Thinking outside of the box

It is spring, and there is new life all around. Migrating birds have arrived and are singing up a storm. Trees and plants are budding and leafing out. The lilac in our front yard is getting ready to flower.

With all of this activity, my own movement is still quite restricted. The third pandemic lockdown continues in France, and we are not allowed to travel more than 10km from our home and must adhere to a 7pm curfew at night.

While my husband and every other member of both of our families has been vaccinated, I alone remain the sole person who is unable to get a vaccine. This has been extremely nervous given the presence of virus variants in our corner of the globe, as well as the risk I will be taking in less than two months when I will (hopefully) board a plane bound for the United States.

In addition to worrying about the virus and trying desperately to find a way to get even a first dose of the vaccine before getting on an airplane for an international flight from Paris to Los Angeles mid-June, I have been pulling my hair out (or at least watching it turn grey at an alarming rate) trying to organize all of the logistics that will enable me to actually board the flight. Organizing an international move is already a stressful event in “normal” times. Add a pandemic and four animals to the mix and you have a ridiculously complicated state of affairs.

My husband and I were living in Brussels, Belgium when the first wave of the pandemic literally hit home. We had purchased tickets and made reservations for our animals on Iceland Air in January, only to discover by mid-March that airlines were no longer allowing pet companions to travel. It was with enormous initial relief when n my husband was offered a one year postdoc at a university just across the Belgian border in northern France. The relief was relatively short-lived given the many hoops we had to jump through to obtain a visa for France. Not being European citizens, we found out that we had to physically be living in France in order for my husband to accept the job. Even though the commute would have been a train ride from Brussels, we added the uphill climb of trying to find a place to live with a temporary work contract. This proved nearly impossible but at the last minute we found a vacation rental where we could live.

I can tell you that living in a vacation rental has not felt like a vacation, especially going through two more lockdowns with insanely slow internet during a time when most of life is conducted online. Even though companies like Orange claim they will offer discounted routers that connect with cell phone towers for people in rural areas waiting for high speed internet via fiber to arrive, the routers we have received have worked only temporarily and the amount of time our property owner has then spent trying to find out why they stopped working and how to get them up and running has not been worth the effort.

I can also note a certain amount of irony recalling that I had faster, more reliable internet access in the internet cafes I frequented as a student studying abroad in West Africa nearly 20 years ago than I am able to access in northern France in the postmodern year of 2021. What would Hal say to this state of affairs, I wonder?

My husband and I went back and forth and back and forth ad infinitum in discussions and debates of The Clash “Should I stay or should I go” variety, finally deciding (and hoping) that the ease we might experience in returning to the United States, along with reunion with friends and family, would make the herculean effort involved in getting there worth the it in the end.

The phrase “Though she be small she is mighty” from Shakespeare comes to mind in reflecting on the many different pieces I have been attempting to fit together in the international move during a global pandemic puzzle game.

My body literally trembles from stress and exhaustion for a good part of everyday as I work to check off each item on my list.

The first hurdle came with finding a flight on an airline that would allow me to add my animals as “excess baggage” to my ticket. Most airlines are still not allowing animals to travel this way because so many flights are cancelled or delayed. To travel to Brussels with my two cats I flew Iceland Air from Seattle. The total time was just under the maximum allowed for animals to travel by air. The biggest challenge came with organizing all of the documents for the cats to travel. The cat “visas” were nearly as complicated as our humans ones and also expensive. An international health certificate for each cat cost $100. Plus there are regular updates to these documents and you have to use the most current. Once filled out, this document is brought in person or mailed to the nearest USDA office in the state you are departing from. They review and sign and stamp the document, also for a fee.

The vet I went to was unfamiliar with this process, and even though I had done a lot of research, we wound up with documents that were not accepted by the USDA office because a new one had been uploaded within the past 24 hours. When I arrived with my mother-in-law to the USDA office for our appointment, we were turned away within seconds because of the outdated certificate.

I then had to return to the vet for new certificates and send them overnight to the USDA with a pre-paid priority envelope in order to receive them prior to leaving for the airport. Of course, this all has to be done with 10 days of travel because of the health requirements, so even though I had started the process 10 days before my flight I still wound up down to the wire getting all of my t’s crossed and i’s dotted and such.

Given that experience, I have been trying my best once again to do due diligence in my organization of the return trip. I started by contacting every possible airline with flights from Paris to Seattle since my husband and I have assumed we would travel there, buy a car, and then make the drive south to Arizona.

Of course, being the kind of person I am, I am a magnet for animate beings. This means that the wild cat I discovered in our back garden in Brussels is now a permanent fixture in our family. It also means that when my parents refused to relinquish the husky we let them “borrow” while we moved to Brussels and looked for a place that would allow us to have a dog, I of course began fixating on adopting another husky.

So now, five years later, instead of returning with the simplicity of two four-legged beings, I have to figure out how to return with four.

I banged my head against the wall for a good long while, trying to figure out how to get from Paris to Seattle with my fur babies. No airline was allowing animals as excess baggage and most were not even going through the airline affiliated cargo company. I was directed, time and again, to the same animal shipping company, which sent me an estimate of 2000 euros for the animals not including the cost of any kennels I might have to buy. There was a flat fee of just under 500 euros just to organize the flights and logistics of travel plus an additional 1500 for the shipment itself. This hefty price tag also would not include the vet bill for visits, vaccines, and health certificates.

We are lucky to have employment and not to have to worry about where our next meal will be coming from, but we are not independently wealthy by any stretch. My head about exploded when I read the estimate.

As my husband is already maxed out by the presence of so many animals, I have tried my best not to bother him but the stress and worry have driven me to moments of extreme duress to say the least. Anxiety and depression have been exacerbated by over a year of isolation and fear as well.

It was my husband who suggested I try looking for other places in the United States with direct flights from Paris. The magic “Eureka” moment came when I found a direct flight from Paris to Los Angeles on the only airline currently allowing animals as excess baggage that was within the time range allowed for animals to travel. It took me many emails to Delta and Air France to find out if I was indeed able to book the animals through Air France on a ticket booked through Delta Skymiles, but eventually I received an answer in the affirmative.

I contacted my cousins in LA and was over the moon overjoyed when I received the enthusiastic response that they could pick me up at the airport and I could stay with them since both my cousin and her husband would already be vaccinated by the time I was slated to travel in mid-June.

Time to celebrate, right?

Not quite. I booked my flight with bated breath as I still had to begin the process of arranging for all of the animals to travel with me on Air France. While there was no easy way to email Air France, on a whim and with very little expectation of a response I sent a message via Facebook messenger. The response was swift and in English!

I went back and forth in a message thread worthy of the Odyssey, sending dimensions of animal carriers and breed, age, and weight of animals. I was then informed that only three animals were allowed in the hold per passenger. This was different from Iceland Air, which allows a total of three carriers. I had already read that Air France would not allow two animals to be placed in a single carrier, so I suddenly was faced with the possibility of not being able to bring all four of my animals with me.

I had one cat who had not come downstairs since we adopted our husky three years earlier, so it seemed conceivable that she might actually be happier in a quieter, dog-free living situation. In a panic, I began reaching out to friends to see if someone might know of a person who would like to adopt a 12 year old cat.

I was thrilled when a friend expressed a desire to meet my cat and do a trial experiment to see if they were a good fit for each other. It seemed like such a relief and suddenly so simple to travel with three as opposed to four animals.

This relief was short-lived. It was not 24 hours later on the drive home from purchasing a litter box and accoutrements at the store that the enormity of the impending parting from a beloved feline member of my family hit me like a ton of bricks. I began crying and didn’t stop until several days later when I decided there was no way I could part with my cat. While I wanted desperately to be a selfless, non-attached Buddhist, the pain of separation pushed me over the emotional edge with all of the emotions and stress I was already experiencing from uprooting myself from my life in Europe to start over, yet again, somewhere else. Thank goodness that my friend, although disappointed, was also very understanding. In addition, I found out from Air France that I could indeed put two cats in one carrier in the hold and also reserve the space to bring one in the cabin with me.

This meant I did not have to buy an additional carrier (or two so as to travel with two small carriers as opposed to the enormous one I had brought my two cats in five years earlier). I would only need to buy a soft carrier for the cat I would take on the plane with me.

No problem, right?


The first store I went to did not have any soft carriers “de tout” (at all) the staff person told me when I asked.

In addition, it turned out that Air France had very stringent rules for the dimensions of said carrier: 46L x 28W x 24H. This didn’t seem like it would be a problem until I began searching online for a carrier to meet the requirements. Literally every carrier I found that was 46 x 28 was also 28cm high.

You would think that this would not be an actual problem since they were flexible. You could just stuff them under the seat, no problem. Not the case with Air France. you absolutely have to find a carrier that does not exceed 24cm in height.

This would not be a problem if I was willing to buy a carrier that was much smaller than 46 cm long and 28 wide, but the airline also requires the animal to have enough room to move around and stand up.

I spent a week and half and hours upon hours doing different variations of Google searches. It was not always clear which measurement was for the height and which was for the width, so I sent messages to online companies. Keep in mind that we are still in lockdown in northern France and not technically allowed to travel more than 10km from our house. I traveled more than that to go to one pet store in the area, which I already mentioned had zero soft carriers in stock. I finally found the right carrier, which of course cost $100.

For anyone wishing to travel on Air France and bring a small animal with them, I will save you hours of research and share the magical item with you here. You are welcome!

Trixie Wings Airline Dog Carrier

Be forewarned that this carrier will not work for other airlines, however. If I wanted to fly on Alaska Air, for example, I would have to start the Google search all over again and probably start dyeing my hair. Maybe I will also get a facelift while I am at it because I feel like I have aged at least 10 years with the stress of the pandemic, moving to a new place, and organizing our return to the states.

The carrier arrived early, which was a huge relief, but of course it turned out to be missing the carrying strap. A quick email to the company seemed to resolve that possible complication.

The next complication came with the question of how to get my ukulele and mandolin back to the United States. Most musicians will tell you to never ever check an instrument, so once option we came up with was that both my husband and I could each take an instrument as one of our two carry-ons.

This seemed reasonable except when you start factoring in the cat I would be storing under the seat in front of me. Airlines tell you not to check anything valuable, and there would be no additional space in my ukulele case for my laptop, binoculars, jewelry collection, prescription medications, or any other items I would need to have with me on my person if I didn’t want to risk having them stolen from my checked baggage. I kept finding more things I would have to bring with me. With each new discovery, my anxiety level rose higher.

My husband suggested I take all of my jewelry out of boxes and pouches and try squeezing them into the two instrument cases. This worked reasonably well, but again what to do with the larger items (laptop, water bottle, etc.).

I brought out all of our canvas grocery bags to see if I could manage to put the ukulele in there and fit the other stuff and then hope against hope the flight attendant checking me in would take pity on this desperate attempt and allow me to take everything on board.

I began what turned into another epic search for a cardboard box that would be large enough to put both of my instruments with a large down comforter or pillows around them for added protection. Having already searched for boxes to ship some of our belongings, I knew that boxes of this sort were not traditionally sold at any moving companies or our local Brico (short for bricolage), the French equivalent of a Home Depot. The store even looks and smells the same and has orange-themed signage and décor. It’s creepy.

The first place I tried was our local music store. I figured they would have large boxes for keyboards or guitars. I went two weeks in a row and both times came out empty-handed and lacking any desire to try asking yet a third time at the same place.

Hi hi. Me again. You know, that weird foreigner who can’t find a large cardboard box and just goes knocking on everyone’s door.

A friend told me that when French people move they go looking for large boxes behind grocery stores and large box stores. I tried both of those options but to no avail. The boxes in front of Brico were already broken down so much as to have lost all vitality, their level of quality compromised and too far gone for a cross-Atlantic, cross-country flight with fragile instruments.

The area behind the grocery store near our house was barricaded with high walls topped with barbed wire and a “danger de mort” (danger of death) sign. I decided whatever boxes they might be hiding in there were definitely not worth risking my life. Just for good measure, I did walk around to the other side of the store but it was equally uninviting so I gave up.

I posted a note on social media to see if any friends might have suggestions. People proposed that I ask at local liquor stores, library, and Ikea. I looked up Ikea online and found an option “What can I do with my Ikea boxes” (or something to that effect) and it turned out there were stations in the parking lot where people could return used boxes, but since Ikea was more than 10km away I didn’t have the motivation to travel all that way only to find boxes like the sad, dilapidated ones in front of Brico.

A friend in the Netherlands said she had several boxes but that it would probably make more sense to try to find one closer to home. Given that country borders were closed due to the pandemic lockdowns in effect, I figured that my explanation that I was traveling to Netherlands for a cardboard box might not be deemed “essential” by law enforcement officers, should I be pulled over and questioned.

I began search online for large and XL boxes, in English and French, again for hours and to no avail. I found either too small or way too large. There were no Goldilocks boxes to be found for my ukulele and mandolin. Two weeks ago, I remembered the large boxes I used to see set out for recycling at the bicycle shop by our home in Brussels. Maybe one of the stores that sold bicycles in town would have boxes set aside for recycling.

I stopped by the Decathlon and was told they had already set theirs out for recycling and that I should call the next morning at opening time. For good measure, I stopped by a large grocery store, which did not have boxes in their bicycle or television section. To be fair, the bicycle section was roped off with the grocery store equivalent of police tape since non-essential items are currently not allowed for sale with lockdown regulations. Apparently, televisions were more essential than bicycles because that section was up and running, but there were still no boxes. The staff person there suggested a place just around the corner, so I drove there but it was closed during the lunch break (lunch in France is anywhere from one to two hours even for some large businesses). Europeans seem to take meals and summertime holiday very seriously, which generally is a breath of fresh air except when you are trying to get a task accomplished in the middle of the day.

I dutifully called Decathlon the next day at 10am and was told to call back at 11am after they would have completed their inventory. If there were large boxes, they would set them aside. I called back after 11am, but there had been no large boxes in the delivery.

I tried one more time another day by stopping by Decathlon on my way home from an errand. The staff person at the help desk was different than the one I had spoken with in person the other day. She asked a colleague and informed me the boxes had already been put in the recycling bin.

Can I go and have a look?

No, I am afraid it is too big and not accessible.

I saw a large box straight ahead and asked if that one might be available, but it had a trampoline in it and would be going home with whoever bought the trampoline. That person was most definitely not going to be me.

If you are still following along, maybe you are vicariously feeling the dwindling hope accompanied by some level of embarrassment and shame that I was experiencing each time I went to inquire about a cardboard box at yet another establishment.

I began imagining announcements being posted on social media for our town, warning unsuspecting shopkeepers and staff about the idiotic American clearly has no idea where or how to find boxes in France.


Ok, so likely I am not as far at the forefront of people’s thoughts as my inner voice of shame likes to think, but you never know.

I decided to try another bicycle shop near our house. I checked the hours on Google Maps and saw that it was open, so I drove by. The shades were drawn and large intimidating metal gate closed. On the gate was a sign stating they were closed for the holiday until the following Tuesday. I wasn’t sure what holiday it was, but I have found there are many that are related to Jesus. He is either being born or descending or ascending. I figured it was one of those.

In a fit of fatigue, I looked once more for large bicycle boxes online. I finally found a large bicycle box on Amazon and bit the bullet and bought it. When the delivery person arrived, I opened the door to find a large tear in the box. I refused delivery and went back to the “recycle/repurpose local” option.

The box (mis)adventure continued into this week. Yesterday, I called the bike shop that had been closed for the unknown (to me) holiday. The fellow who answered the phone was very friendly and suggested I come by one day to see if they might have any because they got them in all of the time with bicycle deliveries. I stopped by this afternoon, and he was again friendly and showed me several boxes in the back and said I could pick one up next Tuesday or Wednesday. I hadn’t planned on stopping and so hadn’t brought a measuring tape. I wanted to be sure I could even get it in my car and didn’t want the people at the store to have to hang onto such a large box if it turned out to be far bigger than I needed/could handle, so I went back and asked nicely if it would bother him if I just took a quick measurement.

The response (in French) was, Yes, you are starting to annoy. You already called yesterday and came by today. We are nice, but you are really bothering us AND we are very busy. If you want to measure the box, you have to come back next week. Now please leave.

So I left. To say that I was more than taken aback by the mercurial behavior from this man would be an understatement. This is a small town, and literally every other place I have asked people have been super kind and helpful, even if they didn’t have any large boxes. I am choosing to believe that he was simply experiencing similar stress as the rest of us and I touched on a nerve that triggered a release. On the other hand, while I understand that these are stressful times, I also believe that it is all the more reason to try as much as possible to act with kindness and empathy. I also recognize that I was not a paying customer. While I was not prepared to spend several thousand dollars on a new Scott bicycle, I would have happily paid for the box. No problem. But I was not going to add box stalker to my already lengthy hashtag.

On a (hopefully) final attempt at procuring said box, I found one on eBay and ordered it. If you are still with me and haven’t logged off to down a glass of whiskey to soothe your nerves, stay tuned for the next episode of: Crazy animal lady organizes international move during a global pandemic. I know that I, for one, will be on the actual edge of my seat.

Now for some fun box-themed images.

And images of all of the adorable kittens available for adoption from friends in the area. As if the universe were not testing me enough, it has to send kittens literally to my back door.

1 thought on “Thinking outside of the box

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