6.12.2013

Transatlantic Travels with Olivia, A Guest Post by Joseph Ballan


Just over a year ago our dear friends, Anna and Joe came by for dessert. They were getting ready to move to Sweden.  Around the time, I had just launched our series, On Holiday.  As with all new things I was ambitious and energized. I envisioned expanding the series to include a section on travel tips i.e. traveling with toddlers, breastfeeding on the plane, etc. When I learned Joe was flying over before Anna and bringing their cat, Olivia I knew we needed a piece about that experience. However, the story didn’t come and I moved on to other blog things including our Thankfulness series. 

Well, imagine my delight, when this morning Joe’s story arrived in my inbox. No Joe hasn't spent a year writing it, in fact he wrote it shortly after the trip. Instead this post spent a year taking a cat nap in the cloud, because we were both too polite to mention it. While my travel tips section has yet to materialize, I know cat lovers everywhere will enjoy the humor and thoughtfulness in Joe’s post, which I am calling:

Transatlantic Travels with Olivia 

Moving, we’re often told, is among the most stressful of the major life events.  The list of stressors accompanying a long-term, long-distance move can be as long as the list of things to do in preparation for moving day.  Near the top, predictably: determine what to ship, what to store, what to sell, what to give away; secure immigration paperwork; learn a new language.  When my wife and I moved from Chicago to a smallish city on the southwest coast of Sweden one year ago next month, there was an additional, more unusual concern: how would Olivia, our cat, respond to this transatlantic journey, for which there was really no way to prepare her?  



Her transition to new surroundings was not the primary source of anxiety – Olivia has lived in more different places in her 7 years on this earth than I had in my first 20, and she adapts to new surroundings pretty quickly.  Instead, more than almost anything else occupying my thoughts about the move in the week or so before our departure was the worry: would this cat act in such a way on the plane as to provoke some other (human) passenger to attempt to eject her from the aircraft?  A stranger can, with a little effort, ignore the screams of an infant in the cabin of an airplane – the child cannot help it, and besides, she’s part of the family, her parents are not going to leave her at home while they travel abroad.  The insistent meows of a feline on a transcontinental flight are not so easily tuned out or explained away.  
Olivia’s a pretty tough, fairly brave little animal, but she is used to coming, going, and moving about as she pleases, especially during the evening and nighttime hours.  There was no way to predict how her tiny body would react to being confined to a small space during an 8-hour flight scheduled to leave at 11pm.  What if she needed to use the litter box at 4am?  If her thirst needed slaking at 6?  I mean, I could not make it through such a long flight without my trusty Klean Kanteen close at hand, never mind the hourly walk to the back of the cabin to do some forward bends.

Then, to compound the anxiety, there was the conversation I had on the morning of the big day.
--So, how is Olivia feeling about everything?
--Oh, I’m sure she’ll be just fine. She adapts, she’ll adapt.  She might complain about being on an airplane for so long, but then again, so might I.  
--I hope so. You know, when my family moved here from the UK when I was a kid, our cat was totally traumatized, didn’t come out of his cage for 2 days.  

Great.

Already, the cat’s path to emigration had been more complicated than mine.  For my part, after responding to numerous but straightforward and more or less sensible questions in writing, I answered the same in person in the clean, cheerful downtown Chicago office of the Swedish Consulate.  Fingerprints and photograph taken, permanent resident status granted.  Simple enough.  Olivia, on the other hand, needed to have a second microchip inserted into her body, needed to be re-vaccinated, needed 2 examinations by our local vet, needed, finally, for me to walk 30 shadeless minutes in 95 degree heat from the Rosemont train station to the labyrinthine office of the USDA veterinarian in charge of all Illinois, who would affix a stamp or three on some paperwork our vet had already completed.   

Against all my anxious expectations, though, the trip itself went really well, really smoothly.  A TSA official did her best to make as easy as possible the annoying process of removing Olivia from and then returning her to her carrier, so that we could go through a body scanner together.  To many fellow passengers, the cat was a curiosity, a distraction from the long, dull periods of waiting (first for the aircraft, then for takeoff, then for touchdown, passport control, baggage). Queuing in O’Hare Airport, an older couple flying from Dallas to Denmark wanted to discuss weight-reduction cat food.  According to the gentleman, their cat weighed 28 pounds (his wife thought it was more like 19, but still).  Their granddaughter (she was maybe 7 or 8 years old), after a quick peak into the carrier, announced, “I like your cat!”  All this friendliness – before even boarding the plane – made me relax a little.  And while I did not find myself seated among this kind family, as I had hoped from the minute they approached me, the mother and daughter that were seated next to me gave Olivia some kindly attention, before laughing and remarking, “It’s just a good thing our dog is not here!”  Indeed.

With the exception of a few panicked vocalizations during takeoff and landing, Olivia was remarkably calm and quiet throughout the flight.  And within hours of her arrival, she had established our cozy Helsingborg apartment as her new domain, where she can now frequently be found perched on one of several windows, breathing in the smell of the sea, listening to the exuberant voices of children playing in the courtyard, and familiarizing herself with the local bird species.  



[If you happen to find yourself traveling by plane with a cat, I would offer a few practical tips: spray the carrier with a pheromone analogue spray, such as Feliway, and give some calming pet treats such as are manufactured by Pet Naturals of Vermont.  Without these products, this story might have had a less happy ending. Fortunately, we did not need to use the extra towel I had packed in my carry-on to line the carrier in case of an inflight accident, but having something like it along seems like a good idea.]

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