PAUL BENJAMIN: Writer, Editor, Supermodel

Packing Out Is Hard To Do

“Pack out” is part and parcel of the Foreign Service experience in much the same way running into burning buildings is part of being a firefighter. It’s an essential part of the job and it’s never fun. Moving is always a hassle, moving overseas exponentially so. The State Department has been moving people around the world for a long time and folks do their best to make it as easy as possible, but transporting a household full of stuff is more organized chaos than anything else.

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Halfway through the process, it’s clear that an organized and clearly labeled set of shelves gets packed quickly.

In our single FS tour over the course of about two and a half years, we had to pack out four times. Austin–>Washington, Washington–>Tashkent, Tashkent–>Tashkent (when the State Dept. was unable to renew the lease on our house), and Tashkent–>Austin (only two and a half months after the previous move). You’d think by the fourth time we’d be total pros, but as any FS or military person can tell you, every pack out is different.

You learn lessons every time, which certainly helps. On our Tashkent to Tashkent move, we didn’t think about the fact that our Sleep Number mattress would lose some air when we disconnected the hoses to the air pump that allows each of us to set the firmness for our own side of the bed. We got to the new house and had to sleep on the embassy-issued guest bed for a night until I could find the Sleep Number remote in the poorly labeled box of stuff from my nightstand. This time the remote went in my suitcase. We also organized a huge section of the basement into shelves clearly labeled for Air Freight (to arrive in a few weeks) and HHE (household effects to arrive in about three months).

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Yes, we want the boxes. Please don’t accidentally pack the ginormous ladder.

However, some things are beyond our control. The language gap, for example, is always a problem on an overseas move. I appreciate the convenience of having a team of movers whose job is to pack our stuff for us, but even two people can’t see everything half a dozen guys do. Also, they’re from a foreign culture and don’t understand what some stuff is because it doesn’t exist in their country. Add to that a language gap (my Russian is okay but far from precise) and lack of familiarity with Foreign Service procedure and there are going to be problems.

I’ll skip over most of the craziness for the sake of brevity, for example, the fact that their weight estimate was off by more than 2,000 pounds, forcing us to sell our gorgeous tapchan at the last minute when, with planning, we could have sold or given away a few hundred pounds of less awesome stuff to meet our weight limit (200 pounds of overweight fees add up to more than 900 dollars). An estimate being off a bit is fine. An estimate being off by the weight of a Volkswagen ain’t “I missed that chair and a bike.”

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Farewell, beloved tapchan. At least we know you’re going to a good home!

I’ll focus on one example of logistical difficulties just to give a sense of what it’s like to pack out in Uzbekistan. When they arrived, the somewhat-English-speaking supervisor introduced me to their “kitchen specialist.” His job was to pack all the fragile kitchen items while the rest of the team did their thing. Before we knew it, he had packed several things that shouldn’t have been packed (I’ve heard tales of garbage cans being packed, garbage and all, then shipped overseas or even put into storage for years.

Our kitchen “specialist” packed the two embassy owned dish-drying racks, which was really our fault for not pointing out they needed to stay with the house. We caught that quickly and he managed to retrieve them without much trouble. It was much later before we discovered he’d taken the silverware rack out of the dishwasher and boxed it up. In a city where many lack electricity, I can understand how he could make that mistake. However, we told the entire team half a dozen times that all of the electricity transformers had to stay. Their supervisor told them in Russian. Still, one ended up packed, a mistake we didn’t notice until it was deep inside the moving truck. Anyone in the U.S. want to buy a European to American power transformer that we had to buy from the embassy? No? Oh well, live and learn. Best of luck to everyone with their next move!

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