Tuesday, 3 December 2013

The Saga of Travelling with Cats, phase 1

Earlier this year, my husband and I decided that it was time to leave Canada for a while and spend the winter in Ireland. There were several reasons from family obligations to the crazy short growing season but it resulted in our saying au revoir to our friends and companions and packing up the house. Oh yes, and the cats.

We booked flights home from Halifax to Heathrow on Nov 2nd and, since its actually way cheaper to book a return flight than a one-way, we also booked flights to come back in May for several reasons including the fishing season. We got flexible dates for the return flight, but not the out-going. More on that later.

We realised fairly early on that this journey was going to be more stressful than most, even more stressful than our initial journey to Canada, because my Irish passport expired without our noticing it. We realised this when my mother-in-law (!) reminded us to check our passports. A frantic internet search later revealed that the passport renewal forms could only be physically handed out in person (ie no faxing, no internet download) and that the nearest Irish Embassy was in Ottawa, approximately 12 hours drive away. Luckily, someone had thought of this problem and allowed registered Irish Associations to hold copies of the forms for people in my situation. I found the address of the secretary of my local Association and arrived on her doorstep that afternoon. She told me that she did not personally know of these forms, but would talk to the President at the formal event that was happening tonight, and did I want to meet the Irish Ambassador?

Yes, the Irish Ambassador for Canada and Jamaica and his wife were in town that night for a flying tour of the Maritimes. How lucky was I? We raced home, showered and dressed, grabbed dinner in a local take-out and were sitting in the hotel bar inside 90 minutes. We met a lot of lovely people, listened to a singer who certainly didn't need the microphone and got to have a great chat with the Irish Ambassador and his wife who were very sympathetic. They were genuinely lovely people and he gave us a very important name. This was the Thursday.

I won't bore you with more details on this but in short I got the forms inside 2 days (because they were in the main office in a city 2 hours away), got them filled out and signed up and shipped out for the Monday afternoon. I made contact with the very important lady in the Ottawa Irish Embassy (who, I have to say, did an excellent job) and after that it was the waiting game for the passport.

We had the house on the market for 8 months with no bites when a lady that I knew from work called by and asked if were still willing to rent it out. We made an agreement to hand the house over Nov 1st. This was the end of October and the move began in earnest. We purged and purged.

The husband quit his job on the 5 year anniversary of his hiring as there had been no advancement at all in his career and it didn't look like any was coming along either. He finished up with 2 weeks to spare.

We discovered after this that our flights had to be re-booked for two reasons: all English airports demand that pets travel only in cargo and that they are checked by specialists on arrival. We were not prepared to put our cats in cargo (it took 4 years of work to get my cat relaxed enough to be petted) and anyway, we would have landed at 7am on Sunday morning and no-one was on duty until 9am Monday morning and we would have had to pay through the nose for leaving them in the shelter etc., just no. Secondly, it didn't look like my passport would be there on time. We did not have insurance for the flight out and that cost us. My husband managed to get back some of the money when he re-booked the flights and this time, we made damn sure to get the insurance. So instead we changed the airports and would fly from Montreal to Frankfurt on Nov 4th. Montreal was 9 hours drive away, how to get there?

There was another marvellous bit of luck there, a friend of ours had to drive to Hamilton Ontario, passing through Montreal on Nov 1st, which was when we had to leave the house. So we made the arrangement that we would drive with her to Montreal and stay in a hotel until Nov 4th. We picked a pet-friendly hotel and gritted our teeth over the extra cost.

On the evening of Oct 31st there was no trick-or-treating in our house, it was last boxes getting packed and picked up, suitcases getting zipped up and all hands to the cleaning supplies. Without a certain friend of mine who came around to help out, we would not have made it, but finally 12:30am came around with the job done. We had arranged that our lift came at 3:30am so we stretched out on the futon mattress that we had left for exactly that purpose and took as much sleep as we could.

At 3:30am our friend arrived and we piled in the suitcases and packed in the cats and everything that they would need for three days in a hotel room. We ended up taking more stuff than we needed of course, but we reasoned that we could re-pack on Sunday afternoon. We drove the 9 hours to Montreal.

Montreal itself is a freaking nightmare to drive as we discovered and we got lost trying to find the hotel. The husband got directions at a gas station, which ended up being the wrong hotel (the building had changed hands and the locals kept forgetting, it happens). We took a room anyway as we were both reeling, even though it cost more money and was not pet-friendly. We snuck the cats in the back way and prepared for the weekend.

Inside ten minutes however, it was clear that it was not meant to be. There was a power outage just as we got the cats settled and I went up to the front desk to see what was going on. I was told it was because of the storm, then was asked if we had pets in the room because I had hairs on my t-shirt. I smiled and said no, and left fairly quickly. When I got back to the room I made it clear that we had to leave and find the other place because I couldnt take the stress. So while the husband sorted out the front desk, I packed in the cats and their paraphernalia and stood everything outside in the storm (luckily, "just" hurricane force winds). When the staff made a check of the room there was no evidence of our ever being there, which got us our money back.

When the taxi finally got there (cos we were standing in the wrong place apparently, oh well) we had a lively conversation about the construction situation on the Montreal roads and he found our original hotel fairly quickly. We booked in with officially one cat instead of two ($25/pet/night, you'd do it too), piled our baggage into one of those cart things and encountered the longest hallway in the world. We made a video. We opened the door, set up the cats and fell into bed. This was approximately 2pm on Friday 1st.

Thankfully I had internet access on my phone during the journey so I was able to establish that my passport would be in Ottawa on Monday 4th and that the husband could pick it up on my behalf which made the whole process easier. Whether it would be there for before lunchtime when we needed it was another worry. But that was for Monday morning and, after booking a rental car to make the drive, all we could do for the weekend was arrange to meet with some friends who lived in Montreal and lounge in the hotel room. Which is what we did.

Monday morning arrived and the husband left to get the rental car as early as he could. I packed up the last bits into the suitcases, left what we were leaving for the hotel staff with a note, and sat in the room with my knitting, waiting to hear if we would fly out that day. Housekeeping knocked and I managed to keep them at bay, same with the front desk. Lunchtime was crawling around and it looked like we would have to re-book again, until I got the phone call from the husband saying we were a-go. Front desk was notified, suitcases went into the cart, cats were stuffed into their bags and we waited in the reception for the shuttle bus to the airport.

Met the husband at the airport (who due to the chaotic traffic forgot to fill up the rental car and got dinged for it), checked in, finally got a Montreal Smoked Meat sandwich and waited to board. Boarded, stowed away the cats under the seats, watched movies for 7 hours and landed an hour early in Frankfurt airport.

We were stressing out about getting the cats through customs because there was a fair song and dance with their forms and vaccinations in Canada as well. But there were no problems, we glided on through, were told by German Customs to keep going because if they called the vet it could take forever, changed the cats bedding in a disabled toilet then waited for the husbands parents to pick us up.

We had entered Europe and after further 2 and a half hours on the Autobahn, reached the childhood home of my husband.

Phase 1 complete! Stay tuned for Phase 2, it ain’t over yet!

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