Back in the USSA

At long last, an explanation for my radio silence! Pull up a chair and a bowl of cheerios, kids, this is going to take a while.

Prologue: The Once and Future Expat
After two years in Morocco, which I loved, I decided to quit my job, which I did not love. I considered bumming around Morocco for one more year, doing silly things like making picture books, hanging out with Moroccan grandmothers, and asking goatherds for directions. But because I have to start thinking about grad school, and because most grad schools are not in Morocco, I decided to move back to America.

The Move: A Series of Rhetorical Questions
Have you ever moved across an ocean, with a cat, a piano, and a girlfriend, on three airplanes and two shuttles, through four airports and a hotel with a strict no-pets policy? I have.

Question: What happens when you…

a) Live two years in a country where handmade goods are beautiful and very inexpensive
b) Collect inconvenient items, including but not limited to: musical instruments, art supplies, rocks, seashells, ravioli stamps, and plants
c) Have a hard time throwing anything away
d) Want to bring your local cat to America

Answer: Ten boxes (shipped internationally), four suitcases, French veterinarian certificates, and a few tears/yowls.

I’ve moved lots of times before. I moved to Morocco, after all. So when I decided to move back, it was a bit of a shock. We probably spent a solid two months solely on moving preparations, not including the time I was still at work. Nearly every step had unforeseen complications. It was like that song, “There’s a Hole in My Bucket”. Except instead of a hole in my bucket, I ended up with a hole in my wallet. We started out with a seemingly simple idea: “Let’s move back to America!”

Step One: Mail All the Stuff
We decided to mail everything we couldn’t fit in our four suitcases. Shipping crates don’t come in small, economical sizes, so we were left with only one, terrifying choice: the Moroccan postal service. We wanted to know the international shipping price per kilogram so we could pack and weigh each box ahead of time. Seems simple enough, right? Wrong. Apparently nobody in Morocco ever does this. Ever. We visited three different post offices (with three different lines of people waiting for disgruntled employees who were just sitting in the back room on an extended lunch break- in other words, kind of like the American postal service) before an employee agreed to give us a paper with shipping rates by weight. When we tried to buy boxes from him, he shrugged and said that their boxes (the official post office ones) weren’t strong enough to handle international shipping, and recommended finding our own.

Easy peasy, we thought. Any old place will have cardboard boxes. Not so, our Moroccan friend informed us. Apparently you don’t just go out and buy sturdy cardboard boxes in Morocco. He agreed to ask around in various stores and corner markets. The result? A ragtag assortment of wrinkled boxes with various product images printed on them, some of which smelled of the aforementioned products. We reinforced all the corners, filled and weighed the first five boxes (at that point, we thought there would only be five- ha ha), then lugged them to the main post office. (In Tangier, international packages can ONLY be sent from the city’s main post office.) Erin lucked out with this one, because she was at home doing professor-y things like browsing Tumblr.

As you may know, if you want to mail a package internationally from an American post office, you fill out a simple customs form, carry your package to the post office, and send it on its merry way. In Morocco, here are the steps:

  1. Wait in line.
  2. Ask disgruntled employee for customs forms.
  3. Fill out one customs form for each box. Luckily, they only want you to fill out the name and address for sender and recipient. I’m pretty sure Morocco doesn’t care what’s in the box, unless you look wealthy. I don’t look wealthy, nor do I look like a drug smuggler. Lucky me!
  4. Wait in line.
  5. Tell the same disgruntled employee that you’ve filled out the forms. She will make an unnecessarily critical “Don’t you know anything?” face and silently point to a tiny office in the back corner of the room.
  6. Go there. Be sure to drag all five boxes in with you, especially the one that weighs 25 pounds. Wait in the doorway until the customs officer sitting at the desk finishes a phone call with his buddy.
  7. Show the customs officer, who remembers you from previous interactions in which you made what you hoped were charming-but-not-too-awkward jokes about you-don’t-remember-what, your boxes and customs forms. If you–like me–still don’t look like a rich person or a drug kingpin, he will stamp the forms (and the three carbon copies for each) without even looking into your boxes.
  8. Drag your boxes back out into regular post office land.
  9. Tape those suckers up. You’ll need to lift them to get the tape around the sides and corners. Be sure to do it with a smile on your face, because every single person in the post office will be watching your struggles. There’s not much else in the way of entertainment at the post office.
  10. Wait in line. Drag your boxes up the line with you.
  11. Proudly show Disgruntled Employee your newly stamped customs forms. She’ll ask you to hoist your boxes up onto the counter for weighing, with what you pretend is an expression of new-found respect. She will also start processing the forms.
  12. Just when you think you’re home-free, a tall bespectacled gentleman–clearly a supervisor of some sort–emerges from a back room. He casts a critical eye over your strange assortment of bulging, re-purposed boxes. Hope you speak French, because he’s going to tell you that EVERY SINGLE PIECE OF PRINTING on the box needs to be covered with brown packaging tape. First he will say that only the text has to be covered, but later he will decide that he wants you to cover up the images, too. He will remain very firm on this point.
  13. Haul your boxes back down and start covering them. Lucky for you, the post office supervisor will wander over every few minutes to critique your process. He will offer to help, but only when you’re finishing the final box, and only–you suspect–because he wants to go get a coffee after you’re done.
  14. Wait in line.
  15. Present your boxes–misshapen, wrinkled, and taped to oblivion–to Disgruntled Employee and Supervisor. They will finally take them, weigh them, attach the mailing forms, and pile them in a discouraging heap behind the desk.
  16. Wait in a different line.
  17. Pay the shipping costs. This is the easiest part of the whole process- they even give you a receipt for each box, with tracking number.
  18. Leave post office. Go home. Take nap (mandatory).

NOTE: We repeated this process two additional times, with five more boxes, but we were prepared and it was much easier. You’re lucky, my friends, because now you have inside information. The “how to mail international packages from Morocco” process is not published in a single place– anywhere. Especially not in their post offices.

Step Two: Traumatize the Cat
There was no question about whether we’d bring Loki back with us, so–after clearing him with the airline–I paid a visit to the vet. Here’s the thing about cats: if you fly directly to America, nobody cares. If you have a connecting flight anywhere in Europe, you have to send your pet’s blood to France for lab testing. Not because they can’t do the same test in Morocco, but because the EU apparently doesn’t trust Moroccan vets. The blood has to be rushed to France, where they perform the test, then send you the results by mail. Then these results have to be sent to Casablanca to be cleared by whatever government office controls veterinary affairs. Then this certificate is also mailed back to you. The whole process takes about a month. Oh yeah, and it will cost over $100.

My vet decided to take Loki’s blood not with a syringe, but with a thick, metal needle jabbed into his forearm. Loki didn’t like this. (You wouldn’t, either!) What he liked even less was the subsequent tranquilizer, administered into his nether-regions. Have you ever heard the noise a cat makes when a tranquilizer is administered into its nether-regions?

Loki after the vet.

Step Three: Say Goodbye to a School Full of Crying Children
I loved working with kids. Telling my students that I wouldn’t be back next year was so daunting that I waited until the last week of school–when they were full of candy and post-pool party euphoria–to spring it on them. I handed out my email and Facebook (on the back of bookmarks, of course) promising to write back right away if they stayed in touch. There were some tears.

A Halloween sing-along.

Step Four: Fast for Ramadan While Packing, Giving Away Remaining Possessions, Saying Goodbye to Friends, and Finding an Apartment in America
Ramadan began about a week before our departure date. For cultural reasons, I’ve always preferred to fast for Ramadan while in Morocco. Fasting is a great way to feel like a real part of the community and culture. It opens up great conversations and inspires a newfound appreciation for everyone who does this, year after year. You know what’s fasting doesn’t do? It doesn’t help when you’ve got a week to get rid of everything you own that’s not in a suitcase and say goodbye to everyone you care about in Morocco. It makes you crabby, sluggish, and more than a little addled. Luckily, everyone else is crabby, sluggish, and addled, so nobody will notice. Except maybe your future landlord in Baltimore who has asked you to look over a multi-page lease that suddenly reads like ancient Phoenician to your sleep-deprived, dehydrated brain.

Step Five: A Riddle. When is a Fifteen-Hour Transatlantic Journey Not a Fifteen-Hour Transatlantic Journey?
Answer: nearly always. Lulled into a false sense of security by recent, completely uneventful travel experiences, I assumed that the most difficult part of taking four suitcases, a digital piano, and a cat across the ocean would be keeping the cat from annoying other passengers. Turns out the hardest part is keeping the cat from annoying other passengers during a two-hour delay on a Madrid runway when the plane’s navigation systems have failed,1 sneaking him into a hotel that doesn’t allow pets because you missed your connection in New York (and that’s the hotel the airline sent you to), and cleaning cat urine off of your jeans and pet carrier when the cat wets himself in the security line at JFK (after over 24 hours of holding it in)… using only your wits and those tiny antiseptic wipes saved from previous airplane meals.

In the hotel in New York, faced with the prospect of another 24 hours of traveling.
Not pictured: Loki yowling in the bathroom.

Step Six: Moving to Baltimore, or- “Fuck It, We’re Hiring a Moving Company”
Faced with the possibility of remaining at my mother’s house indefinitely, we were determined to locate and secure an apartment before moving back to America. So when we weren’t working, packing boxes, and saying our goodbyes, we trawled the internet for acceptable apartments in Baltimore. After several weeks, two unhelpful real estate agents, two separate reconnaissance missions (undertaken by both my wonderful grandparents and our wonderful friend, Philip) and many, many emails, we found a great place with a nice landlady, in a good neighborhood. She even repainted the apartment for us in colors of our choosing as soon as we told her we’d decided to rent it.

So our first thought upon arriving at my mum’s house in Virginia (that is, after “GET THE CAT TO THE LITTER BOX!”) was “How soon can we move?” We had originally planned a cost-effective, rent-a-uhaul-then-drive-it-
fifty-miles-and-carry-all-our-worldly-possessions-up-three-flights-of-stairs kind of plan. The day after our weary, delayed arrival in Virginia, we kind of looked at each other, sighed, and thought, Wouldn’t it be great if someone could move our stuff for us and we never have to do this ever again, ever? Turns out, someone CAN do that if you pay them money. They’re called moving companies and we hired one.

Aside from accidentally making several wrong turns with the moving van following us, the whole process was pretty painless, especially compared to our experiences over the past three months. We dumped everything in the apartment the first day, then returned for good with the cat the following day. We had fantastic help from our friend Dan, who selflessly shuttled us between Maryland and Virginia, helped carry things, and joined us in consuming celebratory pizza. The first week was a flurry of unpacking, assembling furniture, and spending too much money on stuff like a sofa and dining table, which I’m told are things that real grown-ups have in their homes. Erin took the healthy, unpack-and-assemble-till-you-need-a-break approach, and I took the unpack-and-assemble-till-you-collapse-from-exhaustion approach. I only hammered my fingers a few dozen times, broke one glass, and remembered to eat most days.

Epilogue: Baltimore or Less
We have a couch, we have a dining table, we have our little human-human-feline family. We love our apartment, which is charming and spacious. I have included a few photos for those of you who–like me–have a voyeuristic desire to see other people’s homes.

Kitchen. No excuse left for my food blogging delinquency.
Living room.
Who on earth wants to see a photo of someone else’s bathroom? Nobody, that’s who. Unless that bathroom has an awesome SHARK SHOWER CURTAIN. You’re welcome.
Loki inspecting his new quarters.

When I moved to Morocco, I gave away a whole room of plants. When I moved back to America, I gave away a whole room of plants. Our living room in Baltimore is much bigger than any of my previous rooms, but I am endeavoring to fill it with a new garden. So far, I have 22 succulents (including one gigantic aloe that was just a baby when I left it with a friend two years ago, before Morocco), 5 cacti, 2 oregano plants, 2 rosemary plants, and 2 moss terrariums. I think Erin is secretly worried that one day I will move her out to make room for the plants.

One of my 33 plant babies.

Loki has an exciting assortment of new toys, including a cat tree, a plastic track-and-rolling-ball game, a cuddly stuffed animal, and a plastic ball that emits flashing lights. He especially loves this last one, and wants us to enjoy it so much that he only plays with it while we’re trying to sleep, rolling it back and forth across the hardwood floors with more clattering and flashing than we thought possible. Like most cats, he sleeps almost all the time, but prefers to sleep on my computer keyboard while I’m trying to type, or on Erin’s shoulders while she’s brushing her teeth. Apparently the new cat tree is not nearly as enticing as human shoulders.

If we don’t pay enough attention to him, he wedges himself under the living room door and cries.

I’ve resumed working part-time for Penn State University (remotely) in their educational technology department, mostly doing web design. I have a couple of freelance clients lined up,2 but as much as possible, I’m still going to try for the original plan: making picture books, running my online shop, and finding grad schools. I can’t hang out with Moroccan grandmothers or ask goatherds for directions, but I imagine there are many similarly rewarding experiences to be discovered in Baltimore. I’d like to volunteer locally and take pottery classes, for a start.

First impressions: people are so much friendlier here than in DC.3 It is an astonishingly stark difference. Nearly everyone I interact with smiles and says a few friendly words, whether they’re a cashier at the drug store, a new neighbor, or just someone holding a door open for me. Our neighborhood is beautiful, with a lot of historic architecture, some cute cafés, and plenty of parks. Easy walking distance from the train station, metro, and bus.

We haven’t done much around town so far, aside from seeing a movie the first week and going to the aquarium.4 I’m shocked by how expensive everything is in this country, though Erin assures me that it was like this before Morocco, too. I still feel overwhelmed sometimes, and reverse culture shock hits me at odd times. In grocery stores, when there are just too many choices, in crowded, urban places, or–once–in a café when I was anxious about ordering in English. If Loki can adapt to life in America, though, (he’s on the cat tree right now, chewing on one of his new toys) then so can I.

  1. Out of all the parts of a plane excluding–maybe–the wings and engine, this is the part you absolutely definitely do not want to fail. []
  2. Tell your friends about me! []
  3. Sorry, DC. I know there’s been a lot of DC-Baltimore rivalry lately, but I have to say that this city seems much friendlier so far. []
  4. Proud new Baltimore Aquarium members! []

4 Responses

  • Great post, Serena! I must say it sounded very familiar, from my experience 18 years ago, moving from Toulouse, France to Bethesda, MD, with husband, 5 1/2 year old son, 28 days old infant daughter and 5 year old cat… Especially the part with the cat…;)
    And I just to add that post-office wise, your adventure in Morocco is similar to the ones I have had in the US, especially the part when you arrive at the post office and have to stand in line a first time to get to the employee, explain you want to send something to France, for instance, and then he or she hands you a couple of forms you have to fill first, so you do, then line up again and get the “need brown paper around that box” speech, then act 3, “need this specific tape”,,, and so on… Which means now I use Fedex: pricey, but efficient, no hassle by disgruntled postal employees… And they ask themselves why the US Postal Service has a deficit???
    Also I agree that Baltimore is friendlier than DC. Too bad I work in DC and my husband works close to Dulles Airport…
    If you feel like eating a tajine or a couscous in the fall, let me know: I will be happy to have you and Erin over for dinner.

    • Haha, yeah. I think we can agree that most postal systems are terrible, especially if you’re not familiar with them. Italy might have been worse than Morocco! Thanks for your kind offer- I’m sure we’ll take you up on it one of these days! I’m missing Moroccan food already.

  • Serena, I absolutely loved reading this blog and I have to commend you for facing head on and winning the challenges of your move back to America. Hope you girls continue to create many happy memories in your new home. Teresa

  • Hey, good to hear from you! It’s been exciting taking a crash course through your experiences these last few years. I’d tell you I’m sorry that your experience moving back to the states was such a trial, but I think you’re the sort to appreciate a good story. You get to keep the story, after all, even after the experience of the inconvenience has faded. I’ve fond memories of accordions and rubber stamps. Wishing you the best and all possible happiness. –Justin

Leave a Comment!