Friday, October 2, 2009

Fulbright Year!

A Bird's Eye View of Skopje, Macedonia (2005)

After months of preparations, I'm finally in Skopje, Macedonia, for my Fulbright year.

I had intended to post here about how I was preparing, but I could never seem to find the time. Every day was filled with some task that took a whole day, and then I was so dead tired, I'd fall into bed, this blog remaining inactive and unloved.

Now that I can sit back a bit and take a breath, I'll just outline what it takes to prepare to leave home for 10 months (or an academic year).

This may seem strange, but before I could even think of gathering what I needed, I had to do some spring cleaning because I couldn’t find the things I needed. Boring, yes, but absolutely necessary. I cleaned out old clothes and other "stuff," and my husband Jerry and I made several trips to Goodwill. We also threw out a lot of junk that wasn't worth a whole lot. We're not the neatest people in the world, but we're not quite hoarders, either, so there wasn't much emotional business associated with this task. Just a pain in the posterior.

Why do we save all this old stuff, anyway?

Beats me. American affluenza, I suppose. But when I get home next year, I'm going to be more vigilant about keeping after this spring cleaning task by donating and throwing out unwanted stuff throughout the year--not that I expect to receive another grant such as the Fulbright--I still can't quite believe it! I've never won anything major in my life before, so this feels pretty wonderful, and I'm SO grateful for this opportunity.

But I digress. After cleaning out the bedroom and living rooms, I started on my work area, by going through and culling unwanted papers, flash drives, CDs, etc. I then bought a Seagate 500 gig hard drive, about the size of a very small paperback, so that I could organize and copy my notes from years past and bring them in electronic form (I also brought some print notes, but now that I'm here and my hard and flash drives made it okay, I do believe I could have easily skipped this step, although they are nice to have, just in case of computer and internet meltdowns, which do occur occasionally).

My entire home hard drive files are on this Seagate, plus I have added additional notes from various CDs that I have saved from flash drives past. This step took an incredibly long time but well worth it. Given the Balkan way (and this is not a criticism, just an observation) of waiting until the last minute to create the class schedule, I wasn't sure what I would be teaching, so I brought all my notes in electronic form. Although my Fulbright award is for Creative Writing, I also knew that I might be asked to teach other courses (and I was right--more on this in a later post).

I created a special space for a box labeled “For Macedonia,” where I could toss items to take, such as European plugs, a European surge protector (from our last stay), gifts for friends and colleagues, peanut butter, and other small amenities. So that when I would finally get around to packing, these things would be all together and ready to go.

I also organized and cleaned out my book shelves; I had a lot of books I no longer needed, but that could do some good in the department library at Cyril and Methodious, so along with the books I bought with my book budget (Thank you, Fulbright, for such a generous budget), I packed up three boxes and sent them along. I'm pretty sure I maxed out the weight limit for each box, but I wanted to save one of my allotted boxes for later, just in case. However, my book budget is shot. I decided to use some of my budget to buy a laptop, a scanner, and printer for my use while I'm here, and then to donate to my department after I leave. Evidently, I have made the right decision, because my chair's eyes lit up when I told him my plan. He said, "We definitely need a department laptop and scanner." Money is tight here, and public higher education is run on a shoestring, so the Fulbrighters can really help here, and I'm glad to do what I can.

I also had to cull through food and staples. Jerry arrives on October 14, but I didn't want to leave this onerous task for him. Well, it wasn't that bad because I tend not to leave food around anyway. But I did want to get rid of anything that would expire during the year and to clean out the freezer (by eating this stuff throughout the summer and tossing the "lurking" crap away, like green beans from 2007--ugh! What’s up with that, anyway?). I also put staples into jars (sugar, salt, oatmeal, etc.) and other airtight containers. Jerry has promised to eat down or toss the freezer foodstuffs before October 14 and not buy anything other than the bare essentials. He will fill the freezer with containers of water; I read somewhere that a full freezer is more efficient than an empty one, so once the water freezes, it will be full.

We also went through medications, such as prescriptions and OTC stuff and got rid of anything that was expired. No sense is keeping that junk around and, perhaps, accidentally ingesting it next year.

Once everything was cleared away and culled, I packed my winter clothes first and set that suitcase aside. It made sense to first organize the clothes I didn't need right away, given that I was currently wearing my warm weather clothes. I then packed books and other media that I would need right away, and packed extra underwear and clothes in the nooks and crannies. I did have to repack one suitcase entirely because of weight issues--the darn thing weighed 56 pounds, way over United Airlines 50-pound limit per suitcase. Books weigh so much; I look forward to the day when all books are readily available in electronic form because that would help emerging countries like Macedonia.

I waited until the last minute to pack my warm weather clothes (two days before I left). I figured that I would be packing about two weeks worth, just like one would do for a vacation. Other stuff from the Macedonian box, like peanut butter, sprinkle-style artificial sweetner, and a water filter pitcher--concessions to bringing the U.S. with me--I wrapped in my clothes. What didn’t fit in one of my three suitcases stayed behind, and Jerry will bring some of it on the 14th.

While I was organizing all these physical details, I also had to organize bills and update a book that I keep for household business (who we pay and when, wills, passport photocopies, insurance, etc.), one copy to take and one to leave behind for family, just in case of emergency. I also had to create a sheet for log-ins and passwords (coded, of course). I also had to bring my domaining business to a place where I would not have to renew domains while overseas--I still check my accounts, however. These tasks sucked up a lot of time; if one could just leave the U.S. business behind, getting ready would be a breeze, but when you have a household and cars to consider, you still have to pay bills and take care of U.S. business.

For anyone going abroad for an extended period of time, I recommend that you start your household and business updates MONTHS earlier than I did--I literally was finishing up the night before I left, and I probably left some things left undone. As soon as you find out you will be going abroad, begin with the household stuff immediately; it’s a dreadful job, and one needs to take breaks from it. Besides, one can work on various preparations simultaneously. These multiple tasks are inevitable, so just dig in.

In addition to my academic files on the Seagate and my flash drives, I brought the following software:

–An extra copy of a Norton Security CD with a new key, given that my installed Norton expires in April 2010.

–A Word Perfect CD (which I prefer over MS Word; documents are easily converted to Word)

–Adobe CD (I like to do electronic art; also makes scanning 100% easier)

–Microsoft Office CD (which I bought specifically for the computer and will leave behind)

–Scanner CD (which will be donated to the department).
I brought the following hardware:

–A 16-inch Toshiba laptop, which I included (with peripherals) in my carry-on luggage. It was a total pain going through security, but I wanted a computer with a large screen. It’s one thing to work on a netbook for two weeks, quite another for 10 months. Definitely worth the extra effort. Given that this computer will be donated, I won’t have to worry about dragging it back. (By the way, one can buy laptops here, but they are still very expensive.)

–A Canon scanner, a VERY nice machine and FAST. I did discover, however, that scanners are available here and are about the same price as in the U.S., but I don’t know about their quality. I packed the scanner in my regular luggage and hoped for the best. It made it in good form–I packed it very well and “locked” it (a nice Canon feature) for the bouncy trip across the ocean.

–A MagicJack, along with a an American-style phone. This device is great; I have a U.S. phone number (with unlimited domestic long distance). This differs from Skype, in that my family can call me using a regular telephone, and I can call their telephones directly. Of course, when they call me, I have to be online, but when I call them, they need not be online. I still have Skype, which is great for video calling, but not so great for getting in touch with less computer savvy relatives. I brought a long telephone cord (with a connector) so that I could carry the phone to other parts of the flat. I carried the MagicJack device (which is slightly larger than a regular flash drive) in my purse and packed the phone in my regular luggage. It made the trip just fine. You also don’t need the telephone. You can dial from the keyboard and use a headset/microphone (with a phone plug-in), but you know what? That telephone is quite nice and feels a bit like home. I’ll donate that phone as well; from what I can tell, a U.S. phone works here as a regular phone (my office at the university has an American-style phone plugged directly into the wall).

–A power USB hub, capable of handling 220 current. If I have any complaints about my laptop, it would be the lack of USB ports. In addition, it seems that power hubs add a maximum of four ports (minus one if you count the one the hub plugs into).
I bought a printer in country, an HP all-in-one. While the printer was inexpensive, the ink replacements are not. My plan is to keep print copying to a bare minimum and use local print shops for photocopying/duplicating.

In addition to books, media, and notes, I also brought my medical records and proof of medical insurance. The Fulbright Commission required complete physicals for both me and my husband, and once we were approved, sent back our doctor’s reports to us–very practical. Proof of insurance is mandatory for just about any country.

This entire process took me over three months; I probably should have started sooner. I must admit that I felt rushed. But I’m here, so all’s well that ends well.

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