After months of planning my second Home Leave finally is here. Okay, really, after saving for, daydreaming about, and plotting my Home Leave from my arrival in Shanghai (and only finalizing after securing my onward assignment), the Home Leave arrived! Well, before it could begin I would have to clear one more hurdle: the PCS trip.
PCS=Permanent Change of Station, i.e. the trip that moves you from one assignment to another or to the US for home leave or training at the end of a tour. It sounds fairly simple I guess. Well it is and it isn’t
Now I want to be clear here. I know there are people facing far more difficult challenges in their lives than the government paying to fly them from Point A to Point B. I might not be a complete news junkie but in my particular line of work I am, of course, aware of news and world events. And no one made me have a child, get two cats, or pick this career. That was all me. But now here I am and, with all things being relative, I do not want to forget the stress and discomfort experienced with this move.
So just try to imagine yourself embarking on an international flight that will consume approximately 24 hours of your life door to door and take you across 12 time zones. Sure, no problem, you are an experienced traveler. But add in your 2 checked bags and 1 carry on suitcase. And a good-sized carry on backpack. Still with me? Add in a 5 year old child. A good one who is also experienced at flying, but nonetheless is still 5. And gets a checked bag and carry on allowance but who claims her 10 pound miniature backpack is making it hard for her to walk more than fifty feet. SHE IS SO TIRED! Also the car seat — you can check that too, for free, but you still need to bring it as you will need it as soon as you arrive at your destination. Oh, and a stroller. It folds up and you can check it at the airplane door. But wait, I am not done. You are also carrying two cat carriers because, why not? They will fly in-cabin, under the seat in front of you. So your 5 year old does not really get to sit in the stroller — the cats do.
There is no way to get to the check in counter, to the gate, or board the plane and look anything close to a suave, experienced flyer, diplomat. Nope. The flight attendants see me moseying up to the plane with the grace of a drunk penguin, hair askew, a cat cage on each shoulder and they peg me as the first time flyer I have GOT to be. “Ma’am, can we help you find your seat?” they ask me slowly, enunciating each word. I want to tell them that I am pretty sure I can figure out that row 25 comes after row 24 but I just smile. A strained, crazy smile.
So the crazy parts:
1. I fly this particular airline quite a lot and my profile has me always in a window seat. Yet for some reason we are booked for a middle and aisle seat. And also for two in-cabin pets. Every single aisle seat has a weird box taking up half of the space under the seat in front of me. Where a cat needs to go. I alert the flight attendant. After surveying the situation she suggests I move one row back. To a middle and aisle seat. Yes, the exact same seats one row back. I look at her quizzically. Is she kidding? She isn’t. I point out that will not solve the problem. She says one of us can just take the window seat and surely that passenger will switch. I am extremely skeptical. In fact said person has just arrived and is adamant that will not happen. He says he doesn’t want to be a jerk, but… I say no problem, I get it. He figures out two cat carriers will fit under the middle seat. Problem solved. Passenger ingenuity.
2. I spent a lot of time previously deciding between the midnight flight with on-demand entertainment on in-seat TVs and the noon flight that had personal device and way-overhead no-choice-of-movie movie. I went with option 2 and downloaded the app to my daughter’s Kindle (you have to download before the flight or use the expensive wi-fi on board to do so in flight). The app had not downloaded properly. I could not access wi-fi for three hours due to Chinese airspace. Then I purchase the overpriced wi-fi for one hour. But the personal device entertainment system malfunctioned. As did the “no-choice-screens-from-overhead” entertainment — it was stuck on the welcome screen.
3. Flying from the US to China even with one stop was easier. Returning, not so much. Think customs and immigration at the first point of entry, picking up all checked bags, then re-check bags and then go through security again. Scroll back to my list of stuff I traveled with and my travel companions. FYI – pets need to be taken out of their carriers to go through security. Yes. Think about it. Oh yes it was just about as much fun as you can imagine.
4. I am SO glad I did not opt to take the 2 checked-bags each we were allotted per government PCS travel regulations or the 3 checked-bags per my airline status. For some reason the luggage carts located in the baggage claim area, before customs, seemed ridiculously small. Remember the list of stuff we were traveling with? It just would not fit. Even with all my experience playing Tetris. C pushed the stroller with one cat and her backpack through customs to re-check. She is 5. If she had been 3, the age she was when we PCS’d to China I would have been SOL. She really stepped up. Thank goodness.
But it was only 24 hours. And honestly the worst parts were maybe 2-3 hours of my life. The getting through security with the cats (in Shanghai I used pillow cases to bring one cat through at a time, which inexplicably caused my daughter to cry; in the US after some confusion by TSA, we were led to a private room where the cats were removed from their carriers so those could go through security and one cat might have hidden behind some boxes in that room in an attempt to escape, which might have made my daughter laugh hysterically and me expect I made the TSA agents’ weirdest passenger of the day list). The boarding and disembarking. The whole immigration and customs and re-checking of luggage. Other than that it was just fine.
And THEN my home leave could begin!
Within 24 hours of landing I was in attendance at one of my best friend’s wedding. As a Foreign Service Officer, often overseas, I miss so many life events. Had her wedding been a week or even a day before or a week or a day after I could not have attended. Newly arrived and jet lagged, with my parents watching my daughter, I headed in to Washington, DC to witness this beautiful event. And during the reception I was seated next to a married couple with ties to Africa who had a friend moving to Malawi in six weeks. Kismet!
The following morning I drove to my aunt’s home. It was Easter. My daughter had her first real egg hunt on the lawn — though without competition of course. But oh was she happy. For such a simple thing. I was happy too. American traditions re-created overseas are important (and often very creative and so necessary to our community) but naturally cannot quite be the real thing.
Two days later we drove — well I drove, 5 year olds are terrible drivers — to Charleston, SC to begin the first phase of our Home Leave holiday. I had decided early on I wanted to spend some time in South Carolina on this trip, having only previously driven through the state on my way to college outside of Atlanta many, many years ago. I hemmed and hawed about where. Hilton Head? Greenville/Columbia? But settled on Charleston. I know I made the right decision. The purpose of Home Leave is for employees serving overseas for extended periods of time to reorient and reconnect to the US. I see it as a time to see more and learn more about my country. Charleston is beautiful and it has strong ties to just about every major historical period in our nation from the colonial period, early Republic, to the civil war and present day. So it has plenty for a history and museum oriented mom and also children’s activities for fun-loving 5 year old C.
We visited the Children’s Museum of the Low Country and the South Carolina Aquarium. C enjoyed them both. I think she was particularly struck by the aquarium’s bald eagle named Liberty as she kept asking me for the name later so she could use it during her imaginative play. We also took one of the ubiquitous horse-drawn carriage tours. C loves horses and has talked about it for days. A visit to the Charleston Museum was also in order. I was not sure if C would like it but she was struck by the giant whale skeleton (from the late 1880s), the dress up hoop skirts, some silver spoons shaped like shells, and the Egyptian mummy, purchased by one of the city’s early prominent men. Purchased no less from one of the US’ first Vice Consuls to Egypt. (I am in no position to purchase priceless artifacts at this time). In addition, one could visit two period homes belonging to the museum, which we did along with strolls through the historic district. We took a ferry out to Fort Sumter, where the first shots of the Civil War rang out and visited the USS Yorktown located at Patriot Point. At Magnolia Plantation, founded in 1676, C liked the train ride, petting zoo and mini horses and tolerated our garden walk. A friend of mine and her family drove down from another part of South Carolina to lunch with us and visit Charles Towne Landing, the original site of the first permanent settlement in the Carolinas.
So we have seen and done quite a few things. But what is it really like to be on Home Leave? Honestly? Well, this is only the first two weeks (we are required to take a minimum of four) and it feels very much like a vacation. It also feels surreal – a jet-lag-fog fueled holiday, except one in which I know at the end of we do not return to our home in Shanghai. It is no longer our home. It feels wonderful to have this time to spend with friends and family in the US and the ability to travel around to wherever we would like in our country during this time. But it is also feels a little weird.
It isn’t cheap. I know cost is one of the biggest complaints about Home Leave. And that is true. But I start my Home Leave savings account as soon as I arrive to my overseas post. And this Home Leave I am lucky that my father loaned me a car for the 3.5 months we will be in the US and my aunt is watching my two cats for the five weeks we are traveling. That saved me a bundle in rental car and kennels/hotel pet fees. It does not mean I do not feel a little twinge of panic as the hotel, food, gas and entertainment bills roll in, but the time I get to spend with my daughter together in our country is priceless.
C is taking some time adjusting. For these first two weeks she could not stop breathing deeply whenever we stepped outside. As soon as we stepped out of the airport she took a gulp of air and declared it was “so fresh and smelled good!” Yet whenever we are in a public place and need to use the restroom she says “I hope they don’t have the squatty potties!” After Shanghai she is not used to such fresh air and all sit down commodes. It is such a novelty. Oh and the candy aisles. They are presenting a bit of a challenge. It has been a year since we have been in the US and she does not recall such a dizzying array of sweets. She also often says “I miss Shanghai!” though when I ask her if she is sad it she says no, she is looking forward to our new home. That seems a surprisingly mature answer for five but I will take it because the alternative would come with a side helping of mommy-guilt.
I too am taking time to adjust. I have difficulty completely relaxing. I have received emails about upcoming training with tasks that need to be completed and emails regarding the vehicle I have purchased from Japan and am shipping to my next post. I think through all the things that still need to be completed before we take the next steps for our move to Africa: plane tickets, shopping for consumables, arranging pet travel to post, finding a nanny, and more.
Despite this I am so grateful for this time. And just might already taking part in some preliminary plotting about the next Home Leave. There are so many places to visit in our beautiful country, it is so hard to decide.