I just moved from Germany to Ireland with my cat. I had thought it would be a lot easier than when I moved to Germany from Oregon with my cat. But, actually, it was quicker, and in some ways easier, to cross 5177 miles from Portland to Berlin than it was to get the 1189 miles from Berlin to Dublin. This is because I was able to fly from the US to Germany with my cat on board, but couldn’t find any airline that would take pets on flights into Ireland or the UK. Even Lufthansa, with whom I have flown trans-Atlantic with my cat, twice, and who has a whole ‘we’re pet friendly’ page on their website, does not book pets on flights into Ireland or the UK. I spoke with the Irish Department of Agriculture, and no, they don’t have any prohibition about pets entering the country. The flights just won’t take them.
Long story short, I was left with a choice:
- Pay a freight company to take my cat and ship her for me. One recommended company gave me a quote for nearly €800! When the flight I was planning to book for myself was only €57!
- Spend three days but only about €300 taking trains and ferries across Europe with my cat.
I went with the second option. Partly because it was far less expensive, partly because it sounded like an interesting adventure, and partly because I really didn’t like the idea of letting strangers put my cat in a box and take her away from me and overseas. And I’m glad that I did go this route: even though I was weeping by the end of it.
* * *
Deutsche & Dutch Lands
The two weeks before we left was grueling. Day and night, I was packing, sorting, cleaning, scrubbing, cooking up everything in the cupboards that I could use, giving away all food goods and house goods and clothes that we didn’t need. For everything we couldn’t bring ourselves to purge (mainly books), my husband and I rented a cheap storage unit way way out in the east of Berlin, where everything is of a decidedly Soviet, boxy aesthetic. The air was so cold and dry my husband’s fingers cracked and bled. I crushed my hand into a cement wall while moving a dolly, and my wedding ring was so flattened and fucked up that my husband had to squash it with a wrench to make it wide enough to get over my knuckle and off my finger (which I’m very lucky I didn’t break). And we camped out on the floor for two nights after our mattress was moved out, with Aífe waking me in the night trying to figure out how she could also fit into my sleeping bag with me. There were also travel arrangements to be made, things to be shipped, deadlines for work, and my stepdaughter’s birthday party to plan and throw. So by the time our morning of departure came about, I was in less than peak condition: aching, bruised, scraped up, and short on sleep.
At 9:30 am, I leave the flat with a black rolling suitcase, a blue backpacking rucksack, a blue zipping tote bag – all bulging and heavy – and Aífe in her black carrier bag. My husband is helping me get to the central train station, before he catches his flight to Ireland that evening. (His work had paid for a flight for him. If he’d have joined the cat and I on our journey, it would have cost us another couple hundred euros that we didn’t have, and messed with his work obligations.) As I step out of our building for the final time, I realize I’d been so obsessed with figuring out how to get from Berlin to Limerick, I had forgotten to look up what route would get us across Berlin to the central train station. A small panic is rising – have I already fucked everything up before I’ve even set off? Julian and I struggle across the snow and grit and cobblestones to Hackescher Markt, and then get a train to the main station.
We end up getting there with plenty of time. We say our fond farewells until the 10:34 to Amsterdam comes gliding in. Julian helps me heave everything up into the train car. We kiss and wave, and then Aífe and I are off. We have about six hours to Amersfoort, where we change for a train to Rotterdam, and then change at Rotterdam for a train to Hoek van Holland (the ‘hook’ of Holland). Altogether, this train journey is about nine hours long. For most of it, I have Aífe’s carrier unzipped, and set either on a table or on my lap. She divides her time between snoozing, and alertly looking and sniffing and listening in all directions. She gives an occasional meow of objection to the situation that she finds herself in, but is mostly quiet. She refuses food, except for the occasional nibble of my extra aged gouda. I gave her a bath the week before, so her fur is practically as soft as a chinchilla. There is no wifi, I have run out of German phone credit, and I am dazed and weary, so there is little for us to do but sit, cuddle, and dozily let ourselves be swished through strange lands towards the sea.
When Aífe does join me in peering out the window, we see wintery cities and countryside. Flat fields lightly dusted with snow and trees stripped naked of all foliage. Occasionally, the fields are broken up with little towns, small factory works, and tiny clumps of cottages. Modern windmills spin like ginormous pinwheels in the distance, only partially visible in the thick, low-hanging, dull-white sky. We also stop in towns and cities, with names like Stendal, Wolfsburg, Hannover, and Bad Bentheim. You can tell when we cross into the Netherlands, because suddenly the town names and station signs have lots of double vowels – Apeldoorn, Amersfoort, telegraaf. Also, because the smoke and time-worn female voice making the announcements in German has replaced by a male one that stumbles through the announcements in German, enthuses his way through them in English, and positively bounces through them in Dutch (although I wouldn’t know it was Dutch just from hearing it. He sounds positively Swedish Chef to me).
We have four minutes to get from our first to second train (Germans have great faith in the trains running on time). The train from Amersfoort to Rotterdam is packed with commuters. The woman squeezed in next to us asks about Aífe, so I give her a brief rundown of our journey. "All this for a cat?" she asks. What a stupid question. Of course all this for a cat! She's my very best friend and forever home!
The Dutch trains, apparently, are not run on the same ruthless efficiency as in Deutscheland, for we miss our last train by several minutes. Luckily, it's a commuter line, and there's one every half hour. And so, after a full day of travel, the trains have finally run out of track, and land. We disembark into pitch black night, and straight across the street from the train platform is the harbor. We’ve reached the North Sea.
We’re sailing with a ferry company called Stena Line, and their building is nearly touching the train station. We check in with a customer service rep who bears un uncanny resemblance to Billie Piper (killer smile, with dimples for miles). There are only a couple other humans in the whole big terminal building, and it is ages until departure, so I take Aífe outside. The air smells more chlorinated than briny. I set Aífe’s carrier down near the only scrap of unpaved ground I can see – a scrubby-looking hedge between the walkway and the train platform – and she doesn’t hesitate to pop out and start trucking along. She paces and sniffs, and explores the hedge as best she can attached to trundling me. Eventually, she squats down and has a pee. And I am so grateful, because we’ve still got a long ways to go… and I remember prior, day-long international journeys where I couldn’t get her to go, and worried about her holding it for that long.
Aífe paces the length of the hedge again, but oncoming big-rig trucks come roaring towards our direction in the dark, and she turns herself around, back towards the ferry building. Here, we are confronted with automatic, sliding glass doors. Two sets. Aífe has never walked through these before. She approaches, the doors swish open, she backs away. After several tries, I get her to walk through the first, then the second set. We spend another patch of time walking around the terminal building, and nibbling more gouda. Aífe keeps trying to walk us through ticket and passport control, and there’s nothing else to do, so I decide to check in.
A brusque Dutch man took Aífe and I aside, scanned Aífe’s microchip, and took her pet passport into his office to examine. This was the moment I’d been worrying about for weeks – the moment when I would find out if Aífe would be allowed into the UK, or… not. There is no passport control between Ireland and the UK, but there’s a strict border control to let anybody into the UK from the continent. I have no reason to believe they shouldn’t let Aífe through – she is healthy, she has the right vaccines and microchip and documents. But you never know, so I have been a wee bit anxious about this the whole ride here.
It turns out, all my worries were for nothing – the man comes back with Aífe’s passport, and a bunch of documents for bringing her on board the boat, and informational leaflets on traveling on Stena with pets. Easy peasy. Aífe and I share a little more cheese, then go through boarding.
Then it’s up an enclosed gangway with welcome signs in Dutch and English. Up and up we go, me heaving my luggage and Aífe along one long incline after another. Finally, we are on the boat. I am looking forward to finding my cabin, storing my bags, and finding some wifi to let my mom and husband know I am alive and on track to me destination. However, this is the other part of the journey I’ve least been looking forward to – the part where Aífe and I have to separate.
The kennel room is chilly, a little smelly, and frankly not fantastically clean. Strange booming noises coming from what is presumably the engine room below, and a fuzzy black in a corner cage whimpers every time it knows a human is in the room. It was very much like the pound. Not much of a reward, after a whole day of train travel. But Stena are very strict about not having animals anywhere on the passenger decks, and a crew member waited for me while I got Aífe situated – presumably to make sure I didn’t try to bring her with me. I set up her carrier, her travel litterbox, and some food, and went to find my cabin.
My cabin is great. It is small and clean, and I have it all to myself – I even have a bathroom of my own, where I have a wonderful hot shower. It would have been a fantastic way to travel, if my furry bunkmate had been allowed to share my pillow, as she does every night at home. It’s very hard to enjoy yourself in comfort when you know your best friend is having a shit time down in cargo.
I am super grateful to have the ferry companies as an option – they take pets, with minimal fuss and cost to their owners, and have locked, safe kennel rooms that are monitored by security camera. Stena Lines does any way. They saved my bacon on this move, for sure.
All the same – what a fucking drag, to leave your best friend in a cage for the night. It would be nice if they had designated pet-lover’s rooms. Like, maybe a little scruffier than the normal cabins, a little bit worse for the wear, maybe requiring an additional fee, but you got to keep your friend with you. I’d have signed up for that in a heartbeat.
Instead, I go down to check on Aífe every hour or so. Every time I check on her, she looks out at me, totally alert and silent, eyes wide with a haunted expression.
I am totally wrecked with all the packing and travel of the last few days, and eventually have to end my visits and pass out for the night. We’re meant to dock at 5:30am, disembark at 6:30. I figure, the sooner I’m up, the sooner I can go collect Aífe. Except I forget about the one hour time change between the continent and UK, so I find myself wide-fucking-awake at 4:30am. And it turns out I needn’t have bothered setting an alarm, because when it is 5:30 local time, and I have just dozed back off, I am blasted awake by the sound of Bobby McFerrin’s a cappella hit/ curse, “Don’t Worry, Be Happy” over the intercom. I hurry to get my shit together, and go rescue my fur-baby from the dungeon.
When I get to her, she is, as before, waiting there with wide, freaked-out eyes. She hasn’t eaten, she hasn’t pottied, and for all I can tell, she didn’t sleep all night, either. I quickly pack up her stuff, scoop her up, and go find the shuttle bus off the boat.
We hop off the bus on and are first in line to go through immigration. A nice woman asks me some questions, doesn’t even look at Aífe, and lets us right in. And then we are in Harwich: Home of the Mayflower. It is 6:45 in the morning, in January. Still dark. The next direct train to London doesn’t leave for a half hour, so I pile all our shit up beside a red bench on the empty platform, and we have a sit in the cool morning air of the seaside. Aífe pops right out and gets her first sniff of England, and it isn’t long before she catches the eye of the cleaning lady, who is a very kind, Essex grandmotherly-type.
We get on an empty train, in the dark. Over the hour and a half ride into London, the sun rises over misty fields, and the train slowly packs with uniforms and workers in depressing office attire. We arrive into Liverpool Street Station exactly at peak morning rush hour, and I get to try my hand at wadding myself, three bags, and a highly-crushable kitten through dirty looks and into the spare cracks between elbows on the underground. I discover that the only piece of luggage I have with any wheels has broken one, and will only roll at one particular angle. I also realize how fantastically unfriendly London transport is to anyone with mobility issues, baby buggies, bicycles, or luggage – no lifts, and while some parts have escalators, there will always be stairs. Luckily, London is my favorite city, I know how to navigate it, there are several kind strangers along the way, and a most beloved friend is waiting for me in the tower of her Mayfair office. I stash my bags, and then Aífe and I set out into a perfectly sunny day to see as many of my favorite sights between Covent Garden and Buckingham Palace as possible, before collecting our bags at the end of my friend’s workday, and double decker busing our way out to Hackney for the night.
Irish Sea & Ireland
The main ferry route between the UK and Ireland runs between Holyhead (Wales) and Dublin. It takes three trains to get from London to Holyhead, and the last ferry of the afternoon leaves from Holyhead at 1:50. This means we have to get a 7:30am train out of Euston Station to make sure we get there on time. Which means we have to get a 6:15 bus out of Hackney.
I barely sleep that night, waking up over and over again, checking my phone, making sure I haven’t somehow overslept. Every time, it’s still the middle of the night, and Aífe is curled right up against me, happy to be able to sleep together once again, even if she’s not sure where we are or why.
Eventually, even though it is still dark out, it is actually time to go get a bus. I somehow imagined that 6am would be quiet, but when we get to the bus stop London is already off to a strong start. As we wait at the bus stop, I spot a fox traipsing down the pavement, across the street from us. Suddenly, it looked as if it were about to step out into traffic, but after a few false starts it decides not to risk getting squashed, so just sits down directly across from us, and stares. I look down at Aífe in her carrier, to see if she sees the fox – I don’t believe she has seen one before. She does see it; she is watching it intently (and probably with some concern). It dawns on me that the fox hasn’t stopped across from us by coincidence – it is staring at Aífe! How can it see her in her black carrier bag? Can it smell her from there, even with all the other city smells?
Our first train is heading north towards Manchester. As the morning before, we set off in the dark, and watch the sun rise changing colors over misty fields, bare winter branches tangled amongst white fog. We change trains in Crewe and Chester, two small stations of old brickwork and rust. You can tell we’ve entered Wales, because all signs with announcements and warnings are in Welsh as well as English. Most of what we pass is farmland; we woosh past fields with ploughed short for winter like golden crew cuts, giant heaps of fertilizer looking small in the corners. The horses all wear winter jumpers, and the sheep rock full-volume winter afros. It’s a gorgeous, sunny day, and I realize how long it’s been since I’ve been out of flat, boxed-in Berlin – the sky seems enormous.
We finally get to Holyhead, and same as before, the Stena terminal is right on the train station. We have ages until check in, and I don’t want to just sit in the boring, soulless terminal for hours and not see anything of the town. So I strap on my bags and cat, and push my wonky-wheeled case across the long metal gangway across the river into town. We walk a small segment of high street (which does not have that much excitement), and end up walking through a stone arch and into the courtyard of a medieval church. St. Cybi’s. I set my bags down, and give Aífe her first and last chance of the day to walk around in some grass and have a pee. It’s a quiet spot, but there are a lot of locals coming through the path – almost all of them are elderly ladies, who have to stop and find out about Aífe.
I pick up Aífe to go back to our bags, and she puts her paw right on my face, as she often does. A funny smell hits my nose, and I find she’s walked right through dog poop. A week of cleaning, travel, and barely sleeping, and now I’ve got dog shit on my face. Fantastic.
Luckily, I keep a small parcel of baby-wipes in the side pocket of Aífe’s carrier, and we argue as I try to get the filth out of the fur between her toes. Then it’s back to the ferry building; I don’t have the energy for anything else. And it turns out there is some news waiting for us…
The good: It says on the Stena website that animals have to be stowed in kennels. But a friendly member of staff tells me that “it should be fine” if I want to take Aífe onboard with me. Yay!
The bad: our ferry will be departing late. So we will be hanging around a while.
The ugly: the reason travel is delayed is that there are strong winds across the Irish Sea, making the crossing slower and choppier than usual. I’ve only been on boats a few times in my whole life, and the crossing over the North Sea was no problem, so the significance of the weather doesn’t hit me until…
Aífe pukes a tiny bit, in her carrier. And then ten minutes later I am suddenly horrifically seasick.
Luckily, I have just enough time to get up and walk over to a stack of white sick bags beside a sign reading, “For your convenience” before I start heaving up the entire contents of my guts. This ferry is not nearly as big as the first ferry, and you can feel the floor rising and dropping beneath your feet as you walk. There is a café in the middle of the passenger deck, and the whole thing reeks of fish and chips. Most of the passengers are men, many of them truckers, who smoke a lot, and stink of cigarettes as they pass by. There are several TVs playing at high volume – inane BBC lifestyle programs (property, antiques, Royal cooking), kids programs, the new Independence Day reboot film. And I just have to lie there and take it. And so does Aífe. We’re both knocked flat-out. I flop awkwardly across a deckchair, alternating between retching into a tiny bag on the floor and covering my head with my shawl. Aífe sprawls motionless in her carrier next to me, so limp that at one point I poke her a little to make sure her eyes open.
Eventually, the misery ends, and the crossing is over. Once again, you have to get a shuttle bus off of the boat. For some reason, it takes fucking forever until they give us the go-ahead to get off. The docks are way the hell out from Dublin city proper, with big expanses of industrial dead-space, which is all pitch-black by the time we dock. Another bus takes us across the small capital city to Heuston Station.
It’s only 7:30pm, but already all the shops are closing up for the night. I haven’t booked my train ticket to Limerick in advance, even though I knew I should have – it was just one of those things on my to do list that got lost in the mania of moving. A week ago, the ticket was €13. Not bad. On the ferry over, I look and see it’s gone up to €32. Not great, but what do you do? When I go to buy it at the counter, a not very friendly man tells me it will be €54! How can it be €22 more in person than online? The guy tells me that’s just how it is, and that I have four minutes to book it, or it will go up again. But I don’t have any phone credit, and the shops in the station are all closed, and I can’t buy it online in the next few minutes. My lack of planning has just cost me €41. Which in my mind is a lot of money to be wasting.
I haven’t had a good sleep in nearly a week. I haven’t eaten much all day, and everything I did eat had been puked back up. I can’t call my husband, or anybody, because I’m out of credit and all the shops in the station are closed. And now a ticket salesman has been cross with me, and I’m paying a huge fee and I don’t understand why.
I begin sobbing in the middle of the dark, cold train station.
Luckily, some station security guys come over to my rescue, like knights with Walkie Talkies. They let me sit on the couch in the information office until I’ve calmed down. They let me use their station phone to call my husband, and even get me a cup of tea.
Shortly before midnight, Aífe and I arrive in Limerick, where my husband (who grew up in Tipperary, nearby) is waiting to help me push my wonky suitcase home, to the room we’ll call home for a little while. The hideous ordeal is over. We’re safe.
…except now we have to figure out what to do about Singapore. Sheesh.
(I’ve realized that today is the 23rd - exactly one month since we set off on that journey. It took me several days to recover, and I guess a whole month to be able to face writing about it. Aífe and I did go to Tipperary, and the ocean, and a writers’ festival, but that’s going to have to wait for next time.)