Friday, September 27, 2013

The Move: T Minus 3 Weeks; The Avalanche Begins

Tossed: MacWorld Mac Secrets, 4th Edition, by David Pogue. Took a while to find it on the copyright page, but 1997. There was a reason I held on to this for so long: while a lot of the other information became obsolete, the chapter on Microsoft Word was, for years, the only comprehensible guide to using that incomprehensible piece of software that existed. Also tossed: Mac OS X: The Missing Manual, also Pogue, 2002. That one I barely cracked. The first one made me (yes, me, believe it or not) the go-to guy for English-speaking Mac users in Berlin, but the second one lost me with all its Unix talk. No matter: the practical info is easier to find these days. Also tossed: a thick packet of bank statements and telephone bills (paid) from Berlin. How did they make it here? Also tossed: my hotel bills from my trip to Japan in 2001 which somehow clung together as a unit and drifted into the same cardboard box as the rest, a dead sensor for the weather station on my desk (have to get rid of that, too: the satellite it responds to is only active over Europe), a package of Bestättingungen from various publications, prepared for the Ausländerbehördung, statements of my indespensability to these publications were I allowed to remain on the ground in Berlin. They were also for my ill-fated attempt to get a Bundespressepasse, a German-government-issued press pass so it'd be easier for me to cover stuff for the Wall Street Journal. I still remember sitting in the huge room, far away from the man at the desk who was looking at these papers, him telling me that the pass was only issued for people reporting on business and politics (which was blatantly untrue, but that's what he said). So you don't want coverage of German culture, I asked, bewildered. "No," he said, and handed me the papers back.

To Be Tossed: An awful lot of whatever else is in these other boxes piled willy-nilly for five years in this cramped living room/office of mine, if this one box is any indication. Oh, and two unopened Ikea lighting fixtures, one for the hall, one for above my sink, acquired when I moved in here, but abandoned when I was defeated in trying to figure out how to install them (me and power tools: incompatable). And, of course, anything that relies on a European power supply, like the stereo, the printer, the refrigerator, the washing machine... But the little stuff, that's what takes up a bewilderingly large amount of volume.

And there's a deadline. The guy from the moving firm came yesterday, constantly apologizing for his excellent English while blocking out the stuff I'm moving, then sitting down on the ratty couch (to be tossed) and did some quick figuring, and gave me a volume estimate, which was, as I suspected, less than I'd been thinking (but not much) and promised me a quote early next week. I counted backwards: 22nd, leaving in the morning; 21st, a day in Paris, inevitable because the plane to the States leaves early; 20th is a Sunday, so that'd be the last day here, in a hotel somewhere; 19th, the day for the cleaners, not that I'm going be the first person in France ever to get my deposit back; 18th, I hope, will see the folks from Emmaus, a Catholic charity, pick up the appliances and couch and all that, so that leaves the 17th for the movers to come and pack everything away. Twenty days from today. No wonder I'm procrastinating by writing this.

Think it'll look this neat on the way out? Hope so...

And there are details. Like, this Customs Form 3299. Easy enough to read, but do I have to list quantities of things like books ("tools of the trade," in customs lingo, but the short answer is yes), and, if so, how exact do I have to be? "Several hundred?" "Over 500?" "618?" (Just making those figures up, folks!) And there will be insurance, oh, yes. I was dipped on the way over: a box of CDs opened and about two inches removed. Can't risk that this time, not with a book, I hope, to write. Not that anyone wants CDs any more. But still.

Lord, one accumulates a lot in twenty years.

And the stuff will go onto a boat in Marseille, and, approximately 20 days later, it'll arrive in Houston, which the guy pronounced correctly yesterday, to my amazement. And then it'll go to...

Where? If the numbers I've seen are any indication, and if I get the money I'm due to get in the next 60 days, I'll just be able to buy a car and rent a house. And maybe buy a mattress. It's on the other side that the figures get fuzzy. How much for car insurance? What are the deposits for getting electricity and gas and Internet service like? Which appliances will the new house require? I know Craigslist is a goldmine for this kind of stuff, but I still have to have the dough to get it. An Ikea desk like the one I have now is about $69, and it's kind of essential. After 20 years, I have no credit history, though: how will the utility companies -- not to mention prospective landlords -- treat me?

I'm trying to take this one step at a time, which is only sane. The financial end may not be as scary as I think, for various reasons I can't go into for fear of a jinx. And I do have friends. And Social Security, unless the cretins in Washington make those checks late, or, worse, unwritten.

I've long said that planning any long-term trip is like an avalanche, that a month out, it's only tiny pebbles, but then come the larger rocks and in the end you're dodging boulders, clutching your plane ticket, running to the gate. This is worse than that. This is standing on a cliff watching the avalanche erode your support until the edge cracks and takes you along with it.

The thing is not to panic. And to stop procrastinating by writing a blog post and get back to work on those boxes.

Homeboy Jacques d'Aragon had lots of courage. Also lots of servants to help him pack.

See you next week.

Saturday, September 21, 2013

The Move: T Minus 4 Weeks

Well, it's done. The die is cast. The journey begins with a single step. Um, probably other cliches I could come up with, but, to spare you, dear readers, will not.

Thanks to a friend with a zillion air miles, I'm flying from Paris to Cincinnnati on October 22, a mere 30 days away. After that, on my own dollar, I'm catching a plane to Minneapolis, and then another one to Austin. I'll arrive at 8:01pm, the gods of flight and weather willing, looking like something fried. Which, after at least 18 hours, I will be. A friend will meet me and help me rent a car: after 20 years in Europe, where credit cards don't exist, I have no credit. Of course, I didn't have any when I left 20 years ago, either.

I will then drive to the house of some friends who'll let me stay there until I find my own place, take my car-renting friend to dinner, return, and become one with the bed.

But before I go there, I have to get out of here. And that will be a monumental pain. Fortuntely, I knew this before I started. Not that I've started.

First, there's this problem:

No, it's in focus in real life.
This shows most of the living room/office/library. Pretty much everything in this picture will have to be packed and shipped, although I'm in the process of culling the books. Being in a situation where the books you acquire depends on a very random supply of books being offered results in some fairly silly acquisitions, easy to discard if you're moving somewhere where you can browse a real bookstore and come away with something you really do want to read. And that huge quanitity of CDs?

Almost 90º turn from previous photo. Notice that the shelves go all the way down the hall to the bathroom. 
Being salable in a way that English-language books aren't, they've been culled rather seriously, but there are still loads left.

But that's just about it. There will be some pots and pans: I dragged my Allclad stuff from Texas and I'll drag it back. Along the way I acquired a couple of Henckel knives and a Le Creuset Dutch oven, and they'll make the trip. Obviously, none of my food, nor my refrigerator, washer (broken by the oafs who moved me from Germany, and hasn't worked since), stereo, computer printer, lamps, and stuff like that'll be coming. There'll be clothes, although those, too, will be purged. The table in the above picture is an antique given me in very partial payment of a huge debt, and when I had enough space to use it, I did. That'll be coming. The desk, the shelving (except the metal shelving, which comes apart), the kitchen table, the couch, the coffee table, the chairs, all tossed. Or, rather, they go to a charity here called Emmaus that takes anything you want to give them.

So having made these decisions, a quest was entered into for a mover. Not as easy to find as you'd think, but they do exist. (It seems to me that moving to Berlin 20 years ago was tons easier in terms of finding someone to do it). I found two movers. They both asked me what the load would be and I told them. One gave me a quote. It was, well, okay. The other calculated the cubic meterage and came up with an estimate. It seemed to me that 8-10 cubic meters was too much, and he then asked me how much I did have. And I was stuck.

Now, the way this works is that these movers come to your house, pack your stuff, and take it to a warehouse where they will eventually fill a shipping container. Then they put the container on a ship, the ship goes to the U.S., they clear customs on your stuff, put it on a truck, and deliver it to your new home, unpack it, and take away the shipping waste. So the cubic-meter guy got in touch with his movers in Marseille, and next Thursday a "surveyor" will come and make a very practiced estimate and give me some tips on what I can and cannot expect them to take. Based on the previous estimate, I think this'll be affordable.

So this is my week to be unsentimental and start tossing stuff. I, uh, haven't made much headway in this. But I will! I will!

Meanwhile, I sit here and look at porn. Well, not real porn, of course. There are two real estate agents in Austin I've been in touch with (three, actually, but haven't heard from the third), and one sends me automatically-generated listings of places in my price range and preference, and I go there, click through the pictures of interiors, imagine putting my office in this room, cooking on a stove -- a gas stove, no less -- in this kitchen (and wondering what it'd be like to own a dishwasher, a thing I've never felt much need for, and cook in a microwave, which some of these kitchens have built-in; my guess is I never will use one of those). Imagine having enough space to where you wouldn't reflexively tuck in one shoulder as you passed down the hall or walked into a room!

And I think about the car I'm going to have to buy, the amount of money I'll spend in Ikea replacing my plates and desk and shelving and other stuff, the amount I'll spend at various stores getting cooking stores like flour and salt and toovar dal and olive oil. I realize that the entire mediascape has changed, and the thought of "getting a telephone" and "getting cable" and "getting Internet access" are all the same thing (I think) and wondering if I really want a television and realizing that there are all these movie-streaming services now so that "renting a movie" is a passé concept. I don't know how NetFlix works because my computer throws a French cookie and I get a screen saying it's not available in my country "yet."

And then I hit Craigslist and look at the things that people who are leaving Austin, the way I'm leaving Montpellier, are trying to divest themselves of. This might be possible. Well, hell, it better be. I may get a nice place to live, but I don't want to sleep on the floor.

And in five weeks, every one of these issues except the house will, one way or another, be solved. I begin to understand why people start to drink heavily in these sorts of situations. Unfortunately, I can't afford to do that at the moment.

The current location
So what now? Fantasy real estate? Craigslist autos? Fantasize about Mexican food? Okay: get some lunch. That, I can do. Now.

The new place? I'm pretty sure you can't see it from here. And where the hell did all those tall buildings come from?

Sunday, September 15, 2013

The Announcement

Some of you have known this for a while, others have learned of it recently, and I suspect for most of you this is the first time you've heard it, but if everything goes as planned, I'll be moving back to the States, Austin initially, toward the end of October.

This isn't necessarily something I wanted to do, as those of you who read my 20th anniversary post about a month ago must realize, but despite understandable ambivalence, I feel pretty good about it. I'd had it in my mind to move to Barcelona for some time, but between the horrible experience I had there this spring with the state railroad (which, true, had nothing to do with the city itself) and my last visit, where I looked at an apartment and had a very palpable sense of not wanting to live, not only in that apartment, but also in the city, it just didn't seem like a good idea. One thing I noticed was that I seemed incapable of integrating a new language in my old brain, and that I'd have to learn two (Spanish and Catalan, although you can get by with just Spanish) in order to live there.

When I got back to Montpellier from that, the sense of having to do something just got stronger and stronger. Mme Merde and family were on vacation, but domestic violence flared both downstairs and in a nearby apartment where the drunken couple kept pitching things out of the window, including, one memorable afternoon, the tall, rage-filled guy who sat, sobbing into a cell-phone to what I assume was a suicide hotline, for about an hour, trying to figure out whether to push himself off the windowsill into the alley below. And now Mme Merde is back and the shrieking at the kids is once again part of the mix, as is the kids' crying.

This is no way to live, yet if I wanted to get a new apartment, I'd be out of luck. I'd have to put a year's rent in escrow, pay three months' "security" to the property management firm that fronts for the actual owner (and just accept that I'd never see it back), and possibly a month's rent as a bribe. Then they'd probably turn me down because I'm over the French retirement age, plus I work for myself (unheard of in most of Europe, but most especially in France), and, finally, because I'm an American. You can't trust Americans. There's a reason all the Americans I know who live in France full-time are married to French people (or other EU nationalities) and the rest have left. Essentially, they don't want us here except as free-spending tourists.

Okay, fine. There's also the fact that it's almost impossible for someone like me to get a residence permit without maintaining a bank balance of about $100,000, and I'm not quite sure where I'd get that, or, if I had it, that letting it sit in the bank to appease the French authorities would be the best use of it. I'd also have to live here legally for five years before I'd have access to the social services I'd have been paying for with my taxes all along. True, I had access to the hospital system when I had my little adventure last December, but with full access to the system I wouldn't have had to pay nearly as much as I did for that, even though it was, according to my sister, who teaches nursing, about 1/6 of what I would have paid for the same services in the States.

And in a way, that experience, too, has fuelled my decision to leave. My doctor told me right after I got out of the hospital that there was an emergency social service I could use to pay the bill, or most of it. She had no idea what it was, though. I finally found it, a couple of months later, but by then it was too late to apply for aid. Now, this points out another thing that's been eating at me: I don't know anyone here, and it's been nearly five years. In Berlin, I would have had German friends who would have known right away what to do: oh, yes, you just go to this agency and blah blah blah. I had friends who were (and are) social workers. I bet my doctor would have known, come to think of it.

So after five years here, I still don't have a social circle, and that's probably the central factor in my discontent. In Berlin, although the membership changed over 15 years, there were always people to hang out with, to have over for dinner (which I can't do here because this apartment's too damn small), to have a beer with, to go places with. They were involved with the art world, the music scene, kept track of new restaurants (especially ethnic ones) opening up, they were in the media, and hell, some of them even had Real Jobs.

Right now I have a crucial problem that I could have gotten solved in Berlin: I need to estimate the volume, in cubic meters, of what I want shipped. Just as some people are color-blind or tone-deaf, I'm space-challenged. That's one reason I wound up in an apartment that was way too small for me. It looked fine empty. In Berlin, someone I knew could look at all this junk, say how much of it there was, and I could tell the movers and get a quote.

I'll figure that out over the next month, and I'll certainly be adding to this blog, both from here and from my new digs in the foreign country I was born in. I'll be registering the hopes and the regrets I'll be encountering along the way.

But I'll tell you one regret I won't have: an end to translation. No, not language translation. That kind of takes care of itself after a while, and I was pretty good in French before I got here. But one thing I won't have to do in the States is currency conversion. If I have $500 and that thing over there costs $300, I can buy it. If I have $500 in the bank and that thing costs €300, um... I will no longer have to check the exchange rate every morning, and for that I'm thankful. I also won't have to translate temperatures and lengths: I've gotten a pretty good feel for kilometers over the years, but those smaller units, well, not so much. (You can tell: I'm still thinking of those boxes I'll have to pack and how many cubic meters they'll be.)

So stick around. This is going to get more interesting, I bet.
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