August 29, 2014

Be a Great Sponsor: Welcome Baskets

When we first moved to Germany, I was so overwhelmed I barely knew up from down. We were without a car, without phones, without a home, and in a foreign country where we didn't know the language. We were exhausted, dealing with a cranky dog and our own jet lag. I feel especially bad for people traveling with kids, I can't even imagine your stress levels!

Luckily, we were blessed with some great people upon our arrival in Germany. Our sponsors made a HUGE difference for us, and we were very lucky to have such wonderful people to show us around. They didn't just help with basic in-processing, they also lent us a vehicle, took us to the grocery store, showed us the local area, and gave us a beautiful welcome basket in our new home. 

I think it's especially important to pay these things forward. All of us find ourselves in unfamiliar situations like this at some point in time, yes? Having caring people to help you adjust is an absolute lifesaver. So if you find yourself in the position to help someone else, please do! Remember how you felt moving to a foreign place, and how uncertain you were of everything around you. Have compassion. Try to do what you can to make that transition easier. Hopefully, the person you help will help someone else down the line.



So with that in mind, here are some ideas to be a great sponsor and provide newcomers with a cool "Welcome To…. (fill in the blank!) Basket". Don't feel obligated to do/buy all of these things. You can do as much or as little as you are comfortable with. This is simply a list of ideas to help you along the way, should you be interested, ok? I've divided the list into two parts: Part 1 includes items that are perfect upon arriving at your hotel. Part 2 includes items that are great when finally moving into housing. 

Here goes! 

Hotel Welcome Basket:

1.  Bus and Shuttle Schedules - Being without a vehicle is an extremely limiting experience. Some people choose to rent a car, others purchase a new vehicle right away. We were lucky enough to borrow a car from our sponsors, but I don't think this happens very often. Help out the new arrivals by including the public transportation schedules when you can. For example, we have an on-post shuttle, as well as one that runs off-post. Using the public transportation for a bit gives people time to settle in and determine what their real needs are, without spending a ton of money. Moving has enough expenses without adding unnecessary ones, don't you agree? Hubs and I managed to survive until our car arrived, with help. This saved us a ton, which therefore allowed us more freedom to set up our household. Lower stress levels also equal better productivity! And, if your newbies can learn to use transportation, then you won't be schlepping them all over the place either. As a sponsor, you can only do so much. 

2. Adapters - Some people may be smart and bring their own adapters with them, but others will not. It's super nice to include one in a welcome basket, just in case. If they are pricey at your location, check your local thrift shop for bargains. You could also add this to the basket as an "on loan" item. Include a cute notecard in the basket that says: 

"These are yours to use for a time,
Until you are settled, 
and then again they'll be mine… 

Others arrive who need these things too,
So please return promptly
And pay forward what's due 

Thanks in advance for your consideration,
It's definitely appreciated
By the newbies at this station!" 

3. Bottled Water & Snacks - Often, us newbies arrive late at night, well after the commissary and restaurants have closed. If you're really unlucky, you arrive during a holiday when everything is shut down for the weekend. How then are you supposed to eat?? Arriving to your hotel room and finding that your sponsor left some snacks and drinks… this is amazing. The long overseas journey can really mess with your schedule, so you often find yourself hungry at bizarre hours. Basic items include things like granola bars, crackers, sandwich fixings (like PB&J, especially if there are kids involved).

4. Phone Numbers - Include a simple list that contains your number as the sponsor, the office phone number, chain of command, etc. This way, if your newbies have questions or get stranded or whatever, they have a handy list to reference for their needs. 

5. Map of Post - This is ever so useful to a newbie! No matter how small the post is, or how easy you think it is to get around, this can be difficult for some people. Like me, ahem. A small, printed map can make an enormous difference. Highlight and label the areas that will be especially helpful the first week: Bank, commissary, fast food, shoppette, ACS, work buildings, housing, offices for internet and phone services. Also helpful, locations of ATMs on post. I know that we travelled with some American money, but we didn't have any euros upon arrival. Point out on the map where cash can be taken out in euros versus American dollars.

6. On Post Facilities - It's possible ACS will have a list you can use, but you can also create one if necessary. Include a list of the most common businesses (like ACS, commissary, PX, etc.), along with their hours of operation. If you've marked these on the map (mentioned above), that's even better! Having come from a much larger post, it was surprising to find a commissary that closed by 6:00 PM. Your newbies might not expect this either.

7. Cell Phone Vendor List - Getting a new cell phone number and service are a high priority when you move overseas. You need to be able to contact people, and have them contact you in return. Include in the welcome basket a list of local cell phone providers, their locations, and a price list (if possible). Often, these companies have pamphlets you can use for this purpose. Mark locations on the map you provided (mentioned above)

8. Helpful Websites - I've gotten some of my best information from local Facebook pages, seriously. Not just ACS or Garrison pages, but also spouse pages, local yardsale pages, etc. Include a list of these in your welcome basket, they're amazingly useful! Also, if your post or FRG does a monthly newsletter, please include the email address so new spouses can get signed up right away. 

9. Local Events / ACS Classes - Taking the "Hallo Hohenfels" class after I arrived in Germany was one of the smartest things I did. Not only did I meet some great ladies, but I learned a lot about my local area. The instructor really took the time to help us acclimate to our new environment. If you can, stop by ACS and include their monthly calendar in your welcome baskets. If there are any other local events, add them too! 



Housing Welcome Basket:

1. Recycling Guide & Bags - I was so, so confused about recycling when I arrived in Germany. Seriously, you can ask our sponsor's wife... I was a total disaster! I don't know why, but getting this right was really important to me. It felt like the world would end if I messed up and put a plastic bottle in the wrong bag. Ridiculous, I know. But I felt that way just the same. So, help a girl out and include a recycling guide (ACS offers one here), and some recycling bags (we use yellow and green ones here, and they are free at self help). This may seem small, but could make a huge difference to someone as neurotic as me!

2. Local Snacks - It's always fun to include some local flair. For example, being that we're stationed in Germany, I would likely include some of the famous German chocolates and gummy candies. This gives the new arrivals a little taste of what their life will include now. If you know them well, and know they wouldn't oppose it, including a local beer is fun too.

3. New Home Necessities - Once you're actually moving into housing, there are lots of things you probably need and don't even realize. As a sponsor, take the time and introduce your newbies to the lending closet. This is huge!! Furniture, dishes, pots and pans… all at your disposal. There are other items that no one tells you about when you're living in a foreign country. For example, did you know that our dishwashers here require a special kind of salt, in addition to the regular dishwasher tabs?? Yep, I didn't know either. Luckily, our sponsors were awesome and provided a container of the special salt at our new home, and then explained to us what it was for. 

So, if you know about all these odd, little things… tell your new arrivals! If you don't want to purchase those items, you certainly don't have to. Perhaps give them a list instead, and take the time to show them around at the local store.

4. GPS Addresses - Keep a list of handy GPS addresses for each housing area. For example, what is the closest grocery store, hardware store, churches, and restaurants? Possibly include your favorite shopping areas and clothing stores as well. And don't forget the address for the closest train station!

5. Take Out Menus - A small packet of menus is invaluable when you first move into housing. Especially when you've moved overseas and don't have any of your household goods available to you. Of course, you can always go to the lending closet and borrow items. But it's nice not to cook once in a while. In our town, we have both a Chinese place and a Greek restaurant that offer pick-up for takeout food.

6. Local Contacts - If there are people from the same unit in the same housing area, introduce everyone. Swap contact information. It's nice to have someone close by, like a neighbor, to ask for help when you need it. Let's be there for each other!

7. Self Help List - After you move into overseas housing, self help is your best friend. They have lawn tools, light bulbs, drills, and so much more. It took a long time for us to learn what was offered there. A handy list would have been beyond helpful. Since the items at self help can change often based on funding, make a note that not all items may be available (this helps curb disappointment). 


Do you have suggestions or additions for these welcome baskets? What have you included in the past, or what do you wish had been included in yours? Feel free to comment below with your ideas and suggestions. Until next time, my friends!


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August 28, 2014

DIY Taco Seasoning

Have you ever looked at the back of a taco seasoning packet? Like, specifically at the ingredient list? It isn't pretty, my friends.


The ingredients list varies greatly depending on what brand you choose. The one on the left (above) is Old El Paso brand, and the one on the right is McCormick's. As you can see, they are very different. This is why it's so important to read your labels. Or, just make your own!

The Hubs and I are slowly eliminating processed foods from our life. Yes, I do most of the work, but the Hubs is on board. I want to know what is in my food. I don't want artificial flavors or chemicals or any other crazy ingredients. It is very hard to change your whole life overnight. So instead, we pick one thing and change that. After we've mastered one new thing, we add another.

This week it was taco seasoning. Death to pre-packaged seasoning mixes!


The ingredients 


This might look like a lot of ingredients, but it's all spices you probably have in your cabinet anyway. I tested this by asking my pal Michelle, and she had everything except the cornstarch. Honestly, the cornstarch is used only as a thickening agent so you can do without if necessary.




The directions for this are so easy, even the Hubs can do it! You just mix all your spices together, and viola! Instant taco seasoning. We use 2 tablespoons of chili powder, ½ teaspoon garlic powder, ½ teaspoon onion powder, 1 ½ teaspoons paprika, 1 tablespoon cumin, 1 teaspoon of sea salt, ½ teaspoon oregano, 1 teaspoon coriander, a pinch of cayenne pepper (more if you like things spicier), and 1 teaspoon cornstarch.


When you make your taco beef, add 5 tablespoons of this seasoning mix for every pound of meat, along with ¾ cup of water. Simmer until the sauce thickens and the water is gone. Just like the kind you buy at the store!

This recipe makes enough for 2lbs of ground beef. The Hubs and I like leftovers, so I always use a whole batch. OR, I double (sometimes triple!) the recipe, and I keep it tightly sealed in an empty spice container. Then I don't have to make it every time we want tacos, I just grab it out of the cabinet.

Give it a try yourselves, peeps. Change up the mix, adding more of what you like or less of what you don't. And let me know how it goes for you.

Until next time, happy cooking!


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The Standard Form:


Taco Seasoning

Ingredients:

2 tablespoons chili powder
½ teaspoon garlic powder
½ teaspoon onion powder
1 ½ teaspoons paprika
1 tablespoon cumin
1 teaspoon sea salt
½ teaspoon oregano
1 teaspoon coriander
Pinch cayenne pepper
1 teaspoon cornstarch

Directions:


Combine all ingredients in a small bowl. Store tightly covered in an empty spice jar.  5 tablespoons of seasoning is used for each pound of ground beef. Brown your meat, drain the fat, and then add the 5 tablespoons of seasoning along with ¾ cup of water. Stir to combine. Allow to simmer until sauce thickens and clings to meat. Add more seasoning for a spicier dish, and less for a milder dish.




August 26, 2014

Keep Calm and Go To Paris, Part 4

Yep, this is a Part 4. Have you been keeping up on this Paris series? No?? That's ok. You can catch up if you want, with Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3. We've visited the Eiffel Tower, and Notre Dame, and Versailles, and so much more! With only two days left in Paris, we decided to leave the city for a bit and head out into the country to Giverny, home of Claude Monet.

Monet's gardens

This may not be of interest to you if you're not an art lover. I am, so off we went. I was pleasantly surprised to find the Hubs enjoyed this day trip as well. My mum loved it, of course, but The Kid could have taken it or left it. Every once in a while, I gotta push a little culture on her, ya know?

There are many ways to reach Giverny from Paris, if you don't have a car. We chose to take the train. It was quite confusing in the beginning, and there are only so many trains per day. The train doesn't actually go directly to Giverny. Rather, it stops in a small town called Vernon. You must take the train from Saint-Lazare Paris station. We purchased our tickets the morning of, and the price was about 30 euros each for the 45-minute round trip.



After the train stops in Vernon, you must then hop on a shuttle bus to Giverny. Seats on this are limited, and you must pay in cash at the door of the bus (4 euros each way). I know this sounds a bit complicated, but I promise it was a lot easier than it sounds!

The gardens were worth it to me. You'll have to decide for yourself if they hold the same value to you.

Water lily, in Monet's gardens


Seeing the spot where Water Lilies was painted literally made my heart flutter a bit. The same way I felt when I finally viewed Starry Night. We waited a while to take our pictures on the bridge in the water garden. People were crowded around, so it took quite a while. And then I waited to take a picture of the bridge with no one on it.



No photography was allowed inside the actual house, or I would post them here for you. It was a fairly ordinary home to me, except… one of the rooms was filled with paintings, all Monet's. I could have spent hours in there, it was fantastic. Tummies were rumbling, however. The Hubs doesn't do so hot without food, so we took a break for lunch before wandering the quaint town.

I gotta forewarn you about one thing. We took the next to last train back to Paris. We wanted to return early enough to visit the Arc di Triomphe before bedtime. Our train was so full, this is what happened:



The train was cramped, people everywhere. We sat on the stairs, and on the floor. We sat in each other's laps. And at every stop on the way, more people piled on. Just when you thought the car would surely burst at the seems… someone else slipped in.

You've been warned. We were so happy to get off that train.

Rather than taking public transport again, we chose to walk to the Arc di Triomphe. This was included on our museum pass, and I wanted to make the most of them. The pass allowed us to skip the ticket lines, always a bonus. The Arc is in the middle of a traffic circle. So how do you get there?

Well, don't run out into traffic people!! You can access the Arc from the underground station. There are signs pointing the way, though it was a bit confusing at first.



You can climb to the top of the Arc if you'd like to see the beautiful panoramic views. My mum didn't quite feel up to the task though, after asking the guard how many flights the climb was… so he let her take the elevator!

I had no idea there was an elevator here (there isn't one at Notre Dame). Thanks to the nice attendant, my mum enjoyed the views too.

One of several views from the
Arc di Triomphe

After walking back down, we were all ready for a quiet meal at our apartment and a good night's sleep. The next day, we had a train to catch back to Germany. But we still had some time to visit the Louvre! Stay tuned, peeps.

Until next time, happy travels!



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