Thursday, June 25, 2015

Three Years of Elvie Love

Three years ago today, a judge declared us to be Elvie's family, and we whisked her away from the care center as soon as possible. What a privilege and a pleasure it has been to be family to her. We are blessed and lucky to have this exuberant little girl in our family. She loves fiercely and never gives up. What a treasure.

These are some of our favorite photos of Elvie from this past year. She chose the songs, practically rolling her eyes at me when I asked her favorite songs, because isn't everyone's favorite song Best Song Ever? And who doesn't like Wrapped Up? Probably no one. Elvie is certain you'll enjoy this video, both for the photos and the music.

Three Years of Elvie Love from Mary McBride on Vimeo.

Thank you for all the joy you've brought to all of us, Elvie! We sure do love you a lot!

Monday, April 27, 2015

San Francisco to London: Moving Our Pets

pets ready for travel, from san francisco to london
Saying good-bye to our cats before their flight to London.

If you ask people who have moved internationally with pets what the most challenging part of the whole moving process was, I'm guessing a solid majority of them would say, "Moving our pets." Moving our stuff was a lot of work, but it wasn't nerve-wracking in the way that moving our pets was. Stuff is just stuff. If the container falls off the ship, guess what? IKEA! That's what. We got insurance for that stuff for a reason. It's all replaceable. But our pets are irreplaceable; they are members of our little family, and I was incredibly nervous that I'd get one step of the process wrong, and then our cats would end up in quarantine for months and die before making it to our new home. That didn't happen, and I'm here to tell you why; it's because we hired a pet relocation company to handle the details for us. It's not a cheap thing to do, but in my opinion, it is worth it.

Moving pets from the USA to the UK has gotten easier in recent years, but there are still very specific steps you must follow in order to qualify for the PETS Scheme and to ensure that your pet(s) will not have to spend time in quarantine once they arrive in the UK. The first steps, I felt confident I could complete on my own, but I was not confident that I would fill out all the paperwork correctly, and the last few steps would have been challenging to complete without help. I understand how someone might look at the cost and think it would be better to do everything on their own, but I just didn't want to take any risks with our precious pets.

After reading reviews and getting a few price quotes, we chose Air Animal, and we opted for their Origin Pet Express service, in which the cats would be picked up from our home and taken to the airport by a pet courier, and then we would pick them up at the airport in London. While I still had to do some of the legwork, I was able to leave the very important detail work to the professionals, and I am very happy that I did so. Here are the steps of our process (including the part where we didn't actually arrive in London before our pets and had to deal with that):

1. I checked the regulations for flight containers for animals and ordered one for each cat in the correct size so we could have them in the house, and the children could play in them. I mean, so the cats could get used to them. They were huge, not at all what we would use to transport the cats otherwise. According to the regulations, the pet must be able to stand upright, turn around, and lie down comfortably. There are also other regulations regarding ventilation and how the container hooks together, so we confirmed with Air Animal that we had ordered the correct carriers. Ours were PetMate brand and were purchased on

2. I scheduled a vet appointment for the cats to have health checks, have microchips inserted, and have a fresh rabies vaccine. It's very important that the microchip be the international version (ISO), and that the microchip be inserted prior to the rabies vaccine. If a pet already has an international microchip, then a fresh rabies vaccination is required at this visit. The vet must fill in a document called the third country veterinary certificate, stating the microchip number and the date of the rabies vaccination, as well as other information about the vaccine. Ours was provided to the veterinarian by Air Animal, and they also checked to make sure that our veterinarian was recognized with the USDA. After the rabies vaccination, the pet must wait 21 days before traveling, and since we had booked this appointment as soon as we knew we were moving, this was not an issue.

3. We determined our date of travel and decided when to book the cats travel. Air Animal took care of booking the cats' flight for us. To enter the UK from the US, pets must travel on approved carriers, on approved routes.

4. Within ten days of travel, the cats had to have a health check and receive an international health certificate. We booked this with our vet, and then USDA veterinarian had to sign off on the paperwork. The paperwork was provided to our vet and then delivered to the USDA vet via arrangements made by Air Animal. The paperwork was then delivered to the person who would be picking up our cats from our home and taking them to the airport.

5. Air Animal let us know the time that the pet courier would arrive to pick up the cats. She arrived promptly, and she confirmed that all paperwork was in order. She assured us that everything would go smoothly, and that both she and British Airways would take good care of our pets.

6. Because our visas were delayed, our cats flew into the UK seven days before we did. This is no longer allowed - the maximum time difference between human arrival and animal arrival is five days. We originally intended to arrive the day before the cats and pick them up at the airport ourselves, but when our visas were delayed, we decided to send them on ahead since changing the plan would mean that we'd have to reschedule flights and re-do the final vet appointment. We opted to contact the company that would be receiving our pets in London and ask them to deliver them to our new home, as we did not know anyone who would want to pick up three cats from the airport.

7. The aftercare specialist from London Relocation Services was on hand to collect all the pet care necessities we ordered from an collection point, then to meet the cats at our new home. She also checked in on the cats throughout the week to refill food and water and, as well as to change out litter when necessary. As much as we were grateful for the help finding and securing the lease for our new place, I was just as grateful to have this service available to us.

8. We arrived in London to find our cats waiting for us, a little bit thinner from the stress of travel but in overall good shape.

Now the pets are fully settled into our London home. You'd never know that they took a long haul flight and spent the first week here on their own, and we are so happy that our whole family - human and feline - is here together.

Sunday, April 26, 2015

You've Got Two Weeks to Honor Your Mom

banana and her granddaughters
My mother and my daughters.

Time flies by quickly, doesn't it? I found that when I became a mom, it started to fly even faster for me. It seems like there is always something to do, every moment of every day, and pretty soon, the day is over. This past year, the days flew by so fast that both Jarod and I forgot our anniversary. We didn't even realize that's what day it was. And I'm pretty sure I've forgotten every single birthday of every loved one except for those in my immediate family. It's not that I forget the birthdays themselves, it's just that I don't realize the day of the person's birthday has already arrived. I can't tell you what today's date is, because life is flying by so quickly that I forget to check.


I am not going to forget Mother's Day, and this is my attempt to make sure that you don't forget either. Mother's Day is actually celebrated on a different day here in the UK (and is sometimes called something slightly different - Mothering Sunday - as well), and of course I missed it. So I'm just going to carry on as if I can only be bothered to remember the date of US holidays. Once we've been here in London for a year, I think it will be time to have adjusted, but I still need to find a dentist for the kids, so let's just say that remembering to celebrate some holidays on different days is not happening just yet.

Right. So. Guess what? Mother's Day is just two weeks away! Which means that all of us who are forgetful have two weeks to get it together and let our moms know we are thinking of them and love them. I personally like to do something similar every year in order to keep things simple, so I'll be sending something to my mom that she can truly enjoy and that she's gotten before - a greeting from Samahope's brilliant Honor Your Mom campaign. (Sorry to ruin the surprise, Mom.)

You may remember that I did this last year, and I think it's a perfect Mother's Day tradition. The thing is that I know that my mom doesn't really need anything new, and I know that there are people in the world that will benefit from me giving the amount I'd spend on a gift to help provide medical care. This is a gift to moms around the world and their kids, and it is so easy to do. I hope that many of you will join me and Honor Your Mom in this same way. Here's how it works:

1.  Go to the #HonorYourMom page and upload a photo of you and your mom that you think your mom will love, and write a special message.

2.  Donate to a mom in need.

3. Sit back and let Samahope take care of the rest. Your mom will receive an email greeting with a link to her own personal dedication page, and she will also receive a personalized gift in the mail.

Easy peasy. You've got two weeks, but may I make a recommendation? Go ahead and do it now. I'm pretty sure your mom will thank you.

If you'd like lots more details about Samahope and their work, please read my post from last year. Also, please note that you can donate to the work of the doctors Samahope partners with at any time during the year, giving life changing medical care to those in need.

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

San Francisco to London: A Few Words About the Visa Process

What we did during our visa delay.

I don't have a ton to add about the visa process that can't already be found online, but I wanted to give it some attention since our visas were delayed, and I think that most guides exist for people who do not have issues with the visa process. So this is more of a "handy info if things go wrong" kind of post. I haven't run across many of those.

We came into the UK on a Tier 2 General visa, which is sponsored by Jarod's employer and is good for three years. We opted for the Priority Service, which used to be available to anyone who would pay an additional fee, but which now requires that you get special permission. We also opted to make things go a bit quicker by showing up early for our biometrics appointment and requesting service early. Not all biometrics locations (which are usually your nearest USCIS location) will do this, but I knew from past experience with adoption documents that it was not only possible, but probable at our location. A good way to figure out if this is possible for you is to check the Yelp reviews for the USCIS support center. 

One necessary thing to know about the Priority Service is that if something goes wrong in your process, you no longer will be receiving expedited service, even if you have paid for it. We found this out the hard way, when they wanted additional documentation to prove that our children are our children and thus should be allowed to immigrate with us*. If your application is fairly straightforward, I'd say to try for Priority Service, but if there's any doubt, it might not be worth paying the extra fees.

The other thing that I think is important to know is that when something goes wrong in the visa process, there is no one you can call to try to work things out. There is a number listed on the website that is supposedly a helpline, which you can call to receive very limited information, such as if your visa application has been received and if a determination has been made, but they cannot give you any specifics. They cannot recommend a course of action. They are working out of a call center, and the information that is available to them is very basic.

When additional information was required of us, Jarod received an email stating what they wanted, and we were given instructions to send hard copies of more documents to the consulate in New York. We had no way of finding out which documents would be appropriate to the situation, so we ended up sending every piece of precious paperwork that we had for our girls. If you wonder if this is nerve-wracking, the answer is yes. Luckily for us, the documents were sufficient, and our visas were approved and issued. We were delayed by a week, which doesn't seem like that long now that I'm typing it, but seemed like an eternity when things were uncertain, when we needed to be out of your apartment by a certain date and most of our things were packed into duffel bags. At that point, it seemed like a very long time indeed.

But now we are here. Jarod's new place of employment took care of arranging flights for us, so once we had the visas, the flights were rescheduled, and we took a direct flight from San Francisco to London, landing on the last day of July. We had a few days to settle in before Jarod started work, and it all worked out brilliantly.

I know this post has been light on hard facts and instructions, so if you have any questions, please feel free to ask me in the comments. I've got a wealth of information I can share with you, and it's not worth typing out in its entirety if it might not be used. But please, ask away if you've got something specific that you want to know which I (or the official UK visa website) haven't covered.

*To sum up the issue, our children's names had been changed at the state level and on their social security cards, but at the time we applied for their passports, the passport services insisted that the names on their passports must match the names on their certificates of citizenship -which had been automatically issued upon arrival in the US, before we had a chance to do the name change. Thus the names on their passports differed from the names on their US birth certificates. If I had thought this through before enclosing only what was requested for proof that we are the girls parents, I would have enclosed additional documentation and and explanation to begin with. Live and learn. Now I've got to figure out how to get the name change done for the UK visa and the NHS once I've done it on the girls' passports and certificates of citizenship. Oh boy! More paperwork!

Monday, April 20, 2015

San Francisco to London: Please Hold


I was planning to write a bit about the UK visa process today, but one of my children took approximately eleventy kajillion years to fall asleep, so I'm afraid it will have to wait. Gone are the days I was willing to stay up until 2am to write a blog post. I will write the post tomorrow. Thank you for your patience. In the meantime, please enjoy this photo from my first time seeing the Tower Bridge open to let a ship through. All the times we visited, we intended to watch a ship pass through, and we never made it happen. Then we moved here and I figured, "Eh, we live here now. We'll get around to it." And then I saw it randomly, while on a walk on Saturday. I felt a little sheepish about how excited I got and how quickly I ran to get a better view, but then I saw two little old ladies hobbling as quickly as they could toward where I stood, beaming and pointing. It was exciting for everybody. Wonderful.

Monday, April 13, 2015

San Francisco to London: Moving Our Stuff

September 2014 3
Boxes upon boxes - the day our stuff arrived in London.

One of the biggest jobs related to our move was moving all our stuff, or rather, moving the stuff we decided to keep. After doing a little research, we determined that the best method for us would be to ship as much as possible by sea and bring anything we would need have on hand between shipment pick up and delivery with us in our luggage. We couldn't possibly afford to ship everything we owned, and it didn't make sense anyhow to keep furniture that wouldn't work well in our new place, so we had a lot of sorting to do before our move.

When sorting out what to keep, I asked two questions:

1. What is precious to us and/or makes our house feel like home?
2. What will it be cheaper to ship than to purchase new?

The things that fell into those two categories made the cut. Everything else was sold, given away, or disposed of. We shipped just two pieces of furniture - a wooden cabinet and an antique trunk, both of which are family heirlooms and have proved to be very practical. We also chose to keep most of the kids' toys and books, a good deal of art that hung on our walls, select knick knacks, and the curtains from the girls' room. I also kept the kitchen items that I use frequently and things we use for holidays and birthdays throughout the year. We brought the kids' bicycles, but not Jarod's and mine.

Once we knew what would be kept, we separated it into two categories:

1. Things we could do without for up to three months.
2. Things which we would use regularly, both immediately before and after the move.

The items in category 1 were shipped by sea, and the items in category 2 were brought with us in our luggage on the plane.

To ship by sea, I did an internet search and then contacted the company with the best reviews on Yelp. Bloom Interntional's quote was competitive with other companies who had their prices listed online, and they offered a range of services. We decided on a level of service in which our things would be packed by us and shipped door to door. You can get services to have everything packed for you, but we didn't need that. You can also pay less and deliver and collect your things from the port of departure and port of arrival, but that seemed a bit more complicated than we preferred it to be. So we agreed to terms of service with Bloom International and scheduled a pick up date. We packed everything into boxes ourselves aside from the chidren's bicycles, and the representatives showed up at our door and put everything on a truck, then prepared it for departure. Then we simply had to wait for it to make the trip and then receive it at our new home in London.

Shipping by sea is an affordable way to move large items, and it is especially advantageous to move heavy things this way. Cost is figured by volume, not weight, and is measured by cubic meter. We were really happy with the cost and the service. We were also satisfied with the amount of work we had to do ourselves. Aside from packing everything up, the only thing we had to do was to make detailed lists of what was included in the boxes so our things could clear customs. And that was it. We had the option to purchase insurance to protect our things, which we did, though nothing was damaged or lost in the moving process.

The one big inconvenience of shipping things by sea is the time frame. We had an estimate of when our things would arrive, but no definite date. We were given updates when our things reached the port and when they were going through the customs process. Then a date for delivery was scheduled, and it all arrived. Near the end, it got really hard to wait, but I would still do it the same way over again, knowing what I know now. It took fourteen weeks total to receive our things, which was a bit longer than the estimated time frame of ten to twelve weeks, but we had been warned in advance that it could take longer. It all depends on how much is being shipped into a port at any given time; the customs process and having ground transportation arranged in the UK are dependent on your place in line once your things arrive at port. Because we moved at a time when a lot of other people were moving, we had to wait a bit longer than is usual.

What really made a difference for us when it came to being patient until the bulk of our things arrived is that we had a good deal of stuff come with us on the plane. We ended up packing six large duffel bags and two medium suitcases with our things. We took frequently used kitchen items, clothing, select toys and books, our icons, and anything that we considered precious on the plane. All important paperwork and documents were packed into my carry on suitcase. It was a lot of luggage. On international flights now, it is standard for the baggage allowance for economy class to be one checked bag up to 50 pounds in weight and one carry on per person. We paid for an additional checked bag for each of us, and two of those bags were overweight, so we paid those fees as well.

It was a challenge to get it all to the airport and then to our new home, but it was easily worked out in the end. On the way to the airport in San Francisco, we had large Uber SUV take Jarod and the luggage, and friends took the girls and me in their car. On arrival in London, we were met by two drivers from a car service, and each driver was driving a mini van. One driver took most of the luggage in his vehicle, and the other driver took us and limited luggage in his. We arrived without incident at our new home, not exactly easy peasy, but easy enough. Seven weeks later, our many boxes arrived, and that was that. Move complete.

I'd mentioned earlier that I'd tell in one post how we got ourselves and our stuff moved in one post, but I'd like to write a bit about the visa application and approval process, so I'll save the details of that for another post, which you can expect next Monday. Then I'll have one more after that, detailing our pet move. I'm reserving that one for last since I want to be very detailed. If you've got further questions about how we managed moving our stuff (I'm certain I left out at least one important detail), please let me know in the comments, and I'll do my best to answer in a timely manner.

Monday, April 6, 2015

San Francisco to London: Finding Our Place

that time we got our furniture after six weeks of having none
Home is wherever you are comfortable.

Long before it  ever happened, before we wanted it to happen because we understood it would be better for our kids and for our family as a whole, Jarod and I dreamed of moving to London. Over the years, I bookmarked a few things that might be handy if we ever made the move, but mostly I forgot about those. When we moved to San Francisco, we even considered putting down roots there. But at some point in early 2014, we discussed what we truly wanted, what we truly felt would be the very best option for our family, and we knew it was London. We'd just been there in the fall, and it felt so familiar and easy, a truly international city that would give us the opportunity to live among people from many cultures, and to travel more easily to many places we wanted to go, including Ethiopia. So we set our intention and pointed our feet in that direction. And pretty soon, Jarod was interviewing for the job he now has, and I was dusting off that bookmark folder and figuring out which links would be useful to us.

The first thing we needed to figure out was where we would live, and how we would find that place. There are a lot of options. You can go ahead of time and search. You can show up and get a short let and search until you find the right place, while already living there. And you can do either option on your own or with the help of a relocation company. I'll cut to the chase and tell you what you may already know if you've been reading here for awhile: I went a month ahead of time to London to find a place, and I searched with the help of an excellent relocation company that specializes in helping those moving from abroad to find a place.

The reasons we had for choosing our route are pretty simple ones: kids and cats. If we had taken a short let, the cleaning fee would have been astronomical because of the pets. If we chose a pet friendly private rental, the fees for the actual stay would be higher. It basically worked out to be about the same cost for me to go ahead of time and search as it would have been to get a short let. We wanted stability for our kids, so it also made sense from that standpoint to have housing in order prior to the move. We then needed the help of a relocation company to find a place that was pet friendly and in the kind of neighborhood we wanted to live in.

Given that I couldn't spend much time away from home looking and we weren't 100% certain which neighborhoods might fit our needs, we chose to use London Relocation Services. The benefit to using them as opposed to another service is that they are a full service company - they really do everything (and no, they're not paying me to say that, as they are not even aware I am writing about them) - and they work fast. If we'd had more time to look, I might have chosen a service that didn't offer everything they do (we are on a budget, after all), but we were on a schedule and had three cats, so keeping the budget in check by skimping on this aspect of the move really wouldn't have been wise.

Before I traveled to London, Jarod and I gave the agents at London Relocation Services information on what kind of place we wanted, our price range, and our desires for the neighborhood, including the length of Jarod's commute. We had these preferences in mind before speaking with them, but the questions they asked were so thorough that even if we hadn't had these things in mind, we would have figured it out with their help. On the phone before my trip to secure housing, I was asked what I wanted in my dream house. I wanted a house that was all ours, with our own yard. Zinashi wanted stairs and a fancy bed. I hoped for high ceilings and good light. We got all of that.

The way the process worked for us was that I flew into London, spent a day getting my bearings (it really won't do to search for a home while nodding off due to jet lag), then spent a day looking at about a dozen properties (maybe more?) that fit our needs. A driver took me to each place, and an agent went along with me to help me meet the letting agents and to help me with the process as a whole. At the end of the day, I told the agent which three properties I liked best, and process continued from there. I was in London for a couple more days after the search day, but there really wasn't anything else for me to do (aside from eat banoffee pie and buy cereal bowls on sale at Cath Kidston, that is). London Relocation Services was handling the remainder of the process. I went home to finish packing up and take a trip to the Midwest, and the negotiation process for cost of rent and when the lease would start were done by London Relocation Services and approved by Jarod and me over the phone. It took a bit longer to get through that part of the process than we anticipated, but the lease was secured without incident, and Jarod and I signed it and returned it digitally in advance of our departure from San Francisco.

In the end, we got the house that we wanted the most of all three that I liked. I'm sure we would have been happy in any of the houses, but the house we are living in is truly the best fit for us, and we love living here. We love that our neighborhood is incredibly diverse (depending on who you ask, it's either the most diverse in London or the second most diverse), that Jarod's commute is manageable, that the girls and I can get on the Tube and get most places we want to go with either no changes or just one. The house itself is just right for us. It's got high ceilings and good light, and the kitchen is small but laid out perfectly. We've got a little garden out back with its own seating area that is just right to make into an Ethiopian style buna bet. There are even strawberry plants in the garden - the one big thing that Zinashi bemoaned having to leave behind in her garden in San Francisco. It's like this place was made for us.

If I had to do it over again, I would do it just the same. London Relocation Services really did their homework for us, and the process was so much simpler than it would be if I'd tried to figure it out myself. They also have a settling in service, so when our cats arrived before us due to our visa delay, there was someone to meet them at the new place, get them settled, and look in on them until we got here. The cost of their services is not cheap, but it is what I would call reasonable given what you get for the cost. It was more than worth it to us, and I recommend them without hesitation. It took a lot of stress and pressure off of us to have their help, and I am so grateful that somewhere along the way, when we were just dreaming, I bookmarked their website.

Next Monday I'll be telling about the process of getting ourselves and our stuff from San Francisco to London, and the following Monday I'll tackle the pet moving process. If there's anything else you'd like to know about our moving process, feel free to let me know in the comments, and I'll be happy to give more information.

PS - I know this seems like an ad for London Relocation Services. I want to clarify that they do not know that I am writing this and that I am in no way compensated for writing about our experience. We were just really pleased with the service they offered and how well everything turned out, and I want to give credit where credit is due.
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