Wednesday, December 30, 2015

Did we a house?!!

Yes, we absolutely did!! Just closed today too - contract signed and sealed, it's official - a big day for us, homeowners again after 10 long years!! Air shipment came in today, and so did our rental furniture - and the important things, TV and Internet will be setup tomorrow - so yes, we're all ready to move in tomorrow!! I know, I know - we just flew to Peoria barely a week ago - where was the time to buy a house?? Well, of course, there's a story to it - but first, here's a picture of our new home!!

I've always liked browsing real estate websites - and when we finally made the decision to move back to Peoria, well was my new best friend!! Of course, it helped that we were familiar with the Peoria area, knew what school district we wanted to be in - but even with the search narrowed down, it was still a wide open market!! Peoria - specifically, the Dunalp area - has literally exploded over the past few years, trying to make sense of all the new neighborhoods was quite confusing!! Quite lucky that Ajey had a business trip planned in October to Peoria - it would be perfect for hime to get the 'lay of the land'!!

I already had a couple of favorites by the time Ajey flew here - he had appointments to see over 10 houses in 2 days - we were hoping to find something that would fit what we needed and liked!! And although my initial favorites fell out of the running due to one reason or the other, Ajey still saw at least 2 houses that were really good possibilities!! Our new home - came on the market while Ajey was in Peoria - and when I saw the pictures, I was so, so sure this was the one!! Ajey was a bit reluctant to make an offer right away, though - he did want me to see the house first. Besides, the market in Peoria didn't seem to be really buzzing, so seemed quite safe to wait until December.

So we made our plan. Rent an apartment in Peoria for 3 months after we get there - plenty of time for us to look for a house. Meanwhile, our shipment would arrive, so we could get the house completely setup and ready, and then move in! Apartment was all lined up for us, rental furniture to be delivered a day before we arrived - and of course, our air shipment was planned to keep us going for 3 months - most importantly, Manasi would go to the school we wanted her in!! Perfectly planned, down to the very last detail - no prizes for guessing how that turned out!!

Now back to exactly a month ago - 29th November - the day before our movers came in! Manasi was to go to Shanghai to play soccer - and when we woke up, it was raining quite heavily. So, at 5am, I'm checking my email - hoping to see an email from the coach saying the soccer was cancelled. Well, soccer was still on - but I did have an email from our realtor, Marilyn Kohn, in the mailbox - informing us that an offer had been made on the house we really liked!!! What - no way - how could this happen - total panic for about half hour - and then we called Marilyn to find out if it was already a done deal.

Well, an offer had been made - but not been accepted - so there was still time to put our bid in, if we wanted to. So we made an offer - and were quite surprised when the sellers came back with a counter-offer within a couple of hours!! Just to put things in perspective - we were in China, Marilyn was driving back from Arkansas, and the sellers were in Peoria - lot of emails and phone calls!! A day of nail-biting anxiety later - yes, next morning as we waited for our movers to show up - checking email every 2 minutes - finally, finally!! Email from Marilyn saying our offer had been accepted!! Woohoo!!! Wait, what??? Did we a house!!!!

Things rolled along pretty quickly after that! With the 'Authentisign' e-signatures, the initial contract, mortgage application were taken care off completely online!! Then the inspections - the overall house inspection, radon, termite, flood damage, many!! We hadn't really started telling people yet....just a couple of close friends...I'm quite superstitious that way!! And then funnily enough, a friend of mine who had been a Suzhou expat, and now lived in the our neighborhood (very, very small world!!) posted on FB that a friend of hers moving back to Peoria just bought a house close to them!! Well, all of our mutual friends immediately put 2 and 2 together - but I was still not ready to make the 'official' announcement!!!

Until today - it's all official today!! So, yes, we did buy a house - and I couldn't be happier!! So excited!!

Sunday, December 27, 2015

We made it!!

9 check-in bags, 4 carry-ons, 3 backpacks, 2 adults, 1 child and 1 not-so-happy cat - we have finally made the big move from Suzhou to Peoria!! The flight was oh-so-long - so grateful for the Economy Plus - amazing what a big difference an extra 5 inches of leg-space can make!! Sunny had the hardest time, I think - he just would not calm down - and don't know if in 3 years if he has grown bigger, or the flights have gotten better - but he was so very loud!! I'm surprised none of our co-passengers complained - I know I was really glad to get off that plane!!

Actually, last couple of weeks have been pretty hectic - we had a lot of travel going on, one thing going wrong, and we would have had quite the domino effect on our hands!! Last day in school was quite emotional - both for Manasi and me - but we were on a flight to India before we really had time to process!! This India trip was probably one of our shortest ever - a mere 6 nights - but we managed to pack quite the punch in - quality time with family, lunch (and dinner) with friends, shopping, Happy Street (more about this later), a movie in the theater, eating at favorite restaurants, drove to Mumbai, attended a wedding - whew!!

In the midst of all this activity, I was really pleased to receive regular WeChat updates from our ayi and our driver about Sunny. I had been really anxious about leaving him this time - no furniture, new ayi and most important, the vet visit for his health certificate! Huge load off when the driver reported everything went ok, and sent me a picture of the certificate as well!! And before we knew it, we were back at the Mumbai airport for our flight back to Shanghai - as a special treat, we splurged and upgraded to Business class!! So totally worth it - completely flat beds with plush comforters, gourmet meals with smoothies, magazines - I could definitely get used to this - you listening, Ajey??!!

Back in China, we finally hit what would be our final (touch wood!) hiccup!! Trying to call the driver - neither of our phones would work. Ok, maybe no balance - surprising, considering that we had recharged before we left - but not impossible!! Next, tried to connect to the free airport WiFi - now this is definitely one of my pet peeves with all major airports - the WiFi needs a code messaged to your phone - if I had a working phone, would I be needing free WiFi?!! Anyway, tried again and again - but no message. Quite confused by this time!!

Luckily, the driver showed up soon after - and we were on the way back to Suzhou - letting our family know that we had landed safely, would have to wait until we reached home - or so we thought!! No such luck - none of our devices - iPads, computers, phones - were able to connect to our network. Tried rebooting and rebooting again - but nothing!! The landline? - nothing there too. So no phones, no internet - we were completely out of touch with the rest of the world!! And then, Manasi's iPod was magically online - at the very least, we were able to FaceTime our parents before going to bed!!

No magic there - Manasi' iPod was connecting to our neighbor's WiFi - she plays there all the time, and has their password saved!! So, thanks, Bs and sorry about inadvertently stealing your WiFi!! And our service? - well, JRE very helpfully terminated both our cell phone service, and our internet - a week before we were to leave China - without so much as a by-your-leave!! This prompt alacrity is even more ironic considering that in the last 3 odd years, they have been on time for nothing - every single thing we needed help with, we had had to ask multiple times and listen to numerous excuses. And now this - the final touch!! For the last time (again, touch wood!) in China - Aaargh!!!

We did put our last day in Suzhou to good use, though!! We still had money on our card from Dragonfly Spa - last chance to finish that off - and I also had my FoD gift vouchers!! And it's a good thing we went - we hadn't realized just how much money was on that card!! First thing, hot stone massages for Ajey and me - while Manasi indulged herself with a mani-pedi. Not quite done - our personal favorites next - foot massage for me, head massage for Ajey!! We came out feeling quite light-headed, and relaxed to the bone!! Ready for the long flight tomorrow!!

Next morning, our helpful JRE agent showed up with our landlord for the final walk-through. Of course, no apologies for the phone/internet snafu - and she had the gall to suggest that we should have called the Nestle people to cancel our water service. Hmmm, yes, of course, we should have called him - except that we had no phone service, remember, no thanks to you!!! And then they just waited in our living room, watching us finish packing, looking at our suitcases - Ajey finally asked them to leave and they still wouldn't!! What was up with that??!!

Finally, our last time to drive from Suzhou to Pudong airport! We got to the airport with plenty of time to spare - which was a good thing, considering how much luggage we had! It still felt quite unreal - just couldn't get it to sink in that this was probably the last time we would fly out of this airport!! One interminably long flight later, we were back in our old stomping grounds - O'Hare in Chicago - where surprise, surprise, temperature was a comfortable 16degC!! We had hired a taxi to drive us to Peoria - no hassle with renting and loading a car at the airport - and were soon checked in at the Residence Inn!! Finally, we're back in Peoria, folks!!

Saturday, December 12, 2015

A Harry Potter theme birthday party

Manasi turned 11 this year. And she has been expecting a letter to arrive from Hogwarts any minute now - she recently finished reading the entire series, and has watched all 8 movies many, many times!! It doesn't really help when I'm as obsessed as she is - to the extent that both of us can recite from the books and movies verbatim - and can spend hours analyzing actions and thoughts of the characters from this incredible, magical world!!

Well, obviously she's not going to get an acceptance letter from Hogwarts - but I thought it would be fun to throw her a Harry Potter theme party to celebrate her 11th!! First place to start - Google, of course! - and pretty soon, I was knee-deep in ideas!! Being in China did limit certain things - I couldn't just walk into a Walmart and buy what I needed - but managed to work around that with my good friends, Amazon and Taobao!! I have to admit, I did get a little (just a tiny bit!) carried away - but this was easily the funnest party I have ever planned!!

This post is not really about the party itself - read about that here - this one is more like a DIY post - or how I planned my Harry Potter party. Not taking credit for any of these ideas - most of them are variations, combinations or spin-offs from what I found on Google - but the spirit is all mine!! This is the first time on the blog that I've done a list - yes, me with a list, wonders never cease!! - anyway, here goes!!
  • Invitations - The first thing on the list, this was!! I decided to model the party invite on the Hogwarts acceptance letter - the one thing Manasi really was waiting for!! The stationary was simple - ordered cream-color cards and envelopes from Amazon, nothing too fancy or expensive! Since we wouldn't be delivering the envelopes by owl-mail, I put a picture of an owl on the front, with the recipients address. To seal the envelope, I was hoping to get a 'H' stamp and green ink - couldn't find either one - the workaround was to print a large calligraphy H on the back of the envelope. The wording of the invite - quite similar to the actual acceptance letter - I especially loved the 'Department of Magical Celebrations' touch!!

  • Decorations - This was a little tricky - we knew our house would be packed up before the party, so we would have very little to work with. I ordered an 'Insta-theme' - stairway, window and torch props - which actually looked very nice and added an instant Hogwarts feeling to our house!! We had a bunch of candles that the movers would not pack - couldn't figure out a way to get them to float, though!! At the last minute, I thought it would be fun to have a 'Platform 9 3/4' banner, and a brick wall for the kids to walk through in our foyer - really easy to make, and really added to the feel!! A long white table to recreate the Great Hall, and we were done. Very minimalistic, but set the mood perfectly!!

  • Accessories - What's a Harry Potter party without wands?? There's all kinds of fancy wands available online, with all kinds of fancy price tags - I didn't really splurge on this, bought the most basic available!! With the wands, house ties for the all important Sorting - once again, available on taobao - the striped ties in the house colors were a really great buy!! I had my heart set on getting T-shirts with a 9 3/4 logo on them - but taobao didn't have these in kids sizes - but never fear, we're in China!! A quick trip to Decathalon, and I had the T-shirts I wanted, with the logo and sizes I needed!! In addition, for the goody bags - broomstick pens (Amazon) and Time Turner necklaces (taobao)!

  • Activities - Well, the Sorting, of course!! While we waited for everyone to arrive before we could begin the Sorting Ceremony, the girls played a game called Bean-Boozled - remember, Bertie Bott's Every-Flavor Beans? This version has all kinds of disgusting flavors - rotten egg, moldy cheese, barf, dog poop, baby wipes, booger - to name a few!! I have to admit, I was too chicken to try anything - the girls, on the other hand, were quite enthusiastic!! For the Sorting, I had the girls pull a House name from a bag and hand it to me - I then announced the House in my best(!) Sorting Hat voice, after which the the girls got their wand and House tie! The highlight of the afternoon was to be Quidditch! We had goal posts made from hula hoops attached to old curtain posts - and Ajey and I had been brainstorming for weeks to come up with a game that would be age-friendly, fun, and still Quidditchy!! And we did - complete with Quaffle, Bludgers and the cutest little Minion-mini-copter Snitch!! The finale - a surprise for Manasi - was a magician we had hired, the perfect touch, isn't it??

  • Food - Manasi wanted a feast to magically appear, just like in the Great Hall - quite a tall order to fill!! Most of her friends are quite picky eaters, so I decided to keep it simple - still had a feast though!! 2 types of sandwiches - egg salad and tomato-cheese - chicken nuggets, french fries, cookies, and birthday cake, of course!! There are quite a few recipes available online to make butter beer - I was leaning towards making root beer floats - in the end, just got bottles of soda. Easier, less hassle!! Gold serving trays and candles made the perfect atmosphere!!

Having a theme party is always a bit of a challenge - getting details right for the 'experts', and at the same time, keeping it generic enough for those who haven't yet caught the bug. Harry Potter - even if kids haven't read the books, they will have at least watched the movies - so even younger kids will be familiar with the general idea! At the end of the day, as long as everyone's having fun, it's a great party - even if that means deviating from the theme!!

Am I really leaving ??

This blog-a-day has proved to be harder than I thought - well, with all that has been going on, doesn't really surprise me - and the Internet being really flaky the last week or so hasn't helped either!! And weirdly, with so much going on - there is so much to blog about - so as always, I'm playing catch-up!! Hope to get out the posts for Manasi's birthday this week - yes, the ones I've had to re-write - but meanwhile, a bit of update regarding our travels!!

40 days - technically correct - but in hindsight, I think a little misleading. We fly to Peoria on the 20th December, making it 40 days from the day I started the countdown. But in these 40 days, we are also going to squeeze in a week trip to India - then fly back to Suzhou for a day, and then finally leave for good - and that really threw the countdown off!! All our Suzhou friends will be traveling home for Christmas, so for all practical purposes, the day we 'left' Suzhou was when we left for India.

So it was a very surreal feeling - last day of school, saying goodbye to all our friends - and in the back of my head, I'm thinking, what's the fuss about - I'm coming back!! It's not exactly denial - I know I'm going - I just can't believe that it's already here, that our time in China has almost run out!! Also, all these dear friends I'm saying goodbye to - no way that this is the last time I'm seeing them - how can that be possible? Of course, I'm going to see all of them again - maybe not in a week's time, but soon, very soon. On some level, just hasn't sunk in as yet, I guess!!

Sunny is by himself this week in Suzhou - our driver and ayi will be taking care of him. A bit of added complication this time, though. Our vet needs to issue a health certificate for him to travel - but it has to be within a week before the departure date. Small detail - I'm in India for the entire week before we travel to the US. Almost derailed our India travel plans - but in China, nothing is impossible!!! There's no way that anyone can put Sunny in a crate and take him to the vet - so we're just having the vet come home to him. I've given her all the paperwork she needs, and the driver will bring her home - and hopefully, everything will fall in place for this!! Fingers crossed!!

India time this week - 4 days in Pune, and then 2 days in Mumbai to attend a wedding - vey hectic. It feels like an ordinary vacation - just our usual December India visit - and the upcoming big move seems to be very far away. Again, that totally unreal feeling - I'm going back home, back to Suzhou, and it's very hard to visualize the next step!! Am I really leaving Suzhou?? Or is this just a dream?? Really, I'm really leaving Suzhou - but just not yet!!

Monday, December 7, 2015

It's one of 'those' days!!

Yup, one of those - a very typical 'China' day - when, for no apparent reason, everything that can go wrong will, and everything that should be perfectly fine, will go wrong too!! If you've lived in China, you've definitely had one of these China days - and the only thing to do is to grit your teeth, and shoulder on - hey, at least you'll end up with a good story, if nothing else!!

So today started off innocently enough. The errand of the day was to go to the bank, withdraw enough rmb for the next few days, transfer the remaining money in my account to our US bank, and close the account. Simple enough, isn't it - except it wasn't!! To start off, I had to juggle some money - transferred all the money from Ajey's account into mine, so that he wouldn't have to come in to the bank. Then, got my token and waited my turn at the cashier's counter. I had to spend a few minutes explaining to the cashier that I was leaving China, and didn't need the account in the Chinese bank anymore, and would he pretty please send all of my money back to the US??

Well, after a furious round of whispering with his colleagues, he comes back and tells me that before I transfer the money, I have to change it into dollars first - and then go to a different counter for the wire transfer. Ok, whatever, let's do it! Some more furious whispering - and then he asks me how much money I want to change to dollars. Umm, all of it??!! More slowly this time - I'm m-o-v-i-n-g!! Again, the whispering - this time I'm told that since I'm not a Chinese national, I can only exchange up to $500 a day. What now??

I'm not a happy customer at this point, but still trying to be polite. Ok, clearly, going the 'exchange-your-money-to-dollars-and-then-wire-transfer' is not working. How about I just close my account, and I get all my money in cash - then I can get it exchanged at the airport when I fly out? Oh yes, close account - but no cash - they can only give me a cashier's check?? And this helps me how?? Ok, then I asked the guy to give me a solution - I'm leaving in 3 days, I have this largish chunk of change in your bank, I'm not leaving it behind - so how do we do this?? And please, enough with the whispering!!

Short of yelling "Gimme my money!!" - and even that wouldn't have helped - I had nothing!! The bank's solution?? - find a Chinese friend with an account in the same bank, transfer all the money to their account and then exchange it - Chinese nationals can go up to $5000 - and then move it. Did that just make perfect sense - or have I just lived too long in China?!! So all I need is a Chinese 'friend' - aargh!! Ended up calling our HR, few (many) phone calls later - Ajey and I both have to show up at the bank with proof that we've lived here 3 years, our tax returns, passports, Ajey's work permit, and then maybe we get our money back!! And it's only 10am so far - this day is just beginning!!

Let's just say I was not in the best of moods when I returned home - and imagine my surprise when I unlocked my front door and stepped in. Why? Oh, nothing much - just a random Chinese lady sitting at my table, in my chair, and her kid running around my living room, touching Manasi's birthday cards and playing with the stuffed toys she had left out. Totally a regular, normal day here in Suzhou - not!! I almost hit the roof!! My ayi comes running down the stairs, totally flustered, explaining that the landlord had walked in to show the house to potential buyers!!!

I had a lot to say about that to my realtor - ok, I may have yelled a little. But seriously, she's justifying the landlord to me - ohh, it is his house, and he needs to sell it...No, no, no - as long as I'm paying rent here, it is my house, and whether he sells the house or not is really not my problem!! Besides, who walks in to see a house, and then just makes themselves at home with the occupant's things??? Unbelievable!! It's not even noon yet!!! Deep breaths, deep breaths!!!!

And it keeps getting better. My realtor was here soon after to do an initial walk through for the house - just so that we could get a couple of days to fix anything if needed. She walks in with another colleague, looks around, and asks me where all the landlord's furniture was. Excuse me, but just a few weeks ago, you told me the landlord sold all his furniture after he moved it out of the house 3 years ago!! A lot of back and forth - and what about the bedside tables, and the dining room cabinets, and the sofa, and the mattresses - where are the landlord's mattresses?? I'm this close to losing it by now!!!

I finally got them to agree that I had not secretly stashed the landlord's furniture somewhere - and they walked upstairs to 'inspect' the rest of the house - while I tried to settle my nerves with a FaceTime session with my mom. We're talking - and all of a sudden, I'm disconnected. Muttering a few choice words under my breath about the Internet in China - I tried to fix the problem. Rebooted the iPad, rebooted the main modem in the garage - no luck - so went up to the 2nd floor to reboot the modem there. No flashing lights, hmm, that's weird. Any more troubleshooting ideas??

Wasn't really that hard in the end. My realtor's colleague needed to recharge her phone, and without so much as a by-your-leave, in an empty house filled with unused outlets, she chose to - wait for it - unplug my modem to plug in her charger. Seriously, there at least 3 other outlets in that room - not to mention the rest of the house! I was absolutely speechless - what was I even supposed to say?? Please ask before you disconnect any of my electronics?? Is that a request that anyone should ever have to make in their own house!!! I give up - at this point, this is officially a China day!!

The afternoon made up for the absolutely absurd morning I'd had - thank you SB for listening to my rants, and letting me cuddle your little one!! But the day still had one zinger left - and this one was a real biggie!! So my blog-a-day resolution has not been going too well for the last couple of days - and I was kind of hoping to catch up by doing a pair of complimentary posts about Manasi's birthday. Since they were so closely related, I wanted to publish both at the same time.

And at 7pm today, just as I was putting on the finishing touches, the usually trustworthy Blogger decided that this wonderful China day deserved an equally wonderful climax!! Yes, Blogger crashed - and my 2 ready-to-publish drafts were gone without a trace - lost forever in cyber space. I was absolutely crushed - not only do I have to rewrite those 2 - I'm once again left without a post for the day!! But what's that saying - if life gives you lemons, make lemonade? I'm changing that to - if life gives you a China day, blog about China day!!

I'm putting this day to bed now - tomorrow will bring a fresh new day!! Good night, everyone!!

Wednesday, December 2, 2015

And they're done!!

The big question today - can the packers finish packing and then loading all our furniture by the end of the day?? We woke up to rain - oh no, where did the 2 days of sunshine go?? Luckily, although the skies stayed grey and muggy, there were no more showers - none of the boxes got wet!! The crew started off at a good clip - finishing up Manasi's bedroom and all of the downstairs before they broke for lunch!!

But they still had the entire 3rd floor left - the master bedroom and the office. And then after that, loading the truck!! It was incredible to watch - I think they all upped their efficiency a notch!! By 4pm, they were still packing - and the supervisor was still saying they would be done tonight! Well, we aren't going anywhere - work as late as you want!! I was tired just watching them work - so I did the best thing under the circumstances - took a nice nap!!

Incredibly, against all odds - they started loading by 6pm. The last few boxes - especially my master bedroom furniture has been packed a little haphazardly, I think - they were in quite a rush to get done!! I do hope that it makes through safely!! And then, to move things along even faster, they actually setup slides on the stairs - and slid the boxes down from the higher floors to the main floor. Wonder what that pleasure ride did to the contents of the boxes!!

It was 9pm by the time the last box got on that truck!! The house is completely empty now - cavernous almost!! And our goods are on the first leg of their long journey back home!! Tomorrow will be a day of cleanup - it's amazing how much dust has collected under the furniture - 3 years worth of dust bunnies!! I think we'll all sleep well tonight - even the mattress on the floor is looking pretty inviting after the long day!! Until tomorrow then!!

No-pack zone!!

Tuesday, December 1, 2015

Day 2 - The juggernaut rolls on!!

I know, I know - it's total overkill to use the word 'juggernaut' regarding something as mundane as packing and moving!! I really, really just love that word - it's got to be one of my favorites, top-ten at least - and I've been dying to use it!! And it is kind of like a mini-juggernaut - with packers in every room of the house, churning out box after box, all our belongings clad in the monotonous white!! So, I think I'll stick with juggernaut!! Oh, and word trivia of the day - juggernaut is derived from the Sanskrit word 'Jagannath' (Lord of the world), in reference to the massive annual procession of the deity Lord Jagannath in Puri!!

Well then, day 2!! Turned out to be better than I was expecting - the crew showed up bright and early at 9:30am - and set to work right away. Still only 4 of them, but they seemed to moving a lot faster today. The good news - they got through a lot of stuff - I mean, a ton!! Bad news - there's a still a lot of stuff still left to pack!! They haven't touched the bedrooms yet - dismantling and packing 2 queen sized and 1 king sized bed is going to take ages - let alone the rest of the furniture!! The supervisor is still estimating to finish by tomorrow, but my money is still on Thursday!!

Like I said yesterday, they really are doing a good job - very thorough, not stinting on the bubble wrap or the cardboard. I'm a bit nervous about a couple of things - well actually, just 1 thing - and I think it's kind of a biggie!! My glass table top - the huge, thick glass slab - that's supposed to go in a crate - well, they're not going to crate it here. It will be bubble-wrapped, transported to the Nanjing warehouse, and then go in a crate. I do not have a good feeling about this - not even a little bit. I'm still trying to figure out a way to somehow confirm that the table top will definitely be crated - maybe get them to send me a picture? Any ideas??

On the other hand, they were kind enough to leave us our couch and beds for another night!! Which means another good night's sleep!! And although all our chairs have been packed, we were able to rig up a nice little dining table by setting the lazy-susan from our round table onto the boxed coffee table - worked perfectly for tonight!! A very relaxing dinner, by candle-light, no less - candles don't get packed, so there will be quite a few candle-lit dinners in the next week!! It's going to be stretch tomorrow - especially if they want to finish by end of the day!!