Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Anatomy of a Foreign Service Move: Pre-Packout Preparation

Pre-Packout Planning: Lists, Lists, and More Lists—AKA Organize, Purge, and Go Shopping

In the two or three months before the packout (the day when our stuff leaves), I inevitably make lists. A list of things to do, which at this point often becomes a list of lists I need to make. A list of questions I need answered, often because the answers will determine what objects or actions go on which other lists. A list of things I need to buy because we’ll need them at our next post. A list of things I know (or at least believe) we won’t need at our next post—which then gets divided into lists of things to give away, things to sell, and things to put into long-term storage in the United States. A list of things I want to buy from our current location as keepsakes, memorabilia, and general “treasures.” A list of things I still want to do at our current location. Lists of what will go in the air freight, the sea freight, and our suitcases—these lists must be done early.

A week or two before packout, we have the Pre-Packout Survey. Representatives from the shipping company—or companies, if two companies are bidding against each other—visit our home. I give them the grand tour as they scribble in their notepads. They make note of our pictures, our carpets, our furniture (only a few pieces are ours; the rest belongs to the embassy and stays with the house). They open drawers and look in closets. I point out items that require special handling (which usually causes tape measures to appear) or that are heavier than they look. The constant questions are “Is this going to your next post? Is this going to storage? Can I look in here?” The purpose of this visit is to allow the company to get an idea of just how much stuff they will be packing up and shipping. How many boxes will they need to bring? How many people? How many crates do they expect to fill? Will we be under our weight allowance, or do they need to be prepared for us to be over? How much will it cost them to ship our stuff—and so how much will they need to charge the Department for their services?

At some point, I start checking things off my lists. I go to all those touristy places that I meant to go to all along but somehow never got around to. We buy the paintings—it always seems to be wall art, for us; we love the lamps and quilts and sculptures that we buy, but the must-haves always include wall art—that we’ve been considering for months, and we even leave enough time to have them framed. I give away or sell a few items. Then, as the time shortens, I give or sell some more. Finally, we have a big purge … or this time, a few big purges … often interspersed with last-minute shopping expeditions. (We gave away 200 pounds of books—surely we can add two super-light, super-cute quilted floor cushions decorated with jungle animals!)

But the biggest, arguably most important, lists remain untouched until just a day or two before the packout.

Pre-Packout Craziness: Quick! Destroy the house!

In our pre-cat, pre-Alexa days, the pre-packout craziness was diluted over a period of a week or two. However, cats love to climb, jump, and perch on precarious stacks of stuff, and toddlers—particularly those who are a bit change-resistant—don’t like to see single items go anywhere other than where they belong; they especially object to the large-scale rearranging that happens before the packout, and they tend to take items away from where Mama put them and put them back where they go … or anywhere else they can reach that isn’t where Mama wants them. So this time, we checked into a hotel two days before the packout—at our choice, and at our expense; the embassy assumes that you can live in your house throughout the packout, which is possible but impractical for us—and our housekeeper watched Alexa there during the days of the packout and for the day before it, when we destroyed the house.

Ok, so we don’t actually destroy the house. We just destroy the home-like atmosphere of it.

Remember those most important lists that are untouched until a day or two before the packout? Well, those are the “what goes where” lists. As a foreign service family, we are moved from post to post by the federal government. We have allowances for how much stuff we can take with us, and if we go over those limits, we have to pay the excess cost. Most of it goes by sea, because that’s the most economical way, but we do get a limited allowance for air freight, so that we can receive necessities more quickly. The shipment that goes by sea is referred to as the HHE (Household Effects), and the shipment that goes by air is the UAB (Unaccompanied Air Baggage). The government will ship a total of 7,200 pounds of freight per family. Most of that typically is HHE, but the UAB comes out of that as well—the exact weight limit for the UAB depends on family size (250 pounds for the employee, 200 for the first dependent, 150 for the second, and 100 for each additional dependent). We also are allowed to use an unlimited portion of our weight allowance to ship items back to the United States for long-term storage, so long as the total amount in storage does not exceed 10,800 pounds. So my four most important lists are lists of what goes into the suitcases to travel with us, what goes into the UAB, what goes into Storage, and what goes into the HHE (though I never actually write out an HHE list, which would consist of only one entry: “everything else”).

The day before the packout, we physically move things around the house so that instead of UAB and Storage lists, we have UAB and Storage piles. (The suitcase pile, ideally, is already at the hotel, although we inevitably find more things during the sorting—and during the packout—that we realize should be at the hotel.)

Because it’s prohibitively expensive to go over our UAB weight limits, we have to be judicious in what we goes UAB. We have to make some trade-offs: Do we put in some more clothes or shoes, or do we put in an extra trash can to use in the bathroom? (Trash can.) Do we take Alexa’s bike, or more of her books? (The bike.) Can we get by without the cats’ big scratching post, or will that just cost us in furniture damage? (Scratching post goes.) Which pots and pans are necessities, and which are luxuries? (Take half.) Do we take our Select Comfort bed, which is the only mattress in the world on which both Jeff and I can sleep comfortably, or do we leave it out and have more room for other things? (The mattress goes, although the platform has to go HHE both because of the weight and because the pieces are too big for the air freight boxes.)

I’m a bit obsessive when it comes to the UAB … I literally weigh everything and record it, ending up with a list of precisely what is in the UAB and how much it weighs. I have a food scale with which I weigh the smaller items, and we have a bathroom scale with which I weigh the bulkier items. My goal is to get as close as possible to 90% of our weight allowance, since we have to allow for the packaging materials. I’m very proud of myself with this move—once all was said and done, we were 10 pounds under our UAB weight allowance, the closest we’ve ever come to perfect.

I put the UAB on and around the dining room table. Things that are going into Storage, this time, went on and around the coffee table in the living room—except for the big items, like a few pieces of furniture from Alexa’s nursery set and a couple of papyrus paintings that were still on the walls. Those items were noted carefully in my notebook, to which I referred obsessively during the packout.

I also create “safe areas,” marked with pieces of paper with a huge “X.” Those areas this time consisted of the shelving units in the kitchen and hall, the guest bathroom, and Jeff’s nightstand drawers (which he hadn’t had time to go through). The safe areas become the temporary home of things that should not go into any shipment but that didn’t go to the hotel for one reason or another—bulky items like Alexa’s stroller or car seat case, food items we’ll still be using after the packout, Ziploc bags that we want available during the packout so that screws and other small hardware can be contained after things like the crib are disassembled. We also throw in anything we come across during the packout that we realize should have gone to the hotel—Kindles, phone charging cords, cameras, a clothesline that I’ll use in place of my drying rack.

While I’m destroying the house, Jeff destroys the electronics. He unplugs all the components of the home entertainment system, carefully notes which power brick goes with which component, what wire goes where to connect everything to everything else in the most efficient configuration. He handles the components that require some care—disconnecting the speaker wire without damaging any connectors, for example. He does some prep work on the TV console, which is specially designed for efficiency and accessibility, but which is more fragile than most similar-appearing furniture. He makes sure we save (unpacked) all the home computer network components—marking “X”s on post-it notes and slapping them onto the wireless router, the internet company’s box, the embassy’s transformers, the power strip, and all the other little boxes that I have no idea what they are. He makes sure that we have the velvet bags in which the speakers were shipped ready for re-use, and the foam that was packed around the TV (the box itself survived two moves but was judged no-longer-reusable upon arrival in Cambodia).

Finally, as ready as we can be, we head back to the hotel. It’s important to get as good a night’s rest as possible before the packout begins the next day, as the first day of packout often is one of the most stressful days of the whole process.

Up Next: Packout

Anatomy of a Foreign Service Move, Part:
2: Pre-Packout Preparation

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