Stream of Smogginess

Bits and pieces from a walk downtown yesterday. 

Dragodan Steps are becoming a “Folly.” The pedestrian hand wave works on drivers here, thank goodness. Green man doesn’t necessarily mean safe crossing though. Cleo’s has gluwein! Massive conical tree-shaped ornaments are apparently a New Year’s thing rather than Christmas. They are decorated by enormous and tacky golden bows and shiny red balls. Even Vita milk has a decorative archway. Most people are wearing various shades of black coats and pants, then very dark gray, an occasional red. I stick out in my green one. Nene Tereza trees are coated in strands of lights. Beautiful women everywhere. Roasted chestnuts smell good. A small boy beats a drum and sings traditional Albanian music, hoping for a coin. A rocking, mumbling beggar does the same. 

The glass shop doesn’t have my order, but in ten minutes I have a circle glass top for our antique drum regardless. The man missing a tooth has practiced hands, and the glass crackles and parts with pressure from his calloused thumbs.  He polishes the sharp edges with sandpaper and Emory cloth, and I have for what I sought. 

There is a skate park on my way back, I’ve never seen it used. The Assembly building looks like a modern art piece, it’s shiny exterior broken and smashed in places by paint cans that protesters threw, and which exploded, painting their points of impact with an angry red penumbra. Police check the vehicles and people entering the grounds. 

The prefab Christmas Market stands at Skenderbaugh Square are being disassembled and loaded on a truck. It is a stark contrast to the austere statue of Skenderbeg and the strikers’ tent. 

Even more beautiful women. Some children, bundled against the cold, run and play on the boulevard. The stands at the other end of the walkway remain, some of them open and selling wares or food. The little panhandling girl in the hijab is there, a regular fixture. A cross-looking man without a full stand has a few sparse items for sale at a table. Other vendors with tables have books. A group of jovial men stand around a barrel-shaped table with drinks and warm food. “Happy Holidays From Pristina” is emblazoned on some cards. I start back. 

Cars are parked on the sidewalk, so I have to walk in the street, compounding the difficulty for other cars to drive. The taxi drivers at the stand on Fehmi Agani rattle in conversation, and so do their diesel engines. A passing delivery scooter holds a helmeted driver and a helmetless passenger who takes a drag on a cigarette.  A woman catching up to me from behind speaks loudly into her mobile in a language I don’t recognize, interspersed with some English phrases. 

The rotisserie chicken place has birds aplenty, and they are tempting, but I have Turkey Thai soup from Thanksgiving. The steps test me, but I master them, navigating around the crumbling ones, pulling myself up with the tarnished and rusty railing.  I slowly ascend past the soupy smog.

The scalloped cobbles of Dragodan remind me of Europe proper. The unrepaired cracks in the road remind me that I’m here. 

The Hindsight Report: What We Should Have Packed

This is the fourth time we’ve PCS’d and you’d think we would have this figured out by now, but as many long term FS people will tell you, it actually seems to get worse over time.


UAB Weight Mug I designed
UAB Weight Mug I designed!
 What should we put in our suitcases? Our UAB? Our HHE? Storage? How much does that crystal nut bowl weigh and why on earth did it make it with us to insert-BFE-No-where-post-here?  PCSing can be stressfull.

Since arriving at post just about a month ago, I’ve been revisiting just what I should have packed in our luggage and UAB specifically.  This list will probably differ for a lot of you, but could lend a hand.  

Checked Luggage

As of this writing, everyone on orders may take up to two suitcases (weight determined by airline) and even if you have to pay for your extra bag up front, keep that receipt and boarding passes to submit for reimbursement after arriving at post.  The stuff that makes it in your luggage is the stuff you’re going to use and need the minute you hit your new digs, whether you’re put in temp housing/hotel room for a week or months, or are lucky enough to get your permanent house.  The general rule for checked luggage is no expensive items, especially if transiting multiple airports, third world countries, changing carriers, or pretty much anywhere.  I break this rule sometimes.  Also, singles and/or couples with no kids may discard half to two thirds this list 🙂

If you can weigh your luggage before arriving at the airport, you’ll save yourself a lot of time and embarrassment from having to shuffle items from one suitcase to another as you try to get under weight.

  • Some spices (we cook and are foodies)
  • Rain jacket (It’s bound not to rain if you pack it)
  • Clothes (outfits you can wear until your UAB arrives)
  • Sun block (expensive and/or poor quality elsewhere)
  • Cook book (again, foodies)
  • Tupperware (where on earth are you going to put leftovers?  An expensive and/or local set?)
  • metal/Plastic wine glasses (some welcome kits have no wine glasses!)
  • Plastic egg holder (bringing eggs home from the market on foot, bike or motor pool/taxi can be bouncy)
  • International plug adapters (for any 110-240v devices like laptops that don’t need a dedicated transformer)
  • Crayons, colored pencils (your kids, despite your best efforts will have few to none in their own luggage)
  • Zip lock bags (expensive pretty much anywhere except the US)
  • Peanut butter (always a good plan)
  • Stamps, envelopes (if you’re at a DPO, you can buy locally, if pouch, perhaps not)
  • Liquid measure (again, some welcome kits are without)
  • Shoes (sandals, running shoes, one set of nice shoes, what-have-you
  • Projector (because that’s how we roll)
  • COPY of Kids school records
  • COPY of Birth Certificates, marriage license, social security cards
  • Pens (to replace the one you’ll lose from your carryon luggage when you arrive)
  • SIM punch tool (in case local SIM cards aren’t pre-cut for your phone)
  • shampoo/conditioner/soap of choice
  • coffee grinder/filters (assuming you can get whole beans at post/welcome kit may include a coffee maker, but sometimes no filters)
  • crushable food container full of cheddar and freezer blocks (right?!)
  • small board games and deck(s) of cards


The items below make for one seriously heavy and expensive carry-on, but I really don’t see the sense in putting any of these items in checked luggage, or skipping them for that matter.

  • Cameras + chargers (of course one of these made it into our HHE.  Best efforts, people)
  • Journal (because that’s important to me.  Maybe it’s your knitting or sketch pad)
  • Passports (one stack of Dips, one tourist)
  • Laptop (expensive!)
  • WiFi Router/computer backup (in our case, Apple Time Capsule)
  • VPN Router (when you get your local internet set up, NetFlix!)
  • AppleTV
  • iPad/iPhone Charger (in our case Goal Zero Sherpa 50)
  • Medical Records (could go in your luggage if you trust it)
  • Kids school records
  • Birth Certificates, marriage license, social security cards
  • Pen (for filling out all paperwork)
  • Noise-canceling headphones
  • iPad/tablet
  • Unlocked iPhone/smart phone in a weather resistant/proof case
  • sunglasses
  • hat
  • checkbook (for cashing checks at embassy)
  • visa photos (recent) of entire family for anything you need
  • Ibuprofen for adults…and kids if you’ve got them.
  • first aid kit/bandaids at the very least
  • pet food/supplies

Some posts get UAB in a week, some in six.  Depending on what your CLO-to-be/sponsor tells you before you pack and leave, some of these things you might end up mailing to yourself before-hand.  Just make sure that if you go that route, you don’t overload your mail room staff or wear out your welcome before you even arrive!

  • cast iron frying pan
  • pyrex Roasting pan/casserole dish/brownie pan (some welcome kits don’t have)
  • Large pot (some welcome kits don’t have)
  • Pressure cooker (so useful!)
  • Cutting board (welcome kit boards can be tiny and there is only 1 typically)
  • Knives (never underestimate the utility of a good set of knives)
  • Cutlery
  • Plates
  • Glasses
  • Wine glasses (some welcome kits don’t have)
  • Coffee/tea mugs
  • Battery backups (many posts have dodgy power grids.  Plug these into your transformers)
  • Remaining spices
  • Remaining Clothes
  • Remaining tupperware/bags/plastic wrap/aluminum foil/etc
  • pet food/supplies

A dog, a suit and a handful of goodbyes

The 1950’s Singer, Necchi and other sewing machines whir and compete with the musical chatter and laughter of the seamstresses and baritone words of the tailors hard at work on the clothing of the people of Zimbabwe. The little room in which I wait for final alterations on my suit is much like a dozen or two more in this downtown office building. Colorful finished pieces hang along the periphery, lit only by one long fluorescent bulb. A small “fitting room” is a corner stacked with back packs and other personal effects, closed off by a swath of extra fabric on two nails and a string. A Battery-powered FIFA clock hangs by a wire from a small board screwed to the plaster wall. Small Zimbabwean flags hang here and there. In stark contrast to all official businesses, Robert Mugabe does not stare down at us from an official government portrait. A tittering radio blares out a mix of modern pop from Zimbabwe’s and other southern African artists.

A young woman tries on her fitted dress in the hideaway fitting room. She looks stunning and innocent, probably ready for duty as a bridesmaid, or for another formal occasion. The red fabric is broken up nicely with batique patterns of cream and maroon.
My tailor puts button holes in my three piece, and irons the shoulder pads into submission, as they are a bit bolstered for my liking.

I’m leaving Zimbabwe in less than a week.

We’ve met some amazing people and made many wonderful friends, all of whom we to see again sometime, somewhere around the world. We don’t say “goodbye,” rather “See you ’round the world sometime,” instead.

We’ve seen every corner of this country, several times over in some cases, driven thousands of kilometers and taken a few thousand photos. Jean has learned the names and calls of dozens of southern African birds and my kids can spot the difference between a Bush Buck and Kudu or Klip Springer and Duiker in a second.

Our Rhodesian Ridgeback, Alice, has accompanied us on many of these adventures, staring down Eland, Zebras, and chasing an Ostrich or two in her travels. She is decidedly nervous we will leave her behind and has no idea of the sights, smells and sounds that await her across the US and in VA.

We are all packed out and the house is empty, save what we’ll take in our suitcases and carry-ons for our journey back to the ‘States. Our lives, once all packed up, can be catalogued in a series of numbers, like the ingredients in a recipe, the product of which has been an amazing Zimbabwe adventure:

Four days to pack out
Six man packing crew
291 boxes in HHE
7147 pounds
Countless camping, lodging and safari trips
Five lift vans
One pet shipment
4 suitcases
7 carry-ons
40 hours transit HRE-JBG-ATL-ELP
6 Airplane meals
12 movies watched
1 airport lounge
7 days in Las Cruces
8 day drive across the US (Las Cruces – Carlsbad – Austin – Memphis – Nashville – Asheville – Raleigh/Durham – Tappahannock – Hearthwood!)

Over the next year we’ll live at our house in VA, Jean will learn Albanian at FSI, the kids will go to school in Fairfax County, and I’ll steward Hearthwood, doing home improvement projects, gardening, chopping wood, and everything that goes into running a homestead.

Then off to Kosovo next July!