Shit we put into a shipping container and moved across an ocean

by Janelle Hanchett

So, our shipping container finally arrived – three months after we did. That’s been fun.

Beyond the obvious excitement of opening the front door of an empty rental with six carry-on bags, four suitcases the size of a small nation, four kids, and absolutely nothing in the actual house beyond a strange smell emanating from the kitchen sink, we enjoyed nine trips to Ikea in three days to purchase furniture in boxes. Have you ever tried putting together Ikea furniture while jet-lagged?

Mac has. He didn’t seem to love it.

Since Uber Eats exists, my first thought was “beds.” So we bought twelve – or maybe it was four – of the cheapest Ikea mattresses available: 2-inches of stacked cardboard they refer to as “foam.”

Of course, the idea was that the shipping container would arrive when we did, or within a month or so, but it got hung up in Australia or some shit. Or maybe we didn’t do the paperwork in time. Hard to tell.

It’s funny, I think people may look at us from the outside and think “Wow, that Mac and Janelle, they must really have some shit figured out, moving to Europe and all.” Not that we’ve ever given any indication of such a thing, but rather because it SEEMS like it would be a requirement for relocating to another country. Like you can’t just throw that shit together all haphazardly, because it’s so complicated. Surely you’d have to figure out how to do it for it to work at all.

But what isn’t immediately obvious, perhaps, is that there are two ways to “figure out how to do it.” You can do extensive research, ask people who’ve done it, consult professionals, make notes, and formulate a plan that addresses the particulars of your situation in attempt to avoid unexpected problems.

Or, you can google shit and hope for the best.

You can intend to do all those adult planning things but end up reading twenty-seven posts by standard humans on Facebook discussing the “expat experience” in this particular arena, ending up more confused than before since nobody can agree on anything except Dutch doctors only prescribe aspirin.

So, you call your friend Alexis in Amsterdam and just do what she says because she seems to have her shit together. Or, you just pick an option at random because you’re out of time. Of course we had a lawyer who helped us with the actual immigration paperwork because FUCKING OBVIOUSLY. Know thyself.

Anyway, Mac and I slept on a double Ikea “mattress” on the floor for three full months. My hip would hit the ground if I slept on my side. Getting up to pee in the middle of the night was EXTRA SUPER COOL since I had spinal surgery in March and my left leg is still partially numb. In other words, it’s no trouble at all to get up off the floor with a stiff back and weak, unbalanced leg.

Thank you for giving me a moment to whine about my life in Europe.

Here’s a picture of the Dutch movers hoisting our mattress through a window of our house since it’s impossible to move up the steep, winding, Dutch death stairs. Those fucking movers were so badass. They carried our boxes and furniture UP THOSE STAIRS over and over again for an hour. One of the dudes was wearing Tevas. With socks. How the fuck are you 65 years old moving dressers up death stairs in Tevas with socks?

The Dutch are tough as hell.

Oh, but can I tell you what it felt like to get in bed that first night? Clean sheets. Off the ground. Blankets. My pillow. Off the ground. It even still smelled like home. Well, my old home.

I don’t want to say “the joy pretty much ended there,” but the joy pretty much ended there.

You see, there’s a point in every move job when nobody gives a flying fuck anymore what’s being placed in each box. Half-empty Kleenex box? Yes, pack that. Random metal stick? Could be important. Book nobody’s read in twenty years or ever? Don’t care. Stop asking me.

random metal stick

Empty trash cans. The trash itself. Half-used sponges. Marbles. Four pennies. Lego man heads. One single Christmas tree bulb. Stained dish towels. Just fucking pack it.

life is meaningless

My MA diploma, 12k papers, kid art, random cords, Ibuprofen, tiny turtle!


You open boxes like this and you just want to jump off a bridge. Why can’t I do anything that MAKES SENSE? 

When packing, it’s not that we think we need this crap, or even that we want it. It’s that the line between trash and “worth moving” eventually gets real thin because the goal is no longer “pack in an organized, helpful way,” but simply “get me the fuck out of this house before I boil to death in the cauldron of my own consumerism.”

Or maybe we’re just tired.

Nobody starts out like this. We start out methodically getting rid of things, lots of things, grouping items we definitely need in well-labeled boxes reflecting a particular area of the house. It all seems hopeful. We’ve really turned a corner this time. Adult packing!

We ask ourselves, “Does this bring me joy?” and no, no we do not yell I HAVE KIDS YOU DICKHEAD NOTHING IN THIS HOUSE BRINGS ME JOY, but rather, we make deep, mindful decisions about whether or not we need the vase we bought from a dread-locked hippie at a 1998 Lake Tahoe art fair.

Two weeks later we’re writing “Kitchen tools & Clothes” on a box.

we all hit the KITCHEN TOOLS & CLOTHES phase at some point

As one traverses the closets and corners of the house for days on end, the will dissolves. Nay, it is beaten out of us by the external representation of our vapid capitalist souls, until we give up fighting and simply repeat the sins of our past. “Just pack it” you scream into the cold, dead night. Yes, pack the remote paired with nothing and that gallon Ziploc bag of unknown cords and the boots with a broken zipper I bought in 2000 that I will surely fix any day now.

An entire junk drawer dumped in a box. A 900-gallon plastic crate of Legos. Fuck it, you think, fondly reflecting on the days when you cared. Fuck it all.

A stuffed animal, tea, two single shoes, my book, 12k receipts AND A FUCKING PIG MASK? Look, I don’t make the rules.

Yes, yes, these are the things we placed onto a shipping container to move from California to the Netherlands, via Australia, apparently.

But none of this really demonstrates the level of fuck-it-all Mac and I reached, for I recently opened a box called “Mac’s bedside table,” and found this: A book he was reading with my underwear stuck in them as a bookmark.

At some point, my husband lifted a book with underwear stuck in it and said to himself “Yep, that’s going in. Just like this.”

So yeah, times are bleak, that’s for sure, but somewhere, there’s a person packing bell hooks and panties into a shipping container.

The human will prevails.


  • Peggy McCloskey

    I feel your pain! I moved 17 times in 26-½ years in the Navy, one time a few blocks over in my post-Navy town, and am now facing a cross-country move again. My plan is to do the Swedish death purge, which I know will last about two closets.

  • Kari L Jaquith

    If I got rid of everything that didn’t spark joy in my life…I would be sitting on the sidewalk holding my coffee maker and my dogs…lol. Bless the mess, sort it all out later. Love this Janelle.

  • kathy sokol

    I still have boxes I packed 20 years and six moves ago that I haven’t unpacked yet

  • Caz

    I was introduced to your website nearly 4 years ago with the birth of my son and your article then saved my sanity. She reintroduced you to me with my (very fucking recent, like, this week) decision to move my family to Spain within a year. Although, there will be no shipping containers in our move. Nothing. Nothing but a suitcase for all of us. Good Goddess, help me!

  • Nicole

    Maybe my favorite ever post of yours. And that’s kind of a big deal. It was the underwear in the book that did it.

  • Lotte Lane

    Ok, crying with laughter at the transatlantic knicker bookmark. Just wonderful.

  • Heather Padgette

    This made me laugh so hard recalling my last move (across the US), but let’s face it, if movers are involved and you’re moving more than a reasonable 2 hours or so away, it’s all the same. I’m not sure how international shipping works, but interstate moving is by weight. I shed a few tears as I was getting rid of stuff after having paid to ship it— but it was better than keeping that crap…Good luck.

  • Joy

    Our garage is still full of unpacked boxes from our move last Easter. Several of them are labelled “SOME OTHER RANDOM SHIT”. There is also one labelled “COFFEE CUPS AND ANTS”. Yes, we relocated an ant invasion from our old house because we gave up trying to get rid of them. But we haven’t unpacked that box yet so hopefully they are still in there waiting patiently.

  • Lorain

    Janelle, I’ve been following you since we were both in other lives, but I was pretty sure I was always following the same person. This piece would have nailed it down for me, even without the book. (Love the book, btw.) We moved across the country and have not seen our stuff in months. I hope someone packed the random shit we stashed in odd corners of our homes, because I gave up, too. If I did not pack the “I love Mommy and Daddy very much” message our daughter produced with a label maker about 30 years ago, though, my heart will hurt. Less is not more. More is more.

    • Miriana

      But you have Yorkshire tea so all will be well!

  • Tiffany Hess

    My grandmother passed and OH MYLANTA. She would be laughing hysterically if she saw us dealing with all of her VERY IMPORTANT MUST KEEP drawers… like a receipt from QVC (many home shopping channel treasures) confirming it had REAL gold plated tips on the ceramic tree for hanging photos from 1987.. next to a slip of paper saying she could pick up my cousins from school in 1976, a tiny plastic hand.

  • Cindy

    Love this and loved your book. My favorite line is, “We have kids you dickhead, nothing in this house brings me joy!” Too true. We moved across the country 9 years ago and found actual garbage in a box. I mean wtf? But my favorite from two moves ago is the claw foot from an old claw foot tub that happened to be on the ground in the bathroom when the movers showed up. Still belonged to that tub, though, poor thing. Now it’s two moves and two states away from its tub, but I’m keeping that claw foot forever, no matter where I wind up.

  • Miranda

    Underwear bookmark makes it all worth it!! Bwahahaha!

  • Anita

    Funniest thing I’ve read all day. ????????

  • X.Crement

    You put shit in a shipping container??? Oh my. You certainly put shit and fuck also a lot into your stories and you seem to believe you’re a writer. But I can tell you that xcremental language doth not a writer make – and you seem to think that you are one… It just makes you sound very stuooopid.

    • Sarah

      You’re joking right? Janelle is friggen brilliant. Go shit in someone else’s sandbox Xcrement.

      • Patty

        Xcrement. Shut the front door. ????

    • Brooke

      You are right. Foul language doth not a writer make… However, honesty and a lack of concern for judgement from tight-asses who are not interested in/can’t relate to what you have to say, doth an interesting writer make. The type of writer whom people like to read from.
      PS… Self-righteousness and the supression of your innate humanity doth a person no one likes to be around make…

  • Dawn

    Funny as shit. Thanks, I needed it today 🙂 🙂

  • deb

    i am laughing so hard that I just spit cheerios all over myself. made my day – thank you!

  • Kelly

    Oh my GOD you are hilarious. ????

  • Lorna

    Oh your posts make my day… and reading this one, I had to share the post of another writer I follow, she’s a Brit that moved to the Netherlands!!

  • Johnna W

    Oh my gosh, nearly died laughing through this whole post. Especially the underwear bookmark part. Thank. You. It was much needed.

  • Laurel

    Where’s the dog?

  • Heather J

    Mad respect for Mac’s reading choices and method of bookmarking.


    I so love your writing.

  • Norita

    Best 5min. read Online in over a year!

    I snort laughed with recognizing “holy shit, welcome to Expat Life”.
    Cuz everybody needs a panty bookmark, random lego heads and a piece of metal that does SOMETHING.

    This shit brings me JOY.
    Thank you ????

  • Cori

    YES! Expat life. Insane items found in a shipping container and Ikea furniture from hell. Loved this post. GET it. Lots of love to the craziness of unpacking!

  • Ceciel

    You are amazing.

  • Jacqui

    Oh I really relate to your current experiences. I moved my family from Australia to Canada 8 years ago and now we have moved back to Australia (sans 19 year old son). Our stuff is supposed to arrive any minute now. I don’t even know where we are going to fit things in our small rental house (only one we could get when we arrived that didn’t look like someone had died in it). Our house currently has cheap and unfamiliar stuff in it. Will the arrival of our stuff make me feel more at home? Where in fact is home? I loved your book and look forward to reading about your new life in Holland.

  • Jamie

    Our family moved overseas 12 years ago, made another mover 2 years ago, and are about to move back to the states in a few months. This post just DID ME IN. I cry-cackle-laughed at a quiet starbucks. I needed that reprieve from the mature-adult-voice in my head, telling me that boxes packed with random shit isn’t healthy, or something. I love the way your normalize our collective humanity. THANK YOU.