The Great German Misadventure

So, you might be moving to Germany?  I blogged a little about our comings and goings when we first started out here.  A lot of things went wrong.  I am hoping to maybe give some insight in to our journey...in hopes that if someone else ends up with a confused & short timetable to get themselves overseas they don't run in to some of the mishaps that we ran in to!  (Oh, and warning, this is long.  I am not known for my brevity.)  ;)

Right from the start - we were never supposed to be in Germany.  My husband left for a brief training in Texas.  We were stationed at Fort Drum, NY at the time.  We knew after the training that he would receive additional training at a military medical facility of some kind & we tentatively knew it would be in TX or DC.  The information my husband had, had me preparing for a move right around the time school started - to DC.  A few short days after my husband arrived in Texas he called me.  There was a mix-up and he wouldn't be able to complete the course.  He had to renegotiate his re-enlistment.  Another day or so passed, and I got another call from my husband.  The mix-up was mixed up, and it turns out he was able to do the course, but now it was too late for him to start classes b/c he'd already missed several days worth of instruction.  He is offered several options to make up for the mistakes made up to this point and he chooses "choice of duty station".  He is a combat medic and went over the places that needed medics & decided to take a risk & ask for Germany, hoping if he gets turned down we don't get somewhere awful.

We get Germany.  I am over the moon with excitement!  This is a dream duty station for many, and we know a once in a lifetime offer.  See Europe!  Let the Army pay for it.  Fantastic!  Or so we thought.  Dun-dun-duuuun!

There was a lot to do in a short amount of time.  And hopefully I will be able to outline things here to give an idea of the things that need to be done.  The military is changing the way they do things all the time, so maybe as time goes on this may not all be relevant, and this won't apply to all branches.  My husband is in the Army, and the Army way is not the Air Force way...or any other way.

My husband was not home to do several briefings that would have introduced us to some of these concepts & preparations.  I ended up doing a lot of things on my own, without guidance.

Our family needed SOFA passports, or No-Fee-Passports.  You can get these by going to the passport office on post.  If you have children, BOTH parents must be present, OR you must have a notarized form from the missing parent (whether due to child custody issues or b/c like in my case - my husband was trapped in Texas).  The forms are available online.  The SOFA passport is not the same as your tourist passport (the one you pay for).  The SOFA has a stamp in it that is like a VISA, allowing you to live & work in the foreign nation with agreement from their gov't.  If you want to travel while you are out of the US, you will also need a tourist passport - that you pay for.  The SOFA is the one that is necessary for PCSing, focus on that one first.

We went through the EFMP process.  EFMP is the Exceptional Family Member Program.  Families enrolled in this program may have special needs or medical issues that cannot be met at every post they travel to.  As a member, their needs are considered before a new duty station is assigned.  (For example, if you use a wheelchair, then you will always need to live in a ground floor home, or have access to an elevator.  EFMP makes sure that you move to a post that can accommodate this.)  The overseas EFMP process is to ensure that family members will receive adequate care while outside the US.  It basically consists of a general well visit to ensure health.

For me, it meant a "well woman" including a PAP.  That's right.  The condition of my cervix is of the utmost importance to the US Army & Germany, too.  EUROPE NEEDS TO KNOW!!  ;)  A PAP can take a little bit of time if the test is sent off to a lab.  Mine WAS...and it was lost.  And then found.  Hooray!  I had my visit done at the post MTF, they send all their labs to Walter Reed.  Walter Reed closed the day my stuff should have arrived, which meant it was supposed to be rerouted to Bethesda.  It took a while to be sorted out, but obviously, it was done.  If you are short on time, you might shop around for a doctor who has labs handled locally...It might mean a call to Tricare to change your PCM, but this is done in minutes, usually without issue, right on the phone.  Just make sure the new doc can see you right away.

Since we are talking about medical stuff, I should point out that it might be a good idea to get a copy of any records you have at your local post to have on hand.  Make several copies.  Put one in HHG, give one to your husband, keep one for yourself...Hell, maybe send a set to your mother, JUST IN CASE.  All of our stuff was *supposed* to be "transferred" electronically, but nothing actually was.  It left me calling (from Germany to NY) my kids' pediatrician, having the documents mailed to my mother (in FL), she scanned them, then emailed them to me.

Your child's school may need to be dealt with.  She'll have to be unenrolled, they'll need to give you a packet of documents that will be sealed up, as if they are top secret documents.  Time this carefully...You don't want your child to miss too much school, and having time each day to do things with no kids around will be helpful at the end of the move.  Our move coincided with a short holiday - so this was her last day.  If your child's leaving school offered an online tutorship like IXL, you might keep your log in info & let your child use this from time to time to keep them sharp & to keep them from getting too far behind.  Our 2nd grader ended up being out of school for 2 full months.

Your service member will basically be walked through their own "prep" process - physicals, dental, outprocessing.  This will probably not be a new experience for them.  They'll turn in issued equipment, etc.  Their hand is practically held throughout the whole thing.  Focus your own energies on yourself, the kids, pets, & the house.

Moving to Germany you may have heard about the difference in electronics.  The US runs on 110v, and Germany runs on 220v.  The majority of appliances you have will be 110v.  Check them carefully (on the underside, or on the plug itself), b/c some products will surprise you. Dual volt TVs, hair straighteners, lamps, etc all exist in the US from time to time.  All these will require in Germany is a small adapter so that the metal prongs fit in to the sockets!  Adapters are fairly inexpensive...and available at the exchange.  You can bring 110v items & use them in the homes provided on the installation, the transformers are integrated into the wiring.  If you end up living "on the economy" you can also use a transformer to power your 110v items, but be careful, as this can end up being a major power suck!  Go through your things early.  You will have an option to store some home items while you are in Germany.  Think about this carefully - Do you love something enough to let it sit for 3-5 years & pick it back up when it's done?

Go through your house in general before TMO comes to pack up your things.  The service member will set up an appointment for TMO - plan this date so that you don't have to spend too many nights in a hotel, but can clear housing without a problem (as in, if you need to borrow a vacuum or mop from a friend to finish up any cleaning you aren't in danger of missing your flight).  If you are lucky & have several months to move...you can start purging items.  Old couch that might not survive the trip?  Let it go.  Boxes of baby items & you're youngest is 15 - go through it.  Decide what is absolutely a must-keep.  I pared the baby stuff down to a single box for both my girls.  Some clothes, some toys, a blanket or two.  I fit it in to one of those under-the-bed storage boxes.  (Unrelated to Germany, but relevant to moving:  If you have a flatbed scanner, you can lay baby items on the scanner & keep a favorite image or pattern.  You can also take photos of outfits - and then things are stored digitally, which takes up much less space.)

Sell what you can - things you may not be attached to and can still get a decent price on craigslist or at a yard sale.  Consider what time of the year you will be moving & whether or not clothing items will continue to fit the kids.  You will pack clothing in your suitcase - but not ALL clothing.  Most of it will be left in a shipping container for 2 months.  If spring has just started for you...and you don't move for 4-6 months, then it won't quite be winter yet when you arrive & you'll have to wait 2 more months for your HHGs to arrive.  Will those clothes you packed away even be wearable at that point?

The stores in Germany may not carry the kinds of styles & sizes that you are used to.  I ordered several pairs of jeans & some hoodies for myself before I left the US, knowing I would not find decent plus-sized items here.  Yes, the exchange carries these things, but the general consensus is...the styles & prices are not appropriate for clothes for everyday wear.  I do know of some stores for children's clothing...but I still do a lot of online shopping, many US retailers ship to APO boxes.

If you have a chance to send items ahead, take advantage!  If you have 2 cars, consider sending one ahead so it is waiting for you when you arrive.  Let the military pay to ship the larger vehicle, and you could pay to ship the smaller.  The alternative would be to sell one & use the cash to replace it when you get to Germany.  You can leave a few things in your car - mostly items that belong IN the car, including car seats.  Depending on your needs, you could also bring these on the plane (as checked baggage).  Brands & styles of carseats are limited here, you might also want to consider purchasing an upgrade to have on hand (if your child is in an infant carrier - buy the next size up, usually a convertible seat).

Items you might want to send ahead:

  • Pillows (buy a few extra before you leave for your HHG shipment, too...as replacements when these wear out).  The pillows in Germany are not the same as in the US, they won't fit your pillow cases.  And from experience, what we bought at the exchange when we arrived was awful - we had a choice between a crappy $10 pillow & a crappier $2 pillow.  Later, you can either do a search for good pillows, order them online from the US, or get a family member/friend to ship you some.  
  • Sheets for twin & double beds.  Go to Goodwill/Salvation Army if you don't have these sizes.  I know - who really wants to sleep on used sheets?  BUT...Wash & sterilize them really well & they will be all yours.  When you have temp furnishings from FMO, you will likely be given only twin or double sized items & you will have to provide your own sheets.  You don't want to buy the $25 sets at the exchange...b/c you might only use them for a few weeks.  To me, that was a waste.  I'd rather have paid a few dollars at Goodwill.  An alternative would be if you had a really great outlet store in your area - buy a few sets there if the price is good.  Don't forget a blanket for each member of the family - you can probably send your own ahead, as those don't necessarily need to be size specific.  
  • Towels.  You might end up needing these for temp lodgings, or if you have moved in to a house, but don't have your shipped items yet.  Making sure everyone has decent towels, wash cloths, hand towels & a bath mat.  They can feel like heaven when you're jet lagged!  Our first options here were also at the exchange - again, crappy quality, for too much money!
  • Basic bathroom items - Small waste basket (maybe grab a few of the cheap kind if you can get them for a deal), toilet brush (buy new, and send a clean one over), scrubby sponges/rags, soap dispenser.
  • Kitchen linens - sponges, dish towels, dish rags, maybe a large towel/mat for standing in front of the sink, possibly a small mop (maybe one that comes apart for easy packing), soap dispenser, maybe a drying rack for dishes.  A few plastic containers - like the reusable, but throwawayable ones.  (Don't worry about cups, plates, bowls, etc...You will get these from the lending closet.)
  • Laundry - laundry basket, bag, & drying rack.
Now, to explain why these things might be needed:  When you get to temp lodging you could end up in a small hotel room with a microwave & mini fridge...or you could end up in a larger place with a kitchenette.  We actually ended up in a 2 bedroom apartment (furnished).  Basics offered vary from place to place & you may go from temp housing to REAL housing without a chance to do much shopping.  When we left our temp lodging & started getting settled in our new house, we still did not have any of our HHGs.  Some people get housing (on post) right away.  Others rent sight-unseen (I don't recommend this) before they even get to Germany.  Which means you move in to a house with nothing right from the start.  All of the items I listed are things that you can get super cheaply in the US.  Most of the kitchen & bath items you can find at a local dollar store.  The other items can be found with good discounts, which are perfect for their temporary uses.  Also, if you have larger sheet sets at home, those would be good to use, too - as you can just tuck the excess under the mattress, keep in mind you still need SOME sheets at home before you leave - so this isn't always an option, which is why I suggest the purchase of alternatives.  It takes about 2 months for items to get to Germany from the US.  So...Send them AT LEAST that early.  I believe they can be stored for about 3 months.  When you first arrive, you usually have a 30 day time window to get in to a house.  FMO has to deliver your temp furnishings, and then that's it.  You're living in Germany.  You live with the temp stuff until your HHGs arrive.

Okay...So you've applied for your SOFA passports, you've submitted your paperwork to EFMP, you're slowly but surely purging your things & might even be ready to ship off some of your goods to be waiting for you when you get there.  If you have solid dates, you might check in to see if you can secure temp lodging.

Some units like to set it up FOR the incoming families, others want you to make your own accommodations.  Your sponsor can let you know.  If your sponsor is not helping you, find a way to get in touch with someone else in the unit/department & tell them!  ACS can also be a resource here, by getting you in touch with unit FRSAs.  Be sure you have checked with the Inn before making any other temporary lodging arrangements!  If they do not have available space for your incoming dates, get a letter of non-availability.  If you have pets, but cannot get a pet-friendly room, it doesn't matter - you will still be required to take the available room!  This could mean boarding your pet - at your own expense.  If the Inn is booked on your needed dates & you can get a statement of non-availability (often this can just be picked up when you arrive), then you might discuss with your sponsor where a good area to stay temporarily is.  Just b/c you come in to a certain place (for example - many people fly straight in to Ramstein terminal) doesn't mean you want to stay there.  When looking in to off post hotels/lodging talk to some people already in the local area about something that will be easy for your sponsor to get to, but might also offer some things like shopping or laundry facilities.

Find out if your sponsor could have a few grocery items ready when you get there (have cash handy to reimburse them).  Think about the staples your family can live off of for the first 24 hours.  Milk, bread, peanut butter & jelly, cereal, etc.  If you're arriving during the day your sponsor can just get you to the commissary so you can get your own items.  Your US money can be used here, as well as US bank/credit cards (notify your bank of the move so they do not suspend your card the first time you try to use it).  Consider what kind of temp lodging you're in - you may have to cut down on the number of cold items & use more shelf-stable items; peanut butter, tuna, canned chicken, bread, crackers, fruits, juice boxes, water bottles, UHT milks.  And if you have a way to heat water you can expand your temporary pantry with mac & cheese or various pasta/rice dishes.

Okay.  That gets you from one duty station to the next.  I'll hopefully have another page dedicated to house hunting & getting settled.  This is going to be a permanent page on my blog, so hopefully more easily accessibly than searching my blog history.  If anyone can think of anything I left out, leave me a comment, message me, send me an email, etc.

::Disclaimer::  We came to the KMC/Landstuhl community, so some things might be specific to our area.  I'd love to list major difference you've experienced in other communities - leave me a comment!  :)

Update:  If you're ready for the next step, head on over to this page to get some ideas on finding your house.

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