Happy holidays from Madrid! We wish everyone love and warm greetings for a prosperous and healthy new year.
We had heard Christmas Eve in Madrid is quiet because it is traditionally a day to spend with family. That turned out to be an understatement, and Robert and I took advantage of the peaceful day. Around noon I enjoyed a 50-minute jog around the beautiful Parque del Retiro. We then took lunch at one of our favorite local places, La Puerta Amarilla (La Puerta Amarilla in Madrid – Restaurant Reviews, Menu and Prices).
This place is known for their hamburgers, which I will enjoy on occasion — that said, I had not yet tried one in Madrid. Today I selected their signature La Amarilla burger as part of the menu del dia. For less than USD 13, I enjoyed a crisp glass of dry white wine, a beautiful grilled chorizo sausage with sweet salsa (starter), a great burger topped with cheese and fried plantain on a tasty fresh roll, fries on the side, and a slice of Toblerone cake for dessert. The waiter who has come to know us brought glasses of “agua del grifo” without our asking, so he got an extra tip (which still amounted to only about 5%).
Over the years, Robert and I have had an on-and-off tradition of a quiet dinner out on Christmas Eve that dates to our first Christmas together in Chicago. Way back in 1995 we dined at Gordon (Long Lost Lamented Restaurants Power Hour: Gordon) and that was the start of our custom.
We figured now is a great time to reinitiate the tradition, so I began looking for restaurants open on Christmas Eve. Here in Madrid, they are hard to find! A few hotel restaurants were featuring special fixed menus (one very near us was €120 per person, which is more than we really wanted to spend). Virtually all the other options were Indian cuisine, which is perfectly fine with Robert and me. After considering locations and reviews, we selected Tandoori Madrid in the barrio La Latina, self-described as “The best restaurant in Madrid!” (Tandoori Madrid in Madrid – Restaurant Reviews, Menu and Prices).
Despite lighting every bit as bright as it looks in the picture, it turned out to be a delightful experience. The food and service were top notch, and there was a festive but not too rambunctious crowd of people just like us searching for a good meal on an off night.
Since the evening had promised to be somewhat subdued, we planned a walk through the city to view the beautiful yet understated municipal Christmas light displays. While the first six and a half weeks of our stay featured chilly temperatures and nearly nonstop gray, drizzly skies punctuated by gusty winds, the last few days have turned beautiful for the season — sunny skies, calm breezes, and temperatures solidly in the 50s.
It ended up being a perfect evening for a stroll past the Prado, through the upscale barrio Jeronimos, around the charming Plaza de la Independencia and back through Puerta del Sol and Plaza Mayor.
Last evening, Robert and I participated in a Vipassana meditation group only a ten-minute walk from our AirBnb. This is a type of Buddhist meditation that explores physical phenomena and their interrelation with the mind and body. Last night’s session (in English) was attended by 35 or so practitioners from all over the world and proved to be a very centering exercise. The organization offers various meditation and yoga classes, in both Spanish and English, on a donation-only basis. They prefer that you register in advance so they can have enough tea and light snacks on hand, but it is not essential. We will do our best to make this our weekly Sunday event.
And now for some more illustrated, random observations about Madrid:
If you show up at a local restaurant more than once, you are likely to be welcomed like an old friend. We have been to Tinto y Tapas three times now — it’s a great place to grab a quick snack and a glass of wine if you are looking for a pick-me-up (the empanadas and tostas are really good). Each time we go in, we are greeted with warm smiles.
A couple weeks ago, Robert and I enjoyed a light dinner at Puerta Amarilla, a tiny place around the corner. A few days later we joined a Meetup gourmet group at another restaurant about fifteen minutes away. The waitress circled the large table taking orders, and when she got to us she had a surprised look of recognition on her face, and with a large grin exclaimed, “Puerta Amarilla!!!” Sadly, this is also a reflection on the local economy that many people must work multiple jobs to make ends meet.
While we’re talking about restaurants, there are other interesting things we have noticed here. Very often you will see a presentation like this:
Great ambiance, beautifully plated food, fine wine glasses…but if you look closely at the edge of the large gray plate, you will notice a couple of chips. This isn’t a culture that immediately tosses less-than-perfect items when they are still usable, and we appreciate that practicality.
Last comment on restaurants: we routinely rely on the Menu del Dia for our primary meal of the day. Many places, including some finer-dining establishments, offer this “lunch special” from 13:30 to 16:30 every Monday through Friday. For a set price of typically USD 12-15, you get a beverage (including beer or wine if you like), first and second courses (usually a selection of three to five items each), bread, and coffee or dessert. Feel like enjoying a second glass of wine? That’ll be another USD 2.75-3.25. And remember, you don’t tip more than a couple percent on that.
We have had the good fortune to encounter numerous like-minded folks at our language school and various MeetUp groups: people from Canada, the US, Europe, South America, the Middle East and Asia. Some have been visiting, some regularly spend part of the year in Spain, and others have chosen for one reason or another to live here for awhile. But each of them appreciates all the city has to offer.
One of the first things we did when we arrived was to go for a walk in nearby Parque del Retiro, Madrid’s Central Park. The nearest monument on what has become our normal route is called Fuente del Angel Caido. It was just a couple weeks ago that we found out this statue is widely regarded as the western world’s only prominent sculpture dedicated to Satan (well, technically Lucifer being expelled from Heaven) and that it happens to stand at 666 meters above sea level. Go figure!
Back to food now…last night after the meditation and a light tapas supper in, we fancied a cup of gelato at 00:30 on a Monday morning. In Madrid, that’s not a problem! We did need to walk past our usual gelato haunt and delve a couple blocks further into a more touristy area, but there was a huge gelateria open until 1:00.
Of course there have been certain challenges that we continue to work through. With any luck, most or all of those will be resolved by year-end (we don’t want to jinx anything by prematurely declaring victory, so we’ll circle back to those stories over the next few weeks). But for now, if some local process or detail starts to nag at us, all we need to do is throw on our jackets, walk out the door, and let the charm of Madrid melt our cares away.
After eight days in Madrid, we have a number of observations:
It’s easy to sleep until 10 or 11 (or noon) if you stay up until 1 or 2.
Spanish store brand cat food appears to be vastly tastier than premium US brands.
You need to think a little bit ahead if you rely on hanging your laundry out the window to dry in late autumn (but it really only takes about 30 hours for even jeans to dry).
The sun can be surprisingly warm even on a 53 degree afternoon in Parque de Retiro.
There is no good ending for any comment that starts with, “We should hurry up and do this because…” when you are surrounded by the food, wine, and people of Madrid.
We pushed the start of our language class to 18 November due to unforseen telecom and banking logistical challenges, not to mention the fact that we are enjoying these first leisurely days without any schedule whatsoever. There is rarely a need to glance at a clock after you wake because if a shop you want to visit is shuttered from 2 to 5 pm (still remarkably common in Madrid), it’s certain to be open well into the evening. Plus many restaurants don’t close until 11:30 or midnight, even on Sundays and weeknights, so it’s really hard to miss dinner.
And if for some reason you are uncharacteristically restless at 3 am on a Thursday morning and just can’t fall back to sleep, it’s easy and completely safe to throw on a pair of jeans and your coat and wander the Paseo del Prado for 30 minutes or so — you’d be surprised at the number of people of all ages doing the same thing.
Perhaps we would have enjoyed this newfound freedom as much had we stayed in the US, but that’s rather doubtful. The vibrant pulse of this city, whose residents joyously and gratefully embrace the outdoors in all but the most inclement weather, is intoxicating. The other night after a relatively early 10 pm dinner in, Robert said, “Let’s go for a walk!” We strolled a neighborhood new to us, passing countless bars, fancy restaurants, and fast-food joints, all packed with people just out enjoying another evening.
Greetings from Madrid! The long trip went fairly well overall, with only minor inconveniences (mostly the six-hour layover in Atlanta, and having to wait at the airport here for two hours until we could get into the flat). But we did manage to sleep a good part of the flight. Parker came through just fine, although she didn’t much care for the extended stretch of light turbulence we encountered.
We napped for about three hours after getting into the flat, and then our friend Ismael came over for a bit of cheese and jamon iberco, after which we managed to stay up until about 10:30 pm. It was comical to watch Parker experience the same jet lag we had last night — she curled up and completely conked out! Robert was up for an hour or so around 1 am, but I managed to sleep straight through until 9! I think we’re pretty much on schedule now.
Hard to believe, but today is the last day of my career! It’s been just over forty years since I collected my bachelor’s degree, shopped long-defunct department stores for my first professional wardrobe, and started a daily commute to downtown LA along with hundreds of thousands of other people.
After my coffee this morning, I’ll head into the office to wrap up some paperwork, bid a few final farewells, turn in my badge, and kiss routine goodbye. Tomorrow we drive to Tucson to spend three nights with family, and Sunday at 7 am we’ll board Delta flight #1345 for the first leg of our journey.
Perhaps I should expand a bit on why Spain in particular speaks to Robert and me. We both grew up in the Los Angeles area, so geography and weather play major roles in the country’s desirability factor. After numerous trips on high-speed rail through central and southern Spain, it occurred to me the local landscape much resembles the sensuous, golden hills of southern California — except in southern California there isn’t a centuries-old castle perched atop every elevation.
The general cost of living is less than in the US: important things like groceries, healthcare/insurance, wine, dining out. Rents are similar to Arizona. Some costs such as electronics and clothing can be a bit higher, but we know how to find deals and our needs in those categories should continue to be on the light side.
Of course we will be assuming the foreign exchange risk between the US Dollar and the Euro, but the Euro has been remarkably stable the past seven years or so. And if there is nasty surprise, we can simply adjust spending to accommodate our budget. While Madrid and Barcelona are near the top of the list of the priciest cities in Spain, living expenses (particularly rents) drop dramatically if you consider smaller cities such as Valencia, Alicante, and even Malaga.
The most common question we get is about what we’ll do with all our newfound time. We’ll face logistical chores immediately upon arrival. In order to not feel compelled to rush into a longer-term lease, we have booked an AirBnb for first six weeks, which will allow for a more relaxed evaluation of the available apartment inventory. That said, after monitoring the search site www.idealista.com for over a year now, it has become clear that well priced apartments in desirable neighborhoods are snatched up in a matter of hours. We’ll need to be on our toes with the checkbook ready for that process.
In addition, a local bank account is a necessity because all monthly bills in Spain are paid electronically. I was originally hoping that cash payments for things like rent and utilities would do, but no dice. There is a European internet bank called N26 that partners with TransferWise (a low-cost foreign exchange service), which sounds like a good combination. But I’ve also read positive things about BBVA, which boasts a robust English-language website and a free basic on-line checking account.
Within 30 days of arrival we must also formally register our visas and obtain our TIEs (Tarjeta de Identidad de Extranjero or Foreigner’s Identity card). This entails another appointment at a local government office, another stack of forms, and another wait, but it is really just a formality.
We have arranged to start Spanish classes on 11 November at Tilde Madrid (https://www.tildemadrid.com/index.html#). The school is very near our AirBnb, and we visited them last March. What appeals to us most about the school is their emphasis on older adult learners and classes that are limited to four students. We have signed up for three weeks to start and will see how we like it.
A quick Google search immediately yielded several interesting Meetup groups: LGBT hiking, LGBT socializing, as well as gourmet dining. We already have plans for two events in the first couple weeks.
Finally, we hope to spend a lot of time exploring the Iberian peninsula. While I have trained and bussed through a fair expanse of the northern, central, and southwest regions, Robert has yet to discover many of Spain’s historic riches. Additionally, the Camino Portuguese from Lisbon north is a shorter, flatter, and less-crowded pilgrimage route to Santiago de Compostela (http://santiago-compostela.net), and we are anxious to sample that adventure. And close friends are planning their annual trip to Malta in May, so we definitely hope to coordinate a few days together there.
On a windy and soon-to-be very smoky Thursday, Robert and I inched our way along the choked and heaving LA freeways to the Spanish consulate to pick up our official residence visas.
There will be more paperwork to complete the process once we arrive in Madrid, but the heavy lifting is finished for now.
Last night, a travel program we were watching closed with a quote from Mark Twain, who opined, “Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime.”
Monday 9 September dawned cool for LA this time of year. From our 8th-floor room at the AC Hotel we could see the sky slowly brighten over what is a remarkably nondescript few blocks of Wilshire Blvd. The seductive Santa Monica Mountains stretching far into the distance presented a striking reminder of one of the things that drew people to this dusty basin in the first place. Anyway, we didn’t select this hotel for the view, but for its proximity to the Spanish consulate (1.5 miles east). Given our appointments at 10:00 and 10:30, I didn’t want to risk getting hung up in LA’s legendary rush-hour traffic.
It was a quick drive down 6th Street (heading eastbound, at least…the traffic crawling westbound on the one-lane residential thoroughfare was backed up for blocks). Scoring free street parking on Mansfield Ave. south of Wilshire was surprisingly easy. After a quick stop at Starbuck’s, we arrived at the consulate a half hour early.
The consulate lobby is lined on the north side with five service windows, two specifically for visas. According to explicit instructions posted on the consulate’s website, we quietly took seats and waited for our names to be called. A couple other people strolled in after us and sat down closer to the glass-paned counter. After finishing up with a client, the consulate rep vaguely called out, “Here for a visa?” and of course, a fellow between us and the window jumped up and beat us to the goal. He was there to retrieve a completed visa, for which no appointment is required, and was consequently dispatched in short order. That sequence of events repeated itself with another person collecting her visa. After those two snubs, even though we still had 20 minutes before our scheduled times, Robert calmly walked over and politely stated, “I have an appointment.”
The rep asked Robert to sit down and started the process as I observed from across the room, not wanting to interrupt. I couldn’t make out every word, but could tell things were going well and that we appeared to have every document that was requested, and in proper form. About 15 minutes in, the rep caught on that Robert and I were together so I was able to immediately follow Robert (about a half hour ahead of schedule). Sure enough, we had successfully collected all the necessary documents (and a few extra to spare).
Fifteen minutes later, we walked out onto the sunny sidewalk with fingers crossed. The consulate gives a very wide range when estimating turnaround times (one to three months). If it’s more than two months for us we’ll be pushing our flight back since we already bought plane tickets for 3 November; however, everything I have come across on blogs and review sites indicates the process is typically completed in weeks rather than months.
The trip to LA afforded the opportunity for way-too-quick visits with friends and family in Thousand Oaks, Los Feliz, and West Hollywood (boy, has Sunday tea dance changed over the last 25 years!) We also stopped in Palm Springs to break up the drive home and got to see Paul and Johnnie’s new pad in Cathedral City (congrats!), as well as bar hop for the evening on Arenas Road.
If you plan to stay in Spain for more than 90 days during any rolling 180-day period, a visa is required. There is a variety of visa types applicable to any number of reasons for an extended stay (study, work, retirement, etc.) The one for retirement is called a Non-Lucrative Visa, which means you cannot legally work while in the country (even remotely). In order to qualify, you must prove a minimum steady stream of income and/or sufficient assets to sustain your proposed stay (more on that below).
The process for obtaining a non-lucrative visa for Spain isn’t exactly difficult; however, it is paperwork-intensive and necessitates that one meet a variety of specific time windows and authentication requirements. Robert and I have assembled stacks of papers for each of us to satisfy the various needs of the Los Angeles Spanish Consulate.
I won’t repeat the laundry list of everything that must be submitted because others have already done excellent jobs of that (a great example may be viewed here). Instead I’ll focus on items that have presented particular challenges or simply left us scratching our heads.
I started researching the visa process in depth over a year ago. A good friend from Oregon had moved to Spain in 2016 and was able to provide a wealth of advice based on her experiences. Interestingly, since she went through the SF consulate, the list of required documents varied slightly from the list on the website of the LA consulate. Turns out this is not uncommon because each consulate maintains a certain degree of autonomy (not unlike the political structure of the country itself).
Booking the Embassy Appointment — The most interesting and stressful part of the process was obtaining the appointments. Visa applications are only accepted in-person, and the visas must be picked up by the applicants when complete. Check — two trips to LA.
The consulate schedules a grand total of eight appointments every work day, arranged in half-hour increments from 9 am until 1 pm (eight appointments a day for a consulate that covers So. California, Arizona, Utah, and Colorado…) You can make an appointment via the online scheduler no more than 90 days in advance of your desired date, and your appointment must occur within 90 days of your departure date. Appointments are individual, not based on the family unit, so Robert and I each needed separately scheduled times.
Since the website very clearly indicates it can take up to 90 days following your appointment for the consulate to actually issue the visa, I came away bit nonplussed. Upon further research of blogs and review sites, as well as digging into the site’s FAQs, I discovered the consulate typically turns around the visas in two to six weeks. That opened up a window — not a comfortably big one — but hey, we don’t have much choice.
I started checking the on-line appointment scheduler to see how it worked, and it just plain didn’t. Each date I searched over the next 90 days on the calendar came up “no appointments available.” I figured the scheduler was down for maintenance or some other reason, so I waited a couple days and tried again. Got the same result from my next two or three tries over as many days.
Next I clicked on the “contact us” email link and inquired about the lack of operability. The reply indicated the scheduler was working just fine, but that appointments book very quickly. It was suggested I try around noon the following day for available times precisely 90 days out. So the next day I checked the scheduler around 11:55 am — no luck. Again at 11:58 am — strike two. Then at noon straight-up — bingo! Staring back at me from the screen were eight chartreuse buttons sequentially marked 9:00 am, 9:30 am, and so on. (The consulate must have received loads of emails like mine, because this process has since been greatly clarified on their website).
Even though we were months away from wanting to book appointments, I was curious to see just how long these eight newly hatched time slots would remain available. By 12:05 pm, five were left; by 12:10 there were only two; by 12:15, all had vanished. Over the next couple months I would occasionally perform the same exercise with remarkably consistent results. The longest any appointments lasted was about 20 minutes.
When the time came to actually book our appointments, I drove home for lunch so Robert and I could sign in simultaneously — he on the iPad and I on the MacBook Air. We sat there for a good five minutes clickity-clacking on our respective “refresh” buttons until like clockwork those eight precious boxes popped up and we snagged adjacent appointments for Monday, 9 September.
Criminal Background Checks — The trickiest balancing act is obtaining FBI criminal background checks and income/asset verifications. This is because both must be issued less than 90 days prior to the consulate appointment (which can’t be booked more than 90 days in advance, remember?) Break out the calendar!
While the Spanish government will gladly accept state criminal background checks, directly from the AZ Dept of Public Safety website I read, “Arizona law does not permit the Central State Repository to do a criminal history record check or to provide a clearance letter for the purpose of immigration, obtaining a visa, or for foreign adoption.”
I found this a bit hard to believe so I called them up and was informed that this is because Arizona is a “closed-record” state. I mean, really, I didn’t want someone else’s criminal history record, I wanted ours! And this in a state where anyone can legally stroll around pretty much anywhere carrying an AR-15 or two…
Soooooo, we needed to get our clearances from the FBI on the east coast. This involves applying for and paying on line, getting fingerprinted locally, snail-mailing the printout of the email confirmation and the fingerprints to West Virginia, and waiting for an email certificate in return. Much to my surprise, this entire process was completed in eight days. I found it necessary to call FBI customer service with a follow-up question and was flabbergasted to reach a live rep after a single prompt and only a couple rings. My question was answered quickly and professionally, and I was moved to compliment the rep on how much I was impressed with their service.
Clearances in hand, the next step was to have them apostilled. I hadn’t heard of this before, but briefly it is a formal certification accepted by many countries based on a treaty from the 1950s. Only states and the federal government may issue them, and only for documents issued by their respective jurisdictions. Hence, the FBI clearance needed a federal apostille, and you get those in Washington DC. It can be done pretty cheaply by mail, but according to several blogs, that process can take weeks due to backlogs. Not wanting to bite my fingernails down to my wrists, I found a local service in DC (usauthentication.com) that will walk the applications and clearances to the Sec of State office, return in person two or three days later to pick up the finished documents, and then Fedex them back to us. Best $152 I’ve ever spent, as that whole process was likewise completed in just over a week.
But we still were not done with the lousy clearances! All embassy-required documents (plus any related apostilles/notarizations) must be translated into Spanish if not originally available in that language, and the work may only be done by a translator certified by the Spanish government. In the United States there are maybe twenty of them, and none in Arizona. I randomly reached out via email to three, all of whom expressed interest in our project and were priced roughly the same. I selected one and had a very good interaction with her, emailing numerous documents back and forth over a number of weeks. Not a cheap part of the process, as we spent $660 for all the required translations.
Oh, and don’t forget you need to supply a copy of each of the original documents and the translations.
Income/Asset Verifications — The minimum annual income requirements according to the embassy’s posted schedule are rather humble: USD 28,406 for the primary applicant plus USD 7,102 for the second family member at the current Euro/$ conversion rate. Fortunately we can meet this hurdle; however, this is where the various consulates’ autonomy can come into play. A couple blogs pointed out that these figures represent minimum amounts needed — if the applicants plan to live in a higher-cost city (say, Madrid perhaps) the consulate may look for additional funding. We have tried to anticipate this contingency and are hoping for the best.
Documenting our funds involved contacting Vanguard and talking to two different representatives, explaining that we couldn’t simply download our statements from the web like they kept suggesting. I repeated that the consulate requires a signed and notarized statement to confirm its authenticity. At the end of the day, we obtained the proper documents (and duly had them translated and copied).
Medical Insurance — The final wonky item is medical insurance. A full policy covering all routine and emergency medical conditions, with no copays or deductibles, as well as repatriation coverage (getting a body back to the US) is required to have been purchased by the time of the appointment. The consulate provides a list of approved Spanish insurance companies, but they all transact in Spanish — quite the challenge when making such an important decision. Then I stumbled onto an office of Sanitas (the largest insurer in Spain) that specializes in helping expats obtain policies in English (sanitasexpat.com). What a find! Although we have already purchased the policy in order to satisfy the visa requirements, Sanitas was able to delay the effective date by 60 days until 1 November.
We opted for a more basic policy that requires treatment in-network and doesn’t cover non-emergency events outside Spain. We figure we won’t be traveling to other countries that often during our first year anyway, and if we do we can buy travel policies for those short durations. And Sanitas maintains a large and modern clinic in downtown Madrid that has at least four English-speaking doctors on staff. Total cost for twelve months of coverage for both of us was USD 2,750.
There are all sorts of other necessary documents like medical certificates, marriage certificates, applications, disclaimers, random forms in Spanish, passport photos, letters of intent, host letters…it’s a fairly extensive list. But we’re ready for our Monday appointments and feel pretty good about them.
Realizing that we will need a harness to secure Parker while going through TSA screening, I hopped on Amazon and found this.
After carefully measuring her chest girth, I selected a medium from the size chart, which seemed reasonable for a 10-pound cat.
I was a bit slow approaching Parker to try the contraption on, which gave her the chance to start getting rather wiggly. After some give-and-take I was able to get her front legs through the holes and secure the harness from the back via velcro and the plastic clips (dual-security).
Parker was hardly bashful about how she felt wearing such a thing, and spent the next few minutes slinking around the living room, eventually ending up behind the sofa. She certainly didn’t find the mesh girdle comfortable, and it didn’t seem terribly secure despite the fact that it was cinched as tightly as the medium size would allow.
After observing her behavior and thinking about the loose fit, we decided to try a small size to enhance the security. A couple days later, UPS delivered the new harness and we slipped Parker into it — perfect fit! She even seemed more comfortable this time around, so we figure after a few more fittings she won’t mind wearing it at all.
There are multiple logistical hurdles that need to be addressed when planning an international move, and none are more challenging than what to do with a pet. Our cat Parker turned 14 in April (that’s 73 in human years in case you were wondering) and is fortunately in quite robust health. There was never really a question as to whether or not she would accompany us to Spain if at all possible, but just how challenging is it to do that?
I was pleasantly surprised to find out that entering Spain with a pet is rather simple from a documentation standpoint — as long as the animal is vaccinated, chipped, and has a health certificate from a vet, it is allowed into the country without quarantine. But that was just the start of a long planning process.
Parker is a decent traveler by car. She’ll typically kvetch for the first ten minutes or so, but then succumb to the hypnotizing hum of the engine and settle down. On her two trips to spend time with Robert in Phoenix, she preferred to be out of the carrier on the highway, opting instead to sit on the center console or my lap. Logic dictates that if she’s okay in a car, she should be okay in an airplane; however, we remained uncertain if the different sights, sounds, smells, and physical constraints inherent in the air travel experience would matter to her.
I had an idea: I’d take her on a short plane ride to see how she handled it. I figured a quick turnaround hop to LA, San Diego, or Vegas should be adequate to gauge her reaction and plan accordingly for the big trip. Once I started looking at summer airfares though, my scheme began to lose its luster. Round trip airfares to any of those destinations were running around $350. Add to that the $250 for Parker’s passage, and it started to become an awfully expensive trial run.
Then I had another idea: American flies seven TUS-PHX shuttles a day, and the one-way fare for the two of us was only $285. Fortunately AA schedules one of the flights on an Airbus 319, which would give us the full-size plane experience. Tickets for two were purchased for Saturday, August 3.
In anticipation of the adventure, a couple months ago we invested in the Rolls Royce of pet carriers: The Sleepypod Air. This appeared to be the most versatile carrier available, with soft sides all around so it can collapse to fit under most any airline seat, and a heavy mesh canopy that provides excellent ventilation and view from the inside, yet privacy from the outside. We wanted Parker to become comfortable with it, so we immediately positioned it in her favorite easy chair near the heater and threw a catnip mouse inside. Within a day, she had voluntarily wandered into it and curled up. In fact, it quickly became her personal haven in the flat.
Then the education began. Parker needed to associate the Sleepypod with a comfortable and benign travel experience rather than a trip to the vet or kennel, so we started taking her on short car trips that began and finished at home. True to form, she tended to complain for a bit but then settle down. Once home again, she would avoid the carrier for a few hours, but eventually the lure of the cozy, plush-lined enclosure was just too tempting to resist.
To aid in her travel comfort, we also invested in some super high-end accident pads ($12 apiece). They are nearly a half inch thick and soak up gobs of moisture, so a couple of those should be good for the long flight. In addition, we bought some regular piddle pads, which work surprisingly well at collecting moisture and turning it into a contained gel. We’ll carry a passel of those as well on the long trip as insurance.
As with nearly every topic under the sun nowadays, you can find helpful information from blogs. One woman shared a very detailed account of taking her cat on a 24-hour journey from the midwest to Eastern Europe, including two connecting stops. The best takeaway from her was to not feed the cat the morning of departure, which minimizes waste and nausea. Our vet assured us that cats can harmlessly go for 24 hours without food, and that most cats won’t be interested in consumption anyway due to the stress of travel. Of course we’ll bring along some food and a water bowl just in case Parker has an appetite once she settles in.
Another tidbit of very important info gleaned from a blog is that — get this — American and United will not allow pets of any kind in the cabin on transatlantic flights! While I have nothing specific against Delta, it has never been my airline of choice. And even if we could be talked into putting Parker into the hold in order to fly American (a big if), they won’t do it in winter when we’ll likely be making the journey. Delta it is!
So a couple Saturdays ago, Robert dropped us at the departures level at Tucson International and kept on driving. Since he would arrive at our destination long before we would, he arranged to meet a dear friend for brunch while Parker made her maiden airplane voyage.
Parker and I completed check in, after which we found a family restroom where I could examine her welfare comfortably and securely. What a great idea these rooms are! The large, private, and clean spaces allowed me to liberate Parker from the carrier and remove the piddle pad that had very neatly captured her morning piss.
When we arrived at security, I was pleasantly surprised to encounter no line whatsoever at the TSA Precheck stand (which is unusual for TUS even for 9 am on a summer Saturday morning). And it was a good thing it was so quiet: when I told the TSA agent I had a cat in my carry-on, she casually informed me Parker had to come out of the bag and go through the metal detector with me. Caught off-guard and rather unprepared for this process, I had no choice but to unzip the carrier and grab Parker, gripping her as tightly as possible under one arm while we stepped through the arch to the carrier already resting on the rollers at the far side of the scanner.
The whole process happened so quickly, and Parker was so distracted by the unfamiliarity of the surroundings, I had her back in the bag in just a few seconds. Note to self: buy a cat harness. We’ll need better control of her next time. If the security process had involved it’s normal queues and commotion, and Parker had been out of the carrier for more than half a minute, she could have easily been spooked and quickly become much harder to manage. And god forbid one of the three dogs we had already spotted in the terminal had been in line with us.
After the short walk to the gate, I rechecked on Parker. Apparently the experience of security had been more stressful than I realized, because her tiny breakfast of a small handful of dry food was not-so-neatly distributed across one end of the carrier. I was able to wad up most of the pile of barf into the second of four pads, slip it out of the carrier, and toss it on our way to another restroom visit.
There are no family restrooms in TUS once you pass security, so I had no choice but to use a handicapped stall for this cleanup. Parker wasn’t in the mood to venture out of the carrier in the relatively calm restroom, so I could open the zippered carrier flap more fully to clean out the rest of the mess to my satisfaction.
Boarding was very uneventful, and just like the Sleepypod ads promised, the carrier fit snuggly but completely under the seat in front of me. I had purposely chosen seat 20C (behind the wings) since I wanted Parker to experience the loudest and potentially roughest ride possible on the brief 30-minute flight. Sitting in the aisle allowed me to reach down and rub my fingers against the mesh side of the carrier to reassure her that daddy was still there. I could feel her nose firmly pressed against the inside of the mesh as she observed the seemingly endless parade of strange feet passing by as boarding continued.
Parker didn’t utter a sound as the doors closed, we pushed back, and taxied toward the runway. The A319 isn’t a particularly noisy aircraft, but Parker didn’t care for the engine roar as we started the takeoff roll. Although I’m sure no other passengers noticed, I detected four or five long and low growls as we lifted off. But as soon as the pilot throttled back the engines for climbout, Parker likewise quieted down. The zipper configuration of the Sleepypod allows you to conveniently open a space just big enough to slip a hand into the carrier, which I did occasionally to reassure her. I could tell she was just calmly sitting there, but likely wondering why in the world we were subjecting her to such an ordeal.
The remainder of the flight was smooth and calm, and I didn’t hear another peep from the carrier. Upon disembarking in PHX, I again located a family restroom (this one with a cushioned bench, upon which Parker enjoyed stretching out). It was very pleasant to find no additional accidents had occurred on the plane.
While waiting for Robert to finish brunch and make his way to the arrival area, Parker sat quietly beside me at the bar while I enjoyed a well earned glass of crisp rose. I took the wheel for the three-hour drive home, and knowing she is fine in the car, we finally sprang Parker from her confinement. She immediately curled up on Robert’s lap and didn’t budge for the 200-mile trip.
And she’s still comfortable crawling into the Sleepypod Air while we’re at home.