Tenured!

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After Flag Day and Swearing-In Day, the next most memorable day in a Foreign Service Officer's career is the date he or she TENURED. 

So what is "tenure"? As one of my friends jokingly stated, "Short of punching your boss in the face, you can't be fired." But as in university/academia world, tenure in the Foreign Service means job security. When Entry Level Officers (ELOs) join the Foreign Service, they are hired on a probationary status as limited-appointment, career "CANDIDATES".  ELOs who fail to achieve tenure within 5 years of joining the Foreign Service are separated from the service. About 5% of FSOs fail to get tenure for one reason or another.

Last Saturday morning, I was awoken by my phone buzzing, alerting me to a new incoming email or diplomatic cable. After waiting for more than four years for this news, here it was. The subject line in bold capital letters read: "RESULTS OF THE SUMMER 2014 TENURE BOARD".  I was too nervous to immediately open the e-mail. So after some strong coffee and mentally preparing ourselves, Mrs. Crab and I opened the email together. And scrolled and scrolled and scrolled until there it was, my name in all caps. Tenured baby!

I won't bore you with the specific requirements for obtaining tenure, but you can read it yourself in the Foreign Affairs Manual: 3 FAM 2240.  But here's the summary from the State Department website: 

"The sole criterion for a positive tenuring decision will be the candidate’s demonstrated potential, assuming normal growth and career development, to serve effectively as a Foreign Service Officer over a normal career span, extending to and including class FS-01."

Technically, I've only been "recommended" for tenure. It's not official until we receive U.S. Senate confirmation. And given the lightning speed and bipartisan cooperation shown by our congress lately, it will likely be many many months before we're commissioned as career FSOs. The next step is promotion from FS-4 (ELO) to FS-3 (mid-career status).

The Foreign Service is my THIRD career (after the military and journalism). I absolutely LOVE my FS job and my consular career track. I intend to make the FS my career, and hopefully have a long & fruitful career in the Foreign Service or until I'm hauled away kicking and screaming at age 65 (mandatory retirement age). 


Our First Year in Korea

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Yesterday, the Two Crabs marked our one year anniversary in Korea! We're bummed that our tour is already half over (time flies when you're having fun!) -- but we're looking forward to another year of exploring Korea (and more of Asia) with friends and colleagues!

Highlights of Year 1:

  • Hiking and camping in Korean national parks (Seoraksan, Odaesan and Bukhansan!); 
  • Skiing the slopes of Yongpyong  Phoenix Park -- the main venues for the 2018 Winter Olympic.
  • 3-day ski trip to High 1 Ski resort with 30 colleagues & friends.
  • Weekend bike rides along the Han river, and stopping for drinks and ramen noodles at the many waterfront 7-Elevens!
  • Chillaxin with friends at Doosan Bears Korean baseball games (nothing says baseball like beer, dried squid, fried chicken and cheerleaders!)
  • Exploring the back alleys of Seoul's traditional Hanok villages and markets.
  • Business trips to Busan and Daegu with time to explore.
  • Partying with 10,000 other Koreans and foreigners at the Boryeong Mud Festival (where we were by far the oldest party people).
  • Eating at countless Korean BBQ restaurants (Korean food = AWESOME), and stumbling on great international restaurants.
  • Sampling Korean street food at Namdaemun market.
  • Sampling Korean craft beer and soju...and the occasional Cass swill.
  • Cheap work lunches at hole-in-the-wall restaurants with food that's better than any Korean food we've ever had in the States.
  • Escorting Vice President Biden to the DMZ.
  • Meeting Sec. John Kerry.
  • Working with White House staff during President Obama's visit.
  • Hosting our first overseas guests, Angelina from San Fran and Sarah from Stuttgart!
  • Using my limited Korean language skills to find a toilet, hotel or order food.
  • Growing our own tomatoes, salad, watermelons, green beans and veg in our backyard garden (all Mrs. Crab's doing).
  • Hosting some funtastic backyard BBQs at our home.
  • FLEISCHFEST. 'Nuff said.
  • Making many great Korean and Foreign Service friends and working with the most awesome Consular team ever.

 

Here's to another great year in Seoul!


What does an ACS Consular Officer do?

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When my mom, friends or family ask me what we do for work, I just tell them, "we help Americans abroad". That's the simple answer to the complex work undertaken by consular officers at more than 200 US Embassies and consulates around the world. So while many people still think a consular officer just stamps passports all day long, it's a lot more than that.

Consular Officers fall under the authority of the Department of State's Bureau of Consular Affairs (CA).

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Mission Statement of Consular Affairs:

Safety. Security. Service. Our highest priority is to protect the lives and interests of U.S. citizens overseas. We do this through routine and emergency services to Americans at our embassies and consulates around the world. We serve our fellow citizens during their most important moments – births, deaths, disasters, arrests, and medical emergencies.

Consular work is divided into several specialities, the main ones being American Citizen Services (ACS), Non-Immigrant Visas (NIV), Immigrant Visas (IV) and Fraud Prevention (FPU). At a smaller embassy or consulate, one person may be doing all of the above jobs. But at a larger embassy, there are often separate ACS, NIV, IV and FPU sections, some with dozens of employees. 

For nearly a year, Mr. & Mrs. Crab have both been working in the ACS Section of Embassy Seoul. Mr. Crab is a Consular Officer, while Mrs. Crab is a Consular Associate, an EFM (Eligible Family Member) job that has almost all the same powers and responsibilities as an officer.

As the name implies, ACS deals specifically with American citizens (known as "AmCits" in our field) living, working or traveling through our consular district. The most visible part of the job are the "routine" passport services we provide such as issuing and renewing US Passports, extra visa pages, notarizing documents, and issuing Consular Reports of Birth Abroad (CRBA) for our newest little citizens. Routine services also includes renunciations and relinquishment of U.S. citizenship. In Seoul, we provide routine consular services at the embassy, and also at other major Korean cities and US military bases around Korea as part of our outreach services. 

Behind the scenes is the other half of ACS work: Special Citizen Services, or SCS. These are the most difficult and challenging cases that a consular officer will handle during their career including arrest, hospitalization or death of Americans, victims of crime including rape and sexual assault, destitute or homeless Americans, domestic violence issues, international parental child abduction, missing people reports, deportations, transfer of AmCit prisoners, etc. Many of these cases are further complicated if the individual is mentally ill or has substance abuse problems. The most unpleasant task I've had to do is call an American in the United States and deliver the bad news that their child, parent or loved one has died overseas; it never gets any easier.

If an American becomes an embassy "SCS case" - it's rarely good news. That said, SCS cases can also be the most rewarding, i.e. successfully repatriating a sick or destitute American and reuniting families. And sometimes, SCS cases can be the most entertaining - our fellow Americans get themselves into all manners & sorts of trouble overseas - some of them truly unbelievable! A sense of humor is an absolute must for working in Consular! And, yes, it's true - consular officers have the best stories. 

Apart from routine and SCS cases, we also spend a lot of time on special projects, such as writing and disseminating information to Americans via our monthly newsletters or social media, meeting with local contacts, visiting hospitals, homeless shelters, hostels as potential resources for Americans who need help in Korea. As Voting Officer, I also work to encourage Americans abroad to register to vote by absentee ballot. We also plan and train for the worst case scenario: evacuation of Americans in times of crisis such as war or natural disaster. Consular Officers can also expect to take assist with VIP visits (President Obama, Vice President Biden and Secretary of State Kerry have all visited Seoul in the past 6 months). 

So that's an ACS Officer's duties and responsibilities in a nutshell. It can be challenging and frustrating, but my work in ACS has been the best and most rewarding job I've done. 


Camping & Hiking Seoraksan National Park

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A few weeks ago, the Two Crabs took our second camping trip in South Korea. This time, we went to Seoraksan National Park to take in the autumn colors. Having learned our lesson the hard way, this time we left Seoul on Sunday morning, camped overnight, and returned to Seoul on Monday afternoon, which happened to be an American holiday. What a difference a day makes. There was ZERO traffic...Seoul to Seoraksan was barely 2 hours, 15 minutes drive...our last coast-to-coast trip on a Sunday afternoon took 6 hours!  

We arrived at Seoraksan campground about 10am. Everyone was packing up and leaving for the weekend, so we had our pick of campsites. Most of the folks who remained Sunday night were other Americans enjoying the U.S. holiday. (You can always spot the Americans; they are the ones with REI tents!)  The campground here was much nicer than the place we stayed in Odaesan NP. The sites were larger, many with shade and grassy spots, and plenty of restrooms and camp kitchens. The campsite was about 3x larger than Odaesan so no shortage of space for tent campers.  

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Directly across the street from the campground entrance is a bus stop. Hop on any bus for the 3 mile journey to the park entrance. The bus stops at a Minbak village that is lined with restaurants, hotels, and shops selling very basic camping gear. Good thing too, because Mr. Crab FORGET HIS HIKING SHOES!  All I had were flip-flops! So I had to shell out $30 to buy a cheap pair of hikers.

With our kit ready, we headed into the park. Our goal was to hike 800+ meters straight up to Ulan Bawi (Ulan Rock), one of Korea's most famous mountain peaks. This hike is not for the faint of heart, especially if you have any fear of heights. You'll see why in a minute.

The first half of the hike is relatively tame, passing by a giant Buddha statue, some temples, and a few mom & pop restaurants serving snacks and cold beer.

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When you reach the steps, get ready. Here comes the hard part! Nearly 1km straight up, and the last .4km is a real killer.

IMG_5179The path is a feat of marvel engineering, with staircases built straight into the rock face. Hard to imagine somebody had to haul all this equipment up here!

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The reward: Ulan Bawi (Ulan Rock), with its 360-degree views of the surrounding countryside. Face east, and you can see straight out to the coastline and the Sea of Japan.

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It was about a 2 hour hike to the top.  After only a brief stop to enjoy the views, it was time to head back to make sure we got to the bottom before dark. It was quite dusk by the time we got to the bottom, then caught the bus back to our campsite for a nice campfire and dinner on the grill. 

Incidentally, there are two things you should know about camping in Korea: there are NO HOT SHOWERS. Only ice-cold, military barrack-style communal shower rooms. So unless it's the middle of summer or you truly enjoy taking ice baths with 20 other strangers, you might want to think twice. The other complaint about camping is the sites never have picnic tables. We ended up placing our camp stove on the ground. Cooking on your knees is not easy, so we may have to invest in a little REI folding table. 

WARNING: Rated PG-13 photo below. 

Although we enjoy taking the train, sometimes driving is just easier. By driving, you get exposed (pun intended) to some very interesting Korean roadside attractions. Case in point: Penis Park Rest Stop. Yes, you read that correctly. Actually, it's called Chungjung Sculpture Park. It's located on the road to Seoraksan, about two miles east of where Expressway 60 becomes Route 44. It's part sculpture garden, part highway rest stop. Along with the usual rest stop trinkets, you can also buy green ceramic celedon sculptures, coffee mugs, desk ornaments, and much more!

Ok, here's the rated PG-13 photos. You've been warned!

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In praise of ... biking in Seoul

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Mr. & Mrs. Crab share an common love for biking. When we lived in London, Mrs. Crab commutted to work daily by bike along Regent's Canal. And back in Arlington, Mr. Crab commutted daily to FSI (Foreign Service Institute), uphill both ways. So we were thrilled to learn that Seoul is a very cycle-friendly city. So we sent our bikes in UAB. 

One of the great pastimes and pleasures of living in Seoul is biking. There are hundreds of miles of bike trails in South Korea. You can even bike from Seoul to Busan on the southern tip of Korea in about 4 days, most of it along off-road, paved bike trails.

In Seoul, a 25-mile long bike trail runs along the north and south banks of the Han River. Compared to DC, the bike trails in Seoul have wide "Kramer Lanes!" Even better, there is a separate trail for joggers, walkers and mums with dogs & prams, so no worries about cyclists dodging pedestrians. The trial is lined with extra-curricular activities like outdoor gyms, picnic areas, restrooms, and buskers (street musicians) performing at the many outdoor amphitheaters along the trail. Parts of the north bank is covered by a freeway, shading riders from the blazing Seoul summer sun.

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 The best bit about biking in Korea? Seven-11!  Along the north banks of the Han River, you'll see a handful of Seven-11 convenience stores. Unlike in America, Seven-11s in Asia are more like neighborhood bars & cafes. Many have outdoor table areas where you can enjoy cheap beer, coffee, ice cream, ramen noodles and other snacks.

First-time bikers will not feel out-of-place. Bikers in Korea come in all ages, shapes & sizes. You'll see everyone from cyclists in full professional kit, families in shorts & t-shirts and even folks carrying dogs in their baskets! Also, crime in Korea is extremely low, so no need to worry if your bike will still be there when you return.

We have one major pet peeve about biking in Korea: Korean bikers do not follow standard biking etiquette such as giving audible warnings when passing. In DC or London, you'll get an earful if you fail to ring your bell or yell "on your left" when passing. In Seoul, Lance Armstrong-wannabes have no qualms about flying past you within inches and cutting you off. But then there are other bikers who you can hear coming from afar because they are blaring music via speakers attached to their handlebars! 

A few more scenes of biking in Seoul:

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3 weeks in Seoul

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It's already been three weeks since the Two Crabs landed in South Korea. Three whirlwind weeks of in-processing, learning new jobs, setting up our new home, meetin new friends & colleagues, trying new foods, and exploring our neighborhood.

Despite the short time on the ground, we are already feeling very welcomed here. Even Habibi the cat has settled in quite well. Hopefully it's not just a honeymoon phase, but we really love Korea! The food, the people, the sights and sounds, culture and more.

We live on a U.S. Army post, a situation that takes a bit of getting used. But as the Two Crabs are U.S. Army veterans, we feel right at home! More on that later.

One of the best decisions we made was bringing our bikes in UAB. Although Seoul can be as hilly as San Francisco, Seoul is quite a bikeable city. As Thursday was a Korean holiday (Liberation Day), the Two Crabs spent the day exploring the Han River bike path, which is lined by waterfront picnic areas, restrooms, outdoor gyms and Seven-11s serving cheap beer, ice cream and ramen noodles -- with a view! 

A few images of our first days in Seoul:

  Gwanghwamun Square, with statue of Admiral Yi, who opened up a can of whoop ass against the Japanese Imperial Navy in 1597.
Gwanghwamun Square, with statue of Admiral Yi, who opened up a can of whoop ass against the Japanese Imperial Navy in 1597.
Gwanghwamun Square, with statue of Admiral Yi, who opened up a can of whoop ass against the Japanese Imperial Navy in 1597.

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Gwanghwamun Square, with statue of Admiral Yi, who opened up a can of whoop ass against the Japanese Imperial Navy in 1597.
Gwanghwamun Square, with statue of Admiral Yi, who opened up a can of whoop ass against the Japanese Imperial Navy in 1597.

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Funky Starbucks in Itaewon

 

 


Have Cat, Will Travel: The good, bad & ugly of traveling abroad with pets

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(VERY long post. Skip if you don't have pets!)

Habibi the world travelin' kitty has arrived safely in Seoul, and adjusting to his new home quite nicely!  However, his journey from Washington to South Korea was not the most pleasant experience, for kitty and owners alike. 

A bit of background: we adopted Habibi during our first tour in Bahrain. When we returned to DC for training, Mrs. Crab and Habibi traveled from Bahrain to DC via Amsterdam on KLM - by far the best pet shipping experience to date. Kitty was even fed, watered and walked at the Pet Hotel in Amsterdam. The total cost was about 400 Euros. 

Flash forward to 2013. We began making preparations to export kitty several months in advance. This required a rabies titer test and a complete physical about 6 months before we departed. The most difficult task was finding an airline that would agree to ship Kitty in July; most airlines have very strict pet embargoes during summer months. Some airlines like Delta won't ship pets if the temperature is over 85F degrees at departure or arrival city. Other airlines won't ship pets at all between May and August. The only American carrier that would agree to fly Kitty was United Airlines, via their new PetSafe program. The itinerary was further complicated by the fact that we had to stop in San Francisco for some meetings en route to Seoul. 

United introduced PetSafe about a year ago, and since then, it's been rife with problems. Our relationship PetSafe began about four months before departure. Mrs. Crab booked a reservation for Habibi. However, depending on what day you called and who you spoke to, the total cost quote varied from $559 to $997. PetSafe reps were very confused over their own PetSafe company policy. The few reps who had even heard of the Foreign Service did not understand that State Department employees on government travel orders receive the same benefits as active duty military. On several calls, they attempted to charge us twice for each leg of our itinerary (WRONG: USG employees on orders pay a flat rate, IF the stopover is listed on travel orders). PetSafe reps also had little knowledge of operating procedure at airports. Some reps said we had to drop off or pick up Kitty at airport cargo warehouse (WRONG: State employees can drop off at the terminal check-in desk).  

Flash forward to July 2013. Ten days before traveling, Habibi had to get one final physical to confirm he was healthy enough to travel. The vet's documents had to be validated by the U.S. Department of Agriculture pet office in Richmond, Virginia, which required us to take a day trip down to the capital because Richmond is the only office that handles pet export documents for DelMarVa, DC & WVa.  

On the morning of July 19, we arrived three hours early at Washington Dulles Airport (IAD) for our flight to San Francisco. The United staff were friendly and sympathetic but completely unaware of the PetSafe policy or rates. The United staff called PetSafe's headquarters helpline and spent an hour on the phone, most of that time on hold, to clarify the rates and our elegibility for military benefits. We were finally allowed to pay the flat original rate of $559. However, nobody ever mentioned that we also had to pay $113 in taxes and handling fees, for a total cost of $702!  

After finally sorting everything out, we were instructed to take the cat & carrier to the TSA bag drop area. This place was a madhouse. The TSA officer told us we would have to take the cat out of the carrier so they could Xray the carrier. Habibi was cared shitless, as passengers around us ran by, dumping suitcases, golf clubs and boxes right next to us without any consideration. But that was nothing compared to what happened next. A female TSA officer asked to touch the cat. We're thinking she just wants to pet him. Nope. She proceeded to feel up Habibi from head to tail, including his private kitty bits. Habibi looked horrified and shaking. To add insult to injury, we were instructed to put the shaking cat back in the carrier and never touch him or the carrier again. As we tried to calm the cat, the TSA lady barked at us, "STOP, DON'T TOUCH HIM. BACK AWAY FROM THE CARRIER." That was the last we saw of Habibi at Dulles airport.

On board the plane, Mrs. Crab refused to leave until we received confirmation that kitty was on board. The United flight attendants were very kind and understanding. About 5 minutes before we pushed out, a kind gentleman confirmed Habibi was on board and ready to fly.

About five hours later, we arrived at SFO (San Francisco). No one seemed to know where we could pick up Habibi. The United lost luggage staff had never even heard of PetSafe!  We walked around aimlessly trying to find out where to find our pet. Finally, a very nice gentleman from the SFO's odd sized baggage office took it upon himself to track down Habibi. He finally reached PetSafe's cargo office and arranged for them to deliver Habibi directly to us at the terminal. 

Cat in hand, we took a taxi to Embassy Suites Airport hotel. Only to be told upon arrival that they no longer accept cats, and demanded that we find a new hotel! Never mind that we reconfirmed our cat stay with their front desk several weeks before our arrival. Mrs. Crab demanded they either let us stay or find us a new hotel, at per diem rates, on a busy weekend at the height of SanFran tourist season. By the time we reached our room, they called back and informed us they would make a special exception and would allow us to stay with kitty. Do NOT stay at Embassy Suites Airport if you have a pet.

In preparation, Mrs. Crab called PetSafe to reconfirm that everything was sorted.  On the morning of July 24, we returned to SFO to catch our flight to Seoul. The experience at SFO compared to IAD was night and day. The United staff at SFO International Terminal were completely aware and knowledgeable about how to deal with pet shipping and PetSafe. The United staff escorted to us to a more private, less congested TSA screening area of the airport. There, the kind and considerate TSA agent asked us to take the cat out while he inspected the carrier. He never touched the cat, were allowed to place him back in the carrier and say our goodbyes. Once we were on board, the flight attend even handed us a little card, confirming that Habibi was on board! 

Twelve hours later, we arrived in Seoul. Our sponsor walked us over to baggage claim, where we were presented with a DOG!  After some confusion, they brought out Habibi, who appeared a bit confused but no worse for the wear. We then walked over to the pet inspection station, where the attendant looked over his records and verified his microchip. We were in & out of the airport within 30 minutes. 

All in all, Habibi is fine. He's adjusting quite nicely to our new home in Seoul.

Every employee we dealt with at United and PetSafe were actually very kind folks and were clearly pet lovers. So it's not the staff thats the issue. All the problems at United & PetSafe seems to boil down to a lack of training and lack of dissemination of information. The right hand doesn't know what the left hand is doing. We appreciate that UA is now extending military benefits to Foreign Service employees. But UA & PetSafe would do great by better informing and training its staff, especially with regards to company policies.

If you're flying abroad with a pet, do not wait until the last minute. Start planning several months in advance. Keep calling and confirming everything. Take note of the times, dates and name of person you speak with each time. At the airport, bring copies of all your orders, and details of your conversations with PetSafe & United. And of course, make sure your pup or kitty is prepared, especially if they are nervous travelers. It's not easy or cheap to move abroad with a pet. But at the end of the day, our pets are part of our household.  

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We're in Korea!

IMG_4037The Two Crabs have arrived at our new home in Seoul, South Korea! Slightly jet-lagged (typing this entry at 4am) but no worse for the wear. Our house is slightly smaller than our second place in Bahrain, but feels a lot more cozy. Our kitty has adjusted very well, although the trip here for Habibi was not exactly pleasant (more on that in our next blog entry). 

Folks might be surprised to learn that we are living on a US Army base. Mr. & Mrs Crab are both prior Army so we are not unfamiliar with military life. But it's kind of a strange existance. We are civilians but living the military lifestyle!  This base is HUGE. It's little America with movie theaters, bowling alleys, commissary, PX, American fast food places, everyone takes U.S. dollars and speaks English, and even our housing has 110-volt and U.S. plugs even though Korea is 220v with European-style plugs.  It's easy to see why some servicemembers serve their entire tour and never leave the base. But just 5 minutes outside our gate is another country. Hope to do some exploring this weekend, after we adjust to the time zone!

On Monday, I start my new job. Wish me luck! 


PACK-OUT DAY!

Moving-day Today is Pack-Out Day!  Although Seoul will only be my second tour in the Foreign Service, this will be our FIFTH pack-out since joining DOS: London to DC; DC to Bahrain; Bahrain to Bahrain (we were moved to a safer neighborhood due to deteriorating security situation); Bahrain to DC; and now DC to Seoul.  

After 5 moves, we almost have it down to a science. The most important challenge is figuring out what will go to Post and what will stay. And of the stuff going abroad, you need to decide what will go in UAB (Unaccompanied Air Baggage; arrives at Post within 2-3 weeks); HHE (Household Effects; usually goes by ship and can take 6-12 weeks); Washington storage; check-in luggage and carry-on bags. 

Our #1 moving tip: SEPARATE YOUR STUFF!  On our last tour we ended up shipping crap that should have stayed in storage, and stored stuff we could have used at Post. So now we separate everything (HHE/UAB/Storage/Plane) into different rooms. It's very time-consuming but so worth it.  

Full report to come!

CONGEN UPDATE: Mission Accomplished! I graduated ConGen yesterday with flying colors.  And I was named "Mr. ConGen-iality!" I'm not sure what job requirements or benefits come with this title, but I swear (or affirm) that I will serve with distinction. So help me, 214-B.

 


Have Orders, Will Travel!

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After several months of patiently waiting, the Two Crabs received our final travel orders!  

Travel Orders -- known as a "TM4" in State Department lingo -- is the single most important document you need (apart from a passport) in order to PCS (Permanent Change of Station).  The TM4 outlines the details of one's travel itinerary, and authorizes the department to spend money on an employee's move including airplane tickets, per diem, and shipping of HHE (Household Effects), UAB (Unaccompanied Air Baggage), POV (personally-owned vehicle) and DC storage. 

With the TM4 firmly in our hands, the end is now near! Last week we finalized our plane tickets and scheduled our pack-out dates. In less than a month, we will begin our journey to South Korea! First stop: San Francisco. More on that later...