Wednesday, July 7, 2010
A Moveable Feast
My international shippers, who have mostly been terrific through this ordeal, and my friends at BonjourParis.com, have asked for the whole story on the move from France to California, so here it is -- with info that may help others through such a move!
I sold my house in Provence last December to some friends who happened to see that I noted on my web site (www.suzygershman.com) that I was going to put the house up for sale. It never went up for sale. They bought it. The euro-dollar exchange was $1.47.
But this is not a story about fluctuating currencies, the bank that lost my money for six weeks while the euro fell further (final transaction $1.32), or even about doing business with friends. We all know about that one, anyway.
This story is about what happens when you decide to ship some things from France – be it a few pieces of furniture or a household worth of goods.
My side of this story has a catch to it that may not apply to the average shopper or shipper: most of my goods were shipped into France ten years ago from my home in Westport, Ct. They are classified as “Returned American Goods”. The few pieces of French furniture that I would send, or had previously sent, were antiques over 100 years old – this is also an important consideration per U.S. duties and taxes.
Three years ago, I sent some of my things from Paris to San Antonio, having interviewed many shippers in Paris. I chose the firm with the handsome ad in FUSAC, the UK headquarters and the American spokesman. What a relief it was to negotiate in English.
Although they packed my goods; most of the dishes arrived in smithereens. The groupage was delayed three times and in the end, it took six months to see my shards again. I would certainly never use them again. I still wince when I think of my destroyed dishes.
The next move, two years ago, I used Schmidt & Kahlert, a French firm recommended by my friend Sally. I got estimates from five other movers for the shipping of five cubic meters (mostly furniture). I had devis from all the big names, such as Grospiron (who had done my local moves within Paris and is an excellent firm) and anyone else I found in FUSAC or online. S&K came in with the lowest estimate. The shipment was sent and received; the hand-painted buttery yellow armoire dated 1836 on the back came through without a scratch and was rebuilt without a word or a gripe. The experience was thrilling.
After agreeing to the sale of the house before Christmas last year, my first notion was to bring only my family pieces – a few valuable antiques. The purchasers made it clear they didn’t want my other furniture and didn’t even seem to appreciate it when I agreed to leave some of the beds. They were anxious to paint the walls white and play house, so I was left with the 30 year old Le Crueset. I began the shipping dance with a new group of carriers, including Schmidt & Kahlert.
I soon learned:
• Whether you bring 5m3 or 15m3, the price is more or less the same – it’s the one time charges that are a bitch;
• It cost less (significantly less) to send the furniture from France to California than to Texas (go figure);
• S&K was again the least expensive and my contact there spoke and wrote fluent English.
Although some moving companies charge more for high season, S&K would not add on an upcharge since I was a repeat customer. So I signed the bon du commande and booked my move; booked it three months in advance as I had to have a very specific day of the week due to Market Day in my village in Provence.
The contract read that I would pack and unpack the non-fragile items (books; bed linen) and they would pack (and unpack) everything else. This would become a crucial issue later on.
When I have serious French-American cultural questions in Provence, I have always turned to my resident guru Walter Wells, who has lived in France for about 30 years.
Over coffee at the Universal Café on my town square, Walter and I discussed the intricacies of the French end of an international move. I explained that I had a wine cellar filled with bottles that could not be sent to America (requires a special license to import alcohol) as well as many bottles of high quality brand name booze, most of them un-opened. Estimated value of this stash was about 500 euros.
Walter and I agreed that if I gave the movers the wine and booze as their tip, I did not need to add a cash tip—they would happily resell it and make some profit. So that was the plan…until my crew showed up, turned out to be Germans who spoke flawless English and were delighted with the liquid, but also required a 50 euro cash tip.
It was an easy enough moving day for me – I had done all my packing ahead of time, scrounging up free boxes from my local Point P hardware store and the city dump. The Guys – two young men in their mid-twenties—arrived on schedule and cheerfully and carefully packed my precious breakables.
They loaded the truck with the finesse of an MIT engineer. While I sweated the facts, they kept assuring me that it was all going to fit and that I was within my size limit. I began to have horrible fantasies that I had exceeded my ‘survey’ and would have a buffet or two left behind on the docks.
During the survey, the visiting agent told me I had between 15 and 18 cubic meters; the final devis said I was being charged for 20, so I could make one last “free” trip to Isle sur Sorgue. In the end, it cost more or less the same thing to bring a little, or bring a lot. I brought a lot.
The S&K people were 100% efficient and consistent. I received an email telling me the day my goods were loaded onto the ship. I received another email telling me when my ship sailed and when it would arrive in Oakland.
Even the immediate part after arrival in Oakland was fairly smooth and professional. I was selected for a random Homeland Security X-ray for which I had to pay $67. I was very grateful that the US government saw fit to protect itself from my 20 year old bed linens and 150 year old spinning wheel.
The same freight forwarding agents that handled one of my previous shipments was again in charge and was informative and helpful. After the X-ray, the world came apart.
Despite the fact that I am a three hour drive from the port of Oakland, I was put into a holding period for delivery and told this was the busiest time of year; to be patient. I was told I’d have my goods within another two weeks or so. God created the world in seven days, a transatlantic crossing is six days and trucking fewer than 200 miles would take two weeks.
I had scheduled houseguests without understanding that this was going to be an extended piece of torture. I was living in an almost empty house, again, without understanding the extended times involved. My ship came to port on June 17. For some silly reason, I thought I’d have delivery a week later. Silly moi.
International shipping is a miracle. That anyone gets anything is totally amazing. My furniture left my house in Provence and went to Marseille. From there it went to the port of Anvers and traveled through The Panama Canal to Oakland. From Oakland it went through US Customs and Homeland Security and then went to a warehouse in San Jose. It came to my house over three months after it left my house in France. God only knows how many people handled the shipment.
With much pressure and a fair amount of begging, the relocation firm in San Jose made a date for delivery. Indeed, the freight forwarder in San Diego turned me over to a relocation firm in San Jose. So many cooks, so little broth.
Two tall, good-looking guys arrived with a giant truck and began to unload while I checked off the numbers on each piece. Items without numbers (there were about a dozen of these) went into a special part of my garage to be inventoried when the truck was empty.
I baked home -made chocolate chip cookies for these guys; I fed them cold soft drinks, gave them a bottle of local wine with a lesson on area specialties and added in a $100 cash tip. In exchange, one of them gave me a lot of attitude…and left me high and dry and up Shit Creek without a mattress.
Let me make a tangential aside at this point. My beds were two matching Sealy Posturpedic mattresses which were made up in my Provencale guest room as a king-size bed, using American sheets.
French beds, for those who don’t have a clue, are not the same size as US beds and therefore take different sheets. My beds came from America and were of a quality superior to any French bed. A set of twins is made up of four pieces: two boxsprings and two mattresses.
When we went through the entire inventory, I knew immediately that I was missing a mattress and had three out of four parts to a bed. The remaining mattress was not only useless, but in a replacement situation, I would need to find an identical twin for king-making purposes or buy two new mattresses.
Meanwhile, back at the tract house, I had been told by the freight forwarders that the relocation firm’s movers would unpack all fragile items and put them on a flat surface, but not put them away in shelves. I was told to check china bins for damage and report damage or loss immediately on the paperwork.
Instead, the movers never brought all of the boxes into the house. They left tall towers of boxes of fragile goods stacked in the garage, at a height impossible to reach by any mere mortal. Of the things I did unpack, there were a few broken dishes, including my most valuable piece of ceramic – a Bjorn Winblad tulipiere that had belonged to my mother and was her most prized possession.
When the Handsome Hunks decided they were finished, they presented me with a sheaf of paperwork, including a waiver saying that they had unpacked the dishes.
“Why should I sign this?”
“Because this is America and we never do everything we say we will because we’re on a schedule.”
So I signed. Spare me from attitude like that.
I was immediately sorry that I signed and didn’t make them perform their contractual duties, the smart alecky SOBs. I was also tired and resentful and pissed off.
When I tried to register the missing and broken pieces of furniture, as instructed by the freight forwarder, I was told that I could only do so with the shipping numbers. These numbers were located on the wrapping paper which has been removed and destroyed.
The final straw was the tirade on why these guys would not even attempt to rebuild my French furniture (“The day doesn’t have enough hours, lady.”) So they left and I cried.
Bill and Tom are in my bedroom as I write, they are wearing helmets with lights, like coal miners. Their ponytails are secure, to keep hair away from their eyes as they peer into the depths of my walnut armoire and build it, and then re-build it when they discover the sides are upside down.
These are the Pros from Dover, sent by my international shipping agents S&K, in what is called a Third Party Procedure. Most of my French farm furniture is a few hundred years old and impossible to assemble unless you are French, or have put together several hundred of these babies, as have Bill and Tom, who have been antiques experts for over 30 years. Vive la difference.
Moving Made Easy is yet another firm contracted in this international move – S&K has been able to send these guys over here, putting the number of sub-contractors at five. They drove 60 minutes from Santa Maria, California to get here to rescue me – that was the closest town that had the experts guaranteed to be able to remontez this sucker. God bless S&K..and do they know where my missing mattress is?
Having antique furniture brought to America can be a problem because older pieces, especially rustic and farm pieces, use a series of pegs and dowels, but no metal hooks or hinges. These items are easily demontez in France, where boys probably stand at the knee of pere/ papa or learn these tasks by osmosis. Rebuilding them, however, takes more than the vision of understanding where the parts line up. Seeing how it works and getting the monster built are two different tasks.
Each time I have an elaborate piece of furniture deconstructed, I jokingly ask the moving team if they will be coming to America with me to re-build the furniture. This usually gets a good laugh and some willing volunteers. This move, the German team scoffed at my suggestion, saying ‘Aw shucks, you don’t need us, the moving company will send someone who knows exactly how to do this. They will take good care of you.”
It took careful research through my contract and old emails to remind S&K the services that I paid for. Once reminded, they were fabulous and contracted their agents in New Jersey who run a network of handymen and antiques dealers. Bill and Tom specialize in the German shrunk, an armoire similar to the French style, which can be totally knocked down for travel and is the basis of the IKEA concept. Because there are a number of military bases in this area, they have a business doing shrunks and all sorts of restorations, even china. Hmmmm, is it time to show them the Winblad?
There were three items that were demontee in France, so basically I was entitled to have them rebuilt in the US. The baby crib, I did not need and will wait for a grandchild before I bring out of the garage. But I wanted the berceau, a wrought iron cradle from the 1930’s. The bassinette did not have its screws attached, unusual as it is the custom with movers to carefully attach all parts and findings. Bill and Tom had to scramble thru my stuff and their truck, trying to find an acorn nut bolt that would do the trick.
No such luck, so they called HQ and actually got authorization to do the job right. They headed off to hardware store in search of the metric acorn and then returned to build the bassinette. They have spent three hours with me and shake hands goodbye like proper Frenchmen.
Lafayette, I am built.
When I am finally alone, I can drape the nets and tissues indiennes on the bassinette and fill the shelves with sweaters and towels.
Now I can sit back and try to figure out what I will be reimbursed for the missing mattress, the also-gone antique bamboo end table and all the broken dishes. At least I’m not dealing with British Petroleum…and I have pictures.