x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 18 January 2018

Moving house might be the ultimate test of a relationship

To test any relationship to the breaking point, you need to plan and execute a household move, says Deborah Lindsay Williams

Many cultures and religions advocate some kind of premarital counselling or advisement, but I’ve come up with the ultimate test for anyone thinking about cohabitation. I’m not talking about an expedition to Ikea, although that’s a good start. To test any relationship to the breaking point, you need to plan and execute a household move, and not the sort of move where you toss everything into a few black rubbish bags and load it all in a car borrowed from a friend.

No, the serious test is a multi-room household move, and if you can borrow a few children and their belongings for the length of this particular relational acid test, even better. Before you commit to a potential partner, you should know if you are pre-move sorters or post-move sorters (woe betide you if you sort differently); you need to discover your own sentimental attachments to seemingly meaningless objects and test the limits of your sympathy for your potential partner’s attachments to equally odd objects. Your attachments, of course, make perfect sense: why wouldn’t you hang on to that raggedy orange T-shirt your sister brought you from China back when Beijing was still known as Peking? But your partner’s box of programmes from theatre outings more than a decade ago? That’s just silly.

If you can survive discussions about these issues and handle the endless questions from the children you borrowed – such as when will the internet be turned on? Where are my football boots? Or where is the remote control for my Lego robot, then you know you can hurdle life’s obstacles. My husband and I have survived eight moves together thus far and while it’s not always been pretty – I’m a pre-move sorter, he’s post – we’ve emerged from each move slightly bloody but unbowed.

In Abu Dhabi, if you’re lucky, moving house means that a veritable squad of men descend on your house and pack up your belongings, using enough bubble wrap that everything could simply be floated to its final destination. What’s not in bubble wrap gets husked in so much packing paper and tape that the smallest drinking glass resembles a bowling ball.

We are currently in day four of a household move, and you’d think that by now I would have remembered the first principle of moving: pack for the morning after. But instead, there I was that first morning, rummaging through carton after carton, fumbling for the coffee pot and wondering why the bag of coffee ended up in the box with the TV remotes, and why the movers felt compelled to wrap even the coffee in packing paper.

Unpacking – even with the help of the moving crew – becomes a memory game as you try to remember where you put the extension cords, the box-cutters, the desperately needed jar of all-important nails and screws. I suppose in my late middle-age, I should welcome these search-and-rescue operations as exercises that might ward off Alzheimer’s, but all I really want is to put up the bookshelves and start putting away the books, which for a household of two literature professors is itself a full-time occupation.

With each move, I am forced to confront the fact that I am neither as resilient, nor as intrepid as I’d like to imagine. The chaos of shifting ground makes me want to sit in a corner with my arms over my head. It’s not just the chaos that gets to me but the sheer mountainous pile of our belongings. How did we acquire so much stuff?

Why, exactly, do I insist on carting around that tattered Peking University T-shirt from my sister’s trip to China? And why do I have, buried in the back of a bureau drawer, the pacifier that my younger son still used when we first moved to Abu Dhabi?

Memory attaches itself to the strangest objects and we move the objects – the T-shirt, the theatre programmes, the pacifier – as if we’re afraid that without the object the memory will vanish. It’s as if the pacifier has become a kind of external hard drive, calling to mind images of my no-longer-little boy asleep with the sweaty-headed exertion of the very young.

We will survive this move, as we’ve survived others; we will eventually stop having bubble-wrap popping parties and all the glassware will emerge from its paper husks. Maybe we’ll even shed some unneeded possessions in the post-move sorting process. But I’m hanging onto the Peking T-shirt and the pacifier. And I suppose we’ll find room for the theatre programmes, too.

Deborah Lindsay Williams (mannahattamamma.com) is a professor of literature at NYU Abu Dhabi