Wednesday, 26 June 2019

The Move

We did it. The Move happened.

As I had every morning that week, I was awake at 5am on Sunday, 23rd June. Before we left the house, I would need to pack and make sure everything was organised for the packers on Thursday. We made time for a last, hurried breakfast at the Sandfiddler Cafe with my brother and sister-in-law, but otherwise, it was all work—and maybe one or two points of shouting at the kids because I was too frazzled to accept anything but instant comprehension and compliance.

Their father came over shortly after 10am to pick up the cats. They had seen our suitcases, so they knew something was up but they were expecting us to leave and were most perturbed when we put them in the car. It's a 3-4 hour drive to DC from our place, and we didn't want to add that time in a carrier, so we put them loose in the car with some food/water and a disposable litter tray in the footwells. I'd been trying to take them in my car semi-regularly to get them accustomed to traveling that way, but this was a different car and a different person. They weren't buying it.

When their dad tried to get in the car, Meg made a run for it, jumping out of the car and then leading us around the bushes before slipping back through them and into the garage—luckily my daughter caught her there, and we popped her back in through the car window. Reportedly, they behaved pretty well through the whole trip, but they never used the litter tray... it was worth a try!

With the cats gone, The Move had officially begun. My daughter and I hugged each other there in the garage as we started crying. Two hours later, my brother was driving us to the airport.

I've never had such a hard time leaving a house. We loaded the car, and I went back upstairs for a final check, but what I was really doing was taking a last blurry look at the view: our lake, our trees, our birds, our sky... When our plane took off, it was over the Botanical Gardens, where the children and I had so often picnicked while watching planes coming and going, and over our inlet, where we could strain to see our house... and then Norfolk was behind us.

The good part of being en route was that I no longer had to worry about what else I should be doing. This was either going to work or it wasn't. Even the children were upbeat now that the day of reckoning had arrived; they were focusing on the prospect of British chocolate being readily available and beans on toast being an anytime meal instead of a gourmet dinner.

We landed to the notification that the cats had been checked in safely, although there had been some logistical difficulties when the carriers had to be scanned in without the cats but once scanned could not be taken out to the car to bring the cats into the building. Their dad had had to carry them in from the car, fearing an escape attempt the entire way.

I spared a thought for the cats somewhere out there as the children and I found a pizza place and picnicked on the floor of the airport before boarding our second flight. This also went smoothly, though my son had a minor migraine and spend the first few hours struggling with the artificial light until they finally turned it off for us to sleep. Thankfully, he didn't throw up.

My biggest concern for the entire trip was figuring out how to get the five of us (cats and humans) from Heathrow Airport to Cornwall. 
  • I wrote off driving myself fairly quickly as I'm a mess on UK roads at the best of times. 
  • I had looked at taxis down to Cornwall, but was worried about finding somebody who would take pets—not to mention we weren't sure when the cats would be ready to go which made booking difficult. 
  • The train posed more problems as we would still need a taxi to and from Heathrow Animal Reception Centre, and then going from Heathrow to Exeter (not in Cornwall, but close enough for my parents to pick us up from) would require two changes. We had two suitcases, three carry-ons and the cats in their carriers. We couldn't handle all that through a station.
Enter Charlotte. I'd known her in my first year of University, and we'd met for dinner last year. She lived half an hour from Heathrow, so I had reached out to her asking if she could help me at all. She immediately arranged for her husband to send her children off to school that morning and promised us herself and her people-carrier for the day, along with a picnic. Over the course of several excited Facebook messages, we decided that she would transport us from Heathrow to HARC to get the cats to Reading Station where we could get a direct train to Exeter.

It's always a pleasure to be see a friendly face at the airport, and Charlotte with her boundless enthusiasm proved to be the perfect person to take us in charge. She had even brought a thermos of tea with her! We first tracked down the HARC to check when the cats would be ready—no easy feat, as Google Maps proved to be very ambiguous with its lane preferences in navigating Heathrow. We got there shortly after 8am, and were told that the cats would take about 4 hours. The good news was that they had passed their pre-check on the second submission so everything was in order. Also, they had survived the trip, which I had been secretly nervous about, my son had been secretly nervous about and my parents had been secretly nervous about.

I'd eaten the plane's breakfast, but the children hadn't been hungry that early, and now they were pushing for food. I needed to buy a railcard so that I could get cheap tickets, so we drove to Hayes' station and stopped in at a greasy spoon cafe for sausage, egg, beans, and a decent cuppa. Not a pancake or waffle in sight.

While this was a fantastic return to British-ness, the cafe was a very low-budget one and lacked a toilet. So did Hayes station, which was more of a ticket desk and platforms. After acquiring a railcard and making sure I actually had train tickets on my phone, we attempted but failed to find a shop where I could get a phone plan. By this time, two cups of tea had worked their way through my system and I was in pretty desperate need of a loo, but we couldn't find a public one and I didn't recall seeing one at Heathrow Animal Reception Centre either. (As it turns out, there's one in a neighbouring building.)

Just as we were giving up on Hayes and heading back to HARC anyway, we spotted a Lidl. Chain stores for the win! I bought the kids a couple of comics, and we made good use of their facilities before returning to HARC. It was about 11am now and I was hopeful the cats might come out early.

While we were out, I received an email from the UK government informing me that my Transfer of Residence had been approved and granting me the number I'd been needing. This was awkward timing as the cats' paperwork had long since been submitted, but I asked a member of staff at HARC if it was too late to add in the number. She looked a little blank: "I've never been asked that before!"

After some consultation with other members of staff, they told me to notify Virgin Shipping, which was handily on speed dial in the waiting room. They said there was still time, so they took the number and I avoided having to pay an unknown amount of VAT on two cats with no official monetary value.

(In case anybody's wondering how much it costs to ship pets across the Atlantic, I paid $2,439.80 for their plane travel. That doesn't include the $50 apiece for their airline approved carriers nor the $38 to endorse their health certificate. It's just as well they're the only part of the move we have to pay for.)

We were assured that the cats were next in line, so we settled in, crossing our fingers that we would be able to catch the 12:30 train but confident that we would at least get the 1:30 one. Here, Charlotte really came through for us. She had brought games so we learned how to play Dobble and Rush Hour while snacking on our picnic: we had been promised sandwiches; what she actually brought was an insulated bag of sandwiches, crisps, fruit, pork pies, biscuits, brioche, chocolate, juice cartons and a bottle of prosecco. It was fantastic. 

Party at the HARC!

Some years back, the HARC had been the subject of a reality / documentary series called Animal Airport and episodes of that were playing the waiting room, which allowed us to see what would be happening to the cats behind the scenes: I was reassured to see that they would be in their own enclosures with food, water and a litter tray. The children were fascinated by the show itself. They never got bored in that waiting room... they had a TV, games, food—and when they did get rambunctious, Charlotte took them outside for a run around the building.

However, as 12:15 came and went, I started getting anxious about the delay. Finally a woman came out with a piece of paper for me to sign, assuring me that once I had done that, the cats would be brought out. Fifteen minutes later, she came out with another piece of paper and the same assurance. It was now past 1:30, we had watched numerous other people being reunited with their pets, and every time the door opened we gazed at it hopefully... but our cats were nowhere to be seen.

I don't know whether there was some delay or if HARC just aren't reliable when it comes to assessing times, but eventually our cats did indeed get brought out. To my relief, Meg looked quite perky and wasn't growling at all. Trog, however, was trembling in his cage. The man who brought them told us that Meg had only come out of her carrier right at the end to eat, but she hadn't used the litter tray. Trog hadn't come out at all. 

Unfortunately for the cats, I didn't want to get them out of their carriers until we were done with the train journey, so they had another few hours of confinement ahead of them. We loaded them in my friend's car—luckily, it had a high roof and the carriers fit nicely on top of our suitcases, and we set off for Reading station, 45 minutes away.

Our ETA was 2:23. The last train I could use my ticket on was at 2:30. We tried to make it, but we knew ahead of time this was unlikely and discussed alternatives. Sure enough, Reading is not an easy station to navigate with luggage nor were the guards interested in assisting us. By the time we found a trolley and stacked the cat carriers on it, we had already missed the train. Charlotte waited with the cats, posing glamorously, while I went to the office to upgrade our tickets to slightly-less-off-peak.

The next direct train was at 3:30, so I notified my parents and we settled in on the platform for an hour's wait. We were all exhausted by this point, and I was definitely feeling the frustration of just wanting the journey to be over—thank heavens for Charlotte, who stayed cheerfully upbeat for us all.

Looking for platform 9 3/4

When the train arrived, we made for the back, but the mildly horrified train manager caught up with us, enquiring if we'd paid for excess baggage and if we'd notified the guards that we had this much with us. Paying excess baggage had never even crossed my mind (oops!) but the guards had most certainly been aware of our luggage issues and they weren't present, so we cheerfully pinned the blame on them. 

Looking severely put upon, the manager patiently escorted us to the rearmost vestibule and let us load our various belongings, though he almost shut the door on Charlotte before we managed to explain that she wasn't traveling. We all hugged her goodbye: she'd more than earned that!

Once the train was moving, my son discovered that the luggage racks at the opposite end of the carriage were all but empty, so we awkwardly transferred all our things through the carriage, apologising to the passengers as we lurched past them. We took shifts in standing there with the cats, since Meg got cranky every time we walked off (it didn't seem to make much difference to the wide-eyed Trog).

The train got delayed, so the journey took twenty-four minutes longer than predicted, but I didn't really mind. The main concern had been getting us onto it in the first place. The children were a little concerned that we wouldn't be able to all get off again in the time we had on the station, but I felt confident we could manage that. I had told my father exactly which door we would be coming out of, and sure enough, he was waiting there as I more or less threw cases outside followed by the cats. (Though I did allow passengers with connections to disembark first. We're not barbarians!)

At the car, we took out the litter tray from my daughter's carry on, along with a bag of litter (this had got dusted for drugs at airport security, but the guard never batted an eye when we explained what it was). Trog was put in the back with the kids; Meg went in the front, while my father and I disassembled their carriers, as they wouldn't fit in the car otherwise. Neither cat was wildly happy, but as we set off, they settled down. Trog used the litter tray at length (I had brought one in memory of how, thirteen years earlier, he had peed on the floormat of the rental car following our flight to the States,) while Meg settled on my lap and purred and purred.

The last hurdle was for us to wait in the car while Dad greeted his dog and took him into the back garden before we sneaked the cats upstairs. 

Then that was that. We're Cornwall-resident, though The Move won't be properly concluded until our things get shipped over and we're in a house of our own. Next update: Cats vs. Dog.

Saturday, 22 June 2019

T minus 1 Day: We'll teach them how to say goodbye...

We've arrived. It's my last time sitting on my sofa and looking out of the window into a night broken only by lights reflected on the water.

Did I ever get my Transfer of Residence number? No, no I did not. Instead, I signed a statement to indicate that I am aware I will have to pay VAT on the cats and claim it back once I do have my number. However, I misread the checklist when sending in my precheck documents and failed to include the US health certificate—ordinarily, pets with passports wouldn't need it, but as the cats have had rabies vaccinations outside the EU, they still need an international vet's certificate along with their passport.

So the cats have failed their pre-check. I've submitted the correct (I hope!) documentation now and we'll see if that goes through before they leave tomorrow. I think they can still fly even without passing their pre-check, but I need to call the airline to check that.

It's been a crazy few days, frantically working and just as frantically playing in the knowledge that it's the last time I'll get to be with these people, these family clusters of friends, or the last time we get to go to these places that we've taken for granted for ten years. It has not been a few days with a lot of sleep.

So on Wednesday dinner with friends turned into karaoke with friends and getting to bed at midnight. I was awake at 5am Thursday, in order to submit the cats' precheck documentation for their flight and take pictures of them alongside their carrier so Virgin Airlines could confirm it was the right size.

Sample picture provided to illustrate acceptable pose

Take 1

Take 2

Take 4

Take 6 (final)

Then we went to the bank as soon as it opened to get a power of attorney statement notarised so that the house can be sold without my signature. We rushed home, dumped it on the breakfast counter and texted the agent that it was there for her to pick up. Then we went to Water Country USA for the day, because I'd promised the kids we'd go before we left.

I found myself feeling a bit blue at Water Country; we normally do it on a weekend before the schools break up when it's quieter; it's also been a family tradition for the kids' entire lives. But I was missing having another adult there and it hit me for the first time how much I was leaving. I started to catch myself on the verge of tears. Thankfully, the kids are older now and I was able to send them round the lazy river a few times while I took a nap in a deckchair. After that, I was able to get more into the swing of it and we had a blast together until a storm drove everybody home. We got back to the house late evening and I immediately went online and bought cat supplies (food, litter, a cat tree) from Amazon UK to be delivered to my parents. I ended up in bed at 11:30pm, for another five or six hours of sleep before I woke again with the anxiety of things that needed to be done.

Today, the last day, I've had a stream of messages, going back and forth with friends—some goodbyes, some coordinating. Several friends came round to help me by looting my house of toiletries, medicines, food... all the things you can't thrift but you don't want to just throw away. It was chaotic and glorious. We all had one last swing before it came down: I was quite regretful, until my son pushed me so hard I thought I was going to flip over at which point I was OK getting away from it. We'll take the swing to the UK with us, but we'll never have such a high branch to hang it from again.

Some of the family are more blase about the swing...

The kids went out with their father, and I spent most of the day working with assistance from friends. (Shout out to Terri who brought in the dragon statue from the deck and never noticed the wasp's nest hanging from its wing. I spotted it after she left and had to take the whole thing back outside so I could knock the nest off. Somehow nobody got stung today.) I took a break in the evening to go down to the local ninja course with the parkour group for some adult playtime and then out for dinner.

After a crazy but largely positive day, the mood dropped devastatingly when the kids' father brought them home. There was no good way for them to have that goodbye... but at least they had it. It was after he left that I started crying... for all the joyful get-togethers with my friends, for all those celebrations of the times we've shared.... there's one friend who I don't get to say goodbye to: the friend with whom I set out on this crazy move to the US in the first place. It had been preying on my mind off and on this week, knowing that we're out of time to miraculously fix our friendship before I go. Out of time to be able to hang out with each other again. Instead, we said a goodbye as perfunctory as the one I said to my son's orthodontist.

I sent the kids to have a shower while I cried. I wasn't fooling them, but at least I didn't have to cry in front of them. I couldn't afford to stop working either, so I went to bring in a few things from the deck... and stopped.

Outside, it was our last sunset. All the sounds of nature, the occasional hum of boats going by and sending ripples on the water. The golden light as the sun started to get low... it was peaceful and perfect.

The kids came down stairs and I called them to join me. There we talked about it being the last time, the end... but only the end of a chapter. Not the end of the story. (The ten year old loved that metaphor—to him, it's not a cliche.) And then we watched the sunset and celebrated our house.

One last time.

(One Last Time is also the name of the Hamilton track that Katie and Cathy sang to me on my driveway before they had to leave. I may not have the goodbye I wanted, but I've definitely had some amazing goodbyes.)

Monday, 17 June 2019

T minus Six Days: What did I miss?

Swimming down

The exciting update since the last post is that I finally got through to the Transfer of Residence helpline: shortly after 5am this morning, I actually got put through to the hold queue. Half an hour later, I was privileged enough to speak to a real live person.

Granted, it was a real live person with a thick accent on a terrible line. But with some effort, he managed to make me understand that my application needed some more supporting documents... namely a different proof of address and the cats' pet passports. He promised me faithfully that if I sent those, he would prioritise my application. I would have felt more confident had he also given me a different set of contact details than I had before, but instead everything got sent to the same address, and if I don't hear back, all I can do is call the same too-busy helpline.

In a week's time, we will be in the UK. Hopefully at my parents' house with the cats. I'm not entirely sure what happens with the cats if I don't have my ToR number, but let us be optimistic. What I do know is that this is our last week here, and things are officially frenetic.

We have the last medical appointments to work through. The last get-togethers with friends. The last sessions of our various hobbies. And somewhere in all those things that we absolutely don't want to miss, we need to fit in the last preparations for the move.

This means the week is packed, and my brain is so crammed full of Things To Know that it has decided to conserve storage space by shutting down most of its lesser functions. I'm now incapable of many day-to-day life tasks, and I certainly have no recollection of why anything's on the to-do list... I just know it needs to be done.

This has all but annihilated my ability to adapt. A few people today had to cancel/reschedule our plans, and I couldn't handle the adjustment. I'm not sure if I freaked out over them or went into a catatonic state, but it definitely wasn't a poised and appropriate reaction. Everybody around me has to be very patient right now.

Luckily for me, most of them are also being completely awesome. As I am overwhelmed by moving minutia, other people have arranged for me to get a break from the madness. The parkour group made sure I crossed off the biggest item left on my Virginia bucket list: hiking Old Rag (see picture below). My reprobate mom friends took over the house of an absent aunt so that the kids and I could have one last pool day (see picture above). Others have reached out on an individual basis for one last get-together...

And that's the sadness amid the joy. This isn't a week where we have time to look forward. The more fun we have with our friends, the more we think about what we're leaving behind. So as much of a celebration of our American life this week is, it's also a week of grieving.

Fortunately, grieving is healthy too. We will have our moments to grieve and then, next week, we'll move on.

The world at my feet

Thursday, 13 June 2019

Countdown to the UK: 10 Days

It's ten days until we move.

Ten days.


Am I freaked out? Yes, yes I am.

The kids have gone with their Dad to Disneyworld, which is rough because it's the ultimate family holiday cliche. How better to hammer in that there's a version of my kids' family that doesn't include me? That's always hard to think about.

Fortunately, I'm too busy to think about it. I always kind of figured that their father would take them on a trip before we left, and as recently as a few months ago, I pondered taking a trip of my own at the same time. A farewell tour, just for me...

Now that I'm at this point, I don't know how I ever thought I'd have the time. Breaking news: an international move isn't straightforward.

Obstacle 1: As we got closer to the move date, I had a lot of very mixed feelings regarding the kids' father and leaving him behind. When I say 'mixed', I mean a full spectrum of All The Feels Good And Bad. It got to the point where I just didn't want to see him or interact with him, so I told him not to help out with the move and getting the house ready for sale, even if that meant I would do a pretty crappy job of it. (I did.)

Obstacle 2: His employer is paying for our move (or at least everything but the cats), and they wouldn't talk to me directly because I'm not their employee; he is. So despite my feelings, I had to work with him to book the moving company, which brings us to...

Obstacle 3: Bureaucracy. I needed to get two quotes for the move and submit them to the employer who would pick one. As it turned out, they had very specific requirements for those quotes, but for some reason, I could only learn those requirements through trial and error. I started contacting moving companies in February and that kicked off this hideous game of telephone: Employer -> Kids' dad -> Me -> Moving companies... and back again... and forth again... and back... and forth. It was May before I finally got a decision on which company I could book.

Obstacle 4: Funnily enough, if you plan to move in June but can't book anything until May, fixing a date becomes a problem. The mover didn't have anything available until the 27th/28th June. Fine. I took that date and went to sort out flights.

Obstacle 5.1: The cats. When we moved to the US 13.5 years ago, we had the cats shipped in the cargo hold and they were very stressed. They're now elderly and I badly wanted to take them in the cabin on our return. It looked like Air France could do that. I called them up before we had a date and a gentleman told me that they could travel in cabin on the Dulles-Heathrow flight. Once we had a date, I called to get this confirmed and booked... they couldn't do it. After some frantic checking of other airlines, it appeared that the UK simply doesn't permit animals to enter the country in cabin. They have to be processed from the cargo hold.

Obstacle 5.2: Meanwhile, the employer was querying why we weren't taking a cheaper flight / route than Dulles-Heathrow. They weren't keen on spending a few thousand dollars extra on plane tickets just so we could travel on the same flight as our cats. The other problem was that a lot of pets travel in the summer as people finish their contracts and move. The flights that would be acceptable to the employer were already fully booked with animals. Eventually, I found space on a flight on the 23rd. This was days before our official move, but I booked it anyway.

Obstacle 6: The rest of the journey. The outcome of all that is that the children and I will be flying at the same time as the cats but not on the same plane. There's been a hell of a lot of coordination over how we all get to and from airports, and a lot of people are going to be very helpful, but honestly, it's still not totally clear how it's going to pan out and I don't want to talk about it and jinx it.

Obstacle 7: Transfer of residence. The trick to an international move is finding out what needs to be on my To-Do list. I had an idea of a lot of things, based on moving out here in the first place, and I got pretty good at googling the right questions or asking the right people... One thing I didn't know about until I booked the movers was that I needed something called a Transfer of Residence number. This wasn't a requirement for entering the US, but UK customs will demand it for the import of both our belongings and the cats. The moving company sent me the link to find the application, I filled it out and received an auto-response promising the result in 14 working days.

That was 15 working days ago.

Obstacle 8: Bureaucracy 2.0. So today I called the number on the auto-response email and got a recorded message saying the number had changed and please call this number instead. I called that number, fumbled my way through menu options that didn't quite sound right and got put through to a real live woman who was plainly used to getting people looking for ToR updates. She gave me a third number to call, telling me I wanted option 4. I followed this advice and was relieved to hear a recorded lady asking me to hold for a member of staff.

Three seconds later, Recorded Lady spoke again. "All of our staff are very busy right now. Perhaps you could try calling at a different time. Thank you for your call. Goodbye."

Somewhat appalled, I called back immediately, and got the same result. Half an hour later, still no change. An hour later. Two hours later, Recorded Lady finally said something else: "Our offices are now closed. We are open Monday to Friday from 9am to 5pm."

If we convert that to my timezone, that means I have to call between 4am and noon tomorrow in the hopes of hitting a moment when all of their staff are not very busy.

Again.... it is ten days before we leave.

TEN %(#$@# DAYS.

One of the things I keep saying in conversation about this is: "The Move is going to happen. Whether this gets done or not, The Move will happen."

That's what an international move is. It's its own entity and it's inevitable. As much as I might screw things up, we'll leave the US in ten days... hopefully with our cats and hopefully with the rest of our stuff following us in due course. But The Move is going to happen. I'm not sure if this is something I know or something I believe, but it's a source of confidence either way.

Ten more days....