Wednesday, August 27, 2014

A Travel Day From Hell in Facebook Posts

Here I am, back in Tallinn. I wasn't sure I was going to make it.

My uncertainty started a few days before. My dog got stuck on the nose by one of the myriad of insects in the DC area, and apparently had an allergic reaction. So we went from an itchy lump on her nose to some mild barfing to explosive poopies.

Just what you look for two days before you are planning to leave the country and leave your baby in the hands of pet sitters (who are awesome, but who are not you).

But one trip to the emergency vet and a few hundred dollars later, she was fine. And I was back on track to come to Tallinn for my TDY.

My shuttle arrived about 10 minutes later than scheduled but I didn't worry, since it was scheduled for an hour before I felt like I needed to leave. We made it to the airport in plenty of time. Then I get to the ticket counter and...

Digger Diplomat
August 23 6:34 pm
So apparently American cancelled my ticket. WTF???

So I spent more than an hour working with British Airways people and the government person at the agency we are required to use to make our reservations. They said they hadn't received my orders, so they canceled by ticket. I consider turning around and going home, but remember that I really like my old boss and want to help her out. Plus I really don't want to spend two weeks apart from my wife, especially since our anniversary is during that two weeks. So I had the travel agent rebook everything. I also had her put in my known traveler number so I would be able to speed through security and make my flight. So we should all be good now, right?

Not so much. 

Digger Diplomat
August 23 7:44 pm 
Finally got my tickets. Too expensive to upgrade to economy plus. And the travel company didn't put in my known traveller number even though I gave it to them twice. And I got stuck behind the people in the security line with tons of crap and no clue how to go through. Sigh.I better get a pic with the President out of this!

Finally got my tickets as in only one hour before my 8:55 flight! AND the company got to charge the Department for having to deal with this over the phone...even though it was their error. And that upgrade to economy plus would have cost me nearly $400! 

Digger Diplomat
August 23 8:02 pm
Back on the flight. [Redacted travel company] STILL doesn't know they have to abide by the Open Skies treaty, hence they routed me on American carriers only....DC to London to Copenhagen to Tallinn...

This is actually a problem. The Open Skies Treaty we signed means that if a flight originates, terminates or transits the EU, we can't insist on only American carriers. EU carriers also need to be considered. Bet I could have gotten a better flight if they had considered say Lufthansa or Scandinavian Airlines... Regardless, given that this nasty routing was my original itinerary, I had a suit in my backpack. You know, just in case my suitcase doesn't make all those connections.  So I wasn't too worried about the number of stops. 
Then, at the gate, my name is called. Please come to the counter immediately. Really? Now what? I wonder if it is too late to go home. No no, my wife is already there.
Oh good...they just moved me back one row because a family had been separated. But it wasn't my last seat movement.

Digger Diplomat
August 23 :8:40 pm
Finally on board. A passenger asked me to switch with him, so now I am on an exit row with lots of leg room. Not that I need it

Oh, well that is good, right? Much less claustrophobic. No seatback pouch though...I spy the barf bag in the pouch across the aisle from me and mentally note that if I feel airsick, I bet I can grab that guy's back before he does! But I should be fine, right? I have taken my dramamine an hour beforehand, and it lasts for four hours. I should be fine. 

Digger Diplomat
August 23 9:03 pm
Sitting in the tarmac. They have too many bags on board and have to turn around, causing a "significant delay." Awesome.

So we were already away from the gate when they discovered that one of the bags on board had been mistagged for the people behind me. It didn't belong to anyone on the plane. For security reasons, it needed to be taken off before we could fly. Wonder if this will happen in time for me to make my connection in London to Amsterdam? I only have an hour and a half layover. 

Digger Diplomat
August 23 9:58 pm 
Still waiting on the tarmac. over an hour now.

Not feeling optimistic about my connection.

Digger Diplomat
August 23 10:08 pm
This is taking so long they are reshowing the safety video 

It also took so long they had to top off the fuel!
The pilot says they have been routed a faster route. Any bets on my making my connection?

Digger Diplomat
August 24 5:49 am [10:49 am London time]
Travel day from hell continues. Missed my flight to Copenhagen. The next one leaves in two hours. Then a five hour layover...and there is no Estonian Air rep here to make sure I can get on thay flight

Digger Diplomat
August 24 12:02 pm London time
BA gave me a five pound voucher...that neither covered my lunch nor adequately compensated me for my inconvenience.

I should turn around and go home. At this point, wanting to help my boss has fallen from my motivational list. Only my wife remains...

Digger Diplomat
August 24 5:04 pm Copenhagen time
Made it to Copenhagen. Took some doing to find my ticket to Tallinn. When the agent finally found it, she said I was in business class (which differs from regular class on Estonia Air only by seat location and free alcohol....and I don't drink.) I asked if that meant I could use the business class lounge and she told me to go try. The agent at the lounge, however, said that while I might have a seat IN business class, it isn't coded business class. So she sent me I just have to sit in the hall and wait for four hours.#willthisdayneverend?

More than a tad embarrassing. Seriously? I should turn around and go home. At this point, wanting to help my boss has fallen from my motivational list. Only seeing my wife remains..

Digger Diplomat
August 24 6:07 pm Copenhagen time 
Just spent $20 for a sandwich, chips and a diet coke...and it was the cheapest thing I could find!

Digger Diplomat
August 24 8:15 pm Copenhagen time 
There have been multiple points today where if it hadn't meant spending two weeks apart from wife (including our anniversary), I'd have said screw it and gone home. And it isn't over yet!
Oh, had I mentioned this before? It is because I thought about it. A Lot.

Digger Diplomat
August 24 11:27 pm Tallinn time 
Made it to Tallinn. Wonder if my bag did. 
The good news is that my bag made it as the same time I did. I was in the hotel and in bed...a mere 24 hours after my journey began. And nearly twice as long as it has ever taken me to get here.

But at least I will spend my wedding anniversary with my wife....hopefully.

Thursday, August 21, 2014

We Interrupt This Home Leave...

Did you hear?

President Obama is going to Tallinn.

Naturally that had to happen after we left...except...

They asked us to come back to help (there will be more advance people there prepping for this that all of Americans at the twice).

So we are cutting home leave short to head back.

It is going to cost us a bit to do it. Despite getting per diem and having our travel paid for, we will still need to get a pet sitter for a couple weeks. And we will miss a women's festival we have already paid to attend.

Still, I am happy to be going back, happy to be able to help, and happy they think enough of us to want us back when it would be easier and cheaper to get regional help.

Besides, in case you haven't gathered. I love Estonia.

So, we are heading back!

Wednesday, August 06, 2014

Road Tripping

Now that we have arrived safely, gotten all our available stuff delivered, gotten the pets settled in (the cats remembered their couch still had their fur on it!...and settled into their old spots on it) and located the most awesome pet sitter, we are officially on vacation. On the agenda for this trip is:

* Northampton, Massachusetts (WHY didn't I know about Smith College when I was looking at where to go for undergrad???)

* Baa Haa Baa (I mean, Bar Harbor), Maine and Acadia National Park

* Pennsylvania (to visit the inlaws)

* Tennessee (to visit my "new" uncle...apparently my grandfather had a girlfriend we didn't know about!)

* Asheville, NC (to our favorite cabins, Willow Winds).
Our little cabin in the mountains
* Georgia (to see my dad)

And then back home.

This is what I meant when I said we didn't "have" to get hotels for five weeks but still are for part of it!

Details and more pictures to come!

Tuesday, August 05, 2014

Travelling With Pets

I will start this post by saying that I know there are a lot of folks out there who think you should just find homes for your pets if you join the Foreign Service.

I am decidedly NOT in that camp. You will find me in the camp of people who believe that a) the pets are a lifelong commitment and members of the family, and b) we give up a lot to serve. We shouldn't give up everything. Including our furred and feathered family members.

And while I believe it is worth the inconvenience, travelling with pets is challenging.

For us, we have a "no more pets than hands" rule. It is an airport rule had is needed when we are in the airport for each pet. So two of us, four hands, four pets. Two cats, a dog and a parrot.

Travelling with cats and dogs is easy. Those who tell you it is hard have never traveled with a parrot. Hard is relative.

For the dog and cats, when going overseas, you need proof of rabies vaccine, a visit to a USDA certified vet, and a USDA certificate validated within 10 days of travel. I admit that can be challenging when you are trying to packout, but I have had great success overnighting the form to the USDA and including a return overnight envelope. That worked much better than our first time, when we drove to Richmond and back. And I have had wonderful success in dealing with the animal services folks from USDA. They have always been super friendly and helpful. You may also need additional paperwork

Depending on where you are going, you may also need additional paperwork filled out, as we did for the EU. Our vets at Caring Hands in Arlington helped us with all of it. They are awesome.

Depending on how quickly you get your orders (don't get me started...), making plane reservations can be the most challenging part. We were lucky enough to get our orders in plenty of time coming back this time and so got both cats in cabin and the dog and bird in as excess baggage. One note: make sure you have a dog carrier sized for the smallest plane you will travel on. This is especially true for those with larger dogs than I have.

You may get a travel tech telling you that you MUST fly on the contract carrier. This isn't true and for some destinations, hasn't been for a while. The latest guidance allows you to fly on a carrier other than the contract carrier if you can't fly your pets with the contract carrier. Plus, Fly America doesn't apply if you are going to, from or transiting through the EU. Then the Open Skies treaty applies, meaning you can use an EU flagged airline. This was important for me as American airlines are generally not allowing parrots anymore.

Coming back, we went to a local vet and got pet passports for all the pets except the parrot. This meant having a means to show all of their vaccines and the timing of them as well as that the pets had a last checkup within ten days of travel.

Now if all of that sounds complicated, you have to do all of that and then some to travel with a parrot.

I love my bird. I have had her for 18 years and I will do what I have to in order to travel with her. But a word of advice: if you don't have a bird and are in or joining the Foreign Service, DON'T GET ONE.

Leaving the US, you have to work both with US Fish and Wildlife and the USDA. You do all of the above vet visits and certifications, but you also have to get your bird tested to make sure it doesn't have avian influenza or Newcastle's Disease. This means that you have to find a USDA certified avian vet and have them tested three additional times within that ten days (a ten days, then avian flu test at seven days, results check at five days and final check at two days before travel). Then you need to get a CITES ( Convention on International Trade of Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora) permit. Actually, you need export permit from the US and an import permit from the country you are heading to. And you have to make an appointment with Fish and Wildlife to examine the bird at the airport as you are leaving (because you need one more thing to do at the airport when you are PCSing). If the airport is not an approved wildlife port, and Dulles is not, you need to get a port exception permit as well.

Coming back, you have to go through this again. Find an avian vet to check your parrot. Get the state vet to sign off on the paperwork from that checkup. Get the import, export and port exception permits. You also need a USDA permit. In fact, let me share with you the email I got from Fish and Wildlife (also really awesome people...I made some mistakes in the process of going TO Estonia, and they helped me sort it all out).

"Thank you for contacting the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service (FWS), Dulles office regarding the procedures for importing a pet bird through Washington Dulles International Airport.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) must authorize the import of your bird through Dulles. Some pet birds are required to be quarantined for 30 days in a USDA Animal Import Center at the owner’s expense. A reservation at the facility must be made in advance by contacting the USDA port veterinarian. Other birds may qualify for home quarantine. For USDA import procedures and contact information, please visit:

In addition, imports of pet birds must be processed at a FWS designated port. Under limited circumstances, you may be authorized under a permit to use a port that does not normally handle wildlife trade. You must show that using one of our designated ports would result in substantial deterioration or loss of the wildlife, or would cause undue economic hardship. If you are importing your pet bird through a non-designated port, you must have a copy of your valid Designated Port Exception Permit (DPEP) prior to import. Washington Dulles International Airport is not a designated port.

You can find general information on FWS import procedures at: You may download a DPEP application from this web page. An original signature and a $100 application fee are required. The permit may take 3-6 weeks to process, so plan your import accordingly. Please send your application to:

U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service
Office of Law Enforcement
70 E. Sunrise Hwy, Suite 419
Valley Stream, NY 11580
Tel: (516) 825-3950

You must also file a Declaration for Importation or Exportation of Fish or Wildlife (Form 3-177) with our wildlife inspectors at the port. You may file your declaration electronically ( or in hard copy form (form available at: Since the bird will be travelling as checked baggage, there are no user fees due for our agency."

All of that is in addition to the CITES permit. And you saw the part about quarantine. We make a point of not bidding on places that require quarantines coming or going. But with birds, if the country gets bird flu while you are there, as happened while we were in Jerusalem, they will still have to be quarantined (and that is if you have done all your paperwork properly...screw up and they might have to kill your bird!). Which means you will be required to fly into a port with quarantine facilities. JFK in New York was what we opted for. That also means going back 30 days later to that port to pick up your bird. But luckily the people at the facility are true bird people and let me send along my bird's favorite toys, food and treats. They took excellent care of her...I was still a nervous wreck.

We were lucky this time and were able to home quarantine our bird. This mean that in addition to meeting the USDA agent at the port to test her, she also had to be tested at our home. The agent came by at 15 days.

And of course, all of this costs money. We paid 85 euros per pet for the flight (I think it should have been more, but I am not complaining). Then we paid all total for all the permits somewhere in the range of $750-$1000 (I don't have the numbers in front of me and it may have been more...I even had to pay an overtime fee because my flight arrived after 4:30 pm). Luckily, what can't be vouchered with the Department can be claimed on my taxes as a moving expense, but that is still pretty pricey.

So the morals of this post are: 1) traveling with pets is challenging but doable (and in my opinion, worth it), 2) make sure you get all your permits, especially for birds, 3) it is going to be expensive, even if you don't use a pet shipper (I have never used one but it often sounds like you are better off handling it yourself if you can), and 4) don't get a parrot if you don't already have one.

Monday, August 04, 2014

Coming Home to Home Leave

We made it home, including all of the pets (pausing to say another round of thank you thank you thank you) and are currently enjoying home leave.

Yes, I said enjoying. There are lots of folks who disagree with me on this, for completely valid reasons.

Home leave is the vacation we are required by Congress between tours. Yes, you read that right. Congress, in an effort to make sure we don't forget we are American, gives us one day of leave for every month we are overseas. We are required to take that leave in between tours and we are required to take that leave in the United States. Never mind that I feel MOST American when I am overseas...I'll just thank Congress for the free vacation anyway.

Of course, as I said, many don't enjoy it, not because they don't love their country (why you would live this crazy life unless you loved your country is beyond me), but because it isn't exactly free.

In fact, it is pretty expensive. If you don't have a home to camp out in, you are essentially a vagabond for about five weeks. Five weeks in hotels can get expensive. Five weeks camping out for free with relatives can get...well, you insert your own descriptor. And if you have kids, that becomes an even greater hassle.

Luckily for us, we don't have kids except for the pets. We own a home in the DC area and we arrange to come back for more than five weeks between tours. So last time, we came home and served in DC for a couple tours. This time, we are home for a year of language. Each option makes it worth our while to live in our own home. So we don't "have" to get hotels for the whole time. More on that later, as we ARE using the opportunity to travel a bit.

The other complaint people often have with home leave is competition among families to get to see them while they are stateside...that can be think "who do we visit at Christmas?" is bad - try, "who do we visit when we are only stateside for five weeks every three years?"!

Again, having some time in DC avoids that conundrum for us (though we are visiting both of our families on this trip, it is only a short stop with each set of parents because we will be home for a year). It is harder on R&Rs, but then we have opted for the "home base" route of renting a place, usually at the beach, and inviting the family to visit. So far, that has worked pretty well.

All of which is prelude to say we got home just over two weeks ago. Because I am uber-organized/insane, I arranged for our stuff from storage, our UAB, AND our car to be delivered the day after we arrived. Yes, all of them (packing out the UAB and car early worked and they both arrived stateside before we did!), PLUS I had the cable guy come set up our cable and interwebs that day. Of course, that meant pure chaos the whole day, but also meant we had a bed to sleep in that night and a television to watch while sitting our our sofa.
Lots boxes on the lawn

Our car...with a very dead battery
because the parking lights were left on!
I planned for our vacation to start exactly one week later so we would have time to go to the Department and get new badges (success!), get our new Maryland drivers licenses (success!), and get the car inspected, registered and plated (success!...after spending $1000...sigh), and be completely unpacked (not a complete success, but not bad considering our new place has three levels and my knees post-surgery are not liking that one bit.

Side note: I think all DMVs are awful...we went to get our licenses and I brought all the stuff needed for proof of residency, including our mortgage statement. We went to separate clerks. My clerk would not accept the mortgage statement because although it was for a Maryland home, it was mailed to me at our DPO address. So I needed another proof. They said they would accept the vehicle registration, which my wife was working on. Meanwhile, my wife's clerk accepted the very same mortgage statement as proof of residency. So I go over to get the vehicle registration from her, and her clerk says, "Oh, she can just sign for you as proof of residency since you are married."

Yay, marriage equality. Boo/yay for bureaucracy!

So for unpacking, living room, dining room and kitchen are done. Spare bedroom, where we are sleeping, is mostly done, as is my wife's office. Our bedroom is done to the degree it can be until our HHE arrives...our bed is in it. My office/the parrot's room and the basement are started. I'll call that a win.

So for now, we have a home. And the pets seem to approve.

The cats approve of Birdie TV in the back yard

The dog approves of the porch from which to survey her new domain
And now we are vacationing. But I will leave that for later posts.