Our last months and weeks in the US were hectic, to put it mildly. We had already been preparing for the move for weeks: making and adding to lists of things to give away and enticing friends to take them, getting various paperwork we needed to be able to get into Australia (only Australian citizens and their immediate family members are currently allowed in), canceling subscriptions, insurance, utilities, etc. You don’t know how many financial and logistical ties you have to a place until you’re trying to unravel them all.
We had planned all along to do our own packing, to avoid possible COVID exposure from the movers. It would be a big job, and we started weeks in advance, putting everything we wouldn’t need to see or use for a few months into boxes. (Another advantage to doing your own packing is that it’s far less wasteful: I spent well over $1000 on packing materials, but we used clothing, linens, etc. to pad our breakables, and therefore less bubble wrap.)
Everything we packed had to be inventoried in detail for Australian customs – they take biohazards extremely seriously, and would want to know what materials our things are made of. Anything they disapprove of, they’ll charge a large fee to steam clean, or a smaller fee to destroy. Rather than deal with that, I gave away items I suspected they wouldn’t like, such as shadow puppets from both India and Indonesia – all made of leather. I gave away all my wicker baskets, another questionable item. I corresponded with the relevant authority in Australia about picture frames: some of the art on my walls has been in the family for up to 50 years, and was framed in countries as various as Thailand, India, Italy, and the US. I wondered whether I should take some of the older pieces to be de-framed, but I got a fast response to my query, pointing me to a government database that categorized picture frames as “low risk”.
Another potential source of biohazard is shoes, especially any with tread that might harbor foreign dirt. Brendan used plastic and wire brushes attached to an electric drill to clean dozens of our shoes, and picked the remaining dirt out of the crevices of his sneakers with a metal pedicure tool. All our shoes looked practically new by the time he got done, and I labeled them on the inventory “Shoes – all cleaned!”
During this time I was also preparing for re:Invent, Amazon Web Services’ biggest event of the year. In previous years, this would have meant a busy few months and then six extremely tiring (but fun) days in Las Vegas. This year, all the preparations started earlier and the event itself ran longer: three weeks of Tuesday-through-Thursday keynotes and sessions, all online. We knew fairly early on that it was likely I’d be busy until nearly the last minute of re:Invent: the three launches I was involved in were being considered to be included in Werner Vogels’ keynote, always the last big launch occasion of re:Invent. Brendan and I both were anxious to leave the country as quickly as possible, but I knew there was no way we’d be ready before re:Invent was over.
I had been scanning prices on tickets to Sydney: there were few seats available, none of them soon, and only in business class at about $13k per seat. For a while I assumed that we’d have to spend that much to get to Australia at all.
In October I started looking in earnest, starting from December 18th, the day re:Invent would end. Seats that day were still going for $12k each, but more flights and seats had become available: I nabbed four tickets at $2600 each (one way) for December 20th. These would force us to transit through Los Angeles (there are still direct flights from SFO to Sydney, but those were sold out until much later).
Having secured tickets didn’t necessarily guarantee a departure date. Australia for the foreseeable future requires all arriving passengers to quarantine for two weeks in hotels, under the supervision of police, military, and medical personnel. There’s a limit to how many people can be accommodated and managed, so arriving flights are severely capped. This has led to shenanigans among some airlines, such as repeatedly canceling flights or bumping passengers who paid lower ticket prices in favor of those able to pay exorbitant business class prices. There were horror stories in the press and in a Facebook group for quarantinees that I’d found, though almost all the passengers involved were coming from Europe or the Middle East. Still, it was one more thing to worry about: what if we packed up our house and then lost our flight and couldn’t rebook for months, as had happened to others? We would have nowhere to live.
I was busy from early mornings through late evenings with launch-related meetings (re:Invent is the only time of year that AWS encroaches on its employees’ personal time, and then only apologetically). In normal times I’d have gone to Seattle to work elbow-to-elbow with my colleagues for some of this period. This year, we spent many exhausting hours on video calls. The work was stressful because there were so many details to keep track of, but I enjoyed and respected the people I was working with, which makes any job more fun. My managers were phenomenally good about stepping in when needed to help and advise, including doing some tasks directly themselves when I was overloaded.
re:Invent started on December 1st, and I was still nearly as busy as before with last-minute launch preparations, in addition to packing. Werner’s keynote finally happened on December 15th, all three of my products were launched, and then I could concentrate on… everything else.
Friends were helping as much as we would let them – again, we didn’t want people in the house. I knew my friends were being careful, but we were being absolutely paranoid: Turning up in Australia and testing positive would be a disaster. So we were doing most of the heavy lifting ourselves.
As the pandemic worsened, we decided that we didn’t want movers in the house even to pick up our stuff, which meant an extra-large amount of work for us. We sold one of our cars (Brendan’s lovingly-kept 2001 Prius), which gave us room in the garage to start staging the packed boxes and the bookshelves that had already been emptied. Brendan moved most of the boxes, I helped on the jobs that absolutely required two of us. We were thankful for the furniture dolly that the wedding rentals company had forgotten last year!
The morning of December 17th we moved our mattresses, desk chairs, and other stuff we’d been using up to the last minute into the garage. The movers arrived that evening, going first to the apartment of Claire, Brendan’s ex who would be returning to Australia with us, where they loaded up a moving truck with her boxes and possessions. Then that truck and a semi hauling our 20-foot container converged on our home. It took about two and a half hours for the movers to load all our combined stuff into the container, while their foreman was painstakingly copying our inventory onto paper, one line per item. I ended up having to sign five pages of inventory forms, as well as various other paperwork.
After the freight was gone, there was still a lot to do in the house. Furniture which we did not want to ship had to be disassembled enough that the two of us could wrestle it into the garage. I still had people coming to pick up things that we were giving away, and dropping by to say goodbye (lots of socially-distanced visits in the front yard). On the morning of Dec 20th, our departure day, we moved most of the remaining furniture and other items that we had not chosen to keep into the driveway, with signs saying “Free”. I was amazed at how quickly most of it went, including some large pieces of furniture that required a truck to take away – I didn’t see who did that, but someone did (and we were glad they did).
The afternoon of the 20th, several sets of friends converged to help with the final push: collecting food to take to a food pantry, taking our exotic recyclables (batteries, old electronics, expired medications) to deal with appropriately, collecting more furniture, dishes, etc. to take away. There was still a lot of stuff in the house that I forgot to distribute (like frozen food) in the final rush to load up the cars. Brendan, Claire, Mitchell, and I took my car to the airport, followed by Sharon and Susie with the overflow of our ten pieces of luggage in their SUV. I had sold my car to Sharon, so at the airport we unloaded and gave her the keys – and hadn’t had to expose ourselves to a random driver.