How to Pack Up a Life (and don't forget the cupcake wrappers)

It will be five years ago this coming April that we made that fateful move to Cairo. When my husband’s job offered him the chance to move overseas for a year, he was more than happy to leap at the offer. For the rest of the family, it meant vast uncertainty. However, at least the cats were traveling to a land where cats were revered; Pharaohs even considered them worthy of mummification. Okay, maybe not a point to stress. But still, they would be going from one house full of cat food, toys and treats, to another house that would have the same cat food, toys and treats. I, on the other hand, was leaving a career, friends and family behind for a land of foreignness beyond my imagination. What could Cairo, Egypt offer me? A few months after our decision to move, I found myself perched in the far corner of our very small kitchen in Maryland directing the movers as to what goes in which shipment. We had a certain amount allotted for a small fast shipment (which meant it might arrive 4-6 weeks after we did), and the rest would arrive within a few months. So I had to decide carefully.

I did not. In hindsight, pillows, sheets, blankets, toiletries and kitchenware would have been the smartest and most-useful items. Instead, I somehow managed to choose twenty-five pounds of loose tea, spices, cupcake wrappers and those little drink twizzlers. To say I was in the right frame of mind at this point would be an outright lie.

I had never moved my life on a scale such as this. When I moved from Ohio to Washington, DC decades earlier for an internship, my belongings fit in a 1980 Toyota Corolla hatchback. During those intervening years, I had acquired a lot of stuff, including most recently a husband, who had even more stuff. We had stuff pouring out everywhere. We joked that every day was the “Square game” in our little two-bedroom apartment. In order to move from one square to the next, you had to either move a box, a person, or a cat to an adjacent vacant square, or you had to reverse and let the obstruction move out of your way. We were newly married and in love, so we thought it was funny. That would change.

The movers took two-and-a-half days. First they tackled our storage unit, which started off on a slight unsteady foot. The movers, whom I’ll affectionately call Larry, Darryl and Darryl, had apparently never done an international move and didn’t realize that they had to actually pack things for safe travel. We got through that initial confusion and my husband and I did our best to stay out of their way while we watched the process.

Among the items in our storage unit, were my husband's collection of ouds (Arabic lutes), two of which were in hard cases, but one was in a soft case and he expressly asked the movers to pack it carefully. A little while later he saw one of the Darryls coming off the elevator with a pallet piled high and his soft-case oud wedged under the pile. He pulled it out, and took it to Larry (the foreman), reiterating his concern. Larry promised he would pack it himself. A little later on as they were loading some boxes onto the truck I watched with great amusement a box being loaded that was labeled with our name and number and in large purple letters the word, "Loot." Then, as our luck grew, another box was loaded marked "Loot." So regardless of how our luck proceeds, we should at least be receiving two boxes of loot. I can't wait!

The whole process took about four hours, though we were both skeptical as to the condition we would find our stuff in once it arrived in Cairo (providing it arrived). But bottom line is, it's just stuff.

The rest of the day was spent racing back to the apartment, grabbing the cats, Chuckles and Ricky, and heading off to the vet for rabies and distemper shots, microchips and health certificates. Then back to the apartment, where my husband and I furiously continued to sort, purge, pack and identify everything in our apartment.

Having someone else technically move you sounds great, until you realize you have to look at every fork, tea bag, couch cushion, towel, book, CD, picture frame, and bookcase, and decide if you a) want to bring it in your suitcase, b) put it in storage, c) put it on the 3-4 week limited-weight shipment, or d) put it on the multi-month shipment. We collapsed about 1am, only to awake at 5:30am to resume the fun. At 7:30am we bundled up the cats again and transported them all to my friend Robin's house where they took over her bedroom for the day. We had heard stories of the movers being so fast and efficient, that if you said everything goes, truly everything goes, including a bag of trash or a snoozing feline. So we opted for that not to be a concern. However, we were a bit dubious after our interactions with Larry, Darryl and Darryl the previous day.

At 9:30am the team of movers arrived. Luckily we were not faced with Larry, Darryl and Darryl again, and all three guys had not only done international moves, but knew more than we did as to what could go and how to pack it. They arrived with a huge flatbed truck loaded with five towering wooden crates and lots of packing materials. They set about immediately and did not stop for the next 12 hours. We bought them lunch and dinner, and did our best to stay out of their way.

Apparently it’s unusual for these jobs to take 12 hours, but a week prior when the assessor had come by to assess our belongings he had done a far-from-adequate job. This wasn't really a surprise to us, as he had arrived three hours late, never apologized for it, and went through his checklist with robot-like enthusiasm, asking us such questions as, "Do you have a swing set? A sandbox? A canoe or kayak or boat? A hot tub? A rifle? Hand grenades? Ammunition? A yak?" (I added that last one, but the rest were true.)

While these guys were madly packing, my husband and I took turn running errands. I did various donation runs, including a huge bag of boodles (or packing peanuts, as some call them) to the local UPS store, three huge garbage-bags of clothing to the homeless shelter, and one garbage-bag and a pile of miscellaneous items to the thrift store. My husband then ran to the library with two boxes of books for their book sale, and the post office, where he mailed four boxes and one large trunk full of odds-n-ends of ours to Cairo -- including lots of t-shirts, some books, games, blankets, my slippers and the label maker. Need I mention that by this point our decision-making capabilities were severely lacking?

Nearing 8pm, when they were still furiously packing, I suggested my husband go and check us into the hotel we were staying in, while I ordered pizza for the guys. By this point I had moved from sitting in the grass, out of their way, to sitting in my car, trying not to fall asleep. And in the category of ironies, I had managed to get a little sunburn sitting in the grass outside the apartment. The irony is that I had made a concerted effort to find special "SPF" clothing, including hats and jackets, to wear in Cairo, as well as 70+ SPF sunscreen, all of which was diligently packed, and I go and get burned in Maryland.

At 8:30pm the team announced that they would have to return in the morning to finish. The couch wasn't going to fit on the truck. So my husband remained with them while they finished what they could and I raced over to Robin's to see the felines and thank her profusely (our requesting favors of her had only begun by this point), and head back to the hotel. The major hurdle of the move, as we saw it, was now over. But our exhaustion was so great that we really didn't care if we ever saw any of our possessions again.

Saturday involved my husband meeting the movers at the condo at 7:30am for them to get the couch and two remaining boxes and sign all the paperwork. The rest of our week involved such tasks as switching our home phone to Vonage, switching our homeowner's insurance to rental dwelling insurance, canceling our cell phones, getting our Egyptian visas and having way too many farewell dinners with friends.

I had been tasked with handing our new second-hand Jeep over to Bartholomew, the Russian tow-truck driver on Thursday. When he looked at our destination, he asked why we weren't just driving it to Alexandria. "It's only in Virginia," he said. When I pointed out it was Alexandria, Egypt, he laughed, and I realized he'd made a joke. I think I'd packed up my sense of humor with the cookie sheets.

My husband and I also managed to do some last minute shopping, suddenly deciding we both needed more shoes and various toiletries. After our shopping trips we also realized our suitcases were too small, so we did some mad re-packing and took an additional five boxes to the post office to mail out some stuff. The customs forms listed such things as "phone, stationery supplies, cat toys, computer software, pink fuzzy slippers, books, file basket, tow rope, car mirrors, etc." All highly-necessary items, of course. I'm going to continue to claim exhaustion and the inability to think clearly.

Sunday morning, our day of departure, I grabbed coffee, breakfast and gassed up the rental car and raced back to the hotel for our last minute packing. Due to the amount of stuff, we decided to take a fifth bag and pay extra for it. We made it to Robin's by noon, where we scooped up Ricky and Chuckles, put their harnesses on, doused them with homeopathic “Calming Essence” and “Rescue Remedy” and crammed them into their new fancy soft-sided carriers. With tearful goodbyes at her door, we left Robin's for the airport. Other than being so tightly wound I could barely blink, we had the added stress of departing in a torrential rain. Which became exceedingly relevant as the day progressed.

At the airport, I dropped my husband off with our five suitcases, two cat carriers, and two carry-ons, then proceeded to return the rental car and grab the shuttle back to the airport. Check in was a bit frenetic as we had to madly repack two of the five suitcases to get them under 50 pounds. I was so stressed about the trip and the cats, that I think I started to take on the look of a crazed sweaty mad woman throwing around clothing and muttering under her breath. Not the glamorous poised impression I was hoping for. And it only got worse when we went through security.

This was the moment I'd been dreading the most for the whole trip/move/etc. Getting the cats through security. Sounds crazy, but I knew that we had to pull the cats out of the carriers in the middle of Dulles International Airport, surrounded by all other travelers, and "just carry" them through the metal detector while the empty carrier went through the x-ray machine. All I could imagine was a cat getting freaked out and loose in the airport.

I decided to take Chuckles as I figured he'd be the most difficult and Ricky adores my husband so much that I'm convinced he'd dance the Lambada if my husband asked him to. Chuckles was a little disconcerted, looking around with wide eyes, but I held him firmly and had his leash attached to his harness. I must have still had my crazed-sweaty-muttering-repacking look, because as I carried him through the metal detector the poor TSA personnel standing on the other side asked me if I could take off his harness "... since it has metal on it." I looked them straight in the eye and said, "Don't ask me to." And they let me walk through (and nothing set it off anyway).

At the other end I was waiting for his empty carrier to come through, as my husband and I had devised a plan to do Chuckles, all the computers (we had four) and then Ricky. But there was no carrier, and Chuckles was getting squirmy at this point. In addition to the sweating, crazy-eyed, muttering, I was now starting to shake. I screamed at the TSA lady to send the carrier through and she said, "He hasn't sent it through yet," indicating my husband. At this point a she-demon took over and I howled like I've never howled before and screamed at my husband to send it through. He did so quickly (he was dealing with laying out all the computers in their individual plastic bins, as required, and didn't see that the carrier was still sitting there). The carrier finally came through, I crammed Chuckles into it, and practically burst into tears. Now, in my own defense, I think this reaction was not just worry over the kitties, but a culmination of weeks and weeks of stress, extreme sadness at leaving my friends, angst over the next 10-15 hours of travel, and uncertainty about what lay ahead for us.

But I collected myself, started gathering up the computers as they came through (oh, the joy of being married to a techie), and I looked up just in time to see my husband jauntily walk through the metal detector carrying Ricky as if they were out for a Sunday stroll. I am willing to bet money that my husband could have placed Ricky on his shoulder and walked through with no issues. Ricky was looking around as if he did this daily and was hoping to see someone he knew.

When we made it to the gate, we dropped all our gear in a pile, placing the cats gently, of course, and collapsed into the chairs to await boarding. I was stressed, but the sweating and shaking had subsided and I felt okay about things. Until I got a text message from Robin to say she loved me and wished us safe travels. This unraveled me completely, and I ran to the bathroom. Somehow I never envisioned the first day of my new exciting life would find me sobbing in the stalls of the women’s bathroom outside gate 49 in Terminal 3 of Dulles International Airport. And yet, there I was.