"So you couldn't hack it in Europe," said the British border agent as we headed from Calais to Dover with one last vanload. She'd asked what the purpose of our visit to the UK was and we'd told her we were moving our household goods out of France and over to the US via a shipping container from England.
Couldn't hack it in Europe?
This was not the time for a debate on semantics. But her statement instantly rankled. I felt judged.
Hack it? It's not something you do in France. There was nothing to hack there. The very idea of moving from the US to "Europe" speaks of removing oneself from hacking it. The old ways are too entrenched and ingrained and there's no cutting through, only finding ways around. Maybe that had been part of the problem with the place. If I was ready for an underfunded early retirement, maybe it could have worked.
Now, getting out - that's been a different story. That's like coming up out of the jungle with a machete, whacking vines and undergrowth and worse out of the way to reach daylight. It was so effortless, getting there. Kind of like treading lukewarm water, being there. But getting out?
Maybe because no one sells their house quickly in France, or anywhere, these days, we'd had it too easy. Not enough challenges. Not enough hack it. But since the house was sold it's been an obstacle course. Trying to satisfy the strict US visa requirements at the same time as trying to find and fund a house in upstate New York from thousands of miles away. Packing and moving a houseful of music equipment and some furniture to a friend's garage in England, and then a storage facility big enough to bring a shipping container to. Seeing the cost of the container jump from six down to three and up to eight thousand dollars, and then back down at least a little.
The US house purchase went through just as a hurricane watch started for the eastern part of the country and all insurance companies stopped writing home insurance policies. And they said the high winds and possible flooding were headed right for New York City.
"The house is a good two hours from there," I said, worrying about friends and family in the city being sent to shelters and worrying, just a little, about the storm bearing down on our uninsured new home.
But there was no time to worry because Eric, who had driven a rental van back down to SW France, filled it with the last of our boxes and furniture and headed for the port at Calais, had been involved in a traffic accident. He'd had to leave the now-undrivable rental van full of our stuff not far from where we'd broken down almost five years ago and travel back to England by taxi. (And as foot passenger on the ferry, though I like the idea of him rolling off the boat at Dover in a French cab.)
The hurricane spared the city and a few hours later I started seeing posts on Facebook about trees falling and catastrophic flooding near Woodstock and and on up into Greene County. Our new county. There were films on the internet of houses and even whole villages being taken out by floods.
We found out the next day the house was okay. A lot of people weren't so lucky - that part of the country was declared a disaster area. I felt guilty calling to get our electricity turned on, knowing how many people had been without power.
And finally we rented yet another van and took the ferry back to France, one last time, still trying to believe that moving everything to England first had been simpler and cheaper than trying to ship from France (and the moving companies all confirmed that it was). We drove to a garage near Lille and transferred our stuff from the disabled van into the working van and returned to the car ferry. No tearful farewell or regretful last looks - just a determination to complete the journey without using a public toilet or eating anything in a French service station, ever again.
The border agent was looking at me, holding my passport in her left hand and the ink stamp, instrument of my freedom to hack it, in her right.
So you couldn't hack it in Europe? I gave her a sickly smile and nodded.