Friday, January 17, 2014

The Move: Part 2

Guten Morgen from Berlin! We're sitting in the large and drafty living room of the flat here, looking out on the grey skies above Prenzlauer Berg. It's the beginning of our fourth day here. There is a lot to do and a lot on our minds, from work to visa applications, but we want to take the time now to relate the story of how we got here.

Sunday, January 12

Surprisingly, we got to bed at a decent hour the night before, and didn't have to get up this morning until 7am because we were prepared. We had agreed with Shannon's parents (who were kind enough to be our ride) to leave for the airport at 8:30, knowing it was about a two hour drive to SFO.

A lot of people have been curious about how Flash handled this trip, and indeed, a lot of our focus has been on making sure he's comfortable and safe. After loads of research, we had chosen to fly with United, because they are the only airline to allow pets in-cabin without a weight limit. This was crucial because Flash is about 20 pounds and on some airlines, like Lufthansa, the weight limit (including the carrier) is 8 kg / 17.6 lbs. Some are worse, like Air Berlin, who require the pet and carrier to be no more than 6 kg / 13.2 lbs! It was out the question for Flash to travel in the hold, due to the terrifying number of pet deaths in cargo transit each year. We also, on the recommendation of our veterinarian, decided that a flight transfer was an option to be avoided, and that a single, direct flight was best for Flash. It's scary enough to go through one takeoff and landing for a cat, let alone two or more. United, our only choice, does not have a direct flight from any city in California to Berlin. The closest we could get inside of Germany was Frankfurt, and that flight was only out of San Francisco, not LA. From Frankfurt, we could choose to take a train or rent a car. A train would be a little faster but more expensive, and more frightening for Flash since he's used to car travel. So our plan had formed - drive to San Francisco, fly to Frankfurt, rent a car, and drive to Berlin.

So on Sunday morning, we were apprehensive about how Flash would do, and especially about his potential need to go to the bathroom during travel. We fed him early the night before and took away his water early in the morning, and hoped he would go to the bathroom before we left for the airport. We even bought a foldable travel litter box for him to use on the car ride to Berlin. We won't go into detail, but we were very happy that he emptied both tanks, so to speak, before we left!

On the drive to SFO, we received notice from United that our flight had been delayed an hour. It always sucks to add another hour to your travel, but this time it was a very good thing. After a tearful goodbye to Shannon's parents, we headed in to the international terminal with our mountain of baggage. As we approached the security checkpoint, we learned from a surly pre-screener that the new policy is that you're allowed only one carry-on and one personal item. In the past, we've each had one suitcase carry-on plus a laptop bag, purse, portfolio, and briefcase (as examples). This time, we were each rolling a small carry-on, Rahsan was carrying Flash and a laptop bag, and Shannon was carrying a purse and a camera bag. They wouldn't even let us into the security line with this configuration, so all our meticulous planning went out the window at that moment. We ended up shoving the laptop into a suitcase temporarily, and switching the camera bag to Rahsan's shoulder (since the pet carrier is not counted).

Now here comes the part where the flight being delayed was a good thing. Lately, even the slightest raise in my heartbeat, the smallest amount of added stress in any given situation, has initiated a panic attack for me. I've mentioned my anxiety on this blog before, but I'll share a little more this time. Like a trigger in a gun, the rude security checkpoint guy who turned us away and the realization that we may have brought too much baggage let loose a wave of anxiety that didn't dissipate until we were on the plane. 

Rahsan took me aside and assured me that it really wasn't a big deal (which of course I knew was true) and I took another dosage of anti-anxiety medication (I had already taken some to prevent such an attack). This one felt pretty bad- my head was spinning and I felt short of breath. Adding on that I felt like there was a time limit to my recovery and that my distress might have caused Flash additional nervousness, I couldn't really grab ahold of myself. I can think of at least three times that I mustered up the strength to walk over to the now-scary security checkpoint and each time I freaked out and had to rush back to a seat around the corner. Finally, when my time ran out, and after I had taken yet another dose of medication, Rahsan had the ingenious idea to turn on a Friends episode (my go-to natural anti-anxiety antidote) on his phone and told me to focus on nothing else but that. It worked like a charm. 

Now, when I say it worked, I mean that it got me past the first round of TSA agents and kept me in the line without screaming aloud in terror. But we had SO MUCH "stuff" with us. I told the travelers behind us in the line that we would be taking a while. Despite our preparedness of slip-off shoes and no belts or jewelry, we still had to put everything on the belt and through the x-ray machine, all while looking to the agents to tell us what to do with Flash and when. We knew we had to take him out of the carrier and walk him through the scanner, but it was especially hectic and loud this time, and the TSA guys honestly seemed in a worse mood than usual. They offered to let us take him into a room to take him out, which I accepted, but in that case they made us leave him behind while we walked through, and said they were going to pass him over the wall and around the hubbub. To my dismay, she laid him in his carrier on the floor by the belt and other travelers. I screamed without screaming, if you know what I mean, at the agent next to him. I turned into a momma bear and gave her the sternest look you can give someone with a stun-gun. I mimed angrily for her to pick him up off the ground and pass him over the wall. She quickly did as I said. I looked Rahsan in the eyes and asked him, "Are you sure you can handle all of this?", to which he stood up straight and replied, "Definitely. You go get our boy". 

I was reunited with Flash in the little security room and was so sad to see him absolutely terrified. I was immediately pissed at the agents in the room, which I probably shouldn't have been, when they told me in the driest possible way to take him out of his carrier. The poor guy did not want to come out but I was able to get him into my arms before one of the female agents took his carrier away to be scanned. The other agent stayed behind in the room with us, and after I gave her a puzzled look at the way she was hugging the opposite wall, she whispered to me that she is afraid of cats. I laughed inside, that this big and tough agent was scared of Flash. On the other hand, he is a 20 lb bruiser. I assured her that he doesn't bite, that he was simply afraid. He shrunk into a tiny ball on my lap and tried to burrow his way through my armpit to get onto the floor. Of course, I held onto him like my life depended on it. Finally, the first agent brought his carrier back in and dropped it onto the table. Flash, who doesn't usually voluntarily get into any carrier, rushed into it like a scared little rabbit. Ugh. It crushed me. I gave the two women a sharp look (not necessarily justified, I know) and walked out to Rahsan. 

He had nearly gotten everything out of the way of the other people in the line, even after they opened a bag to check our PS3, and he let me leave the security zone straight away to get Flash to a quiet place. I looked inside his carrier and spoke to him in my sweetest voice, but there was nothing I could do to calm him. His eyes were wider than I've ever seen them and his breathing was so visibly faster than it had ever been, that I was truly worried for him. Again, Rahsan, our rock and voice of reason, told me that he was fine and that we in fact did not need to call our vet to ask if he needed emergency help. 

Now, we had about 15 minutes until boarding, so we found the quietest corner near our gate and I stayed with Flash while Rahsan grabbed a couple of cups of wine, hoping that the alcohol would keep me from freaking out while on the tarmac and during takeoff (usually those are the only points during a flight in which I have panic attacks). Between last minute bathroom breaks and trying to cram some food into my mouth - to limit the burning sensation of the booze entering my stomach (that's a whole other issue) - it was impossible to relax. But ever since I had to take care of Flash in security, I had hardened myself against my own terror to focus on him. This was still the case, as I, with a shaking hand, grabbed some food out of a bag and offered it to him. Tears welled up in my eyes as he just stared ahead and shook, completely uninterested in the one thing that he desires above all else. I was in a bit of denial so I gently pushed the food up to his mouth, praying that that would somehow change his reaction. But nothing. He just stayed there, curled up in a ball, either gazing ahead in shock or jerking his head from one loud noise to the other. This was worse that I thought it was going to be. I felt horrible. "How do people fly with their pets so often?" I asked the universe. 

Well, it was time to board. Again, I zoned out and watched Friends on Rah's phone while he took Flash on the plane behind me. Luckily, we got the row to ourselves! That was something we had hoped would happen but thought for sure that there are never any open seats on an international flight anymore. Maybe this was due to the fact that we were in Economy Plus. Anyway, that was something we celebrated. Rahsan took the aisle, I took the window, and Flash was on the floor under the middle seat ahead of us, but longways so his carrier was actually mostly out from under the seat. His carrier fit airline regulations, so if the flight attendant had asked us to "stow" him away completely, we would have been able to turn him, but they never did (possibly because we kept shuffling our coats to cover him up every time they walked by). I had most of my mind on watching the show, and the rest focused on making Rahsan check on Flash every five seconds. When I did look down into the carrier (there's a flap on the top that can be pulled aside to see through) I saw Flash's eyes curiously looking at me and out the window. Within a few minutes, he looked as he looks in the car, completely comfortable and simply curious. I sighed in relief and continued to meditate to Phoebe's antics and Chandler's lame jokes. When it was time to take off (the point at which I had most worried about Flash being confused and fearful) Rahsan and I stuck our hand through the top of the carrier and pet Flash while we lifted up into the air. But Flash didn't seem afraid at all, and Rah and I agreed that this was the smoothest and quietest takeoff we'd ever experienced. Another sigh. We all settled in. The worst was over, we were sure.

Finally in the air and on our way, we were very much enjoying having the row all to ourselves. The flight went pretty well. We were surprised that we got two "meals", a snack, and a round of drinks all for free. We thought that sort of service had ended in 1999. We still had to share a crappy TV stuck on the bulkhead a few rows up. No "personal entertainment screens" in United Economy. We each got some snatches of sleep. Flash calmed down significantly and was able to eat small handfuls of food. And he only got restless in the later part of the flight, stretching and pushing his little face against the mesh windows of his carrier. As we descended into Frankfurt, we were worried that the loud noise of landing would terrify Flash again. But again we were surprised at how quiet the aircraft was, and at the skillfully soft touchdown executed by the pilot. We were feeling optimistic and excited.

That feeling disappeared quickly though once we realized that the rental car place was in an entirely different terminal! We had two carts piled with our stuff, and had to go up and down a series of elevators that seemed to get smaller and smaller each time. Seriously, we were wheeling these carts through the airport for an hour. Halfway through that time, we met Russell, an amazing beacon of hope in the endless nightmare of sweaty cart-pushing. He was an expat vet and airport information guide with wizardly white hair and an appropriately Gandalf-like disposition. He took us by the proverbial hand and led us all the way from the tram to the rental car office. He did this for no reason, really, except to be kind (and, he admitted, because he was bored on the tram platform). We know this because he refused a tip and told us it was against the rules for him to take one. He did accept a signed comic book from me and a grateful and desperate hug from Shannon!

By that time, the rental car company had marked our reservation as 'no-show' and given away all the cars in our rental class. That worked out, though, because our luggage wouldn't have fit in the small european size "wagon" we had booked. A friendly Finn upgraded us to a super fancy BMW, while also hitting me with the bad news that German regulations would not allow me to use my credit card's travel insurance and that I would have to buy the car company's in-house insurance. While I dealt with this, Shannon watched Flash and learned about German politics from another employee at the car company.

Soon we were on our way into the foggy Frankfurt afternoon. Initially we found ourselves driving in circles in a surreal fairy-tale forest, looking for a place, any place to pull over and let Flash out of his carrier and offer him the litter box. After that success, the nav system got us on our way to Berlin.

It got dark quickly, and Shannon, who'd slept less on the plane than me, sagged in her seat and passed out. I turned on the radio and tried to stay alert, but had to pull over several times for several cups of Kaffee at the funny little German gas station rest stops (all nearly identical in design). Driving was interesting, learning the German signage (which still confuses me a bit) and observing the driving culture. German drivers are more orderly than California drivers, staying in their lanes based on their speed, and quickly moving out of the way for faster drivers, apparently with very little ego, a big difference from LA.

When Shannon woke up, she focused on keeping me awake, pinching my ear and annoyingly rubbing the back of my head. It worked! We made it to the limits of Berlin and rolled into the city in our sweet BMW like bourgeois Americans.

We circled the block a few times looking for our destination apartment block, and found parking nearby. Our hosts helped us up the four flights of stairs and into their flat, which they had prepared for us. We received a brief orientation (continued the next morning before they left for their winter holiday) and then we passed out. It feels like we haven't entirely woken up since.

Aside from a few trips of necessity to take care of errands and shopping, we haven't seen much of the city yet. There is so much waiting for us...

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