How to shift countries without planning (and remain sane to tell the tale)

Alright, so this might not be the most relatable article you read, given how I don’t know many people who’ve had to shift three countries in two years, with a span of just eight-nine months in between, but this is a true story and darn if I don’t use my experience to dole out some free advice. Even though you might not be shifting multiple countries at the snap of a finger, chances are you might have to shift houses, and believe me, whether it is cross country or just across the street, it is still the same amount of pain, with just a little attention to logistics maybe.

A little background first: so in October 2011, I shifted from India to Vietnam with my brand new husband. We’d always known that we wouldn’t be living there for more than a year, so come December when my husband decided he could no longer take it in Vietnam, it didn’t come as much of a surprise. Although making the snap decision in the month of April to move out of Vietnam in a week’s time did. With a transition stay in Singapore in between, we moved to Malaysia in June 2012, with a hope to settle there for at least three-four years. But stability wasn’t to last very long there either, and March 2013 saw us packing our bags and moving to Singapore for the husband’s new job.

I had read somewhere that the real test of whether a couple is compatible is when a) one of them has a cold, and b) when they have to move houses. They say if you can survive these two situations, you will sail through any other crisis you might have to face as a couple. Having faced one of these two, I see it does make sense. But while it took us having to move twice to learn our lessons, here are some pearls for your benefit:

1.       Be prepared (for the day you have to move out): This is not just a scout motto. This should be your mantra each time you move in to a new place. Although moving “out” seems like the last thing on your mind when you are moving “in” it is wise to be prepared for any eventualities, and to have plenty of foresight. While signing tenant contracts and documents, be very careful to go through all the clauses. What happens if you have to break the contract? What is the notice period? What amount will your forfeit if you fail to notify the owner within the notice period? And in case of foreign countries, is there an expat clause (which basically lets you terminate the contract in case you have to move to a different country due to your job) in your contract? On what basis will the owner decide how much of the security deposit to return to you? Make sure you read the inventory very carefully and catalogue each and every detail around the house. Don’t dismiss even the crack on the floor or a stain on the wall, or in our case, rexine peeling off chairs, and don’t be hesitant to point out a lumpy mattress or a faulty faucet. Believe me, when the time comes to hand over the apartment you don’t want to be playing the “This was how we found it” and “It is not our fault” game.

 2.       Be intelligent (to know when less is more): And by less and more here, I basically mean size and weight. Our first buy on our very first day in Vietnam was this beautiful intricate wooden Chinese shrine that I adored. I guess we turned intelligent only after that because we filled up our kitchen with nothing but unbreakable plastic cups and melamine dishes. Only the wine glasses were real glass, because, well, let’s face it, wine and plastic cups don’t really go well. Why I am mentioning all of this is because when we had to leave Vietnam we had to leave behind my precious shrine because it was too bulky and we hadn’t hired packers and movers. The kitchenware came carelessly tossed in a huge bag because we didn’t really have to worry too much. Which is why even today, despite having proper dinnerware I am still stuck with melamine plates and plastic cups. The point I am trying to make is that if you know there is a slightest chance you might have to consider leaving something behind because of its size or weight when you move, don’t buy it in the first place. So while a kitchen shelf that can be dismantled and reassembled later is fine, massive floor cushions that take up a quarter of the living room space are not. When buying anything, ask yourself, “Will this be an easy thing to pack, carry and unpack?” Unless, of course you hire packers and movers like we did in Malaysia, which brings me to my next bit of advice.

 3.       Be willing (to hire packers and movers): When we’d decided to shift from Vietnam, we had somehow gotten the wrong notion that we didn’t have enough stuff to justify hiring packers and movers. That and the fact that the place being Vietnam, we didn’t really think we would be able to find one that didn’t cost us an arm and a leg. Which is probably why, on the day we were supposed to move out, our house looked the aftermath of a hurricane. Two Vietnamese maids, eight long hours, a Kiwi friend helping us out and four trips to and from the guest house later, we finally declared the house was packed. Forget achy bodies; forget missing out lunch; just the mental anguish turned me off moving forever. Cut to the day we were to send all our stuff to Singapore from Malaysia. The packers came in at 11:00 sharp and were done packing the huge boxes by 12:45. My maid arrived shortly, cleaned the apartment till it was squeaky and all I did was sit down on a chair by a corner and yell out instructions. On moving-in day, the people came in at 3:00, were done unpacking in less than 45 mins and yet again, all I did was give instructions. Easy as a breeze, and none of the worrying. Although charges are much higher if you want to shift furniture as well, it is still an extremely reasonable amount to pay to save yourself all that trouble. Because believe me, you always end up having way more stuff than you think you do.

 4.       Be ruthless (to throw out stuff you don’t need): Sometimes lugging something with you all the way to a different place turns out to be way more trouble than the thing is necessary. In the end ask yourself if it is worth it. We’d bought quite a few bed sheets, quilts and pillows in Vietnam, along with a huge blanket to last us the cold winter, and while we’d have loved to carry them with us, it just didn’t seem worth all the trouble. Which is why we ended up donating all of that to our maid. All of our winter clothes were donated too, since Malaysia didn’t provide anyone with an opportunity to wear warm clothes. Now if you are moving houses and not shifting cross country this might not be quite relevant, but do keep in mind that the living room carpet that was color coordinated with the walls might not go really well with the walls in the new house. In our case, we had to give away all our pirated DVDs (pst, don’t tell anyone, it was Vietnam!) while shifting to Malaysia, and the husband’s liquor collection (pst, don’t tell our parents!) while shifting to Singapore. You really don’t want a customs violation on the first day you move in.

 5.      Be organized (and don’t be afraid to be a color coding nerd):  Organizing obviously is the key to everything, and even mentioning this sounds lame, but humor me. The way I pack is visualize unpacking my bags before I even pack them. For instance, you don’t really need that fancy paper lamp on the first day you move in. You will need a bed to sleep at night. I make sure the sheets and the pillows are the first things I get when I open a box, so I have the bed done even if I don’t go through with unpacking. You will need something to change into and take a shower after all that moving so make sure the essentials are where you can find them easily. After packing each box, make sure you label them and mark boxes which have fragile things inside them.  A carelessly scrawled “Misc” doesn’t really help when you are looking for the DVD remote or the HDMI cable.

 6.    Be informed (about the neighborhood): There are a few basic things you want to know right after you move in. Where is the nearest bus/train stop? Where is the taxi stand? Where is the nearest supermarket or grocery store? And in case you are like my husband, where is the nearest coffee shop? In Vietnam, we found out the supermarket on the first day itself (which ended up being our weekly shopping destination) and the wet market on the next day (although it took a fair amount of learning Vietnamese to be able to shop there without being taken for a ride). In Malaysia we had good friends who drove us around helping us find a supermarket that fit our needs and we were delighted to find one within five minutes’ driving distance. There also happened to be a shopping complex right next to our condo which had quite a few restaurants and a convenient mini mart. Out here in Singapore, despite being tired from setting up home, we took a walk and discovered the LRT station, a food court right next to it and a shopping centre with a supermarket inside it a few blocks away on the very first day. These are places that will be the most useful to you, so make sure you know everything there is to know about the neighborhood. Oh, and knowing the home delivery numbers of your favorite eateries doesn’t hurt either.

 7.      Be calm (duh!): Yeah, despite common tendency to resort to it when everything fails, panicking doesn’t really help anyone at any point of time. Moving in to a new place can be quite overwhelming, but consider it as an exciting new beginning and learn to embrace the fear of the unknown. Also, do keep in mind that the euphoria, along with the newness, won’t last very long, and before you know it, you will have slipped right into the comfort of “belonging” to that place. Just keep telling yourself, “This too, shall pass”.

 So all the very best for the next time you decide to up and move and pack your household with you as you do. Believe me when I say, when it is all over, it won’t seem as bad as it does before you start. Enjoy the process and resist the temptation to freak out, and you will be perfectly fine and sane all throughout!

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