Pianos and Diaper Buckets: The Perils of Intercontinental Moves


When I married my “starter wife” (defined in “The Fly,” below) I was not yet 30 and in more ways than one was just getting acquainted with the various responsibilities of life as an adult. I was living in Washington, D.C., at the time, but was preparing to leave on my first Foreign Service assignment – to the U.S. embassy in Brasilia. One of the benefits of working for the government is that when you’re on “orders” to move to a new location, Uncle Sam will handle it for you.

Or, as I soon found out, not just Uncle Sam, but a couple of teams of professional movers, one at each end of the journey. But not necessarily equal in professionalism.

As a young feller, I’d never had occasion to make a house move before this. My closest previous experiences were moving from one dorm room to another while in college and heading off to Peace Corps service in India with just a single trunk full of odds and ends I’d hoped would be useful when I arrived on the far side of the globe. Today I don’t remember a single item of what I stuffed into that trunk, but I do recall that a fellow volunteer filled his with toilet paper – something I didn’t bother with as I’d resolved that in matters of personal hygiene, since the trunk couldn’t hold two years’ worth of TP, I’d be “going native” and learning to clean myself with water applied by hand. The left one, of course. The right one is for eating (without utensils). But I digress.

Back to house moving. Since I’d never had the experience, I was interested in seeing how the movers would dismantle the tiny “efficiency apartment” we were inhabiting, only seven blocks from the White House. We had very little furniture – just a bed, a bookcase, a small dining table and a “baby grand” piano that my mother-in-law, while redecorating some years earlier, had given my wife.

I’d never seen a piano disassembled before, so I watched the movers with great interest. After removing the top cover, they tipped the thing on its side to remove the pedals and legs. Each leg, I saw, was attached to the body by two hefty bolts. Three legs, six bolts. All were carefully wrapped together in heavy paper and taped up. The movers then put the taped package in an empty wicker basket which in turn was deposited in one of about half a dozen large, heavy-duty – and identical – cardboard boxes.

We were told the shipment would be delivered to our new apartment in Brazil about three months later.

It was. I was at work in the embassy one afternoon when the phone rang. My wife was on the line, calling from home. “Howard,” she began, “you’re not going to believe this, but there are five short, wiry guys here holding up the piano with their fingers. Do you know where the leg bolts are?”

Before me flashed a vision of 50 knuckles turning white and five faces turning red, straining to hold up the piano.

Fortunately for the Brazilian guys, I’d paid close attention back in Washington. “They’re all in a paper-wrapped package, in a basket, in one of those big boxes,” I told her. Which box, I couldn’t say.

Luckily for the movers, the basket, with its precious package, was found in the first box they ripped open.

We were still occasionally retelling that incident, laughing, when four years and two babies later we made another move, this one to Germany (a way-station en route to the U.S. consulate in Leningrad – see posts of Dec. 23, 2015, and Jan. 12, 2016). This time, when the movers came to pack our stuff, I was not watching as closely as I did when we were heading to Brazil. So I didn’t notice what they did as they took apart the changing table where we’d diaper our son, then just four months old.

Two months later in Europe, after the table was reassembled, I picked up the white plastic dirty-diaper bucket that was supposed to hang from the side of the table. Surprised to feel how heavy it was, I wondered what the movers had packed in the bucket to fill an otherwise empty cubic foot of space. I lifted the tight-fitting lid and before I could even see them, was assailed by the scent of months-old, trans-Atlantic diapers.

The perils of intercontinental – or should that be incontinent? – moves!

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