Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Last Day/First Day

We all know that moving is a chaotic activity.  This is true even in the case of domestic relocation.  This would be my 21st move and my 4th overseas and yet for some reason I did not block out enough "white space" in my calendar for my final five days in America.

The reasons varied.  In the first place, I had a regular life to live: businesses to run, dry cleaning to pick up, meetings to have, etc.  Layered on that was "going away stuff" which included "final dinners" and lunches with friends, closing bank accounts, and packing.  Then there's "last day" stuff, that accounts for "how do I get there."  All of these things converged to may my final 72 hours in America a real test (albeit a self-imposed one).

In the 34 hours prior to my going-away party, which was held the night before my departure, I did not sleep.  This was due to my failure to pack up all my possessions.

My father keeps everything and my mother throws everything out.  I like to think myself a happy medium: I throw some things out, but the things I keep, I keep organized.  That being said, with so much "space" in most American lodgings (outside of places like NYC or SF) there is a tendency to "keep now/worry later."  When it came down to deciding what would stay and what would go - a number of factors were at work:

  1. How much did I want to spend?  Anything I didn't bring that I needed I would have to buy - at European prices with a terrible exchange rate.
  2. How much did I want to bring?  On Delta, my first bag was free, the second was $100, and the 3rd and 4th were $285 each.  At a 50lb maximum, they also represented weights I would have to transport between the 4th floor (where my landlady lived, who had access to an elevator) and the 7th floor (where my closet-cum-room is).
  3. What did I really want with me?  I had spent one month in Australia exactly one year before and surprised myself and how little I needed to survive and thrive on that blessed island.
Surely it is true that the best way to eat an elephant is to take the first bite, but there were defintely times in my one-box-at-a-time packing and throwing away process that I felt overwhelmed and wanted to give up.  "Well at least," I kept telling myself, "I'll know exactly how much 'stuff' I have after all this."  I had arranged for some storage space in Kansas City and every day I would drive in from St. Marys, 2 hours away, where I was living with my sister, with the latest load I had packed.  Indeed, on the final day that I made the drive the car was absolutely packed, with some things left behind for my sister to sell on my behalf.

The price was that I had to stay up all night in order to pull it off, including a 3am trip to the Topeka Wal-Mart to buy one extra piece of luggage and one storage tub when I realized I wasn't going to fit what I wanted into 3 pieces of luggage.

I arrived in Kansas City that Monday the 11th a walking zombie.  I had a chance to say goodbye to all my sisters and nephews and felt something unfamiliar to me in my frequent international travels: the pangs of missing these little people, who always surprised me with what they did as they got older.  I realized as I was driving to Kansas City that morning that I was not as free as I supposed I was.  The oft-repeated, "no wife, no kids," doesn't feature the asterisk of "7 adorable nieces and nephews."

I often tell my high-school students that in the course of their college years they may have to start choosing between two goods.  See a concert/finish a term paper, or, less stark: lecture from a favorite author and musical performance from a favorite band at a competing time.  I had to weight the importance of my personal development (the chief reason for my move, as my personal financial situation would take a significant dip) against the importance of time with family and friends.  I had to make my own choice between "goods."

While I had managed to get to my going-away party with all my stuff in storage there was yet an additional wrinkle.  I had 4 full suitcases and two full rubbermaid tubs.  I needed to repack those 4 suitcases and leave the two rubbermaid tubs - in which I still had some things I thought I might bring - in storage.  I left my party and went to the hotel, desperately hoping my body would wake up when I asked it to after, at this point, depriving it of sleep for 38 hours.

I woke up at 7am and went to the car and brought 300 lbs into my room via the bell cart.  I then spent the next few hours, in consultation with a friend who had the morning off, figuring out what to pack and what to leave.  I then embarked on a series of errands, all of which went my way in unexpected ways.  Even the post office at the airport where I had to mail some last minute things, stayed open 20 minutes past closing to help me.  I rolled up to the skycap at the airport with the 4 pieces of luggage, ready to simply part with things that were overweight.  As I was saying goodbye to my friend who had been such a huge help in making the last day work, the skycap weighed my bags.

He dispassionately pointed: "54, 53, 52, 52."  All of my bags were overweight.  I struck a plaintive look, but didn't have to, as he had seen this situation before.  "I can't help with the bag fees, but as far as the overweight fees, if you help me I can help you."  I understood his not-that-subtle remark but I realized that in my desire to rid myself of soon-to-be-useless American cash I had exactly $22 in my pocket, the only compensation skycaps can accept.  He went inside to print my boarding passes and I laid out my $20 with the two $1 bills underneath.  When he returned he handed me the boarding pass and looked down at the $20.  While he was clearly neither moved nor elated at the "here's $20 for saving me $400" gesture it wasn't so low as to be insulting and he "adjusted" the weight of all my bags.  
But the surprises were not complete.  On the 767 from Detroit to CDG there were only 8 empty seats on the entire plane - one of which was next to me!  The reality of what I was doing had just started to sink in and I was rather too excited to sleep, though I did manage to nod off for at least an hour during the relatively short flight (unlimited movie access makes the time fly).

Arrival in Paris

Those of you who travel internationally know that customs is its own special animal.  Some days the lines are extraordinary, other days they are a breeze.  Today would be the latter.  I breezed through in under five minutes, even asking the customs officer in halting French to "please stamp next to my visa" as the French Consulate had demanded.

"This is fine," I thought, but surely the French are going to stop someone with four checked bags and two carry-ons.  My bags were out in about 15 minutes and I made direct eye contact with 4 customs officers who decided that 08h00 (8am) on a Wednesday was simply to early to do any work (as if the French work) and I smartly turned left into the arrivals lobby of de Gaulle.  I went out to the cabstand, bypassing all the young men who were asking me if I needed a cab.  I waited 2 minutes for my cab, and then loaded all the luggage before telling the cabbie, again in halting French, the cross-streets I wanted him to go to in my arrondissement.  I pulled it up in Apple Maps and it said "44 minutes."  "About one hour in traffic?" I asked in French.  "Oui, plus ou moins."  I hadn't counted on being through customs already.  I had actually told my landlady to expect me at 11 and now I looked to arrive at 09h00.

The cab ride was easy and I paid him 75€ - probably 10 more than the meter read because of the number of pieces and as a tip.  My landlady came down and we loaded the luggage into the elevator for several trips to the 4th floor, where I could move the luggage through to the back corridor and only have to carry the 200 lbs across my 4 pieces a final 3 flights up instead of 7 from the very bottom.

My landlady made me sit down but I was slightly worried, as I realized I needed to stay up all day.  She went to pick up some bread for me and I tried to take it all in - that I was here - in my mid 30s - in Paris - to live for the next two years.  I paced and read a bit of Le Monde, cognizant now that I neededmore French and less English in my life.  The morning edition featured some news on President Obama, as had the RFI morning radio broadcast.  I had laughed aloud, perhaps to my cabbie's bemusement, as the commentator spoke about partisan struggles in the American Congress.  I had tuned out of American politics years ago and I laughed at the irony that immersing myself in French language and culture meant that I would hear more about the American political scene that I had cared to hear back in America.

She returned with a fresh baguette and some croissants.  I had started buttering my baguette when I realized I was being tres americain, right off the bat.  Parisians - and the French - don't butter their baguettes - they enjoy the bread - and its "song" by itself.  Too late, I thought, and munched away.  

She definitely wanted to give me some time to settle in and I ate my breakfast at a leisurely pace.  But then I headed into the hallway and we started rolling my bags to the backdoor.  Twenty minutes and quite a bit of huffing and puffing later, all my bags were in my little pied-a-terre.  "Apartment" would be a very generous term for my large walk-in-closet that functioned as a room.  I now had four missions ahead of me:
  1. Acquire a cell phone SIM
  2. Buy some groceries
  3. Watch Arsenal play their final Champions League group match
  4. Eat dinner/stay awake until a reasonable bed time
Mission #1: Acquire a cell phone SIM

So I know better than to buy an Apple product overseas.  However inflated our prices are, it's almost always "cheaper" to buy an Apple product in America - especially with how weak our dollar is at current.  I had been in Paris roughly 3 hours at this point.  Time to find my iphone a SIM card.

My landlady pointed me in the direction of a store - in America we would call this a 3rd party vendor - someone who carried multiple phones and carriers - except this guy didn't carry SIMs.  I asked him in French originally and he said "Non" I asked if I could repeat slowly in English, using gestures with the phone.  He told me he didn't have any and sent me to a place where I might get a SIM for my "tab" (what the French call a tablet).  At this next location the man told me he had no SIMs and said to go to "Avenues des Ternes" which is like telling someone, "Yeah, just head down 4th street and you'll find it."  I said as I was leaving, in French, "Will I get a SIM card there?"  "Peut-etre," he said, shrugging his shoulders.  For Europeans, your errands are your problems, not theirs. :-)

The company I had been seeking out was SFR, one of several carriers in France.  There are some without brick and mortar stores out there but I wasn't brave enough for an internet-only transaction for my phone service.

Maybe I can go to Orange, I though to myself, as I strolled down Avenue des Ternes.  Some of the lingo in the window indicated that they were a cell phone carrier.  I came in, typed my name in the kiosk, and patiently awaited my turn.  After about 15 minutes I was waved forward.  "Je desire un carte de SIM, s.v.p."  He shook his head.  "SFR," he said, while gesturing, "a la gauche."  Was he sending me to the competition or did they genuinely not have SIM cards?  There were roughly 40 different smartphones on the opposing wall.  "Merci, monsieur," I said, laughing to myself as I crossed the street to SFR.

It was bustling so I grabbed a brochure and tried to make sense of the calling plans.  In the U.S. I had a "share everything" plan with Verizon that powered my iphone and ipad with unlimited calls and texts and 4 gigs a month for around $150.  I would be happy to pay much less in the ultra-competitive US market.

It was my turn - no time to be brave - "parlez-vous Anglais?"  "Oui!"  She was young and looked excited to stretch her English out for a trot.  After discussing the futility of a prepaid phone we settled on a one-year contract at 69/$100USD per month.  I would get 2 devices powered with 7 gigs between them and after one week of waiting, unlimited calling to the US, China, and within Europe.  Normally they would autodebit a French bank account, which I did not have, but they decided VISA spoke their language just fine.  After a few clicks and passwords back at the house later my devices were up and running (my phone would only work for French calls for the first week before "turning on" for international dialing 7 days later).

Mission #2: Buy some groceries

It is a feature of urban living - especially for the car-less, to have to frequently grocery shop.  I picked
up some basics, including "long life milk" which lasts for at least a month and doesn't need to be refrigerated.  As a person who wasn't raised in America and who didn't drink a lot of milk outside desserts, coffee, and a cereal, this wasn't a big deal but I laughed as I thought of the "you're crazy" looks some friends in America would give me.  I thought in terms of the next day and didn't think to buy dinner items.  This would come back to haunt me later in the day.  I brought the groceries upstairs, snacked a bit, and then unpacked.  After that I answered some emails, and then put on an Arsenal jersey to go watch their final game of the group stage of the UEFA Champions League.

Mission #3:  Watch Arsenal play their final Champions League group match

I was explaining to someone at the bar (O'Brien's) where I had arrived to watch the Arsenal game about the American sports brain.  "If it is like a pie," I explained, "60% is dedicated to the sports we invented: basketball, baseball, and gridiron - American football.  Then another 20% is for college sports, particularly basketball and football, and then the final 20% is distributed among our version of racing (NASCAR), ice hockey (oh, Canada!), tennis, golf, and soccer."  I paused.  "Soccer is growing, for sure, but we are 20 years away from soccer breaking into the upper tiers.  But it will come because all our youth play soccer, and a major shift is happening, with all the drugs in baseball and all the danger in football."  

This was going to be the toughest part of my day - not only because I would go on to see an Arsenal team simply sit back as they would have to lose 3-0 to not qualify (a very hungry and good Napoli ended up getting a 2-0 result - not good enough) but because it was warm in the pub, and because I was enjoying a Mangers and some chips, and had been up 24 hours, with some snatches of sleep here and there, I nodded off, occasionally awakened by some desperate Ajax fans who were (reasonably) upset to watch their team draw 0-0 with AC Milan, despite the fact that Milan had been down a man for a good deal of the match (Fair play to Milan - they held off an Ajax side that was at time unlucky with their chances, and at other times simply not clinical enough).

I was the lone Arsenal supporter in the bar, which meant that when Napoli scored a young man who was there with friends, not to watch the game, obnoxiously belted out goal chants for Napoli.  "Yeah, yeah," I thought to myself as I smiled at him wanly.  We're going through to the knockout stage so laugh all you want.  At the end it was their star striker, Gonzalo Higuain (whom Arsenal had courted over the summer) who was in tears at the end of the match.

Mission #4:  Eat dinner/stay awake until a reasonable bed time

It occurred to me as I made my way home that my local marche would be closed by now.  A lof of places are closed by 8pm - and when I got home after 10 I realized I was still hungry and didn't have "dinner food" at home.  I walked, a bit alarmed, around the 17th arrondissement.  You have to keep in mind that my neighborhood is incredibly quiet at night and as my hunger kept me searching I stopped in to a small stand with fruits and canned goods.  A very mini 7-11, if you will.  My eyes scanned the shelves.  The proprietaire came out, "Bonsoir."  "Bonsoir," I replied, pensively searching the shelves.  Since I couldn't tell him the thing I wanted with ready cash, he said, "we're closed," in French.  Ah, "desolee, bon soiree," I replied and headed back out, gaming out a meal plan in my head.

The previous tenants had left some pasta.  I boiled it and a couple minutes before it went al dente I fried up some eggs with some fines herbes I had brought from America.  I figured a light cooking of the eggs would let the yolk serve as my sauce.  I ate my spartan dish, which I cristened, "emergency dinner," and caught up on emails before I realized it was almost 3am.  Doh!

I woke up almost 12 hours later - body clock now thinking 3am was my normal bedtime.  A week later I was still trying to convince it otherwise.


Not all my posts will be this long but I thought it was a fitting end-and-start to my old and new life.


Chuck from AA said...

Sounds like a long day. I am glad you are keeping a log of your journey. Good luck with your adventure.

Chuck from AA said...

Sounds like a usual day for you Steve. Glad to hear you made it in one piece. Good luck with your new adventure and thanks for keeping us posted. Glad to see you are keeping a journal of your adventure too.