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The work that goes into moving

Updated: Jun 5, 2020

When am I moving to Berlin? I don’t know! But I have to be prepared for it anyway, because it could happen any time. Or, more realistically, any time after June.

To move overseas with the State Department is both the easiest and the hardest thing in the world. I say it’s simple because there’s no stopping it. You don’t control the date, the packing company, the airline, or the place you’re moving to. So there’s not much else to do then to show up where they tell you and let it all unfold.

Then again, there’s still lots to worry about. This is going to be my 10th move with the State Department—kind of an anniversary, now that I think about it—and there are certain things that continue to stress me out.

Regarding the 10 moves, I like to distinguish between “big moves” and “small moves.” Right now I’m preparing a “small move” because I’m not moving with all of my stuff—I’m based in DC and have only a fraction of my household goods here. Most of my stuff is in storage in Belgium and will show up at post months after I arrive. So my pack-out from DC will be quick. It takes professional packers only a few hours to wrap up and haul away 700 pounds of stuff (700 pounds is the limit the State Department gave us for our air shipment).

Travel orders

The first thing to worry about with any move is documentation, aka “travel orders.” Orders go through an elaborate bureaucratic process involving HR technicians, shipping experts, and supervisors all over the world and basically rule the lives of Foreign Service Officers.

Orders go through four stages, each signaling a step forward in the move. The first document officially states the next assignment. The second creates a travel schedule, the third contains information about the gaining post, and the fourth approves the allowances needed to ship all your stuff and family members overseas.

Setting the date

Of course, my friends and family often ask me when, exactly, I’m moving next. Especially because this time I’m moving to a Berlin—a popular European travel destination—everyone wants to know when I arrive and when they can visit. But the answers isn’t as easy as you’d expect.

My travel date has to be within a certain range as stipulated in my orders, but can’t be determined before I’ve completed a delicate negotiation with my future boss, finalized my orders, received a diplomatic passport and visa, and booked flights through the travel office.

Basically, I can’t set my departure date far in advance because it’s hard to know how everything is going to pan out. My airline reservations don’t become final until right before I leave hence I don’t know when I arrive exactly until a few days or weeks in advance.

Packing out

Despite all the agonizing bureaucracy, the physical move of household goods remains the main event of every PCS (Permanent Change of Station). There are two reasons: one is that there are weight limits to keep in mind. At the moment, we’re only allowed to ship 700 pounds by air, but we have well over 1000 pounds of stuff in our apartment. That means we have to decide what to do with the rest—donate or send by shipping container.

The second reason is that we need to divide our stuff between our luggage and our air shipment in such a way that we hand-carry all the things we need for the first two weeks (plus all important documents, such as medical files) and still remain precisely within the designated weight limits. This process is exhausting.

Also, as a parent I found that you can’t really pack early because kids need their toys and clothes, and they also have a tendency to mess up or unpack everything when you’re not watching. Perhaps most importantly, they get really nervous when you start stuffing things in boxes and suitcases.

Changing positions

And if the moving-related tasks weren’t enough to cause insomnia, there’s the added bonus of everything that’s involved with changing jobs (or positions, rather). That means we have to complete required training, worry about evaluation forms, and generally wrapping things up in our old jobs.

At the same time, we’re already corresponding with our new supervisors and colleagues about everything that will be waiting for us once we arrive.

Did I mention we don’t get time off to settle into our new jobs? As soon as we land in the host country, we go to work.

So the family set-up has to be arranged in advance as well. We have to figure out which schools the kids will attend and where they go for after school care. This involves lots of back-and-forths with school administrators, daycares, and nannies.

Last but not least, there’s the matter of changing addresses. Notifying USPS isn’t a big deal, but making sure everything is also changed online is tricky. Before you know it your new credit card, health bill, or voting ticket is sent to your old apartment and, as we found out multiple times, utterly irretrievable.

Right now, most of these things are still on my to-do list. So there’s lots to do!


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