The story of Jonas.

It’s been nearly two years since I’ve written on this blog; partly because the life of a working mom in America has less free time than that of a decadent housewife in Budapest, but mostly because that life is also less interesting to read about. I haven’t had anything I particularly wanted to write, but as Jonas approaches his first birthday, I’ve been thinking more about my pregnancy and his birth.

We call Jonas our little miracle baby, and while I’m sure most parents feel their children are miracles, Jonas is especially precious to us. Two years ago, just as we moved back to the U.S. after our time in Budapest, I was recovering from a miscarriage; an ultrasound at 7 weeks, and again at 8 weeks, showed no heartbeat. This was after several months of dashed hopes, and so in my devastation, I began to believe that children weren’t in our future. When we bought our house, we filled our third bedroom with boxes and exercise equipment; when friends or family jokingly referred to it as the future nursery, I died a little on the inside. It would have been a nursery, I thought, if only… if only.

In late October, I took a pregnancy test. I didn’t expect a positive – at that point, it was simply part of the routine. It was positive, but I didn’t celebrate. I’d seen that before. I was certain it would end the same way. I left the test on Richie’s sink without saying a word and continued on with my life. I only told my girlfriends who supported me through the first miscarriage. I asked Richie not to tell anyone else. I made doctor’s appointments, but I felt no joy in it; we’d been here before.

My first doctor’s appointment seemed to confirm my fears; my OB did an ultrasound and said, “Now, don’t freak out or anything, but there’s something a little funky going on here. Since I know you’re worried, and with your history, I’m going to just send you down the hall real quick and we’ll get it checked out.” Down the hall meant the high-risk perinatal practice, and I quickly became well-acquainted with that hallway. Their higher-definition ultrasound machine put the “something funky” fears to rest, but I was diagnosed with placenta previa (which is common and not an issue, but it requires monitoring because if it doesn’t resolve before natural labor begins, it requires a c-section). They scheduled me for ultrasounds every 6 weeks and told me to call if I had any concerns or felt anything strange.

Weeks passed and I hadn’t told family or coworkers. Richie and I planned to tell family at Christmas; mentally, I added the phrase “if we make it that far”. A sudden fall (tripping over constantly-underfoot Winston) meant that I told my coworkers much sooner than I planned, as a quick phone call to my doctor just to make sure it wasn’t a cause for concern turned into “come in right now for a scan”, and I had to explain why I left a frantic voicemail saying I was going to be a little late, with the echoes of hospital announcements in the background. Everything was fine at the scan, and still I worried.

We told our families over Christmas, as planned. We knew the sex – I had testing done at 11 weeks to determine gender and to rule out certain genetic disorders – but I refused to tell anyone, saying that we were waiting for the anatomy ultrasound to confirm. I know I was frustrating Richie, who was ready to tell the world that he was having a son, but I just couldn’t get there. We picked a paint color and started buying furniture, and I started what would be an unending addiction to online baby clothes shopping, and all the while I worried.

Finally, the anatomy ultrasound – and everything was perfect. All fingers and toes in place. All measurements perfect. We got definitive confirmation of the sex (as the ultrasound tech put it, “that boy is showing off for the camera”). And we told the world through a Facebook post.

I continued to be monitored every 4-6 weeks, between the placenta previa and the fact that Jonas was a breech baby. At just under 31 weeks, I started bleeding, with a blood clot the size of a lemon, and as we rushed to the hospital, I thought, this is it. This is the moment I’ve been dreading.

I’ve talked about this with some of my girlfriends, and the emotional weight of pregnancy after a loss can be so hard to bear. And in many ways, you’re bearing it alone; although Richie was as supportive as a husband could possibly be, it wasn’t his body that felt like it was failing our baby. The time from the first feeling of blood until the heartbeat monitor was attached to my belly was probably 45 minutes; it felt like an eternity. But his heart was strong and steady and he was fine. I was given steroid injections to strengthen his lungs in case he did make an early arrival, but my doctor was as certain as she could be that he was staying put. A c-section was scheduled for June 20th, but that hospital stint ensured that I would have weekly ultrasounds until his arrival.

Through those weekly measurements, Jonas was diagnosed with IUGR, or intrauterine growth restriction. When ultrasounds are performed, there are three primary measurements taken: femur, stomach, and head. Jonas’s stomach was measuring much smaller than his head and femur; this could have been due to his breech position, which makes stomach measurement more difficult. So the technicians perform a backup measurement, which is the umbilical cord flow rate and measures the rate at which fluid is passing through the cord from the placenta to the baby. If it’s lower than an expected ratio, it could indicate problems with the placenta, which would lead the baby’s stomach to grow less (as the baby’s body directs the majority of the nutrients towards brain formation).

At 37 weeks, I went for one of my weekly ultrasounds, and by this time I had grown rather weary of them. Most people get 2-3 at most in their pregnancies; I was well into the double digits. I felt as though I was constantly being told “Here’s this new problem to worry about, but don’t worry, because right now everything looks great!” I even thought of skipping or rescheduling some of the appointments. And the beginning of this appointment seemed to go as planned – the technician had a bright smile on her face as she said everything looked great, and that she’d send the doctor in. And then the doctor spent 10 minutes on the scan instead of 2-3, and she turned to me and said, “Well, I don’t think we need to wheel you down the hallway this minute, but you should call your husband and tell him you’re having a baby this week.” A phone call to my regular OB quickly ensued, and I was scheduled for a c-section the next day, June 8th.

When you have a scheduled c-section, everything about the day of the birth becomes shockingly ordinary. My parents arrived and we took them out to lunch (which I couldn’t eat, as I was strictly forbidden from any food after midnight – I later learned this instruction was incorrect due to a timing mix-up, and I should’ve been allowed to eat breakfast, so I was *starving*). We had a leisurely drive to the hospital, an ordinary check-in, and everything pretty much proceeded according to plan.

Our hospital has a policy that no one is allowed in the room when the woman is getting an epidural (apparently too many husbands have passed out after seeing the needle enter the spine), and so Richie was sent off to change into surgical scrubs. After the epidural began to take, I was wheeled off to the operating room, accompanied by no one other than the anesthesiologist’s assistant, Dwight. I was placed directly under the operating lights, and as the nurses bustled around the room, I began to sob. The last time I had been in an operating room, I was in Hungary, just one year before, having a D&C after my miscarriage. I remember the doctor who performed that procedure stroking my hair and saying to me, “This is a hard thing, a very hard thing, and you will never forget it, but time will pass and you will move forward.” And here I was, in Dallas, with a very uncomfortable Dwight stroking my hair and saying, “Don’t worry, your husband will be here very soon, and so will your little baby.” So much was the same, and so much was different.

Jonas was born at 4:54 pm, and he was perfect.

Afterwards, my OB said that it was a very good thing that we had scheduled the c-section for that day; that the reason for the decreased umbilical cord flow rate and for Jonas’s IUGR was that the placenta had begun to calcify. She said that if he had not been so closely monitored, his birth would have gone very, very differently.

I am so very thankful for my little miracle.

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Expats No Longer

One American habit that I lost when I lived overseas was saying “I’m so busy!” [Try this out sometime: send an e-mail or a text message or have lunch with a friend you haven’t seen in a few weeks. Ask them, “How have you been?” If they’re American, I guarantee you the response will include the phrase “so busy”.] My Budapest life was designed with intent to be not busy. But as we wrapped up our lives overseas, flew back to Dallas, and returned to our lives in America, I quickly reacquired the busy-ness. Here’s the photographic recap of what we’ve been up to.

I cohosted a baby shower with my Budapest lovelies for our friend Julia, who’s having a baby boy in June:

My girls (plus Oliver!)
My girls (plus Oliver!)

Richie and I participated in a “family photoshoot” with the crew of expats that won the NAWA Quiz Night in April. The theme was… well, there wasn’t really a theme, other than “wear what you want”. Naturally Richie wore his sheikh costume that he acquired in Abu Dhabi a few years ago.

We certainly are the definition of a motley crew.
We certainly are the definition of a motley crew.

I had a last meal at my all-time favorite Budapest restaurant, Két Szerecsen, with my gorgeous friends from Germany.

The picture that Kati and Alina didn't want me to post (sorry ladies - it's too cute!)
The picture that Kati and Alina didn’t want me to post (sorry ladies – it’s too cute!)

We had a going-away party at Pata Negra. My first ever visit to Pata Negra was on the day that we arrived to Budapest, and I left the restaurant in tears (without my dinner) due to the stress. It later became one of our favorite places, despite the unpromising introduction. It’s only fitting that we had our farewell meal there, with yes, more tears!

The lovely women of Budapest that came to our farewell dinner
The lovely women of Budapest that came to our farewell dinner

We visited the Gourmet Festival in Millenaris Park with Sophie, Reiner and Oliver (somehow I ended up with a million photos of Oliver and none of anyone else… typical with adorable kiddos!).

Oliver prefers Richie's sunglasses over his own.
Oliver prefers Richie’s sunglasses over his own.

On Monday, May 25th, the movers hired by the Firm arrived to pack, box, and tape everything we own. They sent five men to pack a 140-sq meter apartment, and they finished in about 5 hours. I guarantee it would’ve taken us a week and it wouldn’t have been nearly as neatly done.

I originally called this organized chaos, but I'm just going with chaos now.
I originally called this organized chaos, but I’m just going with chaos now.
Moving, part 2.
Moving, part 2.

On our last night in Budapest, we had dinner at Bock Bisztro, a restaurant known for its twists on Hungarian food. it was featured on the tv show “Bizarre Foods”, and while the food I’ve always ordered has been fairly normal, poor Sophie was treated to the sight of this dragonesque claw on her plate.

This claims to be a chicken. I think not.
This claims to be a chicken. I think not.

Afterwards, to cleanse our palates of said claw, we went to our favorite wine bar for a glass or two of wine. Our flight was at 6 am, meaning we had to leave our apartment around 4 am – and with all our last-minute preparations, we decided to stay up the entire night. Our friends helped us on our mission to stay awake just a little longer!

Our last night in Budapest!
Our last night in Budapest!
This photo was taken shortly after the men gave a jar of salsa to a homeless man, who promptly licked it, declared it too spicy, and dropped it on the cobblestones.
This photo was taken shortly after the men gave a jar of salsa to a homeless man, who promptly licked it, declared it too spicy, and dropped it on the cobblestones.

And then we headed to our apartment for a last roundup of our belongings and a very short nap before we headed to the airport.

Dori and Archie were kind enough to see us off, and before they met us at the airport, they took this last picture of us in front of our apartment building. Sniff. Farewell, Oktogon 3.
Dori and Archie were kind enough to see us off, and before they met us at the airport, they took this last picture of us in front of our apartment building. Sniff. Farewell, Oktogon 3.

Our flights to the USA were uneventful. We were able to fly business class on the way back, which for Richie is nothing special these days, but this was only my second time (the first was when we moved TO Budapest). I’ve gotta say, having fully lie-flat seats, delicious food, and champagne is a great way to make sure you don’t have jetlag when you return from overseas. We came back refreshed and easily readjusted to our new time zone. That is – if you consider waking up at 6 am “adjusted”, which I generally do NOT.

The biggest help to feeling normal again? These two.

PUPPIES. I missed you.
PUPPIES. I missed you.

After being without the dogs for six months, it was wonderful to be reunited! They were very confused when my parents left without them (I think they had a really great time with the “grandparents” and with their poodle friends Gabby and Bailey!) but they have quickly returned to their decadent lifestyle of snuggling and chewies and treats.

Next time on the blog: the perils of house-hunting in a seller’s market. Stay tuned.

Repatriation Plans

More than three years ago, I wrote this post about our impending move to Budapest. It’s a little bit surreal, reading that first post again. Stefanie-of-three-years-ago was overly optimistic about her ability to learn Hungarian and her willingness to get off the couch. Now, it’s time to write about the other side… our return to the States. Here’s the FAQ on our repatriation.

When and where are you going?

We’re moving right back where we came from – Dallas, Texas – on May 31st.

Where will you live when you get there?

When we arrive, we’ll be in temporary housing. We picked an apartment close to Richie’s client in Las Colinas. The Firm provides us with 30 days of housing; after that, we’re on our own. Since we no longer own a house in Dallas, my number one priority is to find a home. We already have a fantastic realtor, and I’ve been checking out houses online for months, so hopefully the process goes smoothly. We’re primarily looking at Dallas homes that are zoned to RISD.

What will you do with the dogs?

Our temporary housing is pet-friendly, so they’ll be coming to join us as soon as my parents can make the trip up north. We have definitely missed them for the past several months (although, to be perfectly honest, I have not missed the early morning and late night dog walks).

What about cars?

We need them! We sold both our cars before we left, as they were too old to seriously consider keeping and storing them for our return. I visited the Houston Auto Show in January, so I’ve got a pretty good idea what I want, but Richie’s still making up his mind. He will have a rental car for 30 days, so we don’t have to make decisions on that immediately.

Will you be working?

I plan to, but not right away. There are a number of details that need to be seen to after our arrival (like house-hunting, receiving and going through our air and sea shipments, retrieving the items that we placed in storage before our move, doing any repairs or renovations to our hypothetical new home). It’s never a great idea to start a new job with a request for lots of time off, so while I’ll be searching for jobs upon arrival, I don’t anticipate working until a month or so afterwards.

Richie will start work a few days after we arrive, so thankfully he’ll have some time to do house-hunting with me at the beginning. I was a little worried that I’d be asked to pick our house entirely on my own!

And the #1 question we’re asked: Are you excited?!

The short answer is yes. I’ve missed my friends and family, my job, Mexican food, the ability to go to the grocery store without using Google Translate….

The long answer? I never expected to feel at home in Budapest. I thought that I might like it, perhaps I might love it in the way that you grow fond of a favorite travel spot, but I never expected that I would be genuinely devastated to leave it. We’ve built a life here that I love, with friends that I adore and are a source of strength and comfort (and fun!) to me every day. If I could just pluck all of our friends from Budapest and take them with us (as well as some of our favorite hangouts in the city, and the ability to easily travel to new countries for a weekend), the answer would be an unreserved yes.

Urban Exploration.

The weather in Budapest has been wonderful lately (hello, sunshine and short skirts!), which means that even the laziest and most decadent of housewives (ahem. yours truly.) wants to get out of the apartment. Today, after a lunch with some of my expat girlfriends, we decided to take advantage of the weather and take a stroll. As we were walking, we kept noticing these gorgeous buildings – or rather, buildings with the potential to be gorgeous, since we were in the 8th district. We commented that so often, we’re looking down at our feet (there’s a lot of stuff on the Budapest streets that you don’t want to step in…) and completely missing the interesting stuff above street level.

One of these poor guys is missing its head, but it's still pretty charming.
One of these poor guys is missing its head, but it’s still pretty charming.
A gorgeous building in the 8th district - can you imagine how it would look with just a little money and time?
A gorgeous building in the 8th district – can you imagine how it would look with just a little money and time?
This building isn't in great shape (especially the bottom floor, covered in graffiti), but whenever I see it, I long to buy it and fix it up. If only I had a few spare billions of forints lying around.
This building isn’t in great shape (especially the bottom floor, covered in graffiti), but whenever I see it, I long to buy it and fix it up. If only I had a few spare billions of forints lying around.

Our conversation about looking above our heads reminded me of some exploring I did in our own apartment building. The building we live in was built in 1873, which was in the sort of golden age of the Austro-Hungarian empire. Like many of the buildings from that time, ours has a set of servants’ stairs – a staircase at the back of the apartment building just for the household staff to use. I didn’t know that it existed for the first year or so that we lived here – the entrance on the ground floor is blocked by an iron door, and they’re no longer in use – but after a tour of some other apartment buildings with a guide who mentioned the servants’ stairs, I went to take a look. It was easy to tell why they’re not used – as I was standing there, I could hear the sound of plaster cascading down the walls and steps. The weird thing is that I never bothered to look above my head while I was checking the stairs out… until yesterday, when I went back to snap a picture in the sunlight. And then I noticed this.

Stairway to... nowhere.
Stairway to… nowhere.

At some point, a false ceiling was created, and now the servants’ stairs just… end. (This made me curious as to what they look like on the 3rd floor. The answer? I have no idea, because they’re behind an iron door. It sort of looks like the 3rd floor of the staircase has been turned into an apartment… but if so, that is one tiny apartment. It’s like 10 meters square!)

Looking down the servants' stairs from the 2nd floor.
Looking down the servants’ stairs from the 2nd floor. I would NOT walk on these.

It’s worth pointing out that while these stairs are pretty shady looking, our main staircase isn’t much to look at either…

The main staircase in our building, as well as our Communist-era lift that always makes visitors nervous
The main staircase in our building, as well as our Communist-era lift that always makes visitors nervous

Especially in comparison to, say, this gorgeous staircase we encountered on a tour in the 5th district.

Fancy.
Fancy.

And while I was exploring, I popped up to the 4th floor. I always wondered how the workers got on the rooftops of the Oktogon buildings to change the advertisements (our building has a Rolex logo on top), and now I know. On most floors, there are two apartment doors in the stairwell. On the fourth, there’s only one apartment, and the other door is this lovely creature that leads to the roof.

Someone clearly didn't like this door.
Someone didn’t like this door.

The best part is that someone has clearly locked themselves in the roof before, based on the chopped out pieces of wood and the fact that there is now a handwritten note on the door with the name and number of the building manager in case of emergency!

Up to the roof!
Up to the roof!

I thought about venturing up to the roof, but the state of the door dissuaded me…. I don’t know how to say, “I’m locked in the attic, please come rescue me!” in Hungarian.

Margitsziget (Margaret Island)

Now that our dogs have returned to the States (and are living in the lap of luxury with my parents), it’s hard to be motivated to return to my regular daily walks. This was especially true in February, where the wind, drizzly rain, and cloudy days made me glad that I had no puppy eyes staring up at me, begging for a trip to the dog park. However, Budapest is experiencing some pretty springtime weather (we actually hit 60°F yesterday for a brief yet glorious moment), and after spending a few days with the soul-sucking tasks of researching potential future jobs, houses, and mortgage rates, I was ready for an extended break from the computer screen.

Today, I headed to Margaret Island (Margitsziget in Hungarian). I’ve mentioned it briefly on the blog, as it’s a spot we often took the dogs on sunny weekends. It’s easy to access – the 4/6 tram that runs along the Great Boulevard has a stop just for the island – and you could spend an entire day exploring it. For the athletes, there is a 5.35km running trail (with nice spongy material, although it’s a bit bedraggled in spots), an Olympic swimming pool, various sports and athletic centers, and, in the summer months, the Palatinus Strand, a bath complex with swimming pools, a wave pool, and slides.

For those who enjoy ruins, the island has plenty of those. At one time, the island was actually three individual islands, one of which was known as the Rabbit Island. Beginning in the 12th century, this island was mainly known for its religious groups, with monasteries, convents, and churches vying for space – including a Dominican convent housing Margaret, daughter of King Béla IV. I’ve heard from a tour guide or two that the king promised his daughter Margaret to God if only he would stop the Mongol invasion of Hungary, so he gave her to the care of the Dominican nuns. I don’t know if that part’s true, but I do know that he later attempted to set her up with the King of Bohemia, but she refused to leave her beloved convent and took her final religious vows to prevent him from marrying her off. Cheeky of her. The island, combined with two others in the 19th century in order to control the flow of the Danube, now bears her name, and you can visit her grave there.

When the Ottomans invaded Hungary, they destroyed many religious institutions, so today, all that remains of the convent, as well as the nearby Franciscan church and monastery, are ruins.

Ruins of the Franciscan church and monastery - only two walls remain of the church
Ruins of the Franciscan church and monastery – only two walls remain of the church

This is the Chapel of Saint Michael (Szent Mihaly kapolna) – if I read the plaque correctly, it was originally from the 13th century, but this is a 19th or 20th century reconstruction, using the ruins that were found on the island. The bell is original, I believe. Services are still held in the chapel – I couldn’t go in today, actually, due to a mass!

The rebuilt Chapel of St. Michael
The rebuilt Chapel of St. Michael

For those who don’t find ruins fascinating, there are plenty of other sights to suit your fancy, like this gorgeous Art Nouveau water tower (you can go in it during the summer months for a view of the city). At the base of the tower is an exhibition center and a small outdoor theater for musical performances.

The Margaret Island Water Tower
The Margaret Island Water Tower

Or perhaps you like gardens? The island is home to a vast amount of green space, suitable for a pickup game of football or frisbee, but several sections of the park have been turned into gardens. In winter, it’s a bit bare, but in the late spring and summer months, it’s a riot of color. Today, I visited the Japanese garden for the first time. It’s on the far side of the island (close to the Árpád bridge) and was recently renovated, although there are still signs of remaining projects, cordoned off with plastic barriers.

One of two ponds in the Japanese Gardens
One of two ponds in the Japanese Gardens
This stairway takes you up to a beautiful sitting area
This stairway takes you up to a beautiful sitting area
This rocky wall in the background is a fountain in the summer months.
This rocky wall in the background is a fountain in the summer months.

There are also two musical fountains on the island. The first, close to the Margaret Bridge and the main entrance to the island, was recently renovated and features pulsing water to the beat of various songs, much like the Bellagio fountains of Vegas (although not nearly as grand).

A picture of our dogs with the fountain, pre-renovation... it looks much, much nicer these days, but it's currently covered in plastic wrapping to protect it from the Budapest winters. I'll take an updated picture when it reopens for business.
A picture of our dogs with the fountain, pre-renovation… it looks much, much nicer these days, but it’s currently covered in plastic wrapping to protect it from the Budapest winters. I’ll take an updated picture when it reopens for business.

I actually thought this was THE musical fountain and have been calling it that for three years now, but it turns out (per the official Margaret Island map) this is just “the fountain” and the “musical fountain” is on the opposite end of the island, near the Japanese gardens and the Árpád bridge. Strangely, it’s not actually a fountain, but a well, built in 1935 as an exact replica of a well built in Marosvásárhely, Hungary, in the 1820s. It had a special clock and musical chime that was powered solely by the well’s water. The Margaret Island version uses the less-energy-efficient method of electricity to run the music, and it had to be significantly repaired after sustaining damage in WWII. It was renovated again in 2014, and now is pretty gorgeous.

The Musical Fountain / Well / whatever it's called.
The Musical Fountain / Well / whatever it’s called.

There’s also what’s referred to as the Artists’ Promenade, with busts of various Hungarian painters and sculptors in all different styles and sizes.

I'm a big fan of this guy's mustache.
I’m a big fan of this guy’s mustache. And outfit.

My favorite feature of the island is one of the simplest, though – plenty of benches scattered throughout the park to bring a book and catch some sun. As soon as the temperatures hit 70 degrees, that’s where you’ll find me!

Things that are weird.

A few weeks before we moved to Budapest, Richie and I attended a day-long class about culture shock, designed to give us a heads-up about some things we might find unusual or unexpected in Hungary. I mostly found it unusual and unexpected that our “how to be Hungarian” class was taught by a Russian guy. On our way out, he mentioned that we would have a similar class when we moved back, except this time it would be about re-adjusting to American life. I laughed about that in the car on our drive home. We’re Americans! How hard can it be to act like ourselves?

Well, I’ve been in the USA on my annual home leave for 33 days now, and I’ve gotta say it. Things are weird. All of our previous trips over the past 3 years have been around 10 days or less, and most of that time was occupied with family activities. Now that I’ve had some time to meet up with friends, go shopping, drive a car, do laundry… I’m noticing the little things that are going to be a little disconcerting when we officially move back in May.

I can understand everyone around me. All of the time. Can I tell you a secret? In Budapest, I am *constantly* eavesdropping on the people around me. If they’re speaking Hungarian, I’m testing how much of their conversation I can understand with my limited language skills (answer: very, very little unless they’re talking about their dogs). If it’s French, I’m doing the same (answer: very, very little unless they’re talking about food). If I hear a glimpse of English, I’m trying to figure out why they’re here (tourist/student/expat) and where they’re from. And when I’m not actively listening, the voices fade easily into the background, like a TV that’s on the golf channel or a radio that’s tuned to the news. It’s almost soothing.

Here in America, though, I’m not used to tuning out people out. I can understand everyone and it’s maddening. In grocery stores, in malls, in restaurants, it’s like a thousand televisions are grouped around me, each on a different channel and each blasting at full volume.

People are overly friendly. I am no longer used to having conversations with cashiers, strangers in checkout lines, random people next to me at the clothing rack… you get the picture. It’s not just the language barrier – because I can usually pass for a Hungarian at the grocery store, and the most a cashier will say as you’re checking out is “[Store] card?” and “[Amount of forints you owe]”. And no one has ever asked me a question about the items I’m looking at or purchasing.

But here in Texas, you are downright strange if you don’t engage in a friendly and in-depth conversation with your cashier, or with the person in line behind you, or any number of people you encounter along the way. At HEB, the girl bagging our groceries commented on the amount of junk food Richie was buying, asked me if I ever cooked for him, and said “You’d better watch out, he’s going to get fat!” At Petsmart, the woman behind me in line noticed I was buying flea medicine for my dogs and asked me why I was buying one brand instead of the other. At Target, as the cashier scanned my socks, the random girl behind me started waxing poetic about how awesome the socks were and how she really should go back and get some. At a steakhouse, our waiter asked us what our plans for the holidays were and told us about how his family was coming to town to visit him and blah blah blah blah. I feel like Reese Witherspoon when she first gets plopped into Pleasantville.

Driving is scary. I miss the Metro desperately.

Winston is probably a better driver than I am at this point.
Winston is probably a better driver than I am at this point.

Sales tax gets me every time. I’m used to the VAT being included in the displayed price of items. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been told by a cashier, “Okay, your total is $X” and I’ve started to say, “Wait, I thought it was Y?” because I completely forgot about sales tax. Also, pennies are the worst.

On the positive side:

Laundry is amazing again. Laundry in Budapest is a drag. We do *have* a dryer, which is lucky – of the 15+ apartments we checked out in person, as well as the 50 or so I looked at online, ours is the only apartment that had one. But if I were to put a single pair of jeans in the dryer, it would take approximately 10 hours to dry fully. Seriously. I tried it. So instead I use a drying rack, meaning that one load of clothes takes all day. And one load of clothes, in a European washing machine, is about 3 pairs of jeans. I cannot tell you how baffled I was when I first did laundry at my parents’ house and my 6 pairs of jeans and 2 corduroy trousers were all washed and perfectly dried within 75 minutes. It’s a little sad how happy I am to do laundry!

Precious Cargo.

One of the aspects of our expat life that required the most research (and incurred the most stress) was transporting our dogs to and from Europe. I thought I’d share what we’ve learned through the process, as we have several friends who will be relocating their pets overseas in the upcoming months.

Most airlines have pet transportation programs. Based on my research, the two best airlines for international pet transport are Lufthansa and KLM. Both have pet hotels in Europe (Lufthansa’s is in Frankfurt, KLM’s is in Amsterdam) where pets are given food, water, and a bathroom break between connecting flights. You can also check out the Department of Transportation’s Incident Reports, which has information about every injury, accident and death related to animals on every flight that enters / exits / takes place in the USA.

There are three main forms of pet air transportation:

Excess Baggage: Depending on the type of aircraft you’re flying, and the route you’re taking, it’s often possible to take your pets as excess baggage, either in the cabin or underneath the plane. There are very specific height and weight requirements for cabin pets which vary by airline, but generally it would limit you to cats or dogs the size of a chihuahua or a Yorkie. If your dog doesn’t meet the height and weight restrictions, it can go underneath the plane in a specialized animal transport compartment. It’s pressurized and temperature-controlled (unlike the nearby luggage compartment) but space is limited, with only a handful of dogs permitted on each flight, depending on size. Additionally, these compartments don’t exist on many smaller planes, so if you have a connecting flight to a small city, it may not be possible to use this method. This is by far the cheapest way to send your dogs, generally ranging between $200 and $500 depending on the size of the pet and its kennel. To use this method, you must provide an approved kennel (we use Petmate Vari Kennel Ultra for both dogs), food and water bowls that attach to the kennel, and absorbent materials to line the kennel.

Cargo: Most airlines have a cargo division that transports pets. The pets will either be in the specialized compartment underneath a passenger plane, as mentioned above, or in an animal transport hold of a cargo plane (depending on the airline, time of flight, etc). These cargo companies don’t usually accept pets from the owners directly, but rather through an intermediary that specializes in animal transport. You contact the animal transport companies in your location (in Budapest, it’s Airmax Cargo) and provide them the pertinent information about your pets and when you want them to travel. They work with the airlines and provide you with a proposed route and price quote for each airline. These quotes generally are only valid for 30 days, so while I recommend contacting them a few months in advance, you may see some fluctuation in the original quote and the final contracted price. With these cargo companies, you can provide your own kennel and bowls, but you can also purchase the kennel directly from the transport company and have them handle everything for you. This costs a little more than excess baggage but is still pretty reasonably priced for an international flight (we got quotes between $500 and $1500 per dog).

For those who have to make a connection to get to their destination, this is the better option. The cargo company will schedule the flights so that the pet has an overnight stay in their pet hotel, so they will have an opportunity to get out of the kennel and use the bathroom, get fresh food and water, and sleep for a few hours between flights. With the excess baggage option, your pet follows the same path as your luggage, so he or she won’t be able to get out of the kennel for the entire journey. So for example, if you fly from Houston to Budapest, connecting in Frankfurt, the total travel time including layovers is usually about 16-17 hours. That’s a long time to go without added water and a bathroom break!

Door-to-door transport: This is the most comprehensive (and the most costly) option. There are several companies that specialize in international pet transport, with the most well-known ones being PetRelocation.com and Worldwide Pet Transport. This full-service option is basically effortless on the part of the pet owner. You request a quote from the website, inputting basic information about your pets and your home and destination cities. The company puts you in touch with a specialist for your region, who takes all the details and comes up with a quote. They handle *everything* for you, including the pre-departure vet visit to get the required travel paperwork, picking up the pet from your home and taking it to the airport, clearing customs, and bringing the dog to your home in your new destination. As you can imagine, this service is not cheap. We were given a quote of $8,500 to bring our two dogs from Budapest to Houston via one of these services, and that was with me agreeing to do all of the travel paperwork and veterinary visits on my own!

When we moved to Budapest, we used the excess baggage method for both dogs. It worked well enough – the dogs arrived safely, in good health and without any injuries or apparent trauma. We researched other options for the return trip, though, for a few reasons. First, have you ever tried to juggle two large dog crates, 4 suitcases, two carry-ons, a purse and a briefcase between two people? I have. It’s not fun. It makes you do stupid things, like take an unlicensed minivan taxi because you’re standing in an airport in a foreign country with all this STUFF surrounding you, and since he likes dogs, why not? (It worked out fine, but generally speaking, DON’T accept offers from random taxi men in the lobby of the Budapest airport. Or any airport.) We didn’t want to do that again when bringing our dogs home. And secondly, Winston has a few health issues – he recently turned 11 years old, and he has epilepsy. Both of these factors make flying a little more risky for him. I started looking into sending the dogs separately from us, a few days before our flight to Houston for Christmas.

I originally arranged for both dogs to go on KLM cargo planes, via Airmax Cargo. However, we hit a snag when we learned that the dogs would have an overnight stay in Amsterdam. Winston takes a daily medication for his epilepsy to prevent seizures. We asked KLM whether they could administer his medication at the pet hotel during his overnight stay – and they responded that they would be unable to transport him at all due to his health. Sigh.

So I began researching the door-to-door transportation options, requesting quotes and letting them know of Winston’s health issues. We got a preliminary quote from one company that stated it would be about $3,000 per dog under our circumstances. While that was a huge expense (especially compared to the $700 we paid in total for both dogs from Houston to Budapest), we thought that might be the only option for Winston given his health issues. So we proceeded to request a detailed quote… only to be told that the total for both dogs was actually $8,500. Yikes. That was completely impossible for us. [Note – some people assume that because we’re expats, all of this kind of stuff is covered by the company or included in our contract. That’s not true for many expats, and it definitely isn’t true for us. All of this is at our own expense. For those who are planning an overseas assignment, consider negotiating this into your contract if you have pets!]

Ultimately, we opted to send Lexie via the cargo service a few days before our flight, and Winston via excess baggage on our flight. My experience with the cargo service was wonderful, and I would highly recommend using KLM and their animal transport affiliates. They took great care of Lexie every step of the way, and they gave me a tracking number (just like a postal package) so that I could follow her progress. Winston also did great on his flight, although I was a little unhappy about his being unceremoniously dumped outside of the oversized baggage area at IAH.

If anyone plans to take their pets overseas, and would like to talk to me about my experiences or get more information about the research I did, just leave a comment or send me an e-mail! I’d be happy to talk about it.