Monday, June 13, 2011

Ship of Fools

Here I am again, sitting with my trusty MacBook at our scarred and battered dining table, looking out at a wind-tossed garden. Only this time the garden is in Perthshire and not in Flanders. Yes, gentle reader*, we have survived our international move and are now established in Scotland, land of my husband's fathers even if not mine.
The actual move can best be described with the word "appalling". This time last week I was scheduling meetings with the Flemish tax office to finalise our tax affairs before we left Belgium, and trying to prepare for a year three Dutch exam. I had the exam on Wednesday night and on Thursday the removers arrived. It took a day and a half to pack all our stuff, during which time the cats hid shivering from all the clumping about and the children - well, I'm not sure what they were doing; I was too busy to notice. On the Friday the removers departed and so did hubs; he had to attend a family wedding in Scotland on the Saturday on behalf of us all. For the next three days I camped out in the empty house with two kids, two very stressed-out cats and two hyperactive gerbils (these last two being confined to a travel cage). It would have been a very comfortless experience indeed were it not for the kindness and hospitality of friends who invited us to dinner and let us use their wifi so that we did not feel entirely cut off from civilisation.
On Monday we all got up early to get the cats to the local vet for their tick and worm treatment; this has to be done between 24 and 48 hours before travelling to the UK. If the cats were already in a filthy mood, this experience did not help... Hubs arrived from Scotland during the morning, exhausted after a 4.30am start and brewing a nasty virus of some sort.
At 4.40am on Tuesday morning I got up and went downstairs to check on the animals. We had decided to let the cats spend the night outdoors as they prefer to do in the warmer months. The poor things are supposed to be confined to barracks for three weeks after the move, to ensure that they don't run away in a vain attempt to go "home", so we thought they might as well enjoy one more night on the tiles. Thankfully they turned up on time in the morning. As so often seems to happen, it is the mess-up you don't expect that actually gets you. I opened the door to the spare room, where the gerbils were, and saw something scuttle with lightning speed across the floor tiles. On closer inspection it turned out that the gerbils, who had apparently been quite happy in their travel tank for the previous five days, had chosen the night before we travelled to chew a hole in the side and escape. I captured them both, returned them to the tank and plugged the hole with their water bottle as a temporary measure, but it was clear that they would soon work it free and make their escape again. This was something of a facer since the house was almost empty, leaving little with which to improvise a new carrier, and it was much too early in the day to find an open pet shop. We were due to check in at Dunkirk at 9am. Carrying the gerbils loose or in an insecure carrier was not an option - if they got into the cats' carriers they would be eaten, and worse, if they were loose in the car there was always the chance they might take it into their furry little heads to chew through the brake cables or something. Gerbils are Olympic standard chewers. Eventually I put them both into a bucket full of gerbil bedding and put the cage lid on top. It didn't fit so it had to be weighted down with a book. They travelled all the way from Tervuren to Perthshire in it. I am still amazed it worked and that they didn't manage to get out. Given a little longer I am sure they would have found a way...
Meanwhile hubs was doing a good impression of Death Warmed Up; he slept through the sections which I drove, and whilst he was driving I dared not sleep in case he suddenly keeled over at the wheel or something. This was slightly unnerving since I had only driven once in the UK since 2001, and that was a short distance between two villages in Devon last November. Thankfully most of it was motorway so I didn't have to remind myself which way the Brits go round roundabouts.
The entire trip from door to door took 17 hours. When we were planning the move, the time of year was not a consideration which entered my head, but I am grateful we did it in June because it was light the entire way. I should not have cared to weave my way along the last of those endless roads in darkness.
The children coped with the journey fairly well thanks to the Miracle of iPod Touch. We blew all our birthday iPod vouchers downloading films and TV shows; when the iPods ran out of charge I recharged them from my MacBook, and thus we managed to limp through the entire 17 hours without ever running out of media.
Needless to say, the two cats utterly hated the journey. They refused food and spent most of the time yowling dismally. I wish I could have explained to them that we had chosen the route that we thought would be least awful for them; if we had taken the overnight ferry from Belgium or Holland they would have had many more hours of confinement, and if we had flown with them - well, shudder, considering how many bags get lost in a year, I didn't want to risk it. We chose a route that meant a lot of hard driving for us but less hours on the road for them. Unfortunately, they had no way of knowing this and were not at all grateful; they howled, tried to claw their way out, and eventually settled down into a plaintive lamenting. The one thing that was a great relief was that the control procedure at Dunkirk was swiftly and sympathetically done, and the lady on duty let us bring the cages inside in case the cats made a break for freedom when the doors were opened.
The gerbils, meanwhile, simply trolled around their bucket, ate grapes (for fluid; you can't attach a water bottle to the inside of a bucket) and slept. They were probably the least affected by the trip of any of us; in fact they probably think they are still in Flanders.
We arrived at the new house late in the evening with no means even to make a cup of tea (no kettle), let the cats out of their cages, switched on the hot water and unrolled our sleeping bags on the floor of one of the bedrooms.
At 9am the following morning the removal men arrived with our furniture and we had another day of heaving boxes around and unpacking, whilst desperately moving the cats from one closed room to another to prevent them escaping through the open front door. That was Wednesday.
I spent Thursday in bed asleep. In the evening my father-in-law turned up with our BT hub. He looked at the chaos in the house and said, "It looked nice when we visited it before."
Friday and Saturday are a bit of a blur. We went to Perth, which is our nearest big town, and had lunch in Pizza Hut. I was surprised to find no beer or wine on the menu. "Aha," I thought, "We have picked up fancy continental ways." In Flanders even McDonald's serves beer. After that we went to Waterstone's where I looked at e-readers for a bit and thought "Nah."
On Sunday the Grant clan (well, part of it) descended bearing spaghetti bolognese in a Tupperware, wine and chocolates. They mowed our lawn, moved all our heavy furniture about, made dinner and took the kids out geocaching. Having lived abroad for 10 years I am not used to having family was lovely. Come again, please.
Today I almost feel human again. I still feel like an expat - I'm English, after all (people keep telling me it must be lovely to be "back" but I have never actually lived in Scotland before!). I don't know anyone apart from my family and a few nice people at the new school - but the local library already feels familiar and welcoming. There is a lot of work to be done on the house but it is starting to look a little bit like home...

* Not sure where that came from. Too many Victorian novels perhaps...