Sunday, November 18, 2018

The Money Curse

You know, it didn't seem like we spent a lot of money in Argentina, but apparently I was the only thing keeping their economy going. In the picture, the blue arrow points to my departure date. Since leaving the exchange rate has gone from ~20 pesos to the US dollar, to at-time-of-writing 39, largely due to devaluation of their currency (rather than the dollar increasing in value). In retrospect, we did inject a lot of money into the local economy in the form of empanada and medialuna purchases...

This is actually just part of a long chain of me getting "screwed over" when it comes to money in this job. (I use "screwed over" loosely, because realistically I am paid exceedingly well.) When I went to India, the hardship differential pay decreased from 20% to 15% about 3 months before I arrived. It increased back to 20% the week I left. No worries, I was arriving in Buenos Aires with a hefty 42% Cost of Living Adjustment (COLA)... which dropped to 30% the week I arrived. Prices went up steadily for 2 years, with a incomparably small change in exchange rate... just waiting for me to leave, and now BOOM! All my old coworkers are living the exchange high-life. 

Comically, when I started writing this Post, I was going to include coming to Iceland... where (despite being one of the most expensive places in the world) the COLA is a ridiculously low (35% when I arrived, just barely more than Argentina!) Since we arrived, it's actually decreased three times and is now down to 20%... however, that's because (finally) the exchange rate is helping us out! When I bid on Iceland, the exchange rate was 108 ISK per 1 USD. When we arrived it was down to 103. However, in the last month the krona has tanked, leaving us with a current 124 ISK per 1 USD. That's an effective 20% increase in our spending power since arriving, hard to argue with that! Maybe the curse is broken! 

Sunday, November 11, 2018

Buying Cars for Iceland; Lessons Learned

Iceland is full of ridiculous cars like this.
When we joined the foreign service and were assigned to India, we knew we couldn't bring our cars (since India drives on the left). The Department will store one car, if it's not allowed in the country you're assigned, but it seemed silly to us to store a car for who-knows-how-long, so we just sold both of our cars. In India, we bought a 'temporary' car, which we sold when we left. In Buenos Aires we didn't need a car, in fact many of those who had cars rarely used them. Which leads us to...

Reykjavik is definitely a 'car city.' The public transit exists, but is fairly expensive ($4/trip) and not horribly frequent. Cars are expensive (high import taxes and sales taxes) in Iceland, and the Department will ship one car for free, so we planned to purchase a car on home leave. The former CLO in Reykjavik also suggested we buy our second car in the States and ship it personally. He estimated $3000 for shipping. We took his advice, however here is a list of the mistakes we made.

1) Title delay: We purchased our cars from Hertz. This isn't a mistake in itself, we've purchased from them before and they sell good cars. HOWEVER, Hertz takes several weeks to provide you with the title. Which delayed the pick up and then drop off of the vehicles.

2) Sales tax: The folks at Hertz are not very knowledgeable about car sales (at least at the location we purchased from). When you purchase a car to ship out of the state, you are not required to pay State sales tax and you are not required to register the vehicle. However, despite us telling them we were buying the cars to immediately ship overseas, the Hertz folks were unaware of this and we ended up paying for Registration and sales tax. ~$3500 wasted total.

3) Shipping costs: The CLO (unofficially) suggested that it would cost around $3000 to ship a vehicle to Iceland. After we purchased the car, we got quotes... for $6000 and $5300. We went with the latter, but including the port fees in Reykjavik, ended up paying just over $6000.

4) Tax free Iceland: Unfortunately, nowhere in the Post information does it mention that we have tax-exemption on large purchases in Iceland. After arriving, we learned that we could have purchased a new car tax free upon arrival.

The delay on the title wasn't the end of the world, since we were able to rent/borrow a car from motor pool until our car arrived. The other three were 'just money,' but in the end... we personally shipped a 2 year old Toyota Yaris... all told to buy and ship it, we ended up (over) paying about $16,000. Had we known then what we know now... we could have arrived at Post and purchased a similar new car for $14 or $15,000. Bummer.

Wednesday, May 9, 2018

Reader Question on Judging Post Morale

Since I mentioned Post Morale as one of our bidding criteria, one reader asked "how do you know a post is a low morale post?"

Morale is a constantly changing thing. We never really understood how much morale matters at a Post... until we changed Posts. Chennai had some challenges, and the community was pretty much split into people who loved it and people who hated it. However, even the people who hated it tended to be in pretty good spirits.

Perhaps it was the 'hardship,' perhaps it was the social isolation caused by living in a much different culture, but either way, people did things together. Parties pulled big numbers of attendees... Even a three year old's birthday party would attract singles from Post who just wanted to hang out with their friends. There was a fantastic shared common space in the pool where people could randomly meet up with others. Even the places we (Consulate staff) tended to go were unique enough that it wasn't uncommon to sit next to someone from work at a restaurant. That being said... I mostly remember my second year in Chennai... it literally changed year to year.

So... what factors into morale? In no particular order:

  • The Management Team - They control so much, and a little consideration can go a long way to starting off people's tours on the right foot.
  • Location Location Location - If your housing pool is geographically gigantic, it's hard to SEE others from the community outside of work.
  • Hardship - 'Harder' posts have better communities, period. Maybe there are exceptions, but it is a generally accepted fact. Think about it, the harder the place, the more you bond with your colleagues over the "us vs them" nature of surviving in a stressful environment.
  • Expectations - This is a tough one. People 'expected' Buenos Aires to be the 'Paris of South America.' Maybe it is, if you stress the South America, rather than the Paris (disclaimer, I've never lived in Paris). Buenos Aires was a nice place, but people moved there with outrageous expectations of 'dream posts.' Every post has problems. Conversely, my second year in Chennai saw a steep change over of second tour officers, fresh out of 'luxury' posts that were very upset with their second assignment. Who replaced them? First tour officers who were ecstatic just to be overseas. Talk about a change in mindset.
  • Location Location Location (again) - Buenos Aires had an odd dichotomy; GENERALLY speaking, singles and couples loved it (it was a nice city), and families did not. Young kids (like mine) struggled to find friends (locals spoke Spanish, and the housing pool was too spread out to make Embassy friends) or had to struggle with long commutes (either to school or work).

How do you know the morale at Post? Here's my easy two-step process for determining Post morale:
  1. Read the Personal Post Insights (from the Overseas Briefing Center) and the Real Post Reports (from talesmag). Sometimes people flat-out describe morale (I saw that in a review of Phnom Penh). Even if they don't... you can tell. Happy people focus on positives, miserable people focus on negatives.
  2. Ask. I literally just asked when I e-mailed my predecessors in the positions I was bidding on. Literally every one responded with candor. Again, happy people love to talk about how great a place is, miserable people are itching for an excuse to complain. Either way, you win.
Does it matter? I struggle with this question. As someone who openly stated morale to be a big factor of my bidding, I ended up going to a place that isn't really known (in the last few years at least) for it's morale. End of the day, I'll probably be happy wherever I go, and there were more important considerations. Your experience may vary.

Sunday, April 22, 2018

Testing Our Resilience

Yesterday I said goodbye to one of my two best friends in Argentina. I was very fortunate to make some local friends very early in my tour. It... is very hard to leave your life to move half way around the world and start over. I guess it's a mixed blessing, because it also means that I've enjoyed my time in Buenos Aires, because I'm sad it is ending. Sad being the operative word. It is going to be a rough summer.

Thursday, April 19, 2018

Pack Out Panic

Good news! Pack out is completed. Technically that means our "pack out panic" is over. It actually went fairly smoothly, since we've spent the last month organizing stuff and the last two years selling/donating/giving away stuff.

It's kind of impressive how few boxes your entire life fits into (and how quickly it can be packed up by 2-3 movers!)

Unpacking our welcome kit.

Pro Tip! Stick all your "not getting packed" stuff into a clearly marked off area. We chose a bathroom.

There's no way this is all going to fit in our luggage.

Pro-er Tip! Attempt packing your suitcases BEFORE pack out. We did not... I sure hope all that stuff fits in our suitcases!