25 February 2006

Scaling back and facing the realities

It was a good thing we had planned to have a garage sale and get rid of some clutter. A garage sale was something we had never done before, and Walt especially wasn't enthusiastic about the idea. Two things happened, however, to confirm for us that paring down our belongings was a good idea at this point.

We "opened for business" at 8:00 on a Saturday morning. By 2:00 p.m.
we had sold or given away a lot of stuff. We took in just over $1000 that day.

First, the real estate agent that we had listed with came over and looked around. She knew the house, but she hadn’t seen it in several years. We had had a new kitchen put in, a new wooden deck built out back, and new windows put in front and back. We had also had a lot of painting done, and we had taken out old carpeting to reveal nice hardwood floors that, while more than 30 years old, looked brand new. The roof was new as well.

Jan, our real estate agent, inspected the house and declared that we had some things that would be fine for the showings she had planned. She said she didn’t need to do a radical makeover or a complete staging, as was often done then (and probably still is). However, we had about twice as much stuff in the house as she wanted to see. Take out a lot of it, even if you just store it in the garage for the time being, she said. Get rid of all these big plants. They hide the corners and make the rooms look small. (I was shocked when she said that. I thought the plants really dressed the place up.) Put in a smaller dining room table so that the dining area feels more spacious. Move the pieces of furniture in the family room sitting area closer together so that the room looks bigger. And so on.

Just a sampling of all the stuff we needed to get rid of. We gave a lot of it
away that day, selling things for a nickel here and a dime there.

The next thing that happened was that we contacted a moving company and inquired about having our belongings moved to France. We needed to know how much such a move would cost, how long it would take, and what kinds of customs regulations we would have to deal with. Friends of ours who had moved from California to New Zealand a couple of years earlier recommended a company, and we made the phone call.

The moving company sent over a man to do an inventory of our house. He walked through all the rooms with a checklist on a clipboard and talked to us about our furniture, clothes, linens, and kitchen equipment. We followed him around and pointed out all the things we would not be moving — some pieces of furniture and rugs that we no longer wanted or that we thought would not fit in the house at La Renaudière.

We had, effectively, two living rooms in the San Francisco house, and there was only one living room in the house in France. We ended up not moving any big armchairs or sofas; we gave them away. I think we sold only one armchair. We would also leave behind most of the electronics in the house — four television sets, three VCRs, three full stereo systems, etc., that we had accumulated over 20 years of living together, most of which were getting pretty old — and all the kitchen appliances, which would be sold with the house. France has 220-volt current, and all the 110V American appliances would be a headache over there.

I also needed to sell my car. It didn't sell that day.

After the inventory was done, the moving man went back to his office and did all his calculations. He reported that we had about 10% too much stuff to fit into a 20-foot container, but not nearly enough to fill a 40-foot container. As a result, he said, we needed to pare down by about 10%. He also said that on moving day we would be able to prioritize and hold back certain items until the last minute, when we would see whether they would maybe fit in the container. That way, we could be sure we packed the things we really wanted to keep and left the rest behind.

We got more serious about the garage sale then. We had to be ruthless about getting rid of things. One of my rules became the do-we-use-it criterion. Even if we really like it, unless it has true sentimental value, and unless we use it frequently and couldn’t easily replace it, it had to go. We could sell it in the garage sale (or at least try), give it to good friends or family, or donate it to charity.

Back in the 1980s, a cousin in North Carolina
had given the cuttings from which this plant grew.

I decided to get rid of hundreds of books, about 400 old vinyl LP record albums, and nearly all of the hundreds of 3½” floppy disks and more than 600 audio cassettes that we had accumulated over the years.

Some of my record albums dated back to the 1960s, but they had to go. I filled the trunk of the car with boxes full of them and drove around to several old record stores in San Francisco to see if anybody would buy them or take them as a donation, but it turned out to be a mostly wasted effort. The used record dealers in Haight-Ashbury were not impressed. None of the ablums was in mint condition — they had been played too often on old record players in the dorm back in the late 1960s and early 1970s. There was no market for them, I was told repeatedly.

I gave boxes and boxes of French books from my college and graduate student days to the libraries at San Francisco City College and the Lycée Français de San Francisco. Other books went to City College, the Salvation Army, or Good Will, along a lot of stuff that didn’t get sold or given away during the garage sale. We ended up having charitable companies come with trucks and take away pieces of furniture that we couldn't sell or give away otherwise. Friends rented a truck and came to get a refrigerator we had put in the back of the garage when we had our kitchen redone.

Here are a jade plant and a schefflera that I hated to part with.
San Francisco was great for plants. They could stay outside year-round
because the weather was never really hot and never really cold.

It was amazing to realize how much stuff we had but didn't need. I guess our life had gotten out of control, to an extent. What I most regretted having to get rid of, when all was said and done, was all our big houseplants. We had had some of them since the 1980s. They had moved across the country with us when we left Washington DC for San Francisco in 1986.

That earlier move had been so different. We had rented a truck in Washington and packed it full of everything we could fit into it. We didn’t have so much furniture back then, and we didn’t have computers and all the computer paraphernalia that we had accumulated, including a couple of desks and desk chairs. We had fewer books and fewer stereos and TVs back then, not to mention fewer clothes.

For the move to California, we rented a trailer so that we could haul my car to California behind the truck. We had earlier driven to California with a car top carrier on Walt’s car and left the car and the carrier full of stuff there with friends. We flew back. This time, we put my car on the rented trailer and filled it with plants. It became a rolling greenhouse for the transcontinental journey. The plants were declared healthy by the authorities at the California border near Tahoe and we and the plants rolled on down to the SF Bay Area.

Some of our plants had survived the 1986 move from DC to SF, or their
parents had. They all had to go because we couldn't move them to France.

This time, we wondered if we really were going to sell the house quickly and for a good price. Everything depended on that. If we didn’t sell it and ended up having to forfeit the deposit we had put down on the house in France, we would still feel good about having gotten rid of a lot of stuff that we didn’t really need. But not the plants. I would miss those, especially if we ended up not moving. I ended up selling most of them for a dollar or two. I just wanted them to go to good homes.

The other big headache, in a sense, was the dog. What if we couldn’t get permission to move Collette to France? We were not willing to leave her behind. If Collette couldn’t move to France, neither could we. She was already 11 years old, so we would just have to wait a few more years until she passed on if she couldn’t move with us. Then we could relocate. I started doing research on the Internet and making phone calls to see what restrictions France placed on the importation of domestic animals.

Walt and Collette in the empty San Francisco house, March 2003.

Meanwhile, I was going to have to sacrifice myself and go back to France in early February. We had decided to incorporate ourselves in order to buy the house there. That way, we would sidestep all the strict French inheritance laws, under which you are not allowed to leave your property to anybody but immediate family when you die. We agreed that if one of us died, we each wanted the other to own the house free and clear. And one of us needed to go to France to sign papers setting up the société civile immobilière, or real estate corporation, to make that possible. That was me. Walt would stay in San Francisco and continue getting our house ready for the first public viewing, which the realtor scheduled for about February 15. He was still employed at that point, actually.

We hadn't yet agreed on an asking price.

Also, we were starting to research the requirements for getting long-stay visas for France. We didn’t want to end up as illegal immigrants if we really did move.

It all depended on selling the house for the right price and at the right time. And on getting visas for ourselves and the dog. If we found that we couldn't sell the SF house for a good price, we still might have time to arrange financing for the house at La Renaudière before April 15. Or request an extension. Time would tell.


  1. reading this, and about Colette, just moved me.

  2. Bonjour Cigale,

    When we were in the process of moving, a good friend, and one of Collette's oldest friends, said she would of course adopt Collette if we had to leave her behind. We knew that Collette would have a good home, but that wasn't an option for us. Now Collette's friend (and ours) has bought a house 10 miles south of Saint-Aignan and will be moving to France in the fairly near future.


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