A Bumpy-ish Landing

Tomorrow marks three weeks since V and I returned to Virginia and started the several months of training required for my next assignment to Mexico. A few aspects of the transition and settling-in process have been bumpier than I expected. Although moving to the U.S. (“home”) should be easier than an overseas move to a new country, in a lot of ways it isn’t. Without an embassy to help you set up your life (again), there is a lot of surprisingly tedious stuff to deal with on your own, and not much time to manage it.

During this Permanent Change of Station (PCS) from Australia to Virginia, between problems with our new apartment management, problems with timing our unaccompanied air freight (UAB) and storage deliveries, and problems with my car turning up damaged from two years of overseas government storage, the past few weeks have felt like one aggravation after the next. And all of that doesn’t even take into consideration my new full-time job of Spanish learning, and the challenge of going from two incomes back to one. However, on the bright side and after a lot of effort, expense, moral support from friends, and some luck, things are starting to settle bit by bit into place. (Warning: lengthy rant ahead.)

Moving in to our new apartment

While we were on home leave, we were disappointed to hear from the State Department’s PCS Housing program that we did not receive our first choice of apartment building placement. Rather than take a ground floor unit at our third choice, we made the somewhat impulsive decision to take their offer to switch to a brand new building in the portfolio. The one-pager for the property looked outstanding, and we figured, hey, it’s probably better than an older building after all.

Our good friends J and M with whom we served in Canberra came to pick us up when we flew into Dulles, and brought us (and our eight suitcases) to our new home. We were somewhat surprised to receive our keys through a lockbox, after representatives had sent us a flurry of emails insisting we notify them of our precise arrival time because an in-person check-in was required. But they *couldn’t* tell us for sure what apartment number we were going to be until we arrived. Whatever! No one was around to give us a tour or answer any questions, but our apartment impressed us as modern, lovely, and brand new. Within a day or two, we realized not all was as it should have been.

– WiFi instructions in our apartment were missing, and the contact number we called couldn’t help.

– Our bed had a mattress, but no boxspring, meaning it was essentially sitting on the floor.

– The bedroom also only had one (very big) nightstand and lamp while the other side of the bed was pushed up against a wall of windows, a setup more appropriate to a single person (or a teenager!) than a married couple. Had they put two nightstands of that size on either side of the bed, one end of the bed would have touched an angled wall, and thus, instead of getting two smaller nightstands they just half-assed it instead.

– One of the televisions would turn on by itself night and day, until we finally unplugged it. However, that caused the other TV to not work at all.

– The bathroom fan also constantly turned on by itself, although there was no unplugging that.

– The brand new dryer was so loud it sounded more like a rock tumbler than a dryer.

The apartment LOOKED beautiful, but there were several little rubs and no one in particular to help. In wandering around the building, we also soon came to realize the adjacent interconnected building was still under construction. The concierge area that serves both buildings was deserted and ghostly, draped in plastic. Hammering and drilling and lights on across the courtyard from our windows went on all day and night.

More importantly, the mailroom mailboxes were not assigned, and there were no keys. No one seemed to be able to tell me where my mail was going to end up. The USPS Change of Address online form did not recognize our new address as valid.

Parking was also not assigned, and to top it all off, the much-lauded 24-hour fitness center was empty and had cardboard on the floor! Fingers were pointed at USPS and Arlington County for the situation with the mailroom and gym, respectively, but at the end of the day, we really didn’t care. The building was meant to be tenant move-in ready in September, so that’s what we expected. We probably would have been more patient with the growing pains had the management not engaged in constant finger-pointing and passing the buck. Although we actually liked our apartment a lot, the whole customer service aspect just felt tedious, not institutionalized, and fairly disingenuous.

Slowly, with a lot of pestering, we have managed to solve some of these problems. We got them to deliver a boxspring for the bed which elevated it to a height I can actually get in and out of. We have our mail delivered every day (or held for us) by the leasing office. The management, under pressure, issued all the tenants monthlong passes to a nearby gym. We also finally managed to swap our one large nightstand for two smaller ones, and they made a big production out of letting us know they had to buy them specially. But four days later and they haven’t brought a lamp for the second nightstand. While I do appreciate the effort, this is *supposed* to be a *furnished* apartment! That’s what the State Department pays this company to do, and that’s why we went with the PCS Housing program rather than take the money and find/furnish our own place for seven months. Gah! The TV and fan still turn themselves on all day and all night, so sleeping with a mask and earplugs has become a must.

I have to emphasize though that the apartment is beautiful, clean, and brand-spanking new. The furniture is comfortable. The ice maker is awesome! The closet is big. There is a lot of light! There is lots of room in the kitchen and bathroom to put things. I can tell from the way the common areas look that once everything is done here, this is going to be a very premiere location. (As long as the management ups its game.) We knew it would be a bit of a shock to live in large houses for four years and then return to a one bedroom apartment, but so far that is going great.

Apparently the gym and mailroom are also meant to be up and running by the end of the month, and the occupancy in the building is still very low and so garage parking hasn’t been a problem. Honestly it has been kind of nice to live in a mostly-empty, mostly-quiet building.

I guess it has just been tiring on top of everything else to have to keep pushing people to do their jobs, and following up repeatedly. I have my own job to do, and the longer it takes us to settle in, the longer the transition period drags on.

But wait, there’s more!

Receiving our shipments

Because I was a local hire when I started A-100 back in 2014, I never had to deal with receiving UAB; I wasn’t relocating from anywhere else and all my stuff was already in Virginia where I had lived for over five years. UAB for us right now is 450 lbs of items that V and I set aside in Australia and routed to Virginia while the remainder of our household effects are being held for our arrival in Mexico. The delivery process is not really user-friendly, and went something like this.

In July while still at Post, and a few days after our packout, I get a nasty-gram from the shipper that I hadn’t filled out some Customs-related forms including a power of attorney to someone I had never heard of. No instructions or explanation were forthcoming. So I asked the Customs and Shipping expert in the embassy… and he didn’t know.

When I sent back a professional query, I received an inbox full of rudeness. To which I responded I wasn’t going to give someone my power of attorney unless they could explain to me WHY it was necessary. It practically took an act of Congress and several emails back and forth to get any instructions or assistance to understand and fill out the forms, while in the meantime I was selling two cars, closing all my accounts, coaching my successor, emptying my house, working full-time, and handling about ten million other PCS-related details.

Then in August while on home leave in the U.S., I received a series of emails telling me our UAB had arrived in Virginia. No, we aren’t in Virginia to take delivery, as I had mentioned in numerous emails and on numerous forms. Gah. No, we don’t have an address to give you until the PCS Housing program deigns to assign us housing (generally not until <5 calendar days before arrival!). No, we don’t know when would be a good day to deliver it to us because from the first business day we are there, I am in full-time mandatory training.

To which the contractor responds, “The Department requires that you make yourself available from 8-5 on delivery day.” To which I respond, “The Department requires that I attend full-time mandatory training that day, and every business day thereafter, and does not authorize me to arrive in my PCS Housing until the day before training starts, in this case, on a federal holiday!” By this point any excitement about actually receiving our precious UAB was long gone and I asked myself for the 739th time why it seems that the support structures for an officer seem to totally not accommodate the reality of an officer’s life.

Long story long, we got our UAB, and we also got back the effects we put into storage during our 2015 packout en route to Tashkent. But for all my begging and pleading to try and accommodate my requested date and time, I was literally called out of mandatory training to dash home in an Uber and sign for the delivery of our shipments. After I told these contractors I couldn’t be there. And I missed part of the first day of Spanish and thus, I was fuming.

So if you’re wondering how this works, IMO, it doesn’t. The system is designed based upon a flawed 1950s-era assumption that behind every officer is a full-time, stay at home spouse that can manage all the admin around PCS-related deliveries. And it can’t be just anyone, like a neighbor or concierge that accepts the deliveries – you have to see your stuff, verify it is yours, that nothing is damaged, and sign a bunch of paperwork. For single officers, tandem couples, and marriages where both partners work or study language at FSI, somebody has to bail to take care of it, and you might be waiting all day for the contractors to show up because YOU should be available, but they won’t try to accommodate you in any way by arriving within a narrow window of time. Even though they, again, are being paid very well by the Department to provide you a service.

The only other option I see in retrospect that might have made things smoother is if V and I had booked in months ago to arrive a week early (at our own expense, and to the tune of $151 per night), in order to underwrite what the Department “requires” by sacrificing some of our home leave with family. Maybe it would have been worth it to not miss Spanish for accepting deliveries, doctor appointments, etc. but on principle I’m against it. This can’t be the best we can do. The reality is that people get sick, people need a day off. Moving halfway around the world with not even one day off to set up your new home is just ridiculous and not how life works!

On the bright side, in our UAB we packed bathroom rugs, plush towels, winter clothes, flannel sheets, kitchen appliances, good knives, plenty of clothes hangers, medicine, coasters, tools, and many other things we didn’t have to run out and re-buy to supplement the furnishings in this apartment. And nothing was broken or missing.

But wait – there’s still more!

Receiving our car

This part is probably the reason it has taken me over a week to finish drafting this post because it just sucks so much and makes me so mad to think about it, let alone write about it. And as long-time readers know, I didn’t have good car-related luck on our PCS to Australia, either: see Foreign Service Cars: Buyer Beware.

I bought my 2010 Volkswagen Tiguan who I named “Hilde” brand new, and in 2015 when we moved to Tashkent, we shipped her from Virginia and three months later, received her on the other side, no worse for wear. What a glorious day that was! However, I could not bring her to Australia because her steering wheel is on the left side, and I didn’t want to sell her in Tashkent, so my orders contained a provision for me to put her into long-term government storage.

The last time we saw my beloved Hilde was our last day in Tashkent, in May 2017. We photographed her inside and out, and from every angle, including a snap of the odometer, and then the embassy drained the fluids and sent her to long-term government storage in Belgium. There they were supposed to start her once a week, and various other things for which they are, again, contracted and paid by the Department to keep her in as drivable condition as possible.

So imagine our surprise when she was delivered damaged to us in Virginia in early September 2019 – the spare tire on, a battery so dead the remotes didn’t work and we had to get in with the valet key, and gouges and scrapes of red paint on the rear driver’s side down to the metal (Hilde is black). V actually stayed home from Spanish to accept delivery of Hilde, and warned me about her condition. When I came home from class, I went straight to the parking garage without even stopping by the apartment because I just had to see her myself.

I’m not a very emotionally demonstrative person; although I feel things deeply, I prefer most of the time to keep a poker face. But when I saw her, absolutely filthy, with stickers and dents and writing on the windshield, humbled and pitiful and parked in a lonely part of the garage, I actually broke down and wept. She was like a ghost from the past, accusing me. If anyone had been watching, they would have seen me hug this dirty car and crying that I was so sorry. It made me SO angry that anyone treated something important to me like this and I vowed to fix it, and raise hell until someone was held accountable (or at least shamed). But underneath all the dust and damage, she was my Hilde. I imagine it would be a similar feeling to coming across something precious after a house fire, covered in ashes but you hope – not ruined.

With the help of J and M, we bought a portable jump starter so we could jump her. The next morning I put gas in because she was at 1/16 of a tank, and took a highly illegal and unregistered drive during rush hour at 45 mph with the hazards on and no license plates (but a glove compartment full of insurance and customs importation documents) to get Hilde to the Volkswagen shop.

She stayed in the Volkswagen shop for eight days, and the bill came to a whopping $6,784.71. I consulted with my dad and husband who agreed the repairs were essential and mechanically sound. Little did I know how many things can actually go wrong with a car when it sits for two years, although I suspect there was negligence on the part of shippers and warehouse staff. I also suspect she may have been dropped, due to some really weird parts that were broken under the hood. A lot of this will eventually be covered by my international insurance policy, but for now it has put a dent in my savings, in my free time, and in my mood.

Street legal again, my Hilde

The good news is that Hilde is now registered, has plates, and is on the road again. She needs a little body work, and there are a couple of follow-ups for me to do with Volkswagen, but it has been terrific to see her restored and to drive her again. She doesn’t look like an almost-10 year old car, and we want to bring her to Mexico.

I didn’t realize how emotionally attached I was to this car, which honestly isn’t a good idea because it can lead to bad financial decision-making. All I can say is that we have been through a lot together, and she is a symbol of great things that have happened in my life like independence and upward economic mobility. I used to not even let her get dusty, let alone anything worse. And I am going to make sure that from now on she is maintained and treated with the care she deserves!

It has been a bit bumpy, but Virginia, we’re home. This rant… I mean post marked 200 posts on the Collecting Postcards Blog! In my next post, I’ll give an update on the first three weeks of Spanish class (LQB100) and try to keep it more positive!

Virginia still feels like home

  11 comments for “A Bumpy-ish Landing

  1. fan-cy
    September 23, 2019 at 06:26

    I thoroughly enjoyed your after-the-fact long rant!
    It put me on the edge of my seat, yet comfortable knowing that most of the trauma is behind you.
    Will Hilde ever be able to completely trust you again? 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • September 24, 2019 at 12:07

      Hilde knows that had I been there, none of that nonsense would have gone on! 💯


  2. Andrew
    September 24, 2019 at 00:04

    So did you have to sign away power of attorney and if so, why?

    Also thanks for the great blog.

    Liked by 1 person

    • September 24, 2019 at 12:06

      There was a limited power of attorney pertaining to the customs and importation duties of the shipper dealing with my household effects at the border, and that was standard and OK, as I found out. I didn’t have to do it before because I had never brought anything back to the U.S. – just to an overseas post and then from overseas post to overseas post. My issue was mostly with the lack of information/explanation coupled with an assumption that it was odd for me to ask why. Of course I am going to get fidelity on legal documents before I sign them?! Duh.


  3. trs
    October 31, 2019 at 02:29

    Oh Penny, I feel ya. You captured the angst of the Foreign Service Officer during PCS, when we pick up several part time jobs as administrative assistants and logicians to ourselves. A thankless, stressful job with some really odd hours.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Nick Vaughn
    July 28, 2020 at 14:24

    Did you ever end up getting some of the cost of the damage to your VW covered by insurance? A 7k repair is really steep on a 10 year old car when newer models of your vehicle can be purchased for 10-12k. The repairs were probably close to the actual value of the car.

    It almost seems like the best option is to wait until you hit the ground where you can visually check out what you want to buy, and when you leave, offer the vehicle for sale. I think you did the right thing by taking the car to Uzbek, and she seemed to have served you well, but sticking a decade old car in storage for a couple years just sounds like a rough proposition.

    Thankfully, mechanics in El Paso and Juarez are much cheaper than Oz and DC, and no booking!

    Liked by 1 person

    • July 29, 2020 at 10:05

      I did finally settle – I wrote about it recently but I don’t think in detail. I was satisfied enough with the amount I received and considered that it paid most of the damage minus wear and tear repairs that I should have had to deal with at that stage anyway. Because the total repairs arose in three tranches last fall, though, didn’t have the visibility early on how much it would end up costing. The first tranche was the most expensive and I chose to pay because I needed to get it roadworthy in order to meet import requirements and get U.S. registration (it was coming from overseas storage). I should have probably sold it in Tashkent, but it was only 7 years old, 45K miles and excellent condition. I bought it brand new and am only owner. I didn’t know U.S. government storage and shipping would turn out to be the clown show it was, but I tell you, I won’t do it again. I have also been hosed on buying an “embassy community” car locally at Post though too, which I’m sure you read about in all its glory on my “buyer beware” post.


      • Nick Vaughn
        August 5, 2020 at 15:25

        Glad you got paid for the damages. All your car experiences since joining State are definitely a learning experience. It’s a shame it’s such a crapshoot, even with your own vehicle. Really good insight though for anyone going through a similar process.

        Liked by 1 person

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