What to Pack When Moving Abroad

February 24, 2011

So what in the world should you pack if you are moving to another country and what should you leave behind? Great question. And the answer is a vague “it all depends”.

European to USA plug adaptor European to USA plug adaptor European to USA plug adaptor

Are you moving to a furnished apartment? How furnished? Will you need sheets and blankets? Will you be there for four seasons? What is the weather like? How much are shipping costs to your new city? How much baggage is allowed per plane ticket? How many kids do you have? How old are they? Will you be working while you’re there? Do you need work materials? And on and on and on…

Clearly, if you’re contemplating a move abroad, your packing list will be very specifically tailored to your family and situation. In this post, I’ll tell you what we brought.

As I mentioned previously, on the plane we checked 7 large duffel bags (each weighing between 45 and 50 lbs when full). We also checked a trombone, a guitar and a desktop computer. That’s 10 items. From what we understood, each plane ticket (we had seven, June was a lap child) allowed 1 checked bag of no more than 50 lbs. Additional checked baggage would be $50 per piece. So, we assumed that the 7 duffels would be checked at no cost, and that we’d have to pay $150 total to check the instruments and computer. But, when we arrived at the AirCanada counter, they checked all 10 pieces at no cost. Did we have the policy wrong? Or were they just being nice? I have no idea. But it was a pleasant surprise.

For carryons, we each had a standard roller bag plus a backpack. Seven of each. We also had a carseat (there were open seats on both of our flights, so our lap child didn’t have to sit on our lap), and we had a stroller which we gate checked.

Did we ship anything? Yes. We shipped two boxes of Ben Blair’s books for work. And we shipped a box of towels and a box with school backpacks because we’d run out of room in the duffel bags. I have mixed feelings about the shipping we did. Which I’ll discuss below.

So what was in all those bags? Let’s see. I’ll describe by type of bag.

Standard Roller Bags:
The 7 roller bags had clothes and travel-friendly toiletries. We packed them the same way we would pack if we were heading on a 3-5 day trip. We used the clothes inside while we stayed at the cousins for a few days between packing up the house and flying to France. We also used them for our overnighter in Paris when we first arrived. The idea was to use only the roller bags and not have to disturb the duffel bags or haul them to our hotel room. This mostly worked out as planned. Each person used their own roller bag except Betty & June — they shared one.

Backpacks:
These were not heavily loaded. They were filled specifically for the plane ride and were stowed under seats on the airplane. They had snacks, coloring books, ipods and earphones. That sort of thing. Oscar and Betty’s also had comfort objects — a blankie and stuffed bunny — and they shared a backpack. June’s baby gear was in the backpack they freed up by sharing. My backpack had our accordion folder with essential documents. Ben Blair’s had backup documents and his laptop.

We hope to use the roller bag/backpack combo as we do some traveling while we’re here.

Duffel Bags:
It seems like these would each be assigned to one person to fill with their stuff, but that’s not how it went down. Clothes didn’t take up as much space as you might guess, so siblings could double up and share a duffle bag. Before we left, I went through each of the kid’s wardrobes and they had to put everything in one of three piles — France, giveaway, or storage. Very, very little ended up in storage, because the kids are still growing. So when we get back, items they’ve stored may not fit any longer. Each child ended up packing most of their wardrobe. I’ll use Maude for an example. She packed 5 pairs of pants, 2 skirts, 2 dresses, 15 tops/tees/hoodies, 2 swimsuits, 5 pairs pjs, underwear, socks/tights, one jacket, rainboots and 5 other pairs of shoes. She also packed a few things for summer, but she’s growing, so we expect to shop while we’re here and didn’t bring too much.

Spare duffel bag space was filled with things like ski clothes (bibs, parkas, gloves, goggles, hats), crafting supplies, a few holiday books and the Christmas stockings, full-size toiletries (that couldn’t go into carryons, like my favorite hair products) and other random items — like a couple of our favorite canvas tote bags for family outings.

Each of the kids were allowed to bring a couple of items they felt were precious. A favorite doll or a favorite book. But in general, we didn’t bring toys or games. We also didn’t bring any sheets or blankets or much of anything for the house. We didn’t need to because our house is fully furnished. Our landlord left toys, boardgames and books. In fact, their book collection is a great mix or English and French, for kids and adults, so we have plenty of reading material.

So far, I would only change a few things:

-We did bring teaspoons and measuring cups (so we would have non-metric options), but it turns out our landlord already had some, so we didn’t need to.

-We’d also heard that towels weren’t as big and fluffy in France as we’re used to in America, so we shipped a box of towels. I regret this. Our towels here in the house are fine, and the shipping on the box we sent wasn’t cheap — in fact, if I had been thinking clearly, it would have been cheaper to put them in an 8th duffel bag and check them on the plane (even with a $50 checked bag fee) instead of shipping them.

-We brought 5 plug adaptors (pictured at top), but I would have brought 10. In fact, I’ve already ordered another 5. Plug adaptors allow US plugs to work in French outlets. They are relatively inexpensive (you can find them for about $3 each on Amazon) and they work wonderfully for the phone chargers, the desktop computer, the backup hardrive, the laptop, and the ipod chargers. They do not work for things like the baby monitor and my beloved Clarisonic face cleaner. I’m actually not sure what sort of plug adaptor gadget I need to make these work — something that changes the voltage. If you know, feel free to advise me.

Other miscellaneous notes:
We were glad we shipped Ben Blair’s work books, because they’re just so heavy. Who wants to lug them through the airport? The school backpacks still haven’t arrived, but I hope they get here soon. It’s very mysterious. They were shipped the same day as the towels, and they towels arrived ages ago. In the meantime, the kids have been using the luggage backpacks for school — but I’d really like to reserve those for travel only.

Mostly, it’s good to remember that anything we really need we can get here, and if we can’t get it here, we can live without it for awhile.

What about you? What are your packing essentials? Do you have any special packing strategies?

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{ 38 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Robin February 24, 2011 at 8:32 am

When we lived overseas in the UK for 10 years (last year was 2004) we owned a few large transformers. They were these heavy duty things that we only used for 1. our desktop computer, 2. kitchen appliances & 3. dad’s stereo. We were told that the little plug ones aren’t good enough for permanent large electronics like computer/printer/surge protectors/kitchen mixers/vaccums and the like. We never bought the British equivalents of these since we loved our own. They range from sizes from a small shoe box to trash can size and are super heavy! We just bought them from other Americans who were moving and didn’t need them anymore then sold them when we left. Hope this helps!

xo,
Robin

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2 Valene February 24, 2011 at 8:38 am

You will need a voltage converter for some items. Check them out on a site like magellans.com or travelsmith.com. There may be less expensive places to purchase voltage converters, but these sites will get you started.

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3 London Lisa February 24, 2011 at 8:39 am

You’re my hero. I’m trying to become a skilled packer but, it never quite works out the way I planned. I’m worrying over what to pack for my move overseas and it’s just me! It sounds like everything really fell into place for your family – how nice! Thanks for sharing all of your tips!

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4 Geralis February 24, 2011 at 8:40 am

From my experience with Air Canada, they allow two checked bags per person, even on domestic flights. And a travel converter should work, they aren’t usually too big but sometimes even with them, electronics get fried. Thanks for the details, it’s really interesting.

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5 sangeetha February 24, 2011 at 8:43 am

Hi – we travel back and forth a lot with 2 kids to Europe and Asia. I bought myself a kit (available in most places like radio shack etc.) which have the voltage converter & plugs, with the voltage converter going into socket, converter plug into voltage converter and US plug into converter plug (whew – that was a mouthful)

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6 ewa February 24, 2011 at 8:45 am

Aside from plug adapters you might want to get plug converter/transformer. It converts 220V (european standard) to 110V (american standard). Most new electronics, like chargers have them already buit in, thats why you need only shape adapter. Older or less advanced appliances dont have it and you might burn them if you plug them into too high voltage. I found that normally there is an information on the plug on the range that the appliance take. Hope that helps.

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7 Tala February 24, 2011 at 8:49 am

I think you can have 2 pieces of checked luggage/person. Maybe rules have changed?

I use this travel adaptor: http://www.amazon.com/Travel-Accessories-Samsonite-Universal-Adapter/dp/B000FOHC84/ref=pd_sbs_a_39

and it works for anywhere, anything. Which could be nice for when you guys travel elsewhere. Like Morocco or something. Hopefully you’ll be able to visit Egypt later, given the situation. Fingers crossed! It’s amazing there!

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8 Dina February 24, 2011 at 8:56 am

This sounds silly but about 2 trips back, I just went ahead and bought a French hair blowdryer because mine, even with the adapter, wasn’t cutting it! Makes that task a lot easier while in France.
PS Unrelated, but If you come across Mr. Propre (Mr. Clean) wipes at the grocery store, they are the best-they are the equivilant of our Lysol wipes but smell like grapefruit (pamplemousse)..I stock up while in France!

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9 prefer to remain anon February 24, 2011 at 9:03 am

Our trips to USA allow us 2 bags per person, but it depends on the airline (so always ask)
We are moving countries soon, and Im so interested in all your blog posts … as I walk through my home and try to decide what to leave behind I find it difficult. We will be leaving forever.
We are not taking furniture, and everything else will be cheaper on the other side (once you take transport costs into consideration)
Im loving my ipad and buying new books in kindle versions – much cheaper to transport that library!!
Thanks for all the interesting info ;)

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10 Annabelvita February 24, 2011 at 9:11 am

When I moved to France I took a whole bunch of adaptors, but also some of those things that turn one plug into four sockets. That makes your adaptors go further. For some chargers that have a big transformer halfway down the wire (does that make sense? The boxy bit) you can just buy a new cord in France to plug into the box bit. I don’t know if I explained that very well at all….. As for voltage on the things that didn’t work, have you plugged them in in a couple of different sockets around the house? That worked for me sometimes.
From England to France, we’d always take peanut butter, cheddar cheese and ribena squash.
Love these pots! X

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11 Lori C. February 24, 2011 at 9:16 am

I’m so enjoying your website and am living vicariously through you and your sister right now–I want to live in France with my sister! We travel a bit with our children and I agree with your comment that if you forget to pack it you can usually get it there or do without. It’s amazing to discover how little we actually need.

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12 Paula February 24, 2011 at 9:52 am

I am really enjoying your blog posts… I love the small mundane details of daily life in a foreign country. I lived in England for a year and it seems all we ever wrote about or documented were the trips and excursions around the country and elsewhere. The small daily details are so enlightening. After following your experience my husband and I hope to take our children on a similar adventure; hopefully not to far in the distant future. Thank you!!

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13 Faith February 24, 2011 at 10:10 am

You are one organized women! It takes me a couple of days just to pack for a 10 day trip to Europe…I can’t imagine having to pack up my whole life. However, I can be indecisive. I know you mentioned in a previous post about hiring local movers who packed up the house for you, but I’d love to hear more on the actual process it took to decide what you were putting in storage and what you were donating. Were you able to find storage that had temperature and moisture control to keep things like pictures and artwork safe? Perhaps it is easier to pack up your whole life, and that of 6 children if you keep a clutter free home in the first place. I’d love to hear how you did it and what made it work in such a short amount of time.

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14 terina February 24, 2011 at 11:20 am

a note about adapters: american hair dryers, curling irons, flat irons and others aren’t made for the 220 voltage there in europe. i had an experience where the curling iron got so hot, it melted the plastic thing where you put your thumb, and burned hair.

you need to get a transformer. they can be expensive, but they are worth it. most only have one plug, but you can find some with two outlets.

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15 Amber February 24, 2011 at 11:48 am

My husband and I lived in the Philippines from Aug 2009-Aug 2010 for his work. I was actually able to teach at the international school there and was intrigued when you mentioned looking at the international school in France. They are SO pricey!
One of the most beneficial things we did while living and traveling abroad was to register with all the US Embassy/Consulates in the countries we would be visiting and living. We got travel and political updates about each country. Also, if you have an emergency for any reason the embassy has you registered with your passport number and local information. We traveled to Thailand right before all the political unrest happened and would have really needed US support if something happened. I would be surprised if you haven’t already done this but again, it made me feel safe and comfortable.
Also, if you need a doctor most US Embassy have a list of doctors they have there foreign service men use. I always used that list and my embassy friends recommendations. {I am sure you have some Foreign Service Officers in your ward over there} Here is one I found just by googling “US+embassy+france+doctors”.
http://france.usembassy.gov/root/pdfs/stras-doctors.pdf
Also, when it comes to the wards find a foreign/expat ward if you can. We were in a Tagalog ward for almost our entire year and it was hard, to say the least. It will be so beneficial if your children can have English in Primary. I was in the Primary and it was such a struggle for our English speaking kids even though English is one of the languages spoken in the Philippines. It was a great lesson for me about the Church outside of America. Sometimes you have to do difficult things in your life, this may be one of them.
So many of the Temples in Europe have hostels that are set up for families. They have kitchens and private rooms you can rent. You could probably find the family who runs the hostel or a local YW to tend your children if you wanted. You can stay for an outrageously great price if you do a session a day.
My brother and I traveled to his mission in Northern Italy and went to the Zurich Switzerland temple and stayed at the hostels. We met friends there who let us stay with them in Venice just a few days later. It was such a neat trip and experience.
I apologize for the length of this comment. I had no idea I had so much to say.
Cheers,
Amber

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16 Hillary February 24, 2011 at 12:53 pm
17 zchamu February 24, 2011 at 1:27 pm

“From what we understood, each plane ticket (we had seven, June was a lap child) allowed 1 checked bag of no more than 50 lbs. ”

Air Canada does allow two checked bags. Some European airports do not allow more than one carry-on, though, so be wary for the trip back.

Re electrical items: when I moved to the UK I just replaced most small appliances such as hair dryers, curling irons, whatever. For your things, you need a voltage converter, but you need to be careful with these – they get hot, they often can’t be used for more than a few minutes at a time, they’re often limited on the voltage they can handle. If you’re traveling and staying in hotels, call ahead – many hotels have 110V plugs in the bedrooms specifically for the North American traveller.

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18 TMW February 24, 2011 at 1:57 pm

Love reading all of your posts–your new life in France is just lovely. My family and I live in Italy, and as others have said, a transformer is what you need to make some of your American gadgets work. That said, we almost never use one here. I’m not sure how expensive electricity is in France, but in Italy, it’s pretty costly. We hang all of our clothes (after getting a 1000 euro electricity bill from using the dryer for about 15-20 loads over the course of two montsh), and we try to avoid using the transformer as well because of the amount of electricity it uses. So if you end up buying one, just beware of the possible utility costs…European living constantly reminds us (in so many ways!) that the Earth’s resources aren’t limitless.

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19 Elizabeth February 24, 2011 at 2:19 pm

Rule of thumb with electronic conversions: If the item has a box of some sort between the plug and the appliance you only need an adapter (ipod charger, laptop computers, phone chargers) for your laptop definitely recommend a grounded one to protect it from surges. Anything else that has just a wire and plug (big and small kitchen appliances, tvs, etc) need transformers. A good electrician can probably locate them for you or a big home improvement store would have them. Dont use a transformer when an adapter will do, it can make the transformer and the electronics hot to the touch and can blow. Depending on the quality of the wiring in your home or hotel, all of this can stress the electrical board. Use all this sparingly.

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20 Wida February 24, 2011 at 2:22 pm

This is very handy! I love France!

Wida
Missing Amsie Blog

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21 Maria February 24, 2011 at 4:07 pm

I moved from europe to the states and my fairly new laptop battery has totally stopped co-operating. I’m guessing this is because of the different voltage.

Also, I don’t mean to be rude, but the towel thing is just hilarious!

I LOVE your posts about the little details! I’t gives me a browsing-martha-stewart kind of rush :D If that makes any sense…

I’d love to hear how you are handling the religion thing in France! Did the proximity of a church (/temple) play any role in you choosing a place to live? Also, how do the kids handle catholic school? Or is this something I shouldn’t be asking about?

Good luck to you!

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22 Haley February 25, 2011 at 10:25 am

I would also be interested to see how Church works there…

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23 Sherri February 24, 2011 at 5:04 pm

I’ve been a Flight Attendant for many years and wrote a post on my favorite packing tips if anyone is interested… http://postcardsandcoasters.blogspot.com/2009/06/packing-tips-from-flight-attendant.html

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24 Wendysue February 24, 2011 at 5:28 pm

Sounds like it all worked out great! Like my Dad said when we were planning/packing/worried about having everything for a 2 week trip to Switzerland. . .”It’s not like we’re going to a 3rd world country. We can find whatever we need there.”

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25 Mathangi February 24, 2011 at 5:58 pm

Hi,
I love your blog!!!! May be this information below may help you when you move back to the USA!

International flights allow two 50 pound bag person. I think one bag policy is for the domestic flights! In case, you have international connections, the flights within USA are obligated to tranfer that bag at no cost for you.

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26 Amanda February 24, 2011 at 9:37 pm

Looks like everyone has already commented on the voltage converter/transformer issue, but I will add that when living abroad it was much easier to buy things like hairdryers and the like as they blow out the voltage converters pretty quickly. I have no idea about the clairsonic…you may be in trouble with that one, and you wouldn’t want to ruin it!

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27 Candice February 24, 2011 at 11:21 pm

I don’t know for sure about Air Canada but in my experience flying to Asia, we are always allowed two checked bags each- and I use ALL of the space!! Once you’ve been overseas awhile you kind of have a “master list” in your mind of things you can’t get in your host country that you can pick up in the States or have people send you. In Thailand, it’s things like peanut butter, parmesan cheese, good razors, crayola crayons, construction paper, etc. I like to have a few of my comfort brands from the States too (like facewash, hairspray, foundation)…otherwise, I’ve made substitutions for stuff here (like switching to roll on deoderant) and my list is getting shorter over time! :) You obviously have to prioritize, but a few comfort items that you can’t get overseas are nice (a scented candle, Christmas decoration- I brought my manger scene, etc).

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28 Peggy February 25, 2011 at 12:18 am

Transformers!…..you need them for the appliances that won’t work with the adaptors you have……I lived in Spain for a while and we had many transformers…..but they are heavy and I am not sure how expensive they are as they were provided for us…….sometimes buying what you need there is easier!

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29 PapayaMom February 25, 2011 at 1:25 am

When moving to Australia we were told that long-term use of plug adapters could cause issues for our electronics, instead we ordered the different plug parts from Apple for our iPods, iPad and Laptops. You can get “just” the local plug adapter at any Apple store or online.

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30 JThornton October 1, 2011 at 6:31 pm

Thanks for the tip. We are moving to New Zealand for three years. I wasn’t planning on taking razors or hair dryers, but was hoping there was a way I could take my baby monitor. Guess not.

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31 Alisa February 25, 2011 at 12:43 pm

you can’t get anything to change the voltage. When we moved I brought my mixer and tried it with the adpator and blew out the fuse. Not good. It now just sits in a cabinet. Someone told me we could re-wire it for France, but I’m not sure how to do that. We moved our lives (for good we hope) so we had a shipping container, but it’s by weight too and we had to really think if something was worth the cost of shipping or if it had sentimental value. Most stuff like the heavy leather couch, we just gave away. I think what we found was that we had so much “stuff” in the states and when we moved we had to weed through things and figure out what to bring. We gave so much away. It was a great feeling, getting rid of all the “stuff”. We really don’t need it. We can find almost everything we want here – although the peanut butter is small and expensive. My husband does wish that he could have brought a mexican restaurant with him. That we miss.

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32 Lara February 26, 2011 at 6:38 am

Great post!

For our six month move to Italy, my husband and I each brought 1 large suitcase with clothes and our bicycles broken down and packed in cases, since we planned to do quite a bit of cycling. The airlines love to rip off cyclists, so we paid $200 for the two bikes, and we had a to a bit of last minute counter-side re-ordering since a couple of bags topped the 50lbs by a few pounds, while others were a few pounds under. It’s all going on the same plane, so it does seem a bit ridiculous. I do wish I had brought less clothing, since there are some items I haven’t worn yet, not counting some of the warm weather items I brought (we arrived Dec 1 and will depart May 29), and especially wish I had not brought my heavy wool coat, since with the damp cold and rain we encountered here, I ended up getting a puffy coat that I’ve worn all winter.
We have a furnished and outfitted apartment, and we did make an IKEA run for a few items that were not included (spatula, decent knives). What I really wish I had brought were spices, since I usually buy bulk in the States, especially the kind to make Asian and Mexican foods. I thought about but decided not to bring measuring cups and instead have been eyeballing it. The other thing I wish we’d brought were medicines, since we have both been sick several times already and getting effective medicine here seems to be quite difficult and we’ve probably spent close to a 100 euros trying to find some relief. We are rarely ill back home, but I guess we don’t have good immunities to the viruses floating around here.
And finally, I really wish I had brought more of my craft supplies: there are lots of great yarns at the market but I haven’t found any shops to buy knitting needles.

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33 Petit Elefant February 26, 2011 at 11:55 am

Oh Gabby, this was super helpful. Did I tell you our luggage arrived? The kind you recommended? I love it. In fact, I’m ordering two more roll along carry-ons with backpacks. $50 seems so cheap to me for what they do.

Keep updating about the school situation, that’s what stresses me out the most. But the packing, oh the packing, thank you!

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34 Monica February 26, 2011 at 12:44 pm

My family moved around a lot internationally and while we too had a lot of luggage and packing and planning happening my dad always says that ultimately the only things you really need when you show up at the airport is your passport and your credit card, everything else can be figured out. :)

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35 Marlo March 3, 2011 at 1:42 pm

Ditto to what everyone said about the converters. I agree to buy things like a hair dryer, because they are notorious for not converting well. Your mystery boxes with backpacks make me nervous though. We had a horrific time with the packages we sent when we moved to France. One sat under a desk at the post office for who knows how long, even though we went in constantly to check for it. They took MONTHS to get there. I was under a time crunch, since I had shipped all the clothes for my baby that I delivered a mere 4 weeks after the boxes came…3 months after mailing them. All our boxes came different days, different weeks even. Anyway, so get to know the postal workers now….in preparation. When mine didn’t come for so long they just wanted to open a “dossier” on them. That was there fix for it. If you haven’t experienced dossiers yet, you will. Good luck with everything!

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36 April March 10, 2011 at 8:50 am

Our family lived in Cannes for 3 months last summer and it was wonderful. We were able to see Pisa, Paris and most of southern France. I hope you enjoy your time there.

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37 Ellie September 29, 2012 at 11:15 am

Thanks, that’s a very useful post! We will be moving to France next year, albeit from the UK. We will be travelling by ferry (with our car) and can therefore take more items without worrying about checked baggage fees, etc.

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38 Judy April 14, 2013 at 11:18 am

Gosh, your post is so useful! I am moving to a different continent in two months and right about now I am freaking out because I have no idea what and how to pack. You have some great ideas. Thanks for sharing your experience!

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