Feu d’Artifice à Genève

That title might seem to mean something like “Few Artificial in Geneva.”

OK.  No problem. We can work with that. Because that’s one underlying theme for this post: Things Get Real in Geneva.

But the actual French meaning is artificial fire, or “fireworks,”  and that meaning works just as well for this post.  Because I’ve been on fire.

And there has been real work.


We arrived here blechy and jet lagged from the U.S. last Tuesday, and within hours were up to our sweaty brows in 650+ moving boxes. Six polite moving men unloaded them from the behemoth of a moving truck, which blocked this, one of the most narrow one way roads ever.

Nice of the men to set up orange safety cones all around, I guess.  Just in case someone oversees the truck as big as Mont Blanc with a loading plank so large, you could invite half the village to square dance on it. Traffic, (thankfully, there’s not much), comes ambling up to the cones and has to reverse back down, down, down the road looking for a way out and, I hope, around.

Our neighbors love us instantly.

In a sort of round-the-clock blur that stretches over days, strains backs and smashes digits (manual and pedal), we all work at hauling and sorting — sofa in living room, beds in bedrooms, table in kitchen — and strategically placing a whole scale size model of the Swiss Alps made of boxes in the three floors and basement of this house.

Then, each with box cutters in hand, we assume our Gorgon The Ravager persona, and have at it.


We gouge and slice the cardboard.  We unbox. We huck an entire forest worth of packing materials out the doors and behind the house and build, folded box by folded box, another, though deflated, alpscape.

At 2:41 a.m., I find myself foraging.  In sweaty clothing from two days ago, my son’s flip flops, and a miner’s headlamp, I’m still raaaaaaarrghing, hucking and stacking in our dark courtyard, hefting up and down stairs, lugging lamps and side tables to places they won’t stay, probably, longer than a week when I decide they need to be moved to another floor.

Which is when the last of four trucks arrives, that one from storage kept in Germany.

I have no time to lose.

Or sleep.

In short, I work like an ox.  I mean Ork.

Why can’t I sleep? Because I’m just a tad manic when it comes to these moves.  And that’s only because I’ve learned that it’s best to just tuck your head low and bulldoze right through them than to look too deeply into the labyrinth, deliberating, hunting for inches of space, moments of clarity.

Someone else might suggest you work in measured spurts.  Take a drink, they say! Kick your feet up,  give yourself lotsa, lotsa time. And get away occasionally to visit the local sites. Your boxes will wait!  Enjoy the transition! Carpe cardboard!


I say stretch your jowls back into a ponytail, wear a helmet (because you’ll be crawling into attics) and a weightlifter belt (you’ll be crawling there with very heavy boxes), eat your last meal, strap on your Camel Back, take a deep breath, and come up for air only after you’ve hung your guest hand towels.

Get done with it.

My deadline was Saturday at 6:00 p.m.. I told the family we needed to be functional — not totally unpacked, just unoverwhelmed — and in the house by then.

So if you’re going to hit it head down and jaw set, you need a system. Like packing out of Singapore, I had a system for packing into Switzerland.

It starts before you move and it starts (you saw this coming), with lists.


*List your house contents by room. File them on your lap top under each room’s name.

*Take digital pictures of those rooms, those furnishings, and keep them with those files. This is critical for insurance purposes, of course, which you will need (See The Disaster Move below), but also helpful when you are making sense of chaos on the receiving end.

*If you move yourself, (which is possible within the same country, but impossible for international moves), mark your boxes meticulously. Best to have large white adhesive stickers on which you write content descriptions, as you can take off (or cut out) those stickers later, if you need to keep them, whereas you cannot when you write directly on the box.

*If you’re hiring movers, follow up on how they mark boxes. Carry your own Sharpie around and add descriptions. (“Kitchen” is too generic. “Fave French pottery yellow/blue,” better.)

*If possible, make your phone calls 2 months beforehand to set up Internet, phones, alarm system, other municipal services in your new house. If you are moving in the summer, be aware that in some countries, there will be a significant lack of manpower in July and August.

*If you are moving to another language . . . good luck with all the above. And below.

*If you are moving to Switzerland, you’ll have to be a legally registered before you can get any of those things above rolling, which registration requires that all the members of your family stand physically in a municipal office as proof of their existence.

*HOT BOX: In it you keep all your keys (house, garage, safe, bike locks, back door, tool box, etc.) and your remotes and other small indispensables. Mark them each with a sticker. Keep this box with you, if you can. Do not put it in with all your moving boxes.

*DOC BOX: In it you keep health forms, new school info, insurance forms, marriage licenses, birth certificates, which will probably be essential in your moving-in phase, especially if you are in a new country.  Do not put it in with all your moving boxes.

*SHOCK BOX: If you are moving to a new country, you might have different voltage and differently configured plugs. In this box you keep all — many — adapters and transformers. Then you can use your electrical items soon after arrival, not weeks later, when you’d otherwise find adapters and transformers in the bottom of your ski equipment and gardening tool boxes.


*If you have children under, say, 10 years of age, they should not be in the home during the physical move.  Their needs will be a distraction that will not only be frazzling, but could be quite dangerous.  I could tell you stories.  Trust me and please find childcare beforehand.

*Before the move begins, load the fridge with drinks and food to grab. Offer drinks— Plastic cups and water! — to your moving crew.  If they are exceptionally good, offer them lunch.  When it’s all over and if you are satisfied, it is expected that you give them a communal tip.

*When movers arrive, meet with them and take a group picture. Ask for their names, then note those names with their faces. If there is good (or not-so-good) service, you will want to give specific feedback to the headquarters.

*Treat each worker with respect and expect them to treat you and your belongings the same.  To help them do so, ask them to first protect all your floors, stairwells and corner walls with some sort of light adhesive paper. If you are in a country where it is customary, (all Asian countries, for example) ask workers to remove their shoes when entering the home.

*Place, don’t push.  Tell the worker this, and demonstrate it yourself.  Don’t shove heavy furniture across the floor, but pick it up (which requires more manpower), and place it.

*Write the names of every room on paper on the floor in front of each doorway.  These names should, if possible, closely match the rooms of the house you just left. (Office, kitchen, parent’s room, storage room, . . .) Alternatively, you can number every room.  The movers work best with a quick-call system.

*If you can, draw a schemata or floor plan of this home and tape it to the main entry way of the house. Talk/walk through the floor plan with the head of the moving team before a single box leaves the truck.  If you don’t speak the language, you’ll have to point and grunt.  And good luck with that, too.

*To that point: Learn 10 phrases in your new language so you can direct/understand your crew. If you can’t pronounce the phrases, write them on cards you can show your crew.  (This helps most the time, but you won’t understand dialects.  And some words — the ones they’ll use to yell at each other — you’ll not want to learn, anyway.)

*Pack one suitcase per family member to live out of during the move.  Everyone should pack in two’s: Two towels. Two toys. DVD’s, books, pairs of shoes. . .It’s always worked for me. Keep these suitcases in a bathroom, where there’s little traffic while moving in pieces of furniture.

*General rule: Unload and set up beds first, big next, little last. Beds let you sleep in the home sooner, but also provide a higher surface for placing and unloading things. Get large furnishings (your clothes washer should be #1, then sofas, dining tables, armoires) in place first, smaller boxes (kitchenware and office supplies) set up later on.

*Keep framed artwork/photos wrapped in protective covering and stacked, leaning against a wall in a remote part of the home or in a closet. They will be the last things you need to unpack, and can be easily damaged if left elsewhere.

*During the move, carry with you an iPad or legal pad at all times. Note when something is damaged or when you question how something is assembled or done. You will also get phone calls with information —new codes, passwords, addresses, community activities — you won’t be able to sort out in the moment.  Keep your writing pad with you as you walk from room to room at all times, working alongside the movers.

*Have one closet or even one drawer where you can lock up your valuables.  Never leave your handbag or cell phone in an open area.

*And never leave furniture standing unattended outside the home during the move.  There are professionals who scout for moves, which are generally Sites of Chaos, and passers-by can walk off with your belongings. Again, I could tell stories.

*Expect surprises — your bookshelves won’t make it around the corner to the top floor, your photos will be ruined by the heat and humidity in the container during the transatlantic shipment, your favorite blue and yellow French pottery (from above) will make it.  But barely, and in many more pieces than one.

Most “surprising” move I’ve experienced to date? I’ll give a short version here, but have saved a longer narrative for my book.

Disaster Move

The head of the moving team, a burly guy from Brittany, stood down in the middle of Rue du Colonel Combes brandishing a huge pair of industrial clippers in his hand. This was the ceremony that launches most moves: the Cutting of the Lock.

When you loaded your household into one container on one side of the planet, the loading team, before locking up your container, (the one that’s going to float across some ocean, stacked on top of hundreds of other like containers on a massive barge), has to be verified and signed off.  You take a look at what they’ve crammed into 40 cubic meters, sign your name to a form, and they then swing shut the big metal doors, secure them with a gigantic padlock, and tuck away the key.

(In theory, your container is never opened between locking and lock-cutting. Although that has to happen sometimes, when all your goods get transferred from container to container in order to, I don’t know, pass through the Suez Canal.)

So the team leader, the one I mentioned above, was standing ready to cut the lock. I was leaning casually out of the second story window from our apartment, eager to get this move on the move.

He cut the lock. One door creaked open a couple of centimeters. With it, a quick swish of water, which spilled out of the bed of the container and onto the Rue.  The man (and all his team mates) threw quick glances up at me. I was cool. Bemused.

The second door creaked open a bit, held back by one man who watched me, not the door.

More water.

Then they swung both doors wide open — two men had their eyes squeezed shut — and when those doors swung wide, an actual waterfall gushed out onto the road.  The guys, former fishermen from Brittany, literally hopped out of the way in their rubber boots.  And one mattress after the other —eight in total — the ones that had been stacked up against the door when the other crew had packed the container, slumped out of the back of the trailer like enormous slabs of pound cake soaked in an ocean of coffee.

Limp, dirty, saturated with brine and moldy, every bed we owned fell — one after the other after the other — out onto pristine little Rue du Colonel Combes.

I remained immobile.

Then someone down on the road cleared his throat.

“Madame,” the man with an accent from Brittany called up at me, “Uh, it’s maybe best you get something to write with.”

I did.

And after several hours of unloading a container that had not only been somehow submerged in water, but had been tampered with somewhere during its thousands of miles in transit, after those patient hours of watching these men fish out stuff from this deep container, I filled eight full pages of legal pad note paper. Line upon line of damage, disappearance, and loss.

All beds and bed frames, head boards and bunk beds, trashed.

Leather chairs rotten from prolonged exposure to moisture and punctured with. . . . …bicycle handlebars?

Lamps, crushed and bent around. . . a basketball?

Clothing —boxes of what we had planned on wearing the next week — rank and fuzzy with mildew.

A couch, gored through with. . . fireplace pokers?

And in the end, a personal visit from the moving company’s owner (and namesake).

Which meant most things were covered at least partially by insurance. But many things (my children’s baby blessing clothes, some priceless journals, every last picture from my mission in Vienna) were irretrievably gone.


So. . .like I said, be chipper.  And be ready for surprises!

Some of them — nearly all of them — I promise, will come, but they only come over time, over months and even years.  They will be splendid, I promise this, too, and more than worth the stress, aches, bruised shins and sundry material losses.

By 6:00 p.m. last Saturday evening, we were able to walk through the maze of boxes stacked nearly everywhere in this house. I dug out four beach towels, hung them in the bathrooms, and we all went out to celebrate having made our deadline.

Seems the whole city threw a party just to celebrate our having arrived.

Just  take a look at this footage from the fireworks finale:

Really, Geneva.  I know we’re new here an all.  But, aw, you shouldn’t have.


© Melissa Dalton-Bradford and melissadaltonbradford.wordpress.com, 2012.  This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 United States License. . . which means, as long you’re not selling it, you’re welcome to share, but please remember to give me a link and mention my name.