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Bright and early on the morning of January 7th, 2016, Travis and I set off on a much-awaited international expedition.  Driving a medium sized moving van, we left the compact snow and frigid temps of central Germany for the warmer climes of Switzerland’s rolling pre-Alps.  Our mission?  To retrieve most of our worldly possessions – plus one wayward cat.  At long last, we would officially be moving from Switzerland to Germany.

When we left  Switzerland on November 1st, we had no idea what would be in store for us in terms of housing in Göttingen; we certainly didn’t think it would take us two months to find an apartment and that once we did, we’d have to furnish it with a kitchen before it was even livable.  We hadn’t planned for such a long house-hunting foray in Germany when we left Brisco with Simone, a friend in Onnens, and stored our furnishings with her in October.  With the bulk of our things stashed at her place and our couch and piles of boxes stored with another set of friends since July, it was high time to go back and “close up shop,” as it were, in Switzerland.

Our hunt for a moving truck the likes of what we’ve previously rented in the US quickly yielded disappointing results.  Since we’ve always preferred to pack and load our own things, drive the rental truck ourselves, and rent a large truck – often a 26-footer (8 m), Penske is our company of choice in the States.  They offered the best price when we moved 1600+/- miles (2500 km) from Bellingham, Washington to Los Alamos, New Mexico in 2006 (roughly the same distance as Zürich, Switzerland to Moscow, Russia).

When we moved just over a year later back up to Oregon, they were the only company we found that had the right towing package for my ridiculously low-carriage Mazda Miata. Plus, they charged us less for a bigger truck because they needed it delivered back up to the Northwest.

During our move from Los Alamos, New Mexico to Eugene, Oregon in 2007, we rent a Penske with trailer to tow our car.

Then in 2008, a friend in Oregon moved down to New Mexico and asked if we could help her out; if we’d be willing to drive their Penske for them, she offered to fly us home to Oregon.  It was like we’d won a free vacation.  We can’t say no to a road trip with friends.

The fact that Travis took out a massive billboard with the truck somewhere near Tucson and that the rental truck broke down, leaving us stranded for several hours in the middle of the night out of LA, simply made it the most memorable moving experience ever

The offer to help any of our friends move still stands, especially if you happen to be moving somewhere exotic!

Penske sends a new moving truck with guys to transfer our friends’ things when the truck breaks down near LA in 2008.  We get a free night in a nice hotel.  Not bad!

Not surprisingly, our European moving experience from Switzerland to Germany turned out to be quite different.

Since Penske doesn’t operate in Europe, we found a host of other companies offering relocation services, quickly whittling down the list to exclude companies offering all-inclusive services, ones restricted to local rentals only, and those with overly high price quotes.  The vast majority of companies didn’t offer high-capacity trucks at all, capping out with large box vans, and not a single one offered one-way rentals.  We were disappointed since round-trip rentals are less economical – what a waste of gas to drive an empty moving truck all the way from Germany to Switzerland – but in the end, we couldn’t find an alternative.

Narrowing it down to two companies, Sixt and Enterprise, we stopped by both for estimates.  Sixt quoted us a price of nearly €600 for a 4-day rental (excluding fuel).  For the same size vehicle, a 4-meter Ford van, Enterprise easily beat their estimate, offering it to us for less than half that price.

Reserving it for the 7th, we picked it up as scheduled shortly after 9 am, then had to drive the moving van and our car back to our apartment to drop off our car since we couldn’t leave our car in their lot.  After another brief stop at MPI for a latté for the road, we finally hit the A7 toward Switzerland, our dog Touille cozily sandwiched between us on the seat.

Hindered by icy roads, then rain, then multiple stops for diesel, coffee to stay awake, and to let Touille stretch her legs, our 7-hour trip took closer to 9.

It was such a relief to arrive in Onnens at our old flat, but our arrival was bittersweet.  Though we’d met the new renters for our old flat when we left in November, it still felt like we were returning to our place.  But it wasn’t.  We’d left our bed frame, bookshelf, and huge clothing armoire for the new renters to use as well, so it was doubly weird to realize it was no longer ours.   And even though we knew Carlos and Nicole, our friends in the adjacent apartment, had moved across town since we left, it was startling to realize someone new was also living in their old flat.  Life is certainly nothing if not change.

Every trace of nostalgia vanished when we knocked on Simone’s door and she greeted us with an exuberant “whoop“!  She’d offered to have us stay with her while we were in Switzerland, and as with every past dinner, movie, and late-night coffee nestled in front of her fireplace, she welcomed us like family.  She made us dinner, set us up in her guest room, and then we swapped belated Christmas gifts.  Knowing how much Travis likes sampling new brews, she’d found a fun “1/2 meter” gift box of beer, mostly Belgian, for him to try.  He’s typically a moderate drinker so it’s telling that he cracked into the box that same night and only one bottle made it back to Germany with us!

The next morning we sifted through a huge mound of mail Simone had received for us over the previous 2 months.  Most of it was unimportant, with the exception of a notice regarding Trav’s pension account from his Swiss earnings the previous year.  After stopping by Trav’s old lab to have coffee with friends, we headed to the bank to figure out what to do about the pension account and to officially close our Swiss bank account.  It took nearly an  hour but when we left, we’d cashed out our balance in euros, closed our regular bank account, and signed paperwork to leave the pension account intact until we leave the EU, a requirement of the plan.  We’ll have to figure out what to do with it when we leave Germany, but for now, we can’t do anything with it, so it’ll remain safely stashed away in Switzerland.

After the bank, we met up with the new renter in our old flat to help him move a bed with our moving van, then had dinner at Carlos and Nicole’s  new flat.  Are you seeing a pattern?  It isn’t that we’re lazy, per se, but it’s difficult to get down to the nitty gritty of moving when it’s so much more fun visiting friends.  Our procrastination meant that we had to pack up the entire truck on Saturday, a task that proved to be far more challenging than we expected, mostly because our van proved to be like the Grinch’s heart – one size too small.

Our first chore on Saturday was to retrieve our things from our friends’ storage unit in Romont.  Despite the pouring rain, O & P graciously helped us load up my heavy totes of beads, our couch, and misc items, all of which fit quite neatly in the van.  Sighing in relief, stupidly thinking the hardest part was over, we relaxed over coffee and cake at their flat, catching up and soaking up love from Miko, their adorable Shiba.  Reluctant to say goodbye, we finally returned to Onnens to load up the rest of our stuff.  I still have NO what I was thinking when I thought most of our things were in Romont.  Back in Onnens, we loaded up our mattress and both Oru kayaks, only to realize the van was suddenly half full.

We arrive back in Onnens to load up the remainder of our things after picking up our couch and misc stuff from friends in Romont. A million thanks to O & P for storing it all for SIX MONTHS!

Taking stock of our wall of boxes stored in Simone’s garage, I was confident we could fit them all.  It wasn’t until we started taking apart the wooden furniture that was still intact in our old bedroom that I realized we might have a problem.  Though we were able to take everything apart to make it fit better, I’d forgotten that our nifty “Made In Switzerland” slatted bed frame was one giant, heavy pain-in-the-a** of a slab.  Would it be too wide to fit in the van?

Well yes, at least with what we already had packed.  Taking one mattress back out and rearranging some things, we were able to tilt the bed frame at an angle and wedge it in between both mattresses.  As we disassembled the bookshelf and huge armoire, we slid the massive wood panels between the bed slats, sandwiching each panel between leftover cardboard from our IKEA kitchen.

Travis catching a nap while I slave away. Really, Travis, not cool. 😉

In what felt like a painfully slow process, we loaded everything from our old bedroom and all of the boxes and wooden furniture stored in Simone’s garage.  Grateful to Simone for shuffling misc items out to the driveway, it was much easier to see what we still needed to fit in the van as the remaining space continued to shrink.  Carrying out the base for our bedroom armoire, one of the biggest pieces we had, we realized that like the bed frame, it wouldn’t fit.  Not only would it not fit in the remaining hole we had left for it on top, but we couldn’t see a way to rearrange everything to make it all fit.  It simply stood too tall.

Briefly stumped, poring over the base with our headlamps in the dark, we finally found several small, deeply embedded hex screws holding on the tall feet and front panel.  Once removed, the entire 2 meter long base slid neatly back into place.

Eureka!

The van looks just about full, but at this point, we still need to load a nightstand, 2 end tables, two floor lamps, a big plant, a cat box, two boxes, and a large bag of household cleaners.  It’ll fit!

At 10 pm,  over 11 hours after we started loading the van in Romont, we crammed in the last few items.  It took us less than an hour to load up our things at O & P’s but nearly 8 hours in Onnens.  Though we were unable to fit the kitchen table and chairs from Francis, we were pretty satisfied with how much we fit in our little van.  For hours, Simone had held dinner for us, expecting us to be done earlier, as we had.  Dinner that night of red wine chicken, rice, steamed vegetables, and several of Trav’s “1/2 meter” beers tasted better than just about anything I’ve ever eaten.

Up early the next morning, we hugged Simone, stopped briefly to see one more friend in Fribourg, then headed back to Germany.  Pouring rain accompanied us all the way to Basel, and I was grateful the weather had held while we loaded the van in Onnens.

Border crossing from Switzerland into Germany

Nearing the border crossing in Basel, the “D” on the sign indicates our path to Germany (Deutschland) while the “F” leads to France.

Our next hurdle was the border crossing back into Germany.  Unsure of what Customs officials might require, we’d printed out a rough “packing list” of our contents, but we didn’t have any official paperwork or forms.  Based on comments from other expats online and our supreme lack of preparation (as always), we figured we’d just wing it, earlier joking with Simone that we might arrive back at her place if they turned us back at the border.  Worst case scenario we’d get an extra night with her.  Besides, with a couple of extra hours, we could probably make the table and chairs fit!

Cruising up to the border crossing, we madly scanned the signs to see which lane we would need to be in with a moving van.  A lane that read T1/T2 indicated it was for vehicles hauling goods that needed to be declared at the border.  Sure that was us, I pointed Trav toward that lane, which branched off into a separate large holding area with at least 10 lanes and more Customs checkpoints.  Pulling up to the checkpoints, we realized they were all empty.  The entire holding area was mostly empty, save for a few semis parked off to the side.

A few minutes later, a guy driving a commercial van entered the holding area, circling around as we had to figure out what to do next.  We parked and checked out the nearby building, but it was locked up tight, closed on Sunday.  Heavy metal barriers prevented us from simply pulling past the checkpoints to continue back to the freeway.  To return to the main border lanes, we would have to drive for a spell the wrong way on a one-way back the way we’d come.  Probably not a big deal, right?  Blatantly violating a traffic law in a foreign country, driving a rented truck from Germany, covered (hopefully) by Swiss car insurance, with Trav’s US driver’s license that might or might not be valid.  Sure, no big deal.

While chatting with the van driver, a third vehicle pulled up: an elderly couple in a sedan pulling a small trailer.  They were as baffled as we were.  Getting back in the van, we circled back to our entrance.  Seeing no way out, we paused to make sure no other trucks were entering the one-way, then bee-lined up the entrance to turn sharply back toward the main Customs lanes.  Rolling up to the bank of checkpoints, I braced for sirens and men, guns drawn, shouting for us to get out of the van.  Instead, an official gave us a perfunctory wave, motioning us through immediately.  I was still expecting to get pulled over further up the road, memories of an incident with security forces in Slovenia fresh in my mind from last summer, but nothing happened.  Back in Germany, it was smooth sailing all the way to Nikolausberg.

The final hurdle was unloading the beastly van, a job that’s thankfully always easier and faster than loading.  We had to return the van early the following morning, so as soon as we fed the critters and locked them in a bedroom, we busted everything out by midnight.  Just as we carried in the last box, it started to rain, an icy deluge so angry we were both drenched by the time we’d finished parking the truck up the street.

Most of the contents of the van are spread out in our third bedroom.

Hustling back to our apartment, we were able to really take stock of how much stuff we’d fit in the van.  We had unloaded most of it in the biggest bedroom so we could unpack later.  Even without including our 3-piece sectional couch, two arm chairs, an ottoman, our bed frame, two mattresses, a set of four tires, and two kayaks, it was a hefty pile of stuff.  I’m rather amazed we re-accumulated so much stuff in just one year in Switzerland.  It wasn’t our intention, but such is the nature of life, at least for most people.

One thing we’ve both learned about ourselves by becoming expats is that for us to be happy, we need to feel at home where we live.  Whether that be in the US, Switzerland, or wherever, it’s no less important if we know it’s temporary, just for two years.  We don’t want to travel to live; we want to live to travel.  We both love adventure, exploring new places, waking up without knowing what the day will bring, but sometimes the best part of travel is coming home.

Know Before You Go

Planning a relocation within Europe?  Here are our moving details that might help you anticipate costs.

  • Total distance: 1525 km round trip from Göttingen, Germany to Onnens, Switzerland
  • Price per day: €29.39 ($32) x 4 days = €117.56
  • Amount we drove in excess of the 200 km/day included in the price: 725 km x €0.21 per km = €155.25
  • Out-of-country fee: €4.20/day x 4 days = €16.80
  • 19% standard service tax in Germany: €54.46
  • Rental price, excluding fuel: €341.07
  • Diesel fuel: €212.59
  • Total cost: €553.66 ($603.02)

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Jason Smither
Jason Smither

Great article. Couldn’t be written much better!

Keep it up!