It has been five and a half weeks since we ended our time in Mexico and returned to the United States, and it has been three weeks since we moved from the temporary hotel lodging into the northern Virginia house we rented for the next two years. Despite the house still being mostly empty and having to spend more time than we wanted cleaning in order to settle in, it does feel more like we are building a home here with each passing week.

Our 450 lbs of Unaccompanied Air Baggage (UAB) arrived nine days after we moved in. We’ve also purchased almost all the furniture we need for our home offices, dining room, living room, den, and bar area, even though pandemic-related supply chain issues have meant only half of it has actually been delivered so far. Mexican Customs also thankfully cleared our household effects (HHE) to depart Mexico without incident; the State Department notified me last week our HHE had arrived safely at a warehouse in El Paso, Texas, signaling the remaining 5,700 pounds of our things will catch up with us sooner than anticipated.

Getting ready to move

After driving to Virginia from Ciudad Juárez in mid-January, we’d stayed temporarily in a hotel suite – which was more like a one-bedroom apartment – a couple miles from the new house until our February lease began. The previous tenants were moving out in stages to their retirement home in Florida and our landlord was ostensibly getting the place ready for us.

We did a walk-through with him a few days before moving in. It was the first time we had met him in person or seen the house in person. All of our prior communication had been via phone and video chat, which was also how we had “toured” the house before leasing it, in addition to its photos on Zillow. As far as we could tell, all he had really done by way of turning the house over from the prior tenants who had lived there for four years was to have the light-colored carpet in the den steam-cleaned (the rest of the house has hardwood floors throughout), have light maid service in the bathrooms and kitchen to clean the sinks and toilets, and install a brand new fridge/freezer. He hadn’t had any painting done (or basic scrubbing down of walls, showers, baseboards, or light switches), have the outside gutters emptied out, or clean anything in the downstairs bar or laundry room. He didn’t even get rid of a ton of junk the prior tenants had left behind throughout the house and garage, but more on all that later.

V and I probably could have moved into the house a week or so sooner, but not having known with certainty whether it would be available in advance (and not wanting to pressure our landlord to shortcut any needed maintenance and repairs), we’d made non-refundable hotel arrangements. We also hadn’t seen a need to start paying rent early while concurrently paying to stay in a hotel. Temporary Quarters Subsistence Allowance (TQSA) authorized up to 60 days’ hotel stay on my PCS orders while we transitioned, so I would have to pay up-front for the hotel and voucher it for reimbursement afterwards.

The catch was this: reimbursement would be based on the CONUS, or continental United States, rate of maximum lodging at $96 per night rather than the higher northern VA locality rate of $139. Because hotel prices in Arkansas or Nevada or Iowa are totally commensurate with the DC metropolitan area! Geez.

Dzish looking for V, every time we left the hotel… Wonder what was going on in his little cat brain!

So my authorized reimbursement would only cover 70% of our hotel costs – not a big motivator to stay in a hotel for the full 60 days allowable. Did we have to stay in northern Virginia? No. For home leave we could have gone anywhere in the United States or its territories. Did it make more sense to get back to northern Virginia so V could work at his duty station (family members don’t “get” home leave, just the officer), I could begin medical care, do the admin for our vehicles, and generally start setting up our lives here rather than driving around the country like nomads with two cars packed to the ceiling pretending to be on a home leave “vacation”? Absolutely.

Two places to stay, nowhere to sleep

I was inclined to move into the house on the first day of our lease. I also wanted to avoid simultaneously paying rent and hotel by making sure our unfurnished house was somewhere we could sleep from the first night; although we had been able to fit a lot of important and helpful items into our two cars to subsidize and speed up finishing the move, we didn’t have our bed – and wouldn’t, maybe for months.

Whenever we’d previously returned to the U.S. after an overseas assignment, we’d gone into temporary government housing during training before the next overseas assignment. This time we were returning for a domestic assignment, and there was no government housing. Unlike the military, Foreign Service Officers (FSOs) don’t receive a housing stipend or allowance while serving domestically. And this is one of the most expensive areas in the country, so not only do FSOs have to buy or rent someplace to live when returning in these circumstances, if they don’t have a storage unit full of furniture, they have to find a quick way to furnish their new place.

Sleeping in our sleeping bags waiting for our HHE (household effects) to arrive in the spring wouldn’t be an option. I can’t sleep on the floor for more than one night. Lead time on the Sleep Number bed we thought about buying was 12 weeks due to the aforementioned pandemic supply chain woes. Even the couches we ordered were three to five weeks out.

So, the day before our lease started we leveraged the generosity of the Foreign Service “buy nothing” groups to get a free bed from a couple preparing to PCS to Tokyo, which they asked us to pay forward by donating to an Afghan refugee family once ours arrived. (We agreed. We also went back to them a couple weeks later with all our empty UAB boxes and packing paper to help them prepare for their move into a condo they’d just bought prior to their official PCS packout, and they gave us a bunch of plants. The FS community is filled with people who really do get it and try to help each other out!)

After exploring the house, Dzish was happy to get in his familiar bed and fall asleep on move-in day

Moving day

On the move-in day, we made a couple of trips back and forth from the hotel, only eight minutes away. It was nice to not have to be too strategic with fitting everything in the cars to make one trip. V worked part of the morning and I took my time loading and moving stuff. I even had my very first cup of coffee in three months as my first AIP reintroduction food! We goofed around with a bunch of unfamiliar keys as we went in and out, trying not to track in salt rocks V had used to de-ice the driveway a few days beforehand when movers had delivered our dining room furniture.

It felt good once we got everything in and closed the doors behind us. It was below freezing outside, and I set about washing the flannel sheets, blankets, and comforter I’d packed into a vacuum seal bag our last morning in Juárez and thrown in my trunk. Before it got dark and we got tired, I wanted to make our temporary bed we’d carried upstairs the night before; we’d rented a Home Depot truck after V got off work and had driven to DC to pick up the mattress, boxspring, and metal frame. The couple had also given us a random twin bed-sized memory foam pad to donate for them that Dzish had promptly decided was his.

Settling in

During the first few weeks in the house, and even now, we have been hemorrhaging money on the usual things you need when you move and things from your old space don’t fit or “go.” I had an impression that while on home leave I would be able to focus on some projects and things I wanted to do, in addition to recuperating from the difficult experiences of the last several months.

But instead I’ve found myself alternating between periods of house-related activity and just wanting to curl up against the cold. It has been annoying to keep coming across things in the house the prior tenants left behind, as well as deal with the impact of years of a lack of cleaning. It has delayed me in being able to put things away and caused a general sense of consternation for both V and I numerous times. Don’t get me wrong – this is a great house. We like it and we aren’t sorry we rented it. We love the setup and location, and it has some terrific features, like a big bay window at the front of the house, an updated kitchen, quality bathroom fixtures, and a sun-filled den with a giant projector screen for movies.

But I shouldn’t have had to spend an entire day wiping out every kitchen drawer and cabinet of crumbs and debris before we could put any groceries or dishes away. I shouldn’t have had to remove smelly, wet left-behind rugs and towels from in and around the washing machine and pull out globs of hair and fuzz, running a disinfectant cycle before I could wash our bedding. V shouldn’t have had to scrub and disinfect the dishwasher repeatedly due to a buildup of hard water and chemical deposits that scratched the glasses I just bought. The spinner was so corroded with deposits, it wouldn’t even spray.

I shouldn’t have had to spend five hours scrubbing the master bathroom to make it hygienic enough to put anything away in; the wall cabinet was filled with hard crusted-on debris, hair, and gunk that I had to literally chip out and scrape out with tools. I had to use dozens of Q-tips to get the gunk out of the cracks and crevices in the medicine cabinet. There is still mold and mildew on the ceiling and hard calcium all over the beautiful granite shower tile floor that I haven’t even finished dealing with yet.

We also shouldn’t have had to use the first weeks of our paid trash service to remove left-behind garbage from the property. Here are just a few examples of said garbage, found mostly in drawers and cabinets in the garage and laundry room:

– Seven used brooms/mops, assorted old sponges, an entire jumbo box of Brillo pads (each used), three empty shoe boxes, a plastic chest of drawers filled with debris and strands of hair, a broken plastic shower caddy, a filthy plastic miniature stepstool, a dryer rack insert that didn’t fit the dryer, broken plastic pots filled with soil, random clothes hangers, a giant ugly, stained rug just draped over the staircase, dusty unused photo frames shoved onto random shelves, dirty seashell coasters, used contact paper left in drawers, more than one dozen huge rolls of old Christmas wrapping paper, an iron backyard bench with rust and a missing leg, and yes – they even left their toilet brushes and toilet plungers in each of the three bathrooms. I just… have no words. There is probably a ton of other stuff that I have just forgotten or blocked out at this point.

The joy of our air freight delivery, nine days after move-in

Some of the things the prior tenants left behind were useful, but just not in their current condition: a bunch of dirty gardening pots; five vases under the bar sink, filled with dust and dead bugs and still boasting their original store stickers; a cute wooden planter box you could take to a nursery and a metal cart for outdoor plants; a metal and plastic rolling rack for extra clothes storage that once cleaned up may be good; a ton of cleaning supplies that once I cleaned of spills, gunk, and dust I was able to join with our own; and a couple of bird houses and bird feeders. I have yet to go through the bar area which has three full drawers and two cabinets full of remotes, tangled cords and cables, owners’ manuals, and other tech junk, but as we glanced through them, our impression was that most of them had nothing to do with the house or anything currently in it.

I did appreciate a metal folding stepstool they left, some wet Swiffer refills, and a lamp that – while really unattractive – we have been able to temporarily deploy in upstairs rooms that have no overhead lighting and otherwise were unusable after dark. They also left behind quite a few unused moving boxes and packing paper that we were able to donate to colleagues in need.

Suffice it to say that we – and particularly I – have been baffled and at times angry that two people old enough to know better would leave some areas of the house in the condition they did, and that our landlord wouldn’t have taken a more critical look or felt obligated to do anything about it. It’s more than just the one dirty forgotten place or thing you ran out of time to deal with in the frenzy of moving. These people hadn’t cleaned their walls, vents, or many working surfaces in at least several months, and the full day I spent cleaning and clearing out the laundry room indicated a space with literally years of accumulated dirt. And what is seriously up with thinking grown adults moving into a place after you would want your raggedy towels that smell like chemicals, a stained rug, or a used toilet brush? Is the idea that we cannot afford our own items or should make use of/take responsibility for discarding items filled with other people’s biohazard?

At this point in my life I am pretty much beyond being surprised about the way other people live, but I am left with a feeling of vague disgust and resignation that it falls to us to manage nonsense that has nothing to do with us (flashbacks to the disgusting condition of the toilets and showers in our Juárez house and having to clean liquor bottles out of the master closet due to the failed consulate make-ready) and the fact that yet again, we seem to care most about the place we live even though it doesn’t belong to us.

I do think for our landlord this is an investment property and not something he feels too personally worried about. Going back to our walkthrough, he didn’t even seem to know whose random art it was hanging in the garage, or whose things were in the laundry room. It was something he just dismissed as though it had nothing to do with him, and me, never having rented a house before, was unsure how many of a landlord’s things were acceptable to have to store in a house. The longer we are here the more I realize that none of it is his (save the paint and the shed tools) and the rest all just has to go. We have a need and a right to occupy this space to store our own things.

He’d made it a point to let us know he’d returned the security deposit to the previous tenants, that he hadn’t taken the hooks out of the walls because “most people just hang their things in the same place anyway,” and that he had painted two years ago but we were welcome to paint in neutral colors if we wished. Thanks? But I was in such a state of brain fog and not feeling like myself that I hadn’t had the presence of mind to press him on a lot of these issues. I was still in the mode of feeling lucky we weren’t in Juárez. (It later took me 45 minutes one day just to scrub old food off the broiler on the microwave ceiling – something I probably should have asked him to just replace.) But everything in the house looked nice on the surface. It’s that kind of house, until we looked closely and saw the dirty spots all over the walls by the light switches, the spills down the walls, the stained curtains (which will soon be bagged up and put away, replaced by something better).

Frankly we would have done our own move-in cleaning anyway – but I would have preferred to spend most of my home leave relaxing and familiarizing with the house the way I wanted to, and not figuring out what to do with unwanted things and scrubbing down filth that should have been handled before we moved in. Live and learn.

I documented the vast majority of this nutty stuff in photos and videos so we could substantiate the house’s condition upon move-in if needed in the future. We know that we will make this place ours and even though the cost in time, money, and energy never feels fair or fun, the outcome will be what we want. Everyone will be happy – the prior tenants who lived however they wanted and got their deposit back, the landlord who found new tenants to pay the mortgage, the cleaners who got paid for doing little of nothing, and the new tenants who got the house they wanted in the condition they wanted, eventually.

We’re in that drawn-out period of a Permanent Change of Station (PCS) move where there are things we can do to settle in and things we cannot. Sometimes they are hard for me to tell apart. Also, I don’t love the lack of “completes.” Organizing a kitchen cabinet only to know we will have to do it all again. Trying to choose and place furniture when all the rugs and our vacuum are in HHE. Getting frustrated with myself for being complacent about things I could organize but don’t because I’m missing a critical mass of perfect variables to do so. It all stokes my tendency to make the perfect the enemy of the good. So instead of doing a little, I retreat. Another day I will wake up and launch into a sustained period of productive activity the whole day that feels awesome. But I can’t always, and I think it’s all right.

First wake-up in the new house – February 2022

It’s better to settle in quickly, but it’s not a race. However long it takes is how long it takes, and I feel like on balance we have moved pretty quickly overall. Do I have curtains figured out? Have I even opened some packages that came the other day. No. The answer is no. But one thing I can tell you is that in 15 years of living together, V and I have never had a random drawer of mystery junk, let alone that wasn’t even ours. And we won’t here either. The whole experience reminds me that every day we are here in the house, we are where we want to be and another day closer to making everything here exactly the way we want it. We are building not just a life post-Juárez but our life in general and what is next as defined by us now, and not measured against or in comparison to what we left behind.

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Sarah W Gaer

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