The five rules of moving to a new country

by Phoebe Blyth


I remember when I was very young and our family was going on a trip. I was "helping" my dad (whose adventures we've featured before in "When my Dad was My Age") to pack, and he told me his "golden rule" or traveling: put all the clothes and all the money you think you'll need in two piles on the bed, and then take half that many clothes, and twice that much money. Since then, I've learned a few "golden rules", including "never drink tap water if the locals drink bottled water"; and "always bring a set of speakers and a deck of cards to a hostel". 

Over the last few months, my husband and I have been preparing for our move from Chicago to Riyadh, and in the process, I've discovered a few new rules, specific to moving countries... 

Rule 1: Not everyone will think your move is "exciting"... but they'll have an opinion

"So how long have you been in Chicago?"

"About 3 years now. But we're actually about to move."

"Oh really? Where are you moving to?"

"Saudi Arabia."


By and large, most people reacted with raised eyebrows, a pause, and a "Really?" or a "Woah!" Then there followed an inevitable question about safety or women's rights. This is understandable - my husband and I asked all these questions ourselves when interviewing for the job and speaking to people already living and working in Riyadh. Our closest friends accepted the situation almost at once, as we had done, as the natural progression of our unpredictable lives. Even our parents, to our surprise, didn't seem all that shocked or concerned when we told them. However, there's no getting around the fact that telling someone you are planning to move to the Middle East, and specifically Saudi Arabia, invites interesting discussion at best, and ill-informed, unpleasant censure at worst. 

At a friend's party, a couple of rather drunk plus ones grilled me on the role of terrorism in the region, with a flawed and broad-brush knowledge of the specific countries and organizations involved, something similar to people who refer to the crises in "Africa", as if it were a country. I ended the conversation when one of them asked if I would be helping to make bombs as part of my job. 

Just my workout clothes...

Just my workout clothes...

Rule 2: You own at least four times as many possessions as you think you do

When we moved from our room in Sydney to our first apartment in Chicago, each of us travelled with one suitcase, one backpack, and one carry-on bag. We had thought that we lived a fairly minimalist existence, without buying too many things, in the nearly three years we lived there. Once we started trying to pack it became clear that we were, in fact, materialistic assholes. We had SO MUCH STUFF! 

HOW had this happened?

Originally we had planned to ship the majority of our things over to our new place, but then we found out the cost (more than the aggregate value of everything we owned) and realized we would have to pack everything into suitcases. Thus ensued a frantic re-evaluation of what we needed to keep versus what we would have to get rid of. However, getting rid of stuff proved complicated, especially when we realized...

Rule 3: Nobody wants your precious, preloved junk

I grew up in a household where waste was a cardinal sin, and anything that could be repurposed, recycled, or salvaged was NOT allowed to be thrown away. This meant that all my friends, colleagues, and even the girls in the coffee shop, endured weeks of awkward "do you need a pre-loved...?", and "would you like a slightly used...?", and "could you use an open box of...?"

While a couple of friends were thrilled with the kickbacks of having friends desperate to downsize, most were not really interested in the hassle of having to pick things up from our apartment, and usually backed out or declined.

Eventually, Ronnie banned me from trying to give anything else away, and began dumping things into industrial sized garbage bags, ignoring my cries of protest. 

Rule 4: Visas are a pain in the ass

Ok, I admit, I already knew this one. Moving from Australia to America prepared me for this one. But, you see, the thing is... I had forgotten. I had forgotten the utterly incomprehensible language of customs and immigration forms. I had forgotten the knot of panic that lodges in your chest when you realize you actually filled out the wrong form, or sent in the wrong paperwork, or looked at the wrong date. I had forgotten that trying to communicate across countries and time zones via email and Skype will cause a person to develop a violent eye twitch and a strong desire to break things. I had forgotten that this procedure, so monumental and vital to you and your future, is merely some person's stack of paperwork for the day, and they have no interest in allaying your fears or "talking you through" what is happening.

I had forgotten that in the end, you just have to wait... and I hate waiting. 

Our employer had stressed the vital importance of working with our expeditor (a word with which we were previously unfamiliar) to secure our visas as soon as possible!! After eventually figuring out what an expeditor actually was or did, we ran up against a more immediate problem: Saudi immigration law dictated that I would have to get my visa in Australia, and fly from Australia to Saudi. Originally, we had planned to spend our last summer in the states on an epic, cross country road trip, visiting all the climbing and hiking areas we had read about, but neglected to visit, while I'd been working full time and Ronnie had been studying. Instead, i was going to have to travel back to Australia and spend seven weeks there alone, while Ronnie and our dog stayed in the States. This was by no means the end of the world (it's always great to see friends and family), but it was annoying. Once again we were faced with the reality of marrying someone from another country: a shit load of long haul flights, and weeks at a time spent communicating via messenger and face time while we waited for visas to be processed. 

Rule 5: Moving day will inevitably be a disaster

Because I would have to travel back to Australia for two months before we arrived in Riyadh, and because Ronnie would be spending that time in Washington, our move was broken up into several steps, and for a while it didn't sink in that we would in fact have a specific "moving day": that is, a day when we would have to get all of our shit out of the apartment and give back the keys (and have nowhere to sleep). As it turned out, Ronnie had to go to New York the week before we were due to fly out of Chicago, and although he worked hard to get everything ready before he left, I was still faced with the reality of completely cleaning out our apartment (in particular the large furniture items that none of our friends had wanted). 

Two of our friends (without whom I would surely have gone mad) offered to help me move, and I hired a man with a truck to take everything to the charity shop (once again, I needed to know it wouldn't be wasted). I'd diligently checked their website, and all the items I had were items they said they accepted. We got the stuff out of the apartment without much hassle, and my jolly truck driver drove off to donate my "gently worn" furniture to the less fortunate. I got a call ten minutes later.

"They wont accept any of your items."

I asked to speak to the charity shop representative, and was told the same thing. When i asked why, I was given a list of (dubious) reasons, but the end result was the same. I now had a truck full of stuff and nowhere to put it. I tried not to panic.

"What do you want me to do Miss?" asked my driver. 

"I guess bring it all back here... and I'll... figure something out..." I said, with absolutely no idea what the solution would be. Wasn't this the kind of this you were meant to be able to handle when you were an experienced, grown up traveler? Apparently not. 

There was a pause on the telephone. 

"Is it worth $100 to you if I... take care of it?" His voice sounded so comically shady I almost burst out laughing, but for the fact that I was desperate for someone to "take care of it", so that I wouldn't have to. I paused for a second before giving him a decisive affirmative. I tipped him $100, and never saw him again. 

I like to think that he was able to sell some of it on Craigslist, and that he didn't just dump it in some alley way somewhere.

Despite all of these indignities and inconveniences, I have no doubt whatsoever that we will be moving again. And again after that. Perhaps we will get better at it... but perhaps not.