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Isabel’s Nomadic Life. How to Move House Without Losing Your Mind

Moving home, even with the excitement of a fresh start, is not for the faint of heart, especially in a pandemic. Here's how to ease some of the stress.

Moving sucks. There’s really just no other way to say it. I’ve just done it twice in a 9-month period this year and it carves away at your soul in an insidious way that ends up coming out sideways at the most unexpected times. It may cause brain damage. Not sure about that. We’ll have to see if I recover my faculties. And I’m actually a well-seasoned mover so you’d think I’d just glide right through, but dammit if the process doesn’t mess me up every time.

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Fresh Start or Rootless? 

When I was growing up, my father worked for a bank and we were transferred every few years. New York City to Hamburg, Germany, to Frankfurt to Chappaqua, New York to Milan, Italy to Düsseldorf, Germany and back to Frankfurt again. And that’s just before the end of high school. On the one hand, every move was kind of a glorious opportunity to reinvent myself. New friends! New hair style! New things to explore! A new crop of potential boyfriends! And yet just below the surface of the mania of a fresh start, all this wandering has left me with this niggling sense of being forever rootless. Plus mildly unhinged. At all times. 

Fast forward to February of 2020. I had accepted a new job in California, and the company I was going to work for assigned me a “moving concierge” who coordinated the entire mad shebang of exiting the lovely but mouse-infested 2-bedroom apartment I shared with my daughters in Brooklyn Heights. A bunch of guys just turned up one morning and wrapped everything up in paper and cardboard (SO much paper and cardboard!) and loaded it all on a truck and told me they’d meet me on the other side of the country in a few weeks. I felt weirdly free.

The box with my husband’s sewing machine. Really.

Packing the…Essentials?

My husband, who had to wrap up some business on the East Coast and was planning to follow in a few months’ time, brought his “essentials” into town to put on the moving truck. Five surfboards. Four trash bags of clothing (do all guys pack like this?). And his sewing machine. Yes. Sewing machine. He uses it to patch his favorite jeans when they wear through at the knee because he’s A: Worn them into perfection and doesn’t want to have to beat a new pair into submissive softness and B: He’s cheap. Sorry, frugal. If you pronounce frugal with a French accent, it sounds almost chic.

New York to Oakland, and an Actual House

All the stuff eventually arrived in Oakland, where I had managed, with the help of my amazing West Coast family, to secure an actual house with an actual washer/dryer and a garden with a fig tree — luxuries that were unimaginable for someone who had spent two decades as a New Yorker. There was room to put everything away. And two walk-in closets in the master bedroom. Those, I thought for sure, were a mirage. Except they weren’t. The kitchen cabinets, oddly, had no doors, but whatever. And so we settled in, planted the garden, figured out where all the kitchen shit was supposed to go, and hunkered down to ride out the pandemic which, surely, would be short-lived. Dreamers. But at least we were in this cozy house and that was definitely a soothing balm for the soul.

More husband life essentials.

Then Another Move, During a Pandemic

About mid-September, I got a phone call from our landlady who had moved to New Zealand. Apparently, her permanent resident status had been approved and she needed to sell what I had increasingly come to think of as “our” house. The rational part of my brain understood. The deracinated and 2020-traumatized part of it wanted to kick some puppies. Which I did not do. And so we steeled ourselves for the inevitable hassle of starting to look for a new place, submitting financial documents, sweet-talking real estate agents and packing up all the debris one more time. During a pandemic. In one of the most expensive real estate markets in the United States. 

Brilliantly, before we launched the house-search juggernaut, my stepsister mentioned two friends of hers had just finished renovating a house but weren’t interested in selling their old house yet. They were open to having tenants but preferred someone in the house who was a known entity and would care for the place with as much love as they had for the last 25 years. We made assurances that between Rob’s OCD (legit and occasionally maddening) and my German upbringing (not maddening at all, lol), we ran a tight ship. Leases were signed and, because the new place was just a few blocks from the old one, we made the budgetarily responsible decision to hire guys just to shift the furniture and do the rest ourselves. Idiots.

How did all this come into my world?

Tsunami of Worldly Goods 

I have this weird story about myself that I don’t actually own a lot of stuff. Anybody else do that? And I delude myself that if you adhere to “the meat grinder” philosophy of acquisition (where if a new thing comes in the front door, something else has to exit quietly and graciously out the back door toward the donation bin), then you are traveling light. And that’s pretty much true. Right? Until you start opening all the cabinets and drawers and this tsunami of worldly goods comes rolling out at you, threatening to overwhelm everyone and everything in its path. After all these years, why does this persist in surprising me? 

My husband, who shall remain nameless, considered the move “done” once his surfboards, clothes and sewing machine had been transferred to the new place and asked, helpfully, “Why do you have so much shit?” Well, nameless husband, the “shit” I have are the trappings of someone who, pre-pandemic, used to have a life — a life where you had people over and cooked for them and set a beautiful table and had all the proper serving dishes and stuff. You have a problem with that? I do need to do something about the plastic “memory” bins of my grown daughters that keep following me like stalkers, filled as they are with K-Pop and One Direction memorabilia, plus a Harry Potter wand from Universal Studios and old journals that no doubt offer searing insight into the workings of  the adolescent psyche.

Nearly tamed.

Minimalism, No Thanks

On the one hand, moving is a rich opportunity to reacquaint yourself with your things, to look over the accumulations of what has been a really wonderful life, and to reorganize, purge and rethink the hanging of pictures and the placement of things you love that really matter to you. On the other hand, the perusal of my stuff after the insanity of this particular year was especially bittersweet. There are huge swaths of closet space that contain outfits from when I had to go into an office and create the illusion that I was an actual professional, and I wonder if those will ever make sense again in this lifetime. But I choose to keep them. For now. And occasionally, I put together an outfit or two just to remind myself that I still know how to do that and that I still have “it,” whatever “it” is these days. 

There are pieces of art and décor that were purchased while traveling and brought home to be loved further. There’s a half-finished oil painting of my daughters when they were little, begun by a dear friend who sadly passed away before he could finish it. And there’s a collection of bronze nesting hedgehog ashtrays that my parents used to put out when they had dinner parties and that I was responsible for emptying as the evening wore on. These things are a beautiful rearview mirror roadmap of my life, and I will continue to shlep them along with me forever. This confounds my husband, who would happily live like that famous portrait by Diane Walker of Steve Jobs at home, sitting cross legged in a nearly empty room lit only by a single Tiffany floor lamp. That minimalist jive is not for me, sir. Deal with it.

The final art treasures ready for the walls.

So apparently, according to Dartmouth University, moving is right up there on the list of big life stressors, ranking below the death of a spouse, divorce or losing your job (which also happened to me this year) and just slightly above a “minor violation of the law.” Given how unhinged I’m currently feeling, I’m a believer. Maybe from now on, instead of habitually moving, I’ll just start a career in petty theft. Might be more relaxing. 

Recs to Ease the Stress of Moving

If you do find yourself having to shift all your earthly possessions to a new home, here are a few things I can recommend: 

  1. Purge beforehand. I still struggle with this but having a good hard look at what you actually use and love and stripping away the excess will make the process so much easier. Donate to local charities, resell on The Real Real, gift things to friends.
  1. If it’s a local move, use plastic bins and not cardboard boxes. There are a lot of great companies like zippgo.com that deliver clean plastic bins to your house and pick them up on the other end. No matter how many bins you decide to order, you’ll always think you got too many. You didn’t. They fill up fast.
  1. Small, local moving companies that will take on modest jobs are the bomb. We used a great crew from jaymoves.com that estimated 5 hours to shift the furniture and did it in just 3 ½. And only charged us for that time. Tip your moving guys generously. They’re doing stuff for you that you can’t and they deserve it.
  1. Pack things by category and room: Kitchen stuff, clothing, office gear, artwork, décor. It will make unpacking on the other end logical and simple. And only fill the bins with as many things as you can actually lift.
  1. Someone said to me once: “The crazy thing about being this age is that you can injure yourself while doing absolutely nothing.” Well, moving is not nothing, so work slowly and methodically. And get some CBD cream for aches and pains because you’ll need it.

4 COMMENTS

  1. I thoroughly enjoyed reading this. I moved 3 times in 6 weeks from CA to CO. Talk about feeling unhinged and coming to terms with ‘my stuff’. Celebrating today, 1 month of not moving!

  2. I’m still unpacking bins and boxes from our last move…5+ years ago!
    Every time we start we get caught up in memories (good and bad) then open a bottle of wine and end up deciding to keep most of it…
    everything has a story.
    P.S my son says it’s all going in the trash!

  3. I thoroughly appreciated and connected to so much of Isabel’s experiences! The difference being I made my first move from my life long home in my birth city to a dream location half way across the country after I ‘retired’. Now settled into my new normal in a cute city on an island in Canada I am contemplating moving again so that I can have a living space more in keeping with my ‘dream life’. I too have all my ‘professional’ clothes hanging in my closet and I too wonder when will I wear them again? Still, I am not ready to get rid of them so they remain taking up precious space in our downsized home. I appreciate the tips offered for our next move – particularly the use of plastic bins that don’t stay after you are newly settled. Fortunately, we still have many of the clothing moving boxes in storage so some things should be easier- right? (Not holding out hope for that). Thank you for this wonderful read. I loved it!

  4. Isabel is such a wonderful writer! Honest, smart, charming and wise. And utterly entertaining.! You need to give her a regular column!

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Isabel von Fluegge
Isabel von Fluegge
Isabel is a writer and brand voice specialist who has overseen the language for companies such as Tiffany & Co., La Mer and Bergdorf Goodman. She’s a strategic storyteller, with an expertise for translating brand strategy into authentic, effective language that people respond to on an intellectual and emotional level. She especially loves her more anonymous work as a ghostwriter, crafting speeches, book forewords and press quotes for well-known executives, creatives and designers. After a recent move from Brooklyn to Oakland, she’s doing her best to discover California despite pandemic shenanigans. She speaks four languages, has two daughters, one tattoo and knows both the common and Latin names for more plants than she cares to admit.

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