Unicycles, Rubber Chickens and Kilns

The Makings of a Foreign Service Home
By Leslie Ashby

Whoever thought to tell a man by his shoes never checked out his Household Effects (HHE) or Unaccompanied Air Baggage (UAB). Foreign Service families like us are on the move every few years, and with us, most of our stuff. What we chose to bring with us, or not, says a lot about who we are.

We all ship the basic necessities to post: clothing, cookware, linens, ice cube trays, and funnels as instructed by the State Department’s ubiquitous publication, It’s Your Move. (Use the password LOGISTICS to enter the site and click “Travel and Moving” on the navigation bar.) The Division of Travel and Transportation, which issues the book, is the first to admit their UAB shipment suggestions are just that-suggestions. “Depending upon individuals, ages of children, the presence of pets, etc., what people wish to send varies enormously,” says Transportation representative and longtime FS spouse, Mette Beecroft. UAB has stricter size and weight restrictions than HHE, but basically, if you can get it packed up and it is not hazardous material or otherwise prohibited, ship it! And ship we do. When AAFSW’s Livelines email discussion group was asked what out-of-the-ordinary, unique, or (dare I say) weird things they bring to post, members responded with interesting items that are definitely not listed in It’s Your Move.

Hobbies and recreation

Foreign Service legend tells of a FSO traveling the globe with a potter’s kiln in tow. Whence this tale began, nobody seems to know, but Kathi Yu, who is off to Guangzhou , may be the one to perpetuate it. “I always wondered about the kiln thing, and now I have a friend who is trying to convince me to buy one. I use her baby kiln to do fused glass jewelry,” she admits. For her, voltage is the issue, not size or weight. “The weirder thing is that I’m thinking of taking stained glass supplies with me,” says Kathi. “But transporting glass?! A 220V soldering iron?!” Well, why not?

Creativity can be a heavy and bulky burden, but one many of us are willing to bear. Janet Smith* says, “I bet we are among the few at post who chose to have an art room and not a live-in maid.” She and her children make good use of the drawing table, easels, specialty papers, paints, and other art supplies they bring with them to post. Diplomatic knitters, weavers, scrapbookers, photographers, quilters, and carpenters also keep their assorted equipment and materials close at hand. Musical instruments, including pianos, are popular among FS adults and children. Over her 30 years as a FS spouse, Debbi Miller has shipped not only a piano but “two violins, two trumpets, a French horn, a crumhorn, a clarinet, a massive harmonica, and a flute, with no ill effects other than the sounds of beginners playing them.”

Many people ship exercise and sporting equipment to keep in shape, or at least to try. In our tiny apartment, the elliptical trainer doubles nicely as a towel rack for guests, so we feel it earns its keep. More diligent athletes can be found wielding their tennis rackets, golf clubs, free weights, and bowling balls at posts worldwide. Janet’s family would not go anywhere without their bicycles and her daughter’s unicycle. “I have met a lot of people who don’t bring their bikes to post,” she says. “It depends on the post, I suppose, but our philosophy is that we’ll find a place to ride them.”

Still others spend time enjoying their various collections. “Among the strange and favorite items that come everywhere with us: my husband’s snow globe collection, my antique eye cup collection, and my daughter’s Pez collection,” says FS spouse Andrea Cohen who has lived in Sana’a, Abidjan , and Pretoria . “A really good rule-of-thumb is if your collection can fit in a shoe box, by all means, don’t leave home without it!”

Books, computers, and entertainment

Books and computers are commonplace, but there is nothing common about the quantity found in many FS homes. “.Almost half our shipment is books,” says Janet. “I’m not sure how I could live without them, and we still have tons of books in storage. The worst part of packout for me is weeding through the books. It ends up being a very long negotiation with my kids as well.” Michele Hopper, FS spouse who has lived in Manila and Lome agrees. “Without books we’d be lost. We have bookshelves full in the den, living room, and both kids’ rooms. Amazon.com isn’t being at all helpful with our HHE weight issues!”

Specifically, cookbooks from different regions of the world tend to be very popular and mouth-watering souvenirs of hometowns left behind, tours gone by, and interesting places yet to be visited. Retired FS spouse, Terri Williams, always regretted not departing post with a local phone book to use at the next location. “Now with the Internet, it may not be such a precious commodity,” says Terri, “but back then it was a great way to remember and find resources and help make the Christmas list.”

Rare is the FS household that does not have at least one computer and its various peripherals: printer, scanner, webcam, etc. “We’re not technology crazy,” asserts Janet, who owns four computers, “but fighting over computer time is just too much for me. If it’s what my teenagers need to feel ‘in touch’ around the world with their friends…then life is much easier all around [if they have their own computers].” With such vast libraries and sometimes numerous computers in the home, it remains a mystery why State does not supply more bookshelves or home office furnishings to overseas housing.

Other forms of entertainment include board and video games, DVDs, music, and toys of all kinds. “This time we.brought a trampoline (in the box, of course), a foosball table (also in the box), and a gumball machine (would have been better in a box) to make the move exciting for the kids,” says FS spouse Lisa Feldmann who lives in Chennai.

Handy household items

“Always come prepared” seems to be the motto of many FS households overseas. “I carry lots of items for entertaining such as big serving spoons, pewter platters, large serving bowls, and chafing dishes,” says FS spouse Susan Scott-Vargas, who is ready for buffets of at least 50 people. This “extreme” entertainer also brings to post good corkscrews, numerous tablecloths, napkins, vanity toothpicks, cheese slicers, and good knives. Others say plastic products, such as Ziploc bags, storage containers, and plastic wrap are critical components of their shipments.

FS parents also ship mass quantities of school supplies, birthday presents, party supplies, as well as clothing and shoes in current and soon-to-be sizes. “We ship hoards of clothes and shoes to grow into for two years,” says Michele, mother of four. Pet supplies for dogs, cats, fish, birds, turtles, hamsters, and even a beloved horse, also figure heavily into many a HHE and UAB shipment. So how many 40-pound containers of kitty litter will keep two cats (and their owners) happy for two years in Central Asia ? Turns out, about 16. You do the math.

Other items FS folks find useful-nay, essential-include: a sewing machine, a foldable grocery cart, a hand-crank radio, a Dustbuster, a king-size bed, and in Lisa Feldman’s case, “a rubber chicken [squeak toy] instead of a dinner bell, a label maker, head lamps for when the power goes out, a tape gun and a staple gun, and a manual ice cream machine.” Echoing a familiar sentiment heard throughout the Foreign Service, Lisa says, “It just wouldn’t be home without these things!”

Love it, need it, gotta have it

Shipped or stored, everyone in the Foreign Service is allotted a grand total of 18,000 pounds of stuff; what we choose to do with it is up to us. “I am not quite sure anything can be categorized as ‘odd’ in the Foreign Service,” believes Michele. “We’re moving from one drastically different country to the next, so who knows what we’ll need next time if not here? And with every person or family comes different needs.” Janet agrees, “I guess it comes down to what makes you feel ‘at home’ wherever you are. It is different for everyone.”

“I don’t think anything is weird if it serves a purpose,” says Mette. “Obviously, different things are important for different people. In the final analysis, reading about what people take along makes me proud of us all. People end up in the most unusual of circumstances and yet they also manage to take things with them which are important to them and which help to keep them and their families on even keel in one way or another.” No matter where we live in this wide world, it is reassuring to know that our kayak, loom, Beanie Baby collection, or fish forks will be there to welcome us home.

*Real name withheld by request.

Leslie Ashby is a member of AAFSW, a freelance writer and editor, a mother, and a FS spouse who has lived in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan; Montreal, Canada; and Manila, Philippines.

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