Part 1 of 3
The day has arrived. A day, my husband, Greg, and I have been anticipating for two years. We are leaving the U.S., by choice, for a grand European adventure. We are leaving for the ex-pat life. There is no job in Europe waiting for us. We are retired, living on Social Security and savings. This is a gamble and a dream. It’s been my dream to live in Europe since I was 25 years old. I am now 66, an old romantic fool with a husband who fell in love with Europe four years ago. He had a transformational experience. It opened a spiritual-window with an invitation to live differently across the sea far from American culture.
Seven pieces of luggage and four carry-on bags are accompanying us. Everything we are taking with us is in those bags. Our small condo in Bar Harbor, Maine and a storage unit hold the rest of our life possessions. All else has been sold or given away. Our son, Thomas, and his girlfriend, Darci, were the beneficiaries of some of the good furniture. The homeless shelter and some of our friends helped us to extricate the remainder of expendable possessions.
We were learning to live in a Zen-like way. Letting possessions go was not as hard as one might think. The clutter of too-many belongings was always stressful for me. I have a compulsive need for order. The more things we had stored in boxes, in the basement, in the garage, in the closets, in albums, in files, the more my thoughts were occupied with the need to keep them in order. The possessions were a demon. Although we still have things in storage, I have a sense of freedom now. The things we acquired and cached were burdens. And someday they would be a burden to our son. Those things are not being missed today as I sit writing in my flat in Kraków, Poland.
We sold our house in April 2015. It was a 2200 square foot barn-structure filled with the acquisitions of 30 years of marriage and career and family. The house was beloved to me. A dream home in the woods in Maine was as much a fulfillment of desire as my youthful dream of living abroad. The choice was between security and comfort in a beautiful home or one challenging last fling before we two cantankerous oddballs entered the ripe decade of our 70’s. The dream home was abandoned, a condo of convenience was purchased, and the excursion of a lifetime got the “green light”.
Drawing a detailed plan for totally reconstructing one’s mundane and comfortable life is not easy. We had some practice. Six years ago, we pulled up roots and moved from a suburban New Jersey life to become retired on the rugged northern coast of Maine. Now we are pulling up roots again to travel for two years over the European continent. We were not going to be completely homeless. We were leaving a condo in Bar Harbor for a very small flat we purchased four years ago in Kraków, Poland.
I was born in England, the daughter of Polish immigrants. My family immigrated to the U.S. in 1952 and I became a naturalized American citizen in the 1960’s. I was eligible for dual citizenship as the daughter of Polish nationals. It took almost two years to get my Polish passport. This passport would help us cut through some of the red tape associated with living in the European Union. And we were sure that Greg could get a long-stay European visa as the spouse of a Polish citizen. Our research showed that it would not be difficult to get Greg’s visa once we landed in Poland. The hard part had been getting my Polish passport. It had required filling out a 12-page application in Polish. Every document (mostly all of them) that was in the English language had to be translated into Polish. In Poland, we could easily get a translator for Greg’s American documents and then walk the papers to the proper administrative bureau. That was the plan.
The next hurdle was shipping the things we wanted with us overseas. We researched UPS and a few freight carriers. In the end, we abandoned the plan of shipping anything to Europe. It is really expensive to ship stuff abroad. We had watched countless episodes of “House Hunters International” where it appeared the couple easily shipped their furniture, books and clothing to Europe and it seamlessly appeared in their new quarters with no hassle or ‘price tag’ attached. “House Hunters International” is not a honest or real-life scenario. It would not be good television to illustrate an itemized list of expenses associated with moving abroad. The hurdle of “owning too-much stuff” had to be tackled again. The question posed was whether we wanted to spend a portion of our savings on bringing-along more stuff or save the money, to use for traveling in Europe. So we checked to see how much luggage we could bring with us on the airplane.
The airlines allow one checked bag and one carry-on bag for no charge in economy. Extra checked bags cost about $300 each depending on the size. And each checked bag could not be more than 23 kg (50 lbs). Greg had his camera equipment that was a must for one carry-on bag. That was indisputable as were the laptops, phones, on-hand meds, a cpap machine and a few other things. One carry-on would not work for us and neither would one checked suitcase. Could we afford to travel business-class, which allowed for two carry-on bags and two checked bags at no charge? If we brought three pieces of luggage each, an excess baggage fee would be levied for each bag over the two-bag allowance. We found that travelling business class and paying for the extra bags was still less expensive than freighting the extra bags.
We purchased round-trip business class tickets in August for our departure on September 25. A one-way ticket would have been the obvious choice with a plan to be away for two years. But a one-way ticket cost more or about the same as a round-trip ticket. This was a pretty outrageous revelation. The airlines most likely take a loss on one-way tickets if they cost just half of a round-trip ticket. We booked our return trip for late summer of 2016 and not 2017. The airline booking system limits the booking of the return trip for no farther than a year from the departure date. The return date we chose was temporal. Rebooking that return date would cost a fee but it was not more than another ticket. With a round trip ticket, we were guaranteed a return in a year or in two at almost the same cost as a one-way ticket. High-five: we thought we had this part of the process all tied up.
And now our deadline was closing-in and we were thinking about the stuff we needed and the stuff we didn’t have to have. What did we really need? Some winter and summer clothing, our computers, some electronics, prescription medicine and for me, the cosmetics and toiletries I was spoiled for owning. I had to have a supply of my favorite shampoo and conditioner! And I couldn’t take a chance on changing facial soaps and moisturizers. Girl’s stuff was important. I’m not the bohemian I was in my youth which was during the 60’s revolution when no make-up and no bras were the fashion.
Other than medicine and shampoo, the most important items that we could not go without, were well fitting, comfortable shoes. I narrowed my selection to seven pairs, which included one pair of boots, a pair of hiking shoes, two pairs of summer sandals, and, three pairs of closed, comfortable everyday shoes. Greg went with four pairs. The winter coats were another dilemma. I’m a lady with a large frame. Would they have my size in Poland?
To save space, I bought some ‘air-tight seal’ bags that you roll and express all the air until they are almost vacuum-packed. I put my winter coat in one and two more jackets in another. There was also clothing for four seasons: a couple pairs of sleepwear, scarves, winter hats, gloves, underwear, socks, winter tops, summer tops, jeans, sweaters, and slacks. I decided against all the fancy stuff except for scarves, which I love and must have. Greg decided not to bring a suit. I brought only casual clothing and ditched my winter coat when it appeared an 8th checked bag was in the making. I decided to risk buying a winter coat in Poland. We had seven pieces of checked luggage and four carry-on bags totaling eleven pieces of luggage.
Excited, apprehensive and a little bewildered, we locked up our condo, said good-bye to our neighbors and friends, and boarded a bus in Bangor, Maine for a four-hour ride to Logan Airport in Boston on September 24, 2015. The larger pieces of luggage were loaded in the underbelly of the bus. We tearfully kissed our son and his girlfriend good-bye. We were soon in Boston and checked into a hotel. The next afternoon, we were waiting at Logan for the Lufthansa ticket counters to open, our luggage set in a neat circle not too far away, the portal to ‘ex-pat’ life was opening and we were ready. We thought. _____________________________________ Grace Nagiecka