Friday, April 27, 2012

Easy come, easy go

Hubby and I spent last night discussing, thinking, planning, filling out paperwork for schools and the rental application.  We weren't 100% convinced it was the right house for us, but there was a shift.  We could feel it.  With the decisions and so very many good pieces falling into place, there was hope, a lightness in the talk, a glimpse at the light at the end of this silly tunnel.

Alas, no.

Our relocation agent just called to say the house is off the market.  Another couple wanted it.  The agent told them we were in the lead with our 4-year lease term and the company-funded rent.  They upped the ante and got a letter from their company guaranteeing rent for 3 years, even if the couple moves.  They win.

From a businessman's perspective (it is an investment property), I can't say I blame the owner for his decision.  Still, I admit I am tempted to feel most deflated.  The uncertainties of this move are getting old.  Our airfreight--which should have been ready and waiting when we arrived and is full of items we truly need--is still missing.  Our sea freight is inexplicably bound for New York, where it is set to stop (how on earth someone came up with that idea, I will never know).  The weather has plunged to icy cold wind and grey clouds again.  I can't shake a head cold (3 full boxes of tissues used in 5 days--thank you, weather!).
But I am clinging to a small happy.  The girls have become obsessed with The Muppets (hooray!), and I can hear the Swedish Chef in my head saying "Easy she come, easy she go!" in that special, hilarious way of his (while he flings some cooking items over his shoulders).  Oh, that makes me smile!

To help fan that flame of happy into a blaze, I share this:

We'll get there, somehow.  This will work out in the end.
Happy Friday, everyone!

Thursday, April 26, 2012

The low-down on our house search

We've now been in Pittsburgh for a week and a half.  By all accounts, we have arrived at an "awkward" time.  Awkward because the school year will be over in less than 2 months, but Ellie is legally required to go.  Awkward because we need an address to enrol in school, and we don't have one.  Awkward because the rental market is super-tight.  Awkward because most family-appropriate houses become available over the summer months (when "normal" people move), and those notices could be a month or two away (or not at all).  And did you realise the more you type the word "awkward", the more awkward that spelling looks?  Anyway...

Given that we are professional, expert relocation artists (hee-hee), we have learned over time that the best plan of attack is to choose a place and settle as quickly as possible.  Waffling about it can only drive us crazy, especially when the location is new to us and we know so little about how the day to day will really look.  We knew schools would be our big priority, along with a good yard for playing outside and room for us and for guests to be comfortable inside during those long, cold winter months.  After years away from the States and the car-culture, we were finding it hard to adapt to the idea of needing the car to get anywhere and everywhere, especially with the girls, so the ability to get around on foot and bicycle was added to the list.  Hubby's office is way out in the suburbs, but the idea of life as a US suburban mom  makes me twitch.  He's willing to commute quite a ways if all the other criteria can be met well, so we've been very busy looking, looking, looking.  Right away, the two areas that shone through with the most appeal were Mount Lebanon and Sewickley.

Sewickley is very much Small Town USA.  It lies along the river, so it is quite flat, unlike the rest of very hilly Pittsburgh (making it great for bicycles and kids).  The centre is called Sewickley Village.  The houses are sweet, wood-sided, dollhouse-style (except for the huge mansions around), and the community feel is very strong.  The shops are nice and accessible, and its walkability is fantastic.  There is a new, huge YMCA with fantastic family programs in swimming, name it.  It was the public school here that blew me away.  I wished I had a kid to send there, even if that kid were me.  For a fleeting moment, I almost wished I were a teacher again.  Seriously.  It was amazing!  They have such tremendous resources that they have money leftover to fund (quite well) the public library.  The commute for Hubby would have been so much less than anywhere else we've seen.  And if all that wasn't enough, there was a house with our names on it.  Literally.

a house with our names on it

 But all that perfection comes with a price tag (and serious lack of availability).  The "best" we could hope for is a house we saw yesterday.

house in Sewickley

It's a 1950s, two-story, three-bedroom home with a nice yard and attached garage (a rarity there and a premium desirable item due to the winters).  Nothing had been updated since it was built, although it was all in great condition.  As a person who loves to cook, the kitchen just made me sad with its tiny oven and electric stovetop.  Everything has that '50s sizing (small, small, small and dark inside).   The bedrooms were very small, except the master which was disproportionately huge.  It was hard to imagine making a guest feel comfortable there, though we would try!  It would have been a downsize, as we wanted, but it required a lot of compromises too.  Hmmm....

Mount Lebanon is fairly close to the city and is connected by a small metro rail.  It prides itself on walkability, particularly with their schools.  There are so many (highly rated) public elementary schools with the idea that all kids should be able to walk to school.  They even let out for lunch (unless the kids prefer to bring the lunch to stay and eat with friends) and the kids can walk home for it.  So nice.  Yesterday, we saw one very lovely, very spacious (read "HUGE") home in a swanky neighbourhood.  There is no way around the fact that it's an upsize from our previous upsize: not what we had intended.  It's not perfect (so much bigger than we need, with four bedrooms but six (6!) bathrooms--that's a lot of toilet scrubbing, my friends), but it is really very very good in so many ways.  The lay-out allows so much natural light.  It has an open plan living/dining/kitchen space that we like so much.  And the kitchen...I had to wipe the chef drool (TMI, but you would too).

house in Mt Lebanon

What about schools?  Mount Lebanon schools have excellent reputations (meaning they standardised test well).  Last week, I visited a public school in Mount Lebanon, and I really didn't like it, I'm sorry to say.  But that school isn't the one in the catchment of this house, so we are set to see two other schools before I made up my mind.  One, we visited this morning--Mt Lebanon Montessori--and it was very good.  The other is the public school near the house (Markham Elementary), and we were set to see it today but a scheduling mix-up means we have to see it tomorrow.  All in all, this house looks like our absolute best bet if we are going to try to choose something and settle as soon as possible.

If you're still with me, you are very dedicated!  Thanks for hanging in there.  Tomorrow, we'll see that remaining public school and will submit some applications.  We'll see what comes up!

Monday, April 23, 2012

Cast on

The daytime temperature has gone from 45 to 83 to 36 in the week (!) we have been in Pittsburgh.  Quite frankly, we haven't packed the clothes for this.  Oh, how I lament the moment in Perth when I held up my fleece pullover and my favourite scarf and decided they didn't need to be packed in our luggage.  Alas!  Since all the shops think people only need summer gear (even the online clearance sales lack winter-wear), I really had no choice but to cast on.

cast on for Stephanie's poncho

Remarkably, it was Hubby's suggestion.  Three years ago, for my very first knitted project, I knit a very basic garter stitch poncho for Ellie.  It turned out to be incredibly handy, and it lived most of its life in the bakfiets, ready to be popped over a kiddie head whenever the air felt too chilly.  Hubby suggested I make each of the girls one of those ponchos.  He knows full well what happens when I go to a knitting shop, but he sent me there anyway.  Amazing.

Forecasters were calling for up to 8 inches of snow today.  I know central parts of Pennsylvania are well-covered, and we haven't seen so much as a flake.  The air, however, is perfectly chilly and certainly icy enough to make sitting inside and knitting a delightful way to pass the day, especially when two little girls are just as happy to play the day away with no need to be carted to and fro in the car (except to the yarn shop, of course).

wintry late April

Look at that beautiful, wintry sunset!
Happy Monday to you!

Saturday, April 21, 2012

Hooray for normalcy

This afternoon, we moved into a furnished, two bedroom apartment.  Hooray!  It is so good being out of a hotel and into someplace we can stay without packing and unpacking again until we finally move into whatever will be our new home here, whenever we find it.  The girls are sharing a room, but at least they are no longer sharing a bed.  There is a full kitchen, so I was able to cook dinner for us for the first time in a long, long while.  The girls responded so well to the signs of normal routine.  They wound down at bedtime.  Their eyes drooped through a wind-down Sesame Street podcast or two.  We brushed teeth, read books, and then was sleep.

Or not.

It's now 9:10pm and counting, and Little Pookie is freshly re-wired (done by herself in the dark) and is driving me to distraction.  Oh well.  It is yet another first night in a new place.  We've moved them eight times now (eight!) in the past three weeks, so I suppose she's entitled to a little crazy.

The best part of this apartment is that is an actual address, meaning we can start other parts of the settling-in process now, such as applying for driver's licenses and hopefully soon buying a car.  I had hoped to settle Ellie into a school, but that is sadly still not on the cards.  I visited a few schools last week, and I even found one that made me feel quite swoon-y (never happened to me about a school before, but I found myself wishing that I'd be lucky enough to send a kid there)...but we aren't (yet) in the catchment.  Keep your fingers crossed that Lady Luck will toss an appropriate home in that catchment our way!

For now, it's apartment living for us, and man, it feels pretty good.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

A little catch-up

Hi there!
Sorry about the silence here. The trouble with blogging is that you need an available computer to post, and whenever we've had downtime, the computer has been needed. Needed for research. Needed to reading. Needed for mapping. Needed for planning. Needed for hoping that somehow by interneting enough, we could somehow shortcut this oh-so-long and drawn-out settling in process. But alas. Try as we might, research as we did, we are still faced with one very basic truth: this process is not fully within our control.

In Pittsburgh (and perhaps all the US), every step of the process hinges on having an address (not a hotel as we currently have). Once you have an address, you can send mail there. Once you have mail at the address (specific mail like bank statements or utility bills), you can use that as proof of residence. When you have that, you can apply for a driver's license. When you have that, you can buy a car. We also need an address before we can send the girls (or at least Ellie) to school. The clock is ticking on that last one, because school ends for the year in June, and I cannot begin to tell you how badly that kiddo needs to go back to school (remember, the school year in Oz started in February, so she has only had 2 months of school this year and is ready to go). Of course, the tricky bit in Pittsburgh (and this is most definitely true here) is the rental market is ridiculously tight, and for the moment at least, we are confined to renting.

Despite the fact that we asked multiple times before arriving to be placed in an apartment, we somehow ended up in a Residence Inn. It's nice. It has two bedrooms and a sort-of kitchen, but it is a hotel, no doubt about it, a hotel in which each of the two bedrooms have one queen-sized bed, meaning the girls have to share with us or with each other. At bedtime, we read to them and tuck them in in separate rooms. When we are ready to go to bed ourselves, we usually move Stephanie (who blessedly doesn't wake) or we surrender and separate, one of us with one of them.

Pursuing the end goal of an address with relentless tenacity (as we have learned from our 4 year old when she wants something she can't have), we have toured various neighbourhoods and even seen some of the few available rentals in the four days we've been here. At the moment, we've narrowed our preferences to Mt Lebanon, near the city, and Sewickley, a very walkable (very wealthy) suburb. Both have great schools, public and Montessori (both! amazing!). Both are very walkable (sidewalks connecting everything). Mt Lebanon is more compact, hilly, older, different than spread out, flat near the river, wealthy Sewickley. We like both for different reasons, but the common theme is the walkability and the community feel. After so many years out of the US, we are finding it hard to adapt to the fact that everything must involve the car. Mt Lebanon is walkable and has a very good public transport system straight into the city. Sewickley has a very nice central shop area and a large, new community YMCA. As Hubby doesn't work in the city itself, he'll have to commute no matter where we live, so we're looking for comfort when we are at home, wherever that will be.

Of course, the market being what it is, we're not sure we can afford to be so picky as to select only two neighbourhoods. We have found two absolutely beautiful houses in Fox Chapel, both in our price range and both stunning from what we can tell. We will see them on Friday. The trouble is the increased commute time for Markus (nearly an hour in traffic, and I don't want to guess in snow) and the fact that both are situated such that if you want any place beyond your own driveway, you have to be in your car. Sigh. So wish us luck. We'll keep you posted!

As for the hotel issue, Markus has insisted and they miraculously figured out that they could actually put us in a furnished apartment rather than the hotel (hey, what do you know?). While I visit some schools tomorrow with our relocation agent, Markus and the girls will visit two apartment complexes and judge suitability. If that works out, we might just be able to bypass the address requirement on everything but schools, since it will be an apartment and not a hotel. As for the schools, I will ask if the Montessori schools require a local address, hoping they won't since they are private. Again, I'll let you know.

Thanks for bearing with me through the long silence and the even longer post that followed! There was a lot of explaining to do! Eventually things will settle down, and I'll take and share pictures as well. Warmest wishes to you!

Friday, April 6, 2012

Brrrr says the human popsicle

It's Springtime in Northern Virginia. The trees are flowering. The grass is green. The leaves are budding. The robins are singing. The temperature is near freezing overnight...gaaahhh!

For the record, it doesn't get this cold in Perth in winter except on rare occasions and even then it doesn't last. We are just not accustomed to cold anymore. We are four human popsicles, and I'm guessing it's only a matter of time before the first one of us succumbs to a head cold.

But my, those trees are pretty!

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Chatting with celebrity

As we waiting to board our flight in Dubai, I noticed a woman standing apart from the line. She seemed to be waiting for something or someone. Really, I noticed her bag, which was rather huge and seemed to be made of some rough-hewn, woven leather, like she'd picked it up in a bazaar in some far-away country. Curious about the owner of such a bag, I looked at the woman's face and instantly recognised Susan Sarandon...and just as quickly looked away, not wanting to be a weird celebrity stalker.

My girls were running in circles around our legs, laughing hysterically and having a grand old time. As their circle of hilarity widened, I warned them to be careful not to bump into the lady. She smiled at us and said she remembered traveling with her own children. People would always comment on how well-behaved they were, but they somehow never noticed how hard she worked with Cheerios and crayons and colouring books to keep them happy. We smiled and laughed in commiseration, and then some staff member appeared to whisk Ms. Sarandon to the front of the queue and onto the plane.

I've never chatted with a celebrity before, however briefly, but it makes me smile that when I did, it was as two mothers over shared experience. Fantastic.

In the US of A

Did you know that the flight from Dubai to New York is 14 hours long? In the daytime. With two children who don't sleep during the daytime.

14 hours is a long time.

But really, the girls were traveling angels. I give them full credit. Stephanie only lost it once (around hour 10) when she'd simply had enough of watching movies while sitting quietly in her seat or my seat or on me in either seat and was ready to get off the plane right now, thank you very much. Understandable. I knew she just needed to move a bit so her body would feel tired, so I suggested a walk with Papa. "Is there a park?" Um, no (though it was a good question; the Airbus 380 is mighty big). And the tantrum resumed. Fair enough. When she finally fell asleep about an hour after that, I ordered a glass of wine at the bar (no park but yes there was a bar!), thank you very much. Whew.

We thought our flights to the US were going to be a huge debacle due to errors in our booking. The non-traveling travel agents, in their wisdom, booked our international flight and domestic connection to DC as separate tickets. We didn't expect to make the connection at all. When we asked for help at check-in in Dubai, we were stonewalled, told that we had to accept what was booked as it was in the system. Then, something went hideously wrong with their system for accepting my husband's visa and we had to wait and wait and wait while they figured it out. An hour later, we were checked in and checked through to DC, just as we hoped, no questions asked. Hooray!

So far, so good. My mom came to the airport and spent time with us for a while that first night since she has to work for the next two days. We went to visit my grandfather yesterday afternoon. The girls really cannot comprehend the vast amounts of time spent in the car. It is so completely out of their frame of reference. Our world in Perth was so small. Any car ride beyond 20 minutes seemed long. Here, an hour to get here or there is pretty average. Today, we'll stick close to our hotel and keep it simple for a day. We're all feeling the jet lag. The girls passed out by 4pm yesterday. Ellie and I have been awake since 3am. One day at a time...

Sunday, April 1, 2012

Washing hands in the day

washing hands "on the day"

"Mama, look at this little sink right next to the toilet. It’s just the right size for me to wash my hands!"

(me): Honey, that’s not a sink. It’s called a bidet.

"Well, it is the day, so we can use it now to wash our hands."

From the lap of luxury

Shouting from her bedroom, our big girl dictates:

"Papa! Can you come get me dressed?! I can't get up. I'm relaxing!"

Maybe this Dubai luxury thing is best in very small doses.

In Dubai

We made it.

Friday was an incredibly emotional day. Most of it was spent with me trying to suppress tears (because I discovered yes, it does upset and worry the children to see me cry about the move). On top of the emotion, the stress level has been ridiculous. Perhaps it's because it is the first international move with children old enough to know the difference. Perhaps it's because I felt so immersed in the community of friends I had made. Or perhaps it's always that stressful, but international moving is like childbirth: you forget how painful it is so you can do it again the next time.

At any rate, we made it. We are safe and sound in a parallel universe that is Dubai.

view from hotel room balcony

Coming from Perth to Dubai was a smart move. I think if we had gone directly to the US from Perth, the differences would have stood out so much that the sense of loss would have been more acute. As it was, when we boarded Emirates in business class, every link to our normal reality simply ceased. Business class on Emirates = lifestyles of the rich and famous. So much space! Flat beds (so kids slept 8+ hours of the 11 hour flight). Huge personal TVs with fabulous movie selections (I agree with the critics; Michelle Williams was fantastic in My Week with Marilyn). Then we arrived in Dubai, stood in the slowest-moving immigration line of my life (ironically, the Emirates fast track lane), collected our luggage, and opened the airport doors to a different world: a concrete jungle built on sand.

morning on Tataouine

We are in Dubai for two nights to break up the flights for the kids. So much has changed in the six years since we were last here. The Palm was still being built then; today we drove out there in a taxi and visited the amazing aquarium of the Atlantis Lost Chambers. We couldn't resist taking the girls over to the Mall of the Emirates to see the indoor skiing (so surreal!). Now, they are happily splashing away in the hotel pool with Papa as I write this up, waiting for my pool-side lunch. Lifestyles of the rich and famous indeed!

Dubai creek past Grosvenor House