Moving overseas is a big project. It involves whittling down the necessities of life to the barest minimum in deciding what stuff to take with you and what to leave behind. Once the move is done and without even realizing it, you somehow begin to acquire more stuff to replace the stuff you left behind but discover you can’t really live without. Or can you?
You would think a move from one Middle East country to another wouldn’t be terribly difficult. Turns out, it kinda is. Our move from Bahrain to the United Arab Emirates was further logistically-challenged by a seven-week period where our stuff would be in limbo somewhere while we were back home in the States for our annual summer break.
Decisions had to be made…Plan A: whether to store our stuff in a warehouse in Bahrain and then send for it once we arrived in the UAE; or Plan B: whether to send it on to the UAE where my husband’s employer assured us it would be received, signed for, and securely stored for us until we arrived. Hmmmmm.
After living in the Middle East for two years already and being unfortunately familiar with the lackadaisical business practices, lack of professional responsibility (i.e., blame others for anything that goes wrong), and general apathy toward Western customers, I was not comfortable with either of those options. Nevertheless, a decision had to be made and we opted for Plan B. The moving company came, packed the rest of our stuff, provided us with a copy of the packing list (See Unpacking Box 18), and loaded our stuff into their truck for shipment to the school in the UAE.
We received word shortly after our departure from Bahrain that our stuff had been delayed, but finally it had indeed been shipped. However, they couldn’t provide any information about how it had been shipped…by land through Saudi Arabia, or by sea through the Persian Gulf. Nor could they provide any tracking information. Typical Middle East protocol.
Over the summer, we made many frantic overseas phone calls and sent many frantic emails to everyone involved. Eventually we were informed our shipment had been consigned from the original mover to DHL. DHL, huh? We were somewhat hopeful with this news, considering DHL has a pretty respectable reputation for getting things from point A to point B safely and efficiently. We were eventually assured that our stuff had arrived in the UAE, had been signed for, and was being held for us somewhere in the school where Indiana Joe would be working beginning in August.
Indiana Joe arrived, began work, and sure enough, our stuff was delivered by school personnel to our assigned flat where we would live. He unpacked only what he needed to get through the first few weeks until my arrival, mainly clothes and books. The rest of the boxes and trunks were left in a stack for me to deal with after my arrival four weeks later.
And so I arrived, resigned myself to the horribleness of the flat where we would live (more on that later) and began the task of unpacking. There was one small wardrobe that was supposed to suffice for both my husband and me?! NOT! Apparently the school, my husband’s employer, will only “outfit” the employee. Therefore, in our household, 1 employee = 1 wardrobe. The spouse must fend for herself. And did I mention how small this wardrobe was? About half the size of a standard US closet.
As I sorted through the boxes and trunks, checking against the packing list from the Bahrain movers, it seemed as though we were missing one of the suitcases containing my clothes. I couldn’t be sure, however, until I got a little further along with getting things sorted out. Besides, it was my clothes and I couldn’t unpack them anyway…I didn’t have any place to put them. My husband was working and I wasn’t, so he needed his clothes to be clean and pressed and organized. I unpacked his things into the wardrobe and just left my things until later.
A couple weeks later, we purchased a free-standing garment rack that I would use for my hanging clothes. I began to open the suitcases and trunks that contained my clothing and discovered that yes indeed, one suitcase was missing. Aaaaaghhh!!!! It was the first suitcase I had packed back in Bahrain. It contained all of my very nice, very special clothes, formal wear, etc., that I knew I wouldn’t need to wear before we left Bahrain. And it was missing.
It had now been more than two months since our shipment was delivered to the school and a school employee had signed for it without having a copy of the original packing list to match to the delivery. I contacted the original moving company in Bahrain. Typical of Middle East business practices, they claimed no responsibility because they had consigned our shipment to DHL. I contacted DHL but the local UAE customer service, as expected, also refused to help and could provide no information on where our shipment came through UAE customs or any information about how to track a lost item. They said it had been too long since the original delivery and that because the shipment had been signed for upon delivery, they had no further responsibility to us. Nothing could be done. Needless to say, I was not feeling optimistic.
I began to make an inventory of all my things in the lost suitcase for insurance reimbursement, knowing that an insurance payment could in no way make up for the sentimental value of what was inside the suitcase. I was completely heartbroken at the loss of these items. Yes, it was only clothes, but they were my best, most sentimental, things – the ball gown I had worn to my first Navy Ball two weeks before I married my husband, my custom-made tuxedo I wore when playing piano concerts, my Indian Sari. And my Delta Air Lines flight attendant uniform. Yes, I no longer fly for Delta and will not wear the uniform again. But it represented a period in my life where I pursued a lifelong goal and made it happen. It was a job I thoroughly enjoyed and was proud to have achieved. Like a military retiree who hangs on to the last uniform of their career – it was sentimental and represented that feeling of being a part of a select fraternity. I mourned the loss of it. And the many, many other pieces of my “good clothes” that were in that suitcase – it was the largest suitcase we owned. I continued to contact the shipping companies but was still not feeling optimistic.
Out of the blue, one morning in early October, I opened my email and found a message from the Bahrain moving company and a photo of a dusty suitcase sitting in a warehouse.
“That’s it, that’s it, that’s it,” I replied to the email. My suitcase had been found! I was ecstatic.
It had gotten separated from our shipment somewhere along the way and, thanks to my luggage tag with our Bahrain address, had gotten sent back to Bahrain by DHL and was sitting in their warehouse. My inquiries had not been in vain! Someone had actually made an effort to identify and locate my missing suitcase. I was so grateful to this unknown person who actually cared about doing their job! I was assured it would be shipped out immediately and would arrive in 3-4 days’ time.
The suitcase did arrive. Hallelujah! My clothes were hopelessly wrinkled and the suitcase was worn, torn, dusty, and faded from apparently sitting in the desert sun for some kind of extended period. But no irreparable damage was done. Unpacking the bag, reliving the memories associated with these items, I was so very thankful to be holding them in my hands once again.
And then I began to really think about that. Did holding these things in my hands change my memories? Did it make them more valuable? Did the things help me to relive the moments any better than my memories could?
Since moving to the UAE, I’ve had a lot of time to think about life, reflecting on the past and exploring options for the future. One of the biggest personal obstacles I keep confronting is the accumulation of stuff. A lifetime of memories and the memorabilia that goes with them. I’ve been feeling a desperate need to downsize and clear our life of some of this stuff. We don’t have that much stuff here…or at least I didn’t think we did… but back home in the States we have an entire house full of stuff and the house that goes with it.
Looking ahead, we’ve talked about where in the world we want to go next. Where we might want to live next. Where we might eventually retire to. I believe that, at least for Indiana Joe and me, in order to live the life we want to live, we must break free from the bondage of our stuff. These possessions that tie us to a specific place on the globe. How to proceed, I’m unsure.
But this I know: When my suitcase went missing, my heart grieved for the loss of the stuff in it. But once it was found, were my memories of the times represented by those items any different? Not really. It isn’t these tangible items that hold the memories. I already own the memories and can take them out and enjoy them any time I want. The stuff is just stuff.
Holding on to the stuff of our past doesn’t really add anything to our memories. Dragging stuff around merely anchors us to the past. It prevents us from flying free and unencumbered into the future.
I’ve decided I will enjoy and appreciate my memories of everything in my life that has brought me to this point. But I’ve also decided to work at shedding some of the stuff so that I can fly freely into whatever and wherever comes next.