Tag Archives: living overseas

Where are You From? Hometown: EVERYWHERE!

Growing up as a military kid, I sometimes puzzled over the question “Where are you from?” I never struggled to answer, but maybe that’s because I had a lot of possible answers. And yet, I never envied the kids that had just one answer. I still don’t envy those kids…and here’s why:

My father was a career soldier–first as an Army aviator, and then later with the Corps of Engineers. It was a path that took him, and our family, to places as far and wide as Germany, Virginia, Japan, Iowa, South Korea, Kansas, South Dakota, and Maryland. Along the way, we vacationed in Savannah, Georgia–my parents’ hometown. My folks later explained that they figured that we needed a hometown, too.

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Growing up, South Dakota was the place that we called home the longest. My father taught ROTC at South Dakota Tech, in the small Black Hills town of Rapid City, for three years. I’m sure my siblings would agree that we found ourselves more at home in Rapid City than at any other place, including Savannah. There were awesome winter sports, the place was obsessed with baseball (just like I was), there was a strong sense of community, and the city was genuinely welcoming to outsiders.

Of course, it was all temporary, and our next move was to be to South Korea, a place that I’d never even heard of (hey, I was only seven). My folks sold me on the move, as military parents often do, this time by telling me that bicycles were very cheap in Korea.

My older brother and sister were teenagers, so they weren’t as excited about bikes, and they weren’t excited about leaving their friends, either. As we drove through Wyoming on the way to drop off our car for shipment to Korea, there was no shortage of tears. But things got brighter as we made our way further west, and there was building optimism and excitement as we reached the coast.

We arrived in Seoul in the middle of summer, before school started, so it took a little while to get connected. Our household goods (and my toys) seemed to take a long time to arrive, but I guess time is on a different measure when you are a kid. We all managed to find new friends at our new post, as we always had. And sure enough, I was tooling around Yongsan on my new bike in no time (never mind that we got it at the PX for probably the same price that we would have paid in the states).

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Occasionally, I’m asked if growing up as a military brat was hard, if I missed having a true hometown. I respond that “hard” isn’t the word I would choose. Looking back, it was an incredible opportunity, and I experienced things that have changed me forever, and for the better. In just a single two-year slice of time in Korea, I became familiar enough with a new language to pick a soccer team with kids that spoke no English (kids just like me, I learned, except from a different country), I bargained with local shopkeepers over important things like chewing gum and yo-yos, I took field trips to 1,500-year-old temples, and I watched hundreds of local children sneak onto post for the promise of free Halloween candy (security was a little bit different in those days).

It wasn’t perfect, of course, and moving was never what us kids wanted at the time. But we tried to make the most of each assignment, learning to ice skate in South Dakota, touring castles in Europe, even speaking a little Japanese along the way (ok, very little, maybe just a skoshi). And we made new friends at each stop, some of which we are still in touch with (and without the benefit of social media back in the day).

My dad’s next assignment after Korea was Fort Meade, Maryland. On the way, we set it up so that we could pass back through our former hometown of Rapid City. During our visit, I asked my parents “Why are my old friends all still here? Shouldn’t they have been sent to live somewhere else like we were?” When they explained that not everybody has to move every few years, I thought, “Wow, they are missing out.”

Are you a military kid? What do you remember most fondly about growing up?

courtPosted by Court Ogilvie, Chief Operating Officer

5 Things I Wish I Knew Before We Moved Back to the States

My family lived in Wiesbaden, Germany for three years. The day my husband came home with orders overseas, I jumped up and down in excitement. The day he told us we had to go back to the States, I sat down and cried.

If you’ve been able to live in Europe, this post probably won’t surprise you. There is something about living there that changes you. As much as I love our home here in the States, a piece of me will always be yearning for Germany. If you are still lucky enough to be living overseas, here are some things about coming home that may surprise you:

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Reverse culture shock is real. 

This one is difficult to explain. Feeling out of place in your own home is a thing. It took time for the kids and I to adjust to saying “thank you” instead of “danke.” They hardly remembered living in the States, and they were confused by everything from the way American toilets flush, to the types of door handles we used. The first night we were back, we stopped at a restaurant, and my poor son stood in the bathroom crying because he couldn’t figure out how to flush the toilet and he was too embarrassed to walk away without finishing the job. We had to send someone in to “rescue” him!

Everything is LOUD.

When we were overseas, I couldn’t understand the language being spoken around me. When you don’t understand the language, it’s really easy for the sounds of people talking to just become background noise–you tune it out. When we got home, it felt like I had some sort of superhuman ability to hear everything. All of a sudden, I could understand all the noise around me again, and it took some time for me to be able to block out that noise. It was overwhelming for the first couple weeks!

You’ll be homesick…for a country that isn’t home.

We’ve been back two years now, and I still ache for Germany. It hits me at the most unexpected times. Around Easter, I want to go back for Spargle season. In the summer, I can’t stop thinking about all the festivals. At Christmastime, I’d sell my soul for a Christmas market. I can’t stop thinking about it!

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Things go back to the way they were.

While living in Germany, I was determined to make sure we could travel (a lot!) and not rack up a huge amount of debt. In order to balance the budget, we didn’t have television service, or smart phones. The TV was almost never on, and I learned to function with an small, emergency-only cell phone. No one could reach me, and I was never distracted from the moment. It was magical. We also shopped at farmers markets instead of the grocery store, and almost never ate out.

When we came home, I was determined to stay unplugged, and stay healthy. Lets just say the iPhone and Panda Express won in the end. I’m still a little disappointed in myself.

Everything changes.

I struggled a bit with how much everything changed at home. We have a large family, and I wasn’t able to afford a trip back to my hometown for all of us, so after four years, I finally flew to San Diego to see my family. When I arrived, my favorite ice cream shop from my childhood was closed. The house was older. The people were older. I was different, too. Things didn’t fit together the way they once did. I no longer felt like I belonged there, and I didn’t belong in Germany. Everything was different.

Living overseas is magical and exhilarating, filled with places to explore, and memories to make. Coming back home is a little different, as you can see.

Have you ever had a hard time adjusting back to living in the United States after OCONUS orders?

HeatherPosted by Heather Aliano, Social Media Manager

Moving OCONUS with Pets: How Hard Could it Be?

“It’s cheaper to ship our car than it is to ship our dogs,” I relayed to my husband as we finalized preparations for our move overseas. New kennels and veterinary visits for mandatory health certificates, along with their airfare added up to just over $3,000. Our car could have made the trip for about $1,200.

Not all military families will face a bill quite so steep. Our move was stressful enough for me, between inaccurate information from the transportation office, booked flights on carriers that never accept pets as luggage, and driving our dogs to an airport with an airline that would get them overseas, then trying to connect my family back to our original government purchased airfare, it’s safe to say, we’d been through the ringer.

We have two dogs, both too big to transport in either the cabin, or as luggage on US flagged carriers. This meant they’d have to fly as cargo. The contracted airline for our move overseas never transports pets, so the dogs couldn’t travel on the same aircraft as us (typically a less expensive option). Further complicating the process is the fact that fewer US flagged carriers will even accept pets on board these days.

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Options are even more limited in the summer months (peak PCS season). Generally speaking, if temperatures exceed 80 degrees, pets can’t fly. What’s a military family to do? Our pets are a valued part of our family—they’ve helped my children deal with the stress of moving, among other things. And handing them off to someone else because we can’t afford their airfare would be heartbreaking. So, we chose to pay the fees and bring our dogs along on our overseas adventure. However, not all families can do the same and are left to find a new home for their pets.

Moving back to the US, we face a similar challenge. There’s not much information for pet owners. We haven’t been able to figure out if pets can fly unaccompanied as long as they’re met by someone in the destination city. I’ve been trying to connect with Ramstein AFB, but they keep referring me to their online brochure, which doesn’t give us any answers. Most families are getting their information from local Facebook groups. The question of flying pets unaccompanied is one that comes up over and over for military families, and for our family, has truly been one of the most stressful aspects of moving overseas.

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So, we’ve decided to get our dogs back to the States ahead of our move (thanks Mom and Dad!), but now must decide how we go about making it happen.

We have the option of using a professional pet shipper, who will collect our dogs and get them loaded as cargo on a flight out of Brussels. We could play “Space-A roulette” out of Ramstein when it’s time for our entire family to fly back to the states, or one of us can make the drive to Amsterdam to fly KLM Royal Dutch Airlines, with the dogs traveling as luggage (KLM has a higher weight limit than any US flagged carrier).

I’m not sure which option we’ll select, but the kennels have been hauled out of storage and the dogs know something is up. Our dogs are members of the family, and leaving them behind is not an option. And, these days, affordable transportation doesn’t seem to be an option, either.

Have you moved overseas with a pet? What tips could you share?

Posted by Kelly Henry, National Military Family Association Volunteer

Survive and Thrive: Belgium!

“It sure is going to be hot this week,” I remarked to my children as I looked at the 10 day forecast.

“It’s going to be in the 70’s all week long.”

Mind you, it was July. That’s when it hit me: I had fully acclimated to life in Belgium. What did it take to get me there? Lots of patience and a willingness to explore.

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An assignment to Belgium is not like most other OCONUS tours. My spouse is assigned to the NATO base here, and while there is an American flag proudly waving near the front gate, it is part of a semi-circle of NATO flags – it doesn’t stand alone. We use Euros, rather than dollars, on the installation. Our children attend the Department of Defense Dependents School (DoDDS) alongside children from all over NATO. Our coffee shop is full of folks chattering away in many languages (although, it now proudly serves Starbucks coffee!). There is no mistaking that you are living outside of the US.

So what can make the transition to Belgium easier? Here are my top 5 tips:

  1. Bring an umbrella and some good rain gear. It rains nearly every other day here so I keep an umbrella in my purse, in my car, and one at home by the front door.
  2. Prepare to enjoy some amazing food. Our first stop with visitors from home is nearly always lunch at a cafe along the Brussels Grand Place followed by a stroll to check out the Mannequin Pis while enjoying a warm Belgian waffle loaded with whipped cream and fresh strawberries. Delicious.
  3. Learn some French. While there are three official languages in Belgium, the NATO base is in the French speaking part of the country. English is not as widely spoken here as it is near other overseas US bases. And your hopeful, “Parlez-vous anglais?” may be met with a very firm, “Non!”
  4. Bring your spirit of adventure. Not only have we been able to explore many wonderful sites in Belgium, we have also been able to travel to France, the Netherlands, Germany, the United Kingdom, Italy, Spain, and Sweden. Belgium is a great jumping off point for travel anywhere in Europe.
  5. Bring your patience. Most stores are closed on Sundays (some on Mondays, too). Restaurant meals are leisurely affairs; your waiter is not going to be working hard to turn the table, but you may be working hard to get the bill so you can leave after two or three hours. Travel along country roads requires a much more sedated speed than zipping along an American highway. You don’t want to speed over cobblestones!

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Our tour in Belgium is rapidly coming to a close, and while we are eager to return to the US where we can be near family and friends, we will miss living in Europe. Our college student is already planning a semester abroad and exploring career options that will allow her to live overseas. If that comes to pass, she can be sure that we will be visiting – often!

Have you ever been stationed in Belgium? What are your tips?

kelly-hPosted by Kelly Henry, National Military Family Association Volunteer

7 Reasons the Commissary is Better Than Walmart

I’m just going to say this now: the commissary is better than Walmart.

If you’re like the majority of military families who live on or near a military installation, you know there’s always one constant: the commissary. No matter where you go, you know you can count on there being a commissary, even worlds away from the United States.

As a kid, I remember trips to the commissary with my babysitter, a retired military spouse. It was the best day because there were always booths set up to taste test things. So, while my babysitter shopped, we’d run through the store tasting all the snacks. It was a military grocery store version of Epcot’s World Showcase. But with florescent lights.

When I married a service member, taking advantage of the commissary was something I looked forward to. I learned the in’s and out’s, like avoiding the commissary on payday, and making sure to tip the baggers

Don’t get me wrong: in a bind, I’ll swing by Walmart, but let me tell you why I love the commissary so much more:

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Baggers. This sounds lazy, but I love the baggers. I love that they push my cart to my car and help me unload my grocery bags. And did you know they work only for tips? Many of them are military dependents or retirees, so giving them a few bucks to deal with my awkward conversations as we walk to my car seems like the least I can do. They’re working hard for the money!

Great selection. I really love that commissaries offer such a variety of products, even international. If you’re like my friend, Heather, who lived in Germany for a few years with her service member, you start to miss those international foods, like Mezzo Mix. But check your commissary to see if they have it in stock. Maybe you’re an all-American foodie? There’s 15 different selections of ketchup for your taste buds to enjoy. I called Walmart near my house to check…they only carry 8. Boom. Winning.

Case lot sales. It’s when the commissary turns into your very own Sam’s Club, or Costco. Twice a year, stateside commissaries put out the best-selling items at lower prices. What’s better? Use those coupons to score an even better deal.

It’s cheaper. It just is. As someone who loves a good steak, I go to the commissary to buy meat. Two New York Strips at Walmart costs me between $16-$21. At the commissary? $12-$14. Most military families will save 30% at commissaries, and one military spouse recognizes the savings, “As a family of 5, I cut coupons like crazy and shop at the commissary. Off post, with the coupons, it is still not affordable!”

There are scholarships. Did you know this was a thing? I didn’t either until I joined the NMFA team. Each year, generous manufacturers and suppliers whose products are sold at military commissaries worldwide help fund scholarships that are given out at each location operated by the Defense Commissary Agency (even OCONUS). In the 15 years these scholarships have existed, nearly $14 million dollars have been awarded to military children.

Comradery. This might seem silly, but I’m one of those people who always feels a sense of pride when I go anywhere on base (except the pharmacy, because patience is limited). When I’m at the commissary and I see a service member in uniform with their family, it puts a smile on my face because I know we’re all this military thing together. These people understand my life, and I feel like we’re all a little family. And I’m proud of that family.

The “dress code.” This one speaks for itself. And although there are differing opinions about the commissary’s dress code (and not all have one), I’m all for it. Mostly. I live in workout clothes these days, so I know I’m breaking the rules at some commissary somewhere, but the alternative has the potential to ruin your day. I’m talking to you, tan leggings lady at Walmart. We’ve all seen the People of Walmart website.

When I think about the crazy ride that military life can be, I always seem to feel ahead of the game when I can locate the commissary at a new installation. I can be guaranteed these seven reasons will make my grocery shopping a little more bearable (because I absolutely dread it).

What does your military family love about the commissary?

shannonPosted by Shannon Prentice, Content Development Manager

Christmas in Senegal: Paper Trees and Mandarin Oranges

As a young child celebrating Christmas, I associated the holidays with cold weather and the hope for snow. We would be among the first to buy our freshly cut Christmas tree and decorate it with lights and ornaments. My mom made fancy Christmas dresses for our special candlelight Christmas Eve service. Christmas Day, we would bundle up and trek over to my grandparents for food and presents. For years, these memories were as familiar and comfortable as my favorite winter coat.

When I turned 13, my holiday experience changed in a big way. My parents and I moved to West Africa to do mission work. Little was familiar and I would soon be learning to appreciate holiday memories in a new way.

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I remember our first holiday season in Africa, like it was yesterday. It was a balmy 104 degrees, and instead of a Christmas tree, we had a paper tree plastered on the wall. In place of a fancy dress, I wore shorts and a tank top.  It was Christmas-time, but everything in me resisted the change.

I cried a lot that first Christmas. Maybe it was the sad paper tree, or maybe it was because I wasn’t around my siblings, grandparents, and extended family. Maybe it was because I just wanted peanut M&Ms that didn’t arrive half-eaten by rats. I simply missed the comforts of home.

But even though it didn’t feel like what I thought the holidays should feel like, I came to embrace my new “holiday” normal. With my brother, sister, and our entire extended family on the other side of the world, my parents and I created new and different holiday traditions. Families that didn’t fly state-side for the holidays, came together and merged into one, big “family” unit comprised of friends and stragglers. We didn’t have snow, but we had the beach. And I was actually starting to enjoy this!

My favorite past-time during the holidays became sunbathing on our empty school campus in Dakar, Senegal, while reading through Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time series, and eating mandarin oranges by the dozens. To this day, mandarin oranges are the #1 thing I think of during Christmas-time.

Military families often have to adjust their holiday traditions because of PCS moves or deployments, and I know it can be hard. Even though the latter part of my childhood was spent overseas away from family, I am so grateful for the experience and hope to give my own children the same opportunity. Who knew paper trees and mandarin oranges could create such a special holiday memory?

What’s your favorite holiday memory? Have you had to adjust any traditions because of a military move?

hannahPosted by Hannah Pike, Communications Deputy Director

No Hum-Bugs Allowed! Everything You Need to Know About European Christmas Markets!

We live in a highly politically correct society. Growing up, Christmas parties were the norm in grade school. Today, you can barely get away with having a “Holiday Party” or a “Winter Social.”  On the other hand, most of America is upset about a red cup at Starbucks.

To be completely honest, I don’t get too bent up about what words to use (despite being a writer!), and I’m adult enough to respect other people’s ways of life.

However, since moving to Germany, Christmas has taken on a whole new life of it’s own for me!

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Christmas Markets
If you are currently stationed in Europe, you’ve probably started hearing the buzz of the famous Christmas Markets…and for good reason!

Despite not even needing to be Christian to absolutely love and enjoy these delightful markets, the name still remains the same as it has for hundreds of years. Depending on where you are, it may vary, but it all means the same, “Christmas Markets.”

Here in Germany, locals, service members, and tourists, alike, all go nuts for the annual Weinacht or KristKindles Markt. You could be a direct descendant of Scrooge himself, yet somehow, attending any market will surely put you in a jolly mood!

Have you ever walked into a room and just felt an electricity in the air? This is what Christmas Markets are like! The smell of pine in the air, the most beautifully handcrafted items, food so delicious and, of course, Glühwein, the seasonal mulled wine, all create this magical feeling. It’s as if there is a “No Hum-Bugs Allowed” rule in the market vicinity!

Whether you are stationed in Germany, Italy, England, or elsewhere in Europe, your country is sure to have their own versions of Christmas Markets, with the same, general theme of putting anyone in a good mood and serving up delicious food and drinks–all with an enchanting Christmas theme.

Shopping
Do you dread Christmas shopping? While many markets may have similar items, each market often has some unique and amazing items for sale. This makes holiday shopping a blast! Plus, who doesn’t love drinking warm wine while window shopping and looking at beautifully crafted items!? Your friends and family back home will love receiving thoughtful gifts from the foreign country you are living in, instead of the typical gifts we often receive that don’t have a unique touch.

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Culture
The Christmas markets are also perfect opportunities to learn more about your local culture as well. Each country has their own versions of Santa, and the kids are sure to have a great time seeing the beautiful costumes and learning about the legends and traditions.

So, whether this is your first year stationed in Europe, or your fifth, like us, you’ll never get tired and bored of these magical markets. Go find a local one, or even make a trip of it and explore some of the world’s largest and oldest (Dresden, Nurnberg, Strasbourg) and most enchanting Christmas markets this year.

Some popular markets to attend are:
Germany: Dresden, Nurnberg and Koln
France: Strasbourg, Colmar and Lille
Italy: Verona, Balzano and Trento
UK: Winchester Cathedral, Caerphilly and Liverpool

Planning on going to a Market in Germany?  See what other tips and places the EconomicalExcursionists suggest while in Deutschaland!

Have you ever been to a Christmas Market in Europe? Which was your favorite?

LeAnna Brown currently doesn’t know what she wants to be when she grows up, so to delay major life decisions, her and her husband, Andy, have decided to move to Europe and travel the world via Travel Hacking. After almost 40 countries down in four years and only a few thousand dollars spent a year on travel, they have learned to penny-pinch their way to a bare minimalist lifestyle to help them see and appreciate the world. Read more about their close-to-free travel adventures at EconomicalExcursionists.com, or join in with the EE community on the Facebook page.