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Life Lessons of a Military Wife (overseas in Europe!): March 2011

Life Lessons of a Military Wife (overseas in Europe!)

My goal here is to make your life easier, especially those who are in the unique situation of being a military spouse. Yes...I've been around...but in a good way...and hopefully can share those tips, tricks and shortcuts with you too. I've been on this military bus for over 40 years now. My goals in life are to have a well-run home, few money worries, well adjusted children, money socked away and whatever happiness I can scoop out of life.

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Location: United States

After life as an Army brat, being in the Army myself and marrying a soldier, I can honestly say I have a bucket full of life lessons I can share to help you make your everyday life easier and enlightening. Don't waste your time making unnecessary mistakes and benefit from others who have come before you on your journey through life.

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Easily add minutes to your Belgian pre-paid cell phone (any provider)

I know it's easy to run by the grocery store or wherever to "top up" your minutes for your prepaid phone.  You just grab the little papers from your provider at the check-out and get the code on your receipt.  Well, I am constantly forgetting to do that!  I mean, I don't have to add minutes that often, but more often than not, I NEED the minutes at an inopportune time.  So, I've found a way to add minutes online...any provider.

Go to:

Follow the links for your provider to add minutes and get the code within seconds....very handy...


Monday, March 28, 2011

Confessions of a European tourguide, Part II

Europeans have a festival for everything, here the "cows are coming home"!
I've shared some confessions of a European tourguide before.  I can see from the emails I received that I hit a nerve with some....a sense of nostalgia with others.  So, I thought I'd share the second part.  Again, I am sharing these tips in case you should ever take a tour in Europe.  These are obviously my own experiences...yours may be different....take them however you see fit.  Know what to expect before you go!

  • It is a custom on European buses for the tourguide to pass around a hat or envelope to tip the driver at the end of the trip.  Putting a few Euros or up to 5 euro per person in there is recommended.  I've seen busdrivers bust their butts packing and then hauling hundreds of boxes of Polish pottery (we love our Polish pottery?  Me too!).

  • Tipping local guides is also customary in Germany at least.  The local guide (not your tourguide) will typically stand by the exit of wherever you are can give a euro or two there.  If no one from my group gives, and if I didn't plan ahead and collect from you (also with a hat) before, then I give.  It's a tradition, cause they don't make much money either, sorry....

  • Yes, bathrooms do cost money in mostly Germany...which is also why they will be superclean and sometimes attended.  They cost anywhere from 1 to 2 euro and many take exact change only.  Even McDonald's charges and Starbucks will give you a code on your receipt if you purchase something.  In Belgium you'll find pay toilets at the entrances of restrooms in trainstations and other public places (airports are still free and relatively clean, thank God)...even Venice and some Italian cities have pay toilets.  The free ones are usually the dirtiest around....stopping in France to use the restroom can be a big shock to anyone!  Those are free along the highway.  Now you know why.

  • Make sure you take the items you need with you to your bus seat....and put it in the overhead.  I can't tell you the number of times my tourguides have had to dig around underneath the bus because someone forgot their camera or coat down there...oh, it's with my suitcase.  Also, don't overstuff your overhead ledge (it's not a bin)'ll cut off airflow, so the heat in winter or A/C in summer won't get to you at all.  In the summer, you can even draw the curtains near your seat, so when you get back on, the bus has less to cool.

  • Bring raingear with you....European weather can be rainy.  We had a tour where half the bus had no raingear (we left in beautiful, warm sunshine).  Some sucked it up, some bought overpriced umbrellas and a few missed the tour because they refused to get off the bus.  Our cute local guide in the local peasant girl's dress had her umbrella and was ready to go.  I'm still sorry that family missed out....because they missed a wonderful tour.

  • Wear sound walking shoes and dress for changing weather.  I've seen high heeled shoes turn ankles on cobblestone.  I've also seen people sweat in the AM in the high Alps and then freeze their tushes off and miss all the action when the sun started to go down and started casting its cold shadows.

  • Bring changes of clothes for your children...I'd even recommend bringing one for you.  I am amazed at all the spilled drinks and "accidents" that can happen.  In fact, I used to have extra shirts along, because it happened so often.

  • Recognize that a child may have never had motion sickness in their life...but will have it on this bus. I try to put those folks in the front (if you tell me).  Always have Dramamine or an equivalent, just in case.  I remember an older German I had once with his 4711 cologne (a German classic that has a fresh lemon scent), give a young child who was getting queasy....a handkerchief full of cologne to inhale (it worked).

  • Realize that sometimes, we can not always accommodate your regular mealtimes.  Bring snacks, especially for little ones.  Most buses will have drinks for sale at a nominal fee (1,50 to 2 euro)....but feel free to bring your own.  You can always leave your non-valuable items on the bus.  I would never leave anything expensive on the bus...not because we are thieves but because we don't want the responsibility or liability.

  • It's okay to dress comfortably on that bus...bringing a pillow or blanket is okay too.  You can leave it in your seat.

  • Singles, you did not pay for two bus seats...just one.  Realize that if the bus is going to be full, I will move you with another single (if you don't do it on your own), so that a family can at least sit together.

  • Most bus companies will not sell that single seat in the back, so if you are a family of four, you can get extra room in the back...the downside is that you can't recline, it can be louder (bus engine is underneath you) and it can be colder in winter months (my kids don't care...they always head to the back).

  • The front two pairs of seats are usually reserved for the tourguide, a local guide (when you pick them up), gear...basically for the company's use....please try to sit in the second row.  Yes, there is a jumpseat up front, but we typically do not sell those seats behind the driver....being in an uncomfortable jumpseat can be compared to torture when it is for long hours.  This is why we do this in case you wondered.

  • Many buses have a sleeping compartment across from the potty door (yes, most buses DO have toilets).  If your tour involves a lot of driving and the math does not support having one driver that whole time (remember breaks and driving time), a second driver must be hired or brought along.  They each use that compartment for sleeping/rest breaks so they can continuously hopfrog drive (this is ideal).  Why don't we do this all the time so we don't have to have all these breaks?  Because then we'd have to charge you more for your tour price.

  • When we figure out the cost for your tour, yes we do have a profit margin (believe me, it is not as big as you think)...the biggest chunk though will be the cost of your butt in that bus seat.  Premium tour buses are very expensive, especially double deckers which can cost up to 1 million euro each!  Yes, that's most double deckers are actually leased.  We do get some discounts on group entry tickets to castles and just about anything....but, we are not being exhorbitant in what we charge.  Remember also, we decide the price by figuring the MINIMUM people we will take on that take more, we get a bigger profit...sometimes we take the risk and take less...and either lose money or magically get the right amount of people to sign up last minute to at least break even!

  • Speaking of last minute....on some tours, we need minimum numbers of passengers before a certain date.  Many specialty tours, special dinners and other planned activities may have minimum participation.  I've done gourmet cooking classes and taken people bobsledding with Olympic caliber bobsledders as well as taken  a large group to the 65th Anniversary in Normandy, France to hear President Obama and other European leaders speak.  Many of those types of tours require lots of early planning and commitment by us.  That is why we encourage you to sign up helps us, and it helps keep costs down if we know we will hit the right numbers more often than not.

  • Watch the alcohol!  European beer has a much higher alcohol content than American beer, and if you forget will pay both that day and the next day for that mistake...and then some!  Moderation is key! 

  • And those are my top tips.  I have some thoughts on European hotel rooms as well...but will save those for another time.  Suffice it to say that European hotel rooms are not American hotel rooms and learning to recognize the differences can put you that much ahead on your travels.  Well, it's off to the dog and pony show...literally, at our local expo center.  Hope I don't have to touch any goats...

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    Saturday, March 26, 2011

    Take advantage of commissary early bird shopping

    I think this program was rolled out a few years ago when commissaries began installing self checkout counters.  Double check your closest commissary before you head out, bu the gist of the program is that you can shop one hour before the store officially opens.  If you don't like crowds and can check out your own groceries (as it only works for self check-out), then this is for you!  Many commissaries also have limits to the number of items you can buy...usually not more than 20 or 40 items, so double check that too before you try it.

    I know at our last duty station, I used to do it all the time.  Even on paydays, it was a ghost town.  I don't know about you but guaranteed parking and not having to navigate among all the parked carts in the aisle is what sold me on it!  You also tend to be a bit more selective in your shopping choices and not impulse buy, knowing there is a limit.

    Oh, one more thing that you probably already know...but just in are valid 6 months after the expiration date on your coupon if you go to an overseas don't throw that old stuff away just yet!  You can also donate your old coupons...I believe to ACS, if you no longer need them...those of us overseas will still squeeze money out of it.  If I'm not mistaken, there is also an organization out there that sends expired coupons overseas.  I'd post it here but am momentarily too lazy to look it up!

    Do you have any commissary shopping tips to share?


    Thursday, March 24, 2011

    More on Kindle and FREE Internet Overseas (plus another cheap tip at the end)

    I've posted once before on the Kindle.  While Amazon continues to support this free internet feature while you are on the go, take advantage of it.  What am I talking about?  Do you mean I can use my Kindle while I am backpacking through the Alps without a wifi connection?  Yes...and here's how....

    If you've looked at your newer model Kindle... I think this is only on the last few can see there is an Experimental link in the Main Menu.  Click that and then go to the web browser.

    Type the web address you want to visit....use the symbols key to type in @ and other symbols beyond the "period".  Yes, it took me a nanosecond to see there was such a key, as I was about to panic about not being able to type the @ symbol!

    The web browser is kind of funky and some full featured websites will have trouble coming up....or will come up slowly, so try the mobile version of a site.  For example, instead of, go to

    I had no issues checking email, tweeting or using Facebook...the main things I used when traveling this first time with my Kindle in wireless mode (usually I just keep that off...cause it scares me).  I also made sure I read the US headlines and frankly, that's how I found out about the earthquake and devastation in Japan...while enjoying a restful holiday in Ireland, up in the mountains and on the trail of "Braveheart", I decided to take a little snack break and read the news....sorry it wasn't any good news but glad I was able to stay updated on world events without a Smartphone (which I refuse to get until we are back in the US)....most plans are much higher than what you would pay in the US, and I am just too ultra-cheap to pay them....although, if you can't live without your phone tweeting and texting and just plain using it for data, try the favorite  That's what most folks use around here who want the cheapness of prepaid AND lower-cost data capability.

    Do you have any Kindle tips to share?

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    Tuesday, March 22, 2011

    Kids and the top 5
    Your kids do what you do.  Have you ever noticed that?  We obviously play a huge part in who are kids are and will be on their own...when no one is looking.  I've talked kid stuff before.  I have not always followed my advice, but this much is clear.

    After all our child rearing...which continues on of course....these are the top five things I try to drill into our kids' heads:

    • Setting the example.  I know I'm honest and hardworking.  I don't have a problem with that.  It's the little things that get leaving dirty dishes in the sink (I have) or not picking clothes up from the floor (I have too).  I don't care how much you preach to your kids...if you don't do it yourself, you might as well go and talk to the wall.
    • Consistency.  Same response every time.  I don't like this one.  I get lazy sometimes.  Sometimes I am just too tired or I don't want to get up, or I have a secret desire for all of us to play a little hookey while dad is gone.  I try to stop myself....a lot....this is your bedtime, this is when you do your homework, this is what happens when you don't do your homework and so on.
    • Chores.  Gotta have them.  I had them, my parents had them, and I'm pretty sure my grandparents had more of them.  I hate the chore chart.  I always forget.  My older son fills it in sometimes for accurate is that?  I am a firm believer that if a child feels like they are contributing to the household, they will be a more active and caring individual in that household, plus it helps me with my next point.
    • Punishment and Rewards.  We've grown out of the star stickers...but, I still track their chores vs. what they earn.  I don't spank....but I sure do take things away.  So does dad.  Now that they have laptops, I have more choices of things to take away.  I see they are more attentive now and realize the whole "action/consequence" thing.  I don't know if it's because I have more to take away or because they have more stuff.
    • Doing what's right when no one is looking.  That's a mouthful.  When they finally get that (they haven't completely), then I feel I have done my job as a mother and's a beautiful thing to see it happen the first time.  To get to this point, you have to follow the points above.
    Do you have any points to add along these lines?


    Sunday, March 20, 2011

    You'd be surprised who qualifies for WIC overseas

    I say this not to draw attention to yourself or some other reason....nope...I knew a WIC nurse in Germany who gave me a few minutes of enlightening.  She told me to send as many ladies as I could to her, who were pregnant, had recently given birth or had young children.  I was our unit's FRG representative, so of course, I knew many mommies out there.  She dangled that carrot and told me I'd be surprised who qualifies for the WIC benefits overseas....hmmmmm.....

    So, she told me that she even had some officers' wives able to take advantage of the program.  Free food and free money for food among other things.  Apparently, the program has different requirements overseas than stateside.  Perhaps there is a bigger bucket of money for us here?  And this is not just for military and military spouses...DOD contractors and civilian employees can also take advantage of the program.

    Well...what are you waiting for?  Make an appointment TODAY with your local WIC nurse at your post or base overseas.  If you can't find your WIC nurse, be sure to check Army Community Service (ACS) or whatever office provides community services at your base.  Be sure to let me know how it goes.  If you hear of any other programs out there that people may not know about, please post it here!


    Friday, March 18, 2011

    Arrghhhh......Where's my purse???!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

    Kilkenny Castle, Ireland - me & my vest
    I am a creature of habit..most of us are I think.  You know how when you make that decision to do something completely different?  How it REALLY throws you off and into a panic, over and over again....after the first day, I hit a moment of enlightenment and never turned back!  Here's what I did.

    I have a relative who works for an airline.  Every time I see him, he brings up the darn jacket.  This magical jacket has something like 20 pockets, and he breezes through security among other things...not having to take off his "no metal" belt, slipping out of his smooth-as-butter slip-on shoes and not having to worry about any kind of bag going through the gauntlet.  You see, he has this special SEV all-weather jacket....that has been around the world I would least three times.

    I finally broke down and bought one about a month ago.  I got tired of him bragging about his and frankly, I got tired of being a packhorse every time we went on vacation or on some day trip somewhere.  I just hate having something in my hands, especially now that I have a digital camera and an IFlip camcorder.

    After the initial panic, thinking I had lost my purse...unfortunately it took my brain a bit to wrap itself around this new concept...I noticed a definite change.  Once I had myself convinced that there really was NO purse or bag, something strange happened.  I felt free, became more relaxed and could focus more on my surroundings....I took more photos and videos than I ever had!  I held my kids' hands and skipped down the sidewalk.  I could shop using BOTH hands and didn't get paranoid when strangers stood close to me.  Freeing...there's that word again and the perfect description!

    I am positively sold on the lightweight travel vest. I chose the vest (order one or two sizes larger), because I figured I could wear it in the winter under a coat (which is what I did this last time around to Ireland)...or in the summer over a short sleeved shirt.  My particular model vest has 22 pockets.  I admit, the first day, I had trouble remembering where I put what...and caught myself digging a few times when I tried to find my camera or wallet.  The manufacturer puts a little laminated card in EACH pocket, giving you ideas of what to put in there.  I initially left the cards in there, so I would know their recommendations...they designed it after all.  In a few of the pockets there are also hidden inner pockets as well as keyrings, clips and snaps.  I also liked the see-through pockets with side zippers and that most of the zippers are on the inside of the vest for safekeeping.  The vest also has perfect velcro snaps and openings to run your earphone cords or any other kind of cord.  There is even a strap that will hold your waterbottle upright in either side pocket. >

    I went through airport security with only my suitcase...without a carry-on bag or anything else.  It was freeing to just whip off the vest and put it in the bin.  The guy behind the machine even asked if he could look at my vest, cause he had never seen anything quite like that:-)  He ran it through the machine again just to show his buddy how everything was laid all out.

    The best part is that you don't feel like a packhorse.  I was amazed that it wasn't heavier with all my necessary crap in there.  Speaking of crap, here's what I carried around on my trip.  I think anyone would've been shocked had I emptied all my pockets and lined it all up!

    I carried:

    • wallet
    • cell phone
    • collection of pens & pencil
    • walking map and brochures
    • Kindle (a HUGE pocket in the back that hangs just right)
    • magazine
    • two packs travel Kleenex
    • small bottle hand sanitizer
    • sunglasses
    • small bottle of lotion
    • small first aid kit
    • sandwich; energy bars
    • bottle of water
    • mp3 player w/headphones
    • passport; plane tickets
    • digital camera in case
    • IFlip camcorder in case
    • small stuffable shopping bag
    • GPS in case


    Wednesday, March 16, 2011

    "Think Outside the Box" FRG Fundraising

    We all know the rules...or we should...Family Readiness Groups are not fund-raising organizations. That's fine...I had to laugh at friends, who 10 years ago were hob-knobbing with the Tennessee Titans and raking in hundreds of thousands of dollars in concession sales and corporate sponsorship...yes, they did. That's why we have these new rules...that we all now have to follow. Things were obviously out of control. We can fundraise, but we can't solicit donations and the money has to be pegged towards something your FRG is planning in the future. So, we all end up doing bake sales...something unique to Germany, I think...brats burns, basically selling hotdogs at lunchtime...but else could we do that was something different? Here are some ideas to revamp your FRG fundraising.

  • Purchase a discounted rental quality Santa Suit (about $200-300 at a variety of stores on the internet) and then rent it out every year to the multiple organizations who are always looking for a Santa suit to borrow for whatever event. Charge $35 per rental, and book it multiple times for season, and you can see how it can make you quick money.

  • Get a porcelain Christmas Ornament made and have them available at your yearly holiday party for a suggested donation. We were able to use our unit crest and the name of our unit in fancy lettering underneath on white porcelain ornaments with red ribbon from CafePress. With a bulk and seller discount, plus coupon codes, each ornament cost us about $4. If we sell it for double, we'll make a nice bit of change there as well.

  • Giftwrapping at AAFES. Check with your local community to make sure this is allowed. People are amazingly generous here. Most people hate giftwrapping.  Since a dozen other organizations want to do this to, get the name and contact information of the AAFES manager EARLY in the season and tell him what dates you want right off the bat.

  • Since you can't raffle anything off, how about selling "opportunities to win" for a suggested donation for whatever you want to "give away" at your next event? Your item doesn't have to be something tangible. How about the Commander's parking spot, or the use of his office for a day or something like that? Be sure to check with your unit Legal Section though, as some of these things are illegal in some States and even in some military communities.  In Germany, since the parking spot was government property, that idea was shot down....but I bet you can be more creative than that...beyond throwing a pie in the commander's face I'm sure.

  • If your community has a yardsale or flea market, get a booth for your FRG. In the months before, have someone give up some storage space so people can donate small items. If they have large items, have them bring those the day of the sale. You'll also need volunteers to load up a minivan or two and people to collect the money the day of the sale.

  • A cookbook. Do a google search for "fundraiser cookbook". There are tons of companies out there that do this. Some will even ship to APO (ask first if you are overseas).  It also gives you a nice memory of your time at the unit. I have quite a few of these, and I have fond memories, finding a recipe in one of the books, and thinking of that person and their contributions to the unit while I knew them.

  • What do you do in your unit to raise funds for your next event?


    Monday, March 14, 2011

    What you need to know about mail service overseas (APO & local)

    Actual customs label listing contents as "unknown"!
    Being military overseas or affiliated with the military, allows us to use the services and have a PO box through the Military Postal System (MPS).  This is a HUGE benefit, as we pay the same costs you do in the US, to mail stuff stateside....You walk into an overseas Army Post Office (APO), and it's like walking into a stateside post office...down to the posters on the wall and what we pay for stamps and such.  Yes, we also have a Belgian or local mailbox at our home.  Even if you live on-post, you will still have a local national address where you can get mail through that country's mailing system.  I'll show you how to use both.  You're going to need to use both, so pay attention.

    Basically, here in Europe, our mail gets flown (by First Class or Priority) or by goes by ship (all the other methods).  I've gotten letters and Priority packages within a week from the US., as an example, is really good at getting things here the fastest out of any of the online retailers.

    I sometimes get asked, well, how can you tell online retailers that you are STILL in the US (and with US postal rates) but that the package will go overseas?  Many online retailers have updated their zipcode databases to figure that out.  You see, in the old days, our addresses looked something like this:

    14th IAD Box 221
    APO, NY 09128

    All post coming and going to Europe gets processed in New York somewhere.  This is also where it gets handed off from the USPS to the military.

    Nowadays, the addresses look a bit different:

    CMR 230 Box 21
    APO AE 09128

    So now we've got these community mailrooms (CMR) where all the units for that particular post have their mail delivered.  APO still stands for "Army Post Office" in place of the city and then "AE" stands for "Armed Forces Europe"...those bases/posts in the Pacific and other areas will have different designations, such as "AP".

    Online retailers should mostly have the new database, where you can actually choose "AE"...if not, you can still choose "NY", and it'll get processed.  The only different handling they will have to do with your package is to make sure it has a customs form attached.  I've rarely had a retailer charge me extra for that.  I have had some retailers though refuse to ship to APO or overseas.  In that case, you can either take your business elsewhere (which I always let them know) or if I REALLY want that thing, then I have it shipped to a relative and then over here (which can sometimes be pricey, especially when you add on insurance) or you can use one of the many secondary shipping services, such as Ship It APO.  They will will give you a pseudo stateside address and then ship you the product for a fee.  They will act as a third party.  I've noticed that Amazon refuses to ship many of their electronics, appliances and household/pet items to APO...something about not being able to guarantee a warranty or something to that effect....or at least that is the excuse.  I once had Dell computers try to tell me the same thing when I ordered online, but when I called their customer service line and got passed through four different people, I finally reached a salesperson who not only gave me a huge discount but also added an additional year warranty (which was required for overseas shipments).  It ended up being cheaper than the online price, even with my beloved coupon code.  They said to call them at anytime in the future, so keep that in mind when trying to order online or even through their government or military sales.  You can probably talk them into a cheaper price by talking to a live body.  The computer took exactly four weeks to get here, but I was VERY happy to finally get a Dell All-in-One!

    Some APOs customer mailboxes are co-located with their actual post office...some aren't.  At our previous location, we had to go one place to pick up our mail and another place to actually mail it, which always entailed a kind of ballerina dance as we figured out which one to go to first.  At SHAPE, we have a beautiful modern post office where everything is co-located inside with very generous opening hours for both the actual post office and package/registered mail pick-up...thanks guys!

    Mailing letters is the same as in the slap on your postage or have them do it at the window, and it'll shortly be on its way.  As I mentioned before, packages need customs slips.  I try to be as accurate as possible.  I guess retailers don't....I'm sure you saw my photo above...that one said "unknown" on the customs slip!  I had to laugh at that.  They'll also measure your box dimensions and weigh it and each class has certain'll find those on the USPS website.  I have noticed that sometimes, if I pick one of the slower methods (and pay for that), if the box is a smaller size, it'll somehow get sent with the Priority stuff, and it'll get there in a week.  I envision some guy with a truckfull of packages, picking and choosing which ones fit in the aircraft and which don't...I don't know how they do it, but I like to think my package must have looked just right to fit on the aircraft instead of the ship....I also feel they must be pretty generous and accommodating during the holidays, as I once got a fairly large package from the US, in a week, that was paid for to go by ship....hmmmmm.....

    The best part about APO mail though is that it is FREE from APO to APO...not only letters but packages if you go to Poland and pick up a bunch of heavy Polish pottery and package it safely...go ahead and send it to your friend (me for instance) in Belgium for FREE.  Send packages downrange FREE.  Just don't send flammables, pork products and pornography downrange...don't laugh...there are certain restrictions as to what you can send downrange to certain countries.  I even sent a huge package from Germany to Australia for FREE via took about 6 weeks, but it got there eventually!  Now if you want to insure anything, you'll still pay for that extra service.

    Now with your local mailbox....don't ignore it!  Yes, you'll get sales circulars and junkmail if you live off post...not so much on-post.  I used to love to sign up for German catalogs to see the latest gadgets and just was curious as to what German housewives were buying in Moderne Hausfrau (Modern Homemaker).  Some of my other favorites were Quelle and Otto...and for some reason I used to like getting the frozen food (and ice cream) delivery catalog, Eismann.  You can find out more about German catalogs, here.   I also ordered things from the German Amazon site (free shipping of course), which were delivered to me onpost (our German mailman knew me by name to the point of him bringing things to my office on post when he knew I wouldn't be at home...I miss him and my doggie loved his dog treats).  If you have any German bills, such as your electric and water bills...they'll come there too.  As a sidenote, the German Amazon also ships to Belgium for free.  Thanks Bro for the torch for my now-authentic Creme Brulee.  He said it was cheaper to buy it from Germany at their  Amazon site than from the US....go figure.

    This next part is important.... if you send a letter or something to a place on the German economy or another European country, SEND IT THROUGH THE GERMAN POSTAL SYSTEM (or whatever country's system you are currently in).  Why did I write that in all caps?  Because I can't tell you the number of times I've seen people send important documents through the American APO and have that letter go back to the US and then back over here again, returned to sender or sometimes making it into the German system cause a sympathetic American or German clerk along the way knew what the original intent was.  Only use the APO to send mail back to the US or to other APOS please.

    And to wrap this boring but necessary subject up...I don't think I can think of anything else to say.  There was something that was on the tip of my interrupted...and there it went...sigh....ah well.  Anyway, I hope that was somewhat helpful!  As always, if you have something to add, please add it below!

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    Saturday, March 12, 2011

    Ask VMW: Which electronics to I take overseas (and ALL your electricity questions answered)

    Many times, we realize we should have more information before making an informed decision.  Here is one wife who wants a definitive answer:

    "I've attended our PCS briefing, and I am still confused.  They told us not to bring alarm clocks overseas.  I think I understand the difference between 220 and 110 but then I talked to this other lady, and she told me she was not going to bring her standmixer and then couldn't explain to me exactly why?  Can you?"

    I am absolutely no technical expert, but I will try to explain the best I can.  I think most overseas assignments in Germany have both 110 volt and 220 volt electricity ON POST.  Off post it is still 220 volt as before (and will stay that way as Europeans will tell you it is the superior system).  In government housing you'll see your familiar 110 wall outlets (usually one or two sets per room) and then a few more of the 220 version.

    The first thing you have to do is look at your appliance....either on the bottom or if it's an electronic item (and not an appliance) it'll be written on the converter halfway down your least I think it's called a converter.  If it gives a range up to 240 volt, then you can use it in Europe.  All you need is an adapter plug to plug it into the round outlet holes.  Pay attention to that outlet...the newer ones will have two holes and a prong to handle the grounding.  Older adapter plugs (which are made out of plastic) will only have two holes and no room for that prong in the outlet.  Sometimes, when you buy them second hand (like the thrift shop on base), they will have the older ones, and then they won't fit in the wall outlet.  You can always make a hole with whatever tool, like my husband did....but you're better off buying the newer ones.  I just feel safer that way!

    If your appliance or electric item says up to 120 volt, then you cannot plug it directly into the wall, even with an adapter plug!  You will permanently fry it and ruin it.  You'll hear a loud pop, spark and then some smoke and your thing will be history.  If you have a desktop computer, many of the older ones will have a 110/220 switch on the back.  Make sure it is switched to 220 first!  Rest assured, if you do fry your computer, your hard drive in most instances will still be safe.  I took my hard drive out of a fried computer and used it in this.

      I could've also bought a new computer powersource with a plug for it, but the computer was so old, I just wanted to start over.

    Now what about the standmixer?  It has something to do with the cycles...something about the megahertz....even though a transformer will step down the voltage for you to plug in your appliance or electronic item, it still cycles at a different rate.  This could cause your appliance motor to run hotter or less efficient, damaging it in the long run.  You may not notice any problems at first but only later.  This is also why a 110 volt alarm clock will not keep time, even on a transformer.

    As a sidenote, I once asked an electrician who was working on something in our government quarters, how they do the 110 outlets, and he said something about actual transformers....obviously larger and more powerful, in our housing...inside the walls or technically, anything plugged in there is running on a transformer too....just a much bigger one than you are used to.

    If you need to buy transformers, which you probably will if you are off post, be sure to check local wanted ads on post as well as your thrift shop.  People are always moving, and there are always transformers as well as 220 volt appliances to be had.

    Yes, the PX has them as well, but you will pay a premium for them there.  They also have all the plugs and such.  Local stores such as Media Markt (like a Best Germany and Belgium too) has TONS of different appliances and electronics too and everything to go with it.  Many times items are on sale there.  I like to get my European surge protectors there (I would get them for your computers, TVs and expensive electronics)...yes, the PX has usually one model (European style)...but I like choices.  Also remember that European surge protectors protect at a much higher level than the American ones, so don't just interchange plugs and use your American surge protectors.  They are not strong enough.

    I also mentioned in one of my other blogposts, that if you have a USB cord for your item, you can charge it through your computer or laptop.  We do that for all our MP3 players, Kindles, handheld gaming systems and such....a few are not 220 volt adaptable, and it's cheaper (although takes longer) than charging them through transformers.  Transformers take a lot of juice, so when you are not actively using one, actively UNPLUG it completely or else it will still drain electricity.  Electricity is much more expensive in Europe, so I try to cut it down where I can!  I believe the charge through a USB connection is something like 5 volts, so it is safe for just about anything you can find a plug for!

    I am sure I have left something out.  If you think of anything else regarding electronics, please add below.

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    Thursday, March 10, 2011

    The Gathering in the Driveway

    I just talked with a friend of mine who moved into a suburban civilian community in the US.  It reminds me of how long I have been out of the country.  It also reminds me of what I did, when I moved into my last US I sat and listened to her talking about her non-friendly neighbors.  This is what I told her to do and what worked for us.

    Since we had nice weather when we moved....thanks to those summer rotation cycles...within weeks of unpacking my boxes....I made up a little flyer and got my little secret squirrel plan up and running.

    The flyer was really simple.

    I picked a Sunday afternoon and invited everyone to my driveway.  I told them to bring their chairs and a dish to share.  I told them a grill would be on-hand, and that I would provide the flatware, plates, napkins and jugs of lemonade and water.

    Since I put the flyers out a week before, in everyone's screendoor, I kept my fingers crossed and waited.  I didn't put a phone number on the flyer...just an address.

    Sunday morning came...we started dragging out our tables, and some chairs, set up a canopy for some shade, got the tunes going, poured us some drinks....and waited.  We didn't wait by one, the neighbors came....a few stopped as they were driving back from wherever they had been (after seeing people sitting around) and said they'd be right back.  Pretty soon we had about 60 people laughing and eating in our driveway and kids running around on the front lawn.  We even had people who had been neighbors for years, and this was the first social event, other than HOA-business, that they attended together.

    It was such a success, that we did it all summer long and continued it into the next summer.  I sure miss them and these lawn parties....later, especially for Halloween, we graduated to movies being projected onto the garage door and a few backyard events.  I honestly think it takes one spark to get something started, and a low-stress party such as the front, where everyone can see, is the best way to get things going.  It was great!

    I'm hoping my friend will give it a try.  Is there anything you do in your neighborhood to bring neighbors together?


    Tuesday, March 8, 2011

    Do a passport photo for free from home

    I know there are passport booths all over the place.  Even overseas, sometimes you'll see a booth at the PX....but, I have TONS of photo paper at home and a perfectly good printer that can print photos.  So how about doing your photos at home for free?

    Just stop by the site below and take your photo and then print it out on your own photo paper.

    EPassport Photo


    Sunday, March 6, 2011

    Off to the "Kur" again

    I just talked to one of my German relatives.  Yet again, she is off to her KUR.  You'll hear Germans talking about that quite often.  Can you imagine your doctor writing you a prescription to spend a week relaxing at a health spa and your health insurance paying for it?  That is a KUR....literally translated "cure".  Gotta love the Germans and their social system.  Look what other benefits they get that we don't.

    Before you get all excited though and want to move to Germany, let me preface all this, that Germany has a very high tax rate....just over 50%....not as high as the Scandanavian countries, but if we were taxed this high in the US, I think we would all riot!  So keep that in mind as you wonder (like I do sometimes) how the Germans can be so super-efficient and orderly, have all this time off and then STILL get their work done...when all is said and done at the end of the day or week.

    Here are some things that I find quite nice:

    • 37 Hour Workweek.  Or less!  Many offices get this done by closing early, or having a break in the day between noon and 2 pm on Fridays.  It's rare to see overtime and unions are very strong in Germany, always pushing for less hours.
    • Minimum 4 weeks paid vacation.  I don't care if you work at McDonald' are entitled to this as a German worker.  Also don't forget to add the 12-15 legal holidays to that and if you have good seniority, your vacation time is typically 6 instead of 4 weeks.  Germans also like to take their vacation all at once, unlike us Americans who do weeklongs and four days.  This is why many shops will close for a month, mostly in the summer.  Of course, ski week is popular too...a vacation that typically happens in March.  The schools are even out for that one...and of course around two weeks for Easter.
    • A Kur visit every two years.  Didn't you ever wonder why Germany had so many health spas?  Yes, to handle all these Germans going on Kur.
    • Six weeks paid sick leave.  Yes, you don't have to use your vacation time as sick leave like we sometimes do.  Health insurance can also kick in up to 90% of your pay after that period, until he/she recovers or!
    • Generous maternity & paternity leave.  Yes, both parents!  Before you even have the baby, moms can take six weeks of fully paid leave and then eight weeks after the birth.  Then on top of that, you can take three years of unpaid leave, knowing your job will still be waiting for you when you return.
    • A 13th month salary.  Companies typically also pay housing subsidies, travel to and from work...also subsidized or free lunches in the company cafeteria.  The government also provides Kindergeld (for each child you have).  All these extras are sometimes called the 13th month salary because it many times equals one months' pay and gets paid at the end of the year.
    • Many social benefits.  The government gives tons of unemployment benefits, assistance...pensions and even allowances for certain industries.  Can you believe the government will chip in and add to your salary if your company has to shorten your work hours?  This is the shortened work hours benefit or "Kurzarbeitergeld".
    Wow, huh?  Are there any readers in another European country willing to share what they do?


    Thursday, March 3, 2011

    How to I get to Brussels South (Charleroi) Airport for my Ryanair flight?

    Many Ryanair Discount flights and a few vacation charter jets leave through Charleroi Airport...which the airline industry calls "Brussels South".  I had to laugh at that...makes it sound like it's just around the corner when in actuality it's about 30 minutes South of Brussels.  It is also 30 minutes East of Mons, which makes it in the middle of nowhere.  So other than driving and paying about 60 euros for a 5 day stay in their outside parking lot, what other choices are there?

    My first recommendation is going to be scratch your back if you scratch mine.  Many of us take each other to the airport.  I let people park by my house (hey, I'm not going to go get you in the middle of the night, which is mostly when Ryanair flights late evening or early morning)....and I'll take them on over...and then go get them again.  I can have someone do that for me too...and watch our cat...nice.

    But, if you don't want to deal with the hassle of that or driving yourself...and you don't have a large family that would make it cost prohibitive, cause they charge by the person mostly, then try the service below.

    Charleroi Transfers

    Unfortunately, there are no train stops at Charleroi Airport...wish there still have to take a city bus from downtown (so that's another alternative).

    Do you know of any others?


    Tuesday, March 1, 2011

    Confessions of a European tourguide, Part I

    a tourguide in traditional garb
    I've mentioned before that I used to plan tours for a company that provided tours all over Europe, mostly for Americans.  In those two years, I learned a lot about the European tour industry I'd like to share.  Knowledge is power and maybe by going through these comments, you can better understand why your tour is the way it is...or why it isn't....or even head off any tour disaster before it happens.

    • Tourguides don't get paid SQUAT....period....we all do it for the love of travel!  I managed about 30 tourguides and ALL of them did it because they loved it and also wanted to show others what they loved.
    • Going back to the first point, this is why many tourguides get kickbacks from the stores they take you to.  They'll either get a percentage of what you all buy, a set amount of money or goods to take home for free.  This is all done very discreetly of course.  Don't begrudge them this, and if you don't want to buy, then don't feel obligated.  It's just a nice perk in our job.
    • Please pay attention when the tourguide gives you your marching orders on what is going on.  Many tourists just do not want to take any responsibility for themselves or their children.  I know it's not you I'm talking about....but just keep in mind, you are an ambassador of sorts for all Americans.  You're going to make it or break it for the rest of us.  Be pleasant and follow directions.  I also played tourguide and not just tour manager myself, and I could write a book on what happened along the way.  I've searched for a few lost children, a lost adult who had passed out under a hotelbed, talked a drunk guest off the roof of a 10 story hotel, questioned busriders on a disappearing camera when it was just us on board, and I once had to bail one of my charges out of a Spanish jaill!  That is just the tip of the iceberg of course.  Please give us a break and enjoy the tour, making it pleasant for everyone.
    • Please don't tell the busdriver to go faster or to skip a break.  Believe it or not, each busdriver has a little disc thing that goes into the dash of the bus.  This measures their speed, time driven and a few other bits of data.  European rules are VERY strict as to how many hours a driver spends non-stop driving, when his breaks are, etc.  They regularly have to show their "books".  The fines are so hefty for not following the rules, no bus company will risk it.  I'd like to go faster too....not gonna happen.
    • When the tourguide directs you to a potty break....please go ahead and relish in it.  Get it done even if you don't have to go.  We are always amazed when we need to interrupt a walking tour, because someone has to tinkle (emergencies are okay obviously).
    • When the bus toilet is full, it is full.  The owner of the bus company I worked with used to joke that only Americans can fill up his bus toilets as fast as they do.  This can be a real problem for those longer express (overnight on the bus) toilet emptying is scheduled as it is too time consuming and expensive.  Why do they get full so fast?  Because we drink a lot more than Europeans do throughout the day.  That is why we expect you to get off the bus when we do take a break for the driver....use the opportunity...don't be lazy and sleep thru the stop or use the bus bathroom because you don't want to walk the 50 feet to the reststop or restaurant.  I saw it all the time and always tried to be nice as pie in coercing folks off that bus.
    • Which brings us to the next point.  The bus driver should not be leaving the bus unlocked.  When we stop for a rest stop, please vacate the bus, so the driver can also take a break (they like to smoke rather than anything else it seems) and then lock up.
    Stay tuned for Part II...I have many more tips on the subject of course.  I can honestly say that European tourist bureaus, mom and pop operations, restaurants, venues and such....are more than helpful and really do want to show their visitors why you should come back for a return visit.  So, let me plug the tourist bureaus before I end this.  I always visit the tourist bureau website before my own personal travel.  Many will send kits, brochures, catalogs and free stuff or just answer any questions you may have.  I have never seen a more friendly and accommodating industry, at least here in Europe.  I've had people all over, bend over backwards to help make our tours a success!  One of these days I'll have to mention my favorites......there is just so much to see and experience in Europe beyond our beautiful cities and festivals!

    Do you have any tour stories to share?

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