called a smart ass often enough. :-)

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. I 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 establish 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 I'll be constantly explaining that the Foreign Service exists.

Saturday, May 31, 2014

Foxes @ FSI

I overheard a rumor that the mother was run over and these 3 little foxes were left behind inside the fence at the Foreign Service Institute (FSI). I haven't seen them this past week but it was neat seeing them hanging around the P3 gate while they were there. There were also many bird feathers so apparently they were getting themselves fed. There's bars over the drainage ditch opening and it doesn't look like they can get out of the fence without help so maybe someone finally captured them and released them elsewhere.

I wasn't too surprised by their presence. We had foxes pass through our neighborhood and back yard in Vienna VA all of the time so we had to be watchful for our daughter's chihuahua. I recently saw one cross 23rd Street with me by Main State in DC. That city fox appeared to know about crosswalks and traffic lights or it was just following the pedestrians across the street. Either way it appeared comfortable wandering the city.

The FSI foxes may have moved on now and we'll be doing the same in just 4 short weeks! For now, here's a few more pics of the FSI foxes.

Saturday, May 17, 2014

Basic Telephone Training

Training this week was basic telephone. The antique phone below wasn't a part of our training but it was in the classroom. It was just a fun visual to show how many aspects of current telephone services and wiring come from the "good old days" of simple rotary analog phones.

One old term we used was tip and ring to describe the twisted pair wire connections. The term comes from those human telephone operators and the line connectors they used to patch calls. The plug connected on a metal tip and ring so the wiring had to match it. I only knew about seeing that plug from reruns of Laugh In or Green Acres. I watched this stuff when I was a little kid before cable TV.

Laugh In

Green Acres

Aspects of past telephone technologies in current use made me think of my late grandfather. He started out climbing poles with Indiana Bell and ended up working with all aspects of phone systems and wiring. My mom told me that even after he moved into management he was sought after for troubleshooting because he was one of the best at figuring it out when things went wrong. It was really cool for me to learn some of the skills of my grandfather this week.

One skill I learned was punching down cables... which was even more fun since I'm color deficient. I figured out the best way for me to do that was to put different colors next to each other. I can figure out what must be green, orange, red, or whatever by using the contrast between colors that look similar to me. I just can't look at a wire by itself and tell you what color it is. The picture below is what I had to sort. Each wire has a primary color and secondary stripe color to identify it.

That's my 25 pair cable in a bix block. I had a little help sorting out a few of the wires into 5 pair sets but I put everything in the right order on my own after the sorting. Yes, that sentence makes me sound like a child (I did it myself!) but this comes from the person that failed Kindergarten color recognition by insisting purple was dark blue and not a real color.

We used a punch down tool to connect them to the block and cut excess line in one step. This 25 pair bulk cable can be cross connected to the phone system or phone sets depending on the purpose of the cable. Here's mine all punched down before flipping it over so cross connect wires can be punched on the other side.

Finally, here's Kraftwerk singing about a telephone call just because I like Kraftwerk. :-)

Kraftwerk - The Telephone Call (1987)

Monday, May 5, 2014

Spring @ Foreign Service Institute

Information Management Specialist training continued with a nice spring day at the Foreign Service Institute (FSI). A bunch of us walked out the gate to a food truck and ate our lunches on a picnic table under some trees. The picture below was our view from the picnic table on top of a hill. My daughter complains that the pictures look fake because I let Google "enhance" the pictures. I think they look cool. I'm also red/green color deficient so if they look a bit off then I probably don't see it like she does. If you want to see a sample of what color "blind" people see then check out these examples at the Vischeck link.

I took a walk around our college-like campus and took more pictures now that everything finally looks alive after our long winter. This temporary time of training is starting to feel like an entire job with the passing of seasons. It started in February with everything dead outside and several snow days. Now there's warmer weather and growing plants that makes the beginning seem like forever ago.

I've gone through Microsoft server admin, HF radios, State's messaging systems admin, information program operations, mail pouch operations, wide area network equipment and troubleshooting, system backup and recovery, and now we're working on communications security. I have 8 more weeks at this nice campus environment before we move to Sweden. I'm definitely not complaining!

Sunday, April 6, 2014

HF Radio Training

High Frequency (HF) Radios

This was a fun week of training because it was an entirely new subject I knew very little about. We learned about operating HF radios including how the HF transmissions actually work. We'll mostly just use the radios but we also learned a little about installing them and maintaining the antennas if that's ever needed.

Now I know a few things about radio propagation and the mysterious forces around us that may or may not let us talk to someone really far away. Some of it depends on the atmosphere, time of day (the ionospheric layers are different at night), and the effects of the Sun. Our instructor also said it takes a bit of luck or magic (he called it the Walt Disney Effect) to establish a link. I now have a better understanding of why amateur radio operators get so excited about making contact with skywave across long distances.

The picture is of the signs on a radio classroom (another door near my classroom but the signs are the same). Since we were working with electricity and non-ionizing radiation from the radios and antennas there was obviously some focus on safety. It's not really as dangerous as the signs look as long as you don't mess around with the antennas while transmitting and you've installed lightning protection on the antenna line. You should always be careful with electricity and use proper grounding.

The "danger of death" can happen with any high voltage so that sign could be put up almost anywhere. My wife had an experience with lightning traveling down a phone line. Lightning also hit a metal fence outside our son's bedroom when he was a toddler so that sign should be everywhere! The lightning strike near our son set off all of his electronic toys like that one scene in Close Encounters of the Third Kind. I don't think there were too many lasting effects on him. ;-)

Anyway, through the week we talked on the radios, crimped on some cable connectors, and even went on the roof to check out the antennas connected to our classroom equipment. We get a good dose of "enough to be dangerous" for our jack-of-all-trades and master-of-none type of job.

Moving from House to Apartment to...

During this same week we moved from our house into a 3 month lease apartment. My wife handled a lot for the move since I can't miss training. Fortunately, she could take off work for 3 days so I only had to bust my butt on it after training and on the weekends.

We boxed up most of the house for a couple of weeks before the move. We hired a moving company to move the furniture and whatever we had boxed up. Even after that we still had to make probably a dozen trips with the SUV to get various things not boxed or too fragile that we didn't want them to move it. We only packed them good enough to move a mile in a car instead of stacked in a big truck by people that don't care as much about our breakables. We'll probably unbox stuff as we need it until the day the next movers come to pack it all up for long-term storage or headed for Sweden.

We still have way too much stuff for our apartment in Stockholm. A lot of that stuff in the 3rd bedroom picture above (including a walk-in closet full of boxes you can't see) will end up in State Department's long-term storage. We won't have room to put up the guest bed buried in there somewhere if we don't store a bunch of junk. It does make me wonder how much stuff we really need and how much we unnecessarily hold onto throughout our lives. We got rid of a lot over the last month but we're still surrounded by boxes!

Sunday, March 23, 2014

IMS Training

IMS training kicked off with a week of Information Resource Management (IRM) Tradecraft. It was similar to the 3 weeks of foreign service specialist orientation except it was focused on the IRM part of the organization. The week was full of briefings on everything that will directly impact my new job.

This week starts the last of the 3 weeks we have for Microsoft system administrator training. This has been a good class because the training lab has virtual machines with mock post environments. We use the lab to work through State's standards and procedures for Active Directory, Exchange, and file and print servers (so far). It's not hard work but it isn't something I have much experience doing. The labs are nice since we'll be expected to just do it when we get to post.

Training is always helpful when it focuses on real use cases. It provides the opportunity to put hands on keyboards instead of training us with death by PowerPoint. There are briefings using Windows training modules covering the basics of server management. Fortunately more time is spent on instructor demos showing what we do instead of just talking about it.

We're going on some field trips this week to see some of the DC area offices that support us. I'm looking forward to this since we'll get to see some of the things we've only been briefed about. We'll only experience these offices through emails and phone calls when we're finally working at our embassies so it's good to put faces to names.

On the home front, we're still packing and getting ready to move from our house to a local apartment in a week and a half . Everything's going well on finalizing the sale of our house closing in mid-April. We've also received our apartment assignment in Stockholm and they provided some pictures. It looks pretty good in a nice area of the city close to a park, the water, and the embassy itself. The apartment doesn't look too small to us considering it's an apartment. Our house here was built in 1959 so we're used to smaller rooms.

The Stockholm apartment will be a short walk to work for me so that's definitely a huge bonus! We're going to go ahead with our plan to sell the cars here and rely on bikes and public transportation there. We need to buy new bikes so that's yet another thing for the to-do list. We're just a little over 3 months away from the big move!

Saturday, March 1, 2014

Flag Day

Getting My Flag

Above is a blurry cell phone photo from way in the back but you can see the flag on the screen. We're moving to Stockholm Sweden at the end of June! Some classmates leave at the same time and others leave a month or so later. We were all presented little flags for the countries and my daughter promptly took possession of our flag when the ceremony was over.

Yes, this ended up being our first choice and surprisingly many in our class received their first choice or somewhere in their top 5 out of 22. I think there were a few that weren't so lucky and got something towards the bottom of their list but I'm sure it was impossible to give everyone their top choices.

We did get a lot of feedback during orientation from the people that have worked at various posts that those "third world" countries many of us put at the bottom ended up being the best and most rewarding places to serve. I'll get one of those "third world" opportunities next time since I have a "first world" post this time. The higher equity posts based on differential and hardship pay get higher priority for their second assignments.

Saturday, February 15, 2014

First Bid List

Employee Blogging

I'll start by saying this blog is my own personal thing. This isn't the place I can or should reveal anything that isn't public knowledge about my employer. I don't see it as an unusual restriction or anything I've been specifically instructed about in orientation (so far). I'm just going to use common sense and only share personal things here about my life outside of work. Having said that, there will be some crossover and one thing that definitely impacts me is the "bid list" or my first list of possible assignments. I'm not going to share the specific list since I haven't seen a complete list on any other foreign service blog. I've seen a few general summaries so that's what I'll write. In the end, only one location on this internal list of openings will be mine and that's the specific location I know I can share in a future post.

The First Bid List

I will confirm for anyone interested in joining the Foreign Service that they really mean it right from the start when they say we must be worldwide qualified. Fortunately we have a large class of Information Management Specialists (23 now) so there's a lot of variety on my list. Every continent except Australia is represented. The list is somewhat evenly spread over South America, Europe, Asia, and Africa. There is one North America opening and fortunately it isn't in the US since I didn't join to stay in DC. There will be opportunities later in my career to come back to DC or maybe even NYC supporting the UN for an assignment. Being in the Foreign Service does mean that I can't be in the US longer than 5 years if we do come back. The State Department has many Civil Service jobs here in DC if you want to just stay here instead of move around.

Monday, February 10, 2014

First Day of Orientation

From Defense to State

There's a noticeable difference between going to work at the Pentagon and arriving at the Harry S Truman (HST) building (formerly called Main State).  The sizes of the Departments of Defense and State just aren't on the same scale. I was curious about the actual numbers so naturally I looked them up on Wikipedia. I was just going to write a little bit about my in-processing day but... squirrel!

The Pentagon (photo Wikipedia)

I used to ride the metro to the Pentagon using its dedicated metro station. Other people arrived at the bus transfer hub, acres of parking, or slug lines. I'd arrive in a sea of 28,000 people (plus 3,000 non-defense support) herded like cattle through security into the 6.5 million sq ft building. It's a huge crowded headquarters. There's also many more lower level headquarters around the world needed to manage a whopping 3.2 million servicemembers (including National Guard) and civilians. According to this BBC News article, the DoD is the world's largest employer ahead of China's Army, Wal-Mart, and McDonald's. The article says China's Army may be a bigger employer if the size of their civilian staff was known. Regardless, my new employer isn't even in the same league since it's #12 in size of the executive branch departments.

Harry S Truman Building (photo Wikipedia)

My arrival today at HST was by way of the Foggy Bottom metro station. It's not too far away but it's definitely not there for the sole purpose of serving the State Department. Foggy Bottom metro is actually surrounded by George Washington University. The HST building is about 1.5 million sq ft with 8,000 employees. It's still a big headquarters but it's obviously not as massive as the Pentagon. State's website says there are 9,000 civil service and 12,000 foreign service (like me) personnel in the entire department. We'd all fit very easily in the Pentagon with lots of room to spare. State also employs 37,000 foreign service nationals (non-US support personnel) but even adding them in is just a drop in the bucket compared to the 3.2M people working under the DoD.


I only need to metro to HST a few times since the bulk of our orientation and training is at the Foreign Service Institute in Arlington VA. There really isn't much to say about the in-processing day itself because it's similar to previous government employee in-processing I've done. We recited the oath of office, filled out new employee paperwork, got our IDs, and received a variety of new hire briefings. It was very professional and well structured throughout the day. It's definitely nothing to be nervous about if you've never worked in a government job. Everyone seemed to be happy and friendly so the vibe on the first day was a good one. :-)

Friday, February 7, 2014

Transition and Class Size

This weekend is my transition from Air Force civil service to State Department foreign service specialist. It was a happy/sad last day saying goodbye to a great group of people in my office. A big chunk of our weekdays are spent at work so it's always good to work with fun people. The work was interesting enough but I'll really miss the laughs we shared between the work bits.

But now it's time to look forward. I received an email this afternoon saying the final count for the orientation starting Monday is 74 specialists with 24 of us in the IMS speciality. I've seen postings from previous years about the IMS count being about a dozen. A larger class size is a good thing because there's at least one assignment available for each of us. That's at least 24 choices I'll get to rank for our preferences. I learned it's always good to have more from this AT&T commercial...

Sunday, January 26, 2014

Two Weeks to Orientation

And Now For Something Completely Different

It's now down to the final two weeks at work before I make the big switch from Defense to State. I've been with the Air Force for 22 1/2 years. I've had a variety of jobs along the way but they've always been in support of the Air Force. I did look at making a change when I retired from the military, but coming back to the Air Force as civil service was the best opportunity at that time. However, now that I have this new opportunity ahead of me I do think it'll be refreshing to move on to something completely different...

I've transferred my workload to someone else and have just been helping lately. Sometimes its hard to resist jumping right in with answers as if my opinion will continue impacting the future of that work. I've started playing this clip of John Cleese every now and then when I'm asked a work question. It's a funny response to any question with a great laugh that serves as a reminder that I'm actually leaving.

The Local Hire Advantage

One definite advantage of being a local hire is that we don't have to move out of this house now. My classmates are making their final preparations at work like I am, but they're also scrambling at home to move here for training before we all move out to the far corners of the Earth. Some are leaving family behind to wrap it up while they're at training, but many are bringing everything now. 

The foreign service training process doesn't provide time for people to return home. I found out we're considered "in transit" to our first assignment when we start orientation. Non-local hire household effects will have to sit in a warehouse since we don't get our assignments until the 3rd week. In contrast, our stuff will just stay in our house as a local hire.

We're working on getting the house ready to sell but moving isn't an immediate priority since we have until June. We might also move twice if our house sells early. But it'd just be a local move to an extended stay hotel with our travel stuff. We should be able to split up our packing according to my assignment and have it all heading directly there and/or to long-term storage from our house.

Non-local hires have to plan out their boxes for the warehouse considering what might stay there long-term and what they may need to request for their assignment. We'll have the luxury of sorting it all out after we actually know where we're going. That's definitely a big advantage of being a local hire! Granted, I won't get per diem to cover temporary housing during training but I'm better able to switch from paying a mortgage to a hotel with minimal overlap so that's probably a fair trade.

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Confirmation Letter

I saw the movie The Secret Life of Walter Mitty and it made me a little more antsy for my first Foreign Service assignment. I'm ready to move overseas now!  The scenes in Greenland and Iceland were particularly beautiful and inviting.  The posters for the movie say "stop dreaming, start living" and right now my upcoming move still feels like a dream... one that's closer to reality as I completed a finalizing step today.

I received my confirmation letter (final offer with my starting grade and step) and signed the "Agreement to Join the Foreign Service" memo.  This step finalized my acceptance of employment. Passing the OA didn't guarantee I'd get a final offer so it was still a matter of "if" until the class offer was sent and I said I'm available.  Now it's all official and I'm committed to starting 3 weeks of Foreign Service Specialist orientation Feb 10th followed by at least 17 weeks of training specific to my Information Management Specialist (IMS) specialty.

It took a little while to get the confirmation letter because of the holidays.  There's also a process for setting the starting step based on current salary, education, and experience.  The starting grade isn't negotiable for Foreign Service Specialists (FSSs) and only depends on the specialty.  In contrast, Foreign Service Officers (FSOs) start in grades FP-06 to FP-04.  On the FSS side, for example, all Office Management Specialists (OMS) start at the FP-07 grade and my IMS specialty starts at FP-05. FP-05 is higher than FP-07 since the grades count down from FP-09 to FP-01. This is opposite of the GS pay scale I'm in now which counts up.  It also has 14 steps per grade instead of the 10 steps on the GS scale. Older/younger and more/less experienced all start as the same entry level specialists and go through the same training.  Yep, it's just like joining the military all over again where everyone starts somewhat equal and then progresses through their careers at different speeds.

The rest of this month at work is about tying up loose ends and helping the friends I work with however I can in the short time remaining.  The month will fly by way too fast in that regard since I work with some great people.  The cleaning and purging of accumulated stuff at home continues as we work on becoming nomadic again and getting the house staged to sell.

Walter Mitty progressed in the movie from daydreaming about adventures to living real adventures of his own... I'm ready to do the same!