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Update — What’s new, pussycat?

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.

What’s new, pussycat?

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.

I packed my bag last night: Preflight

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.

Note the crusty remnants of breakfast on the trim near the zipper.

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.

Mission accomplished!

Where we are, and how we got here (Part I)

For my 60th birthday a little over two years ago, a dozen friends joined us for a glorious three-week escapade through a decent chunk of Spain (Madrid, Barcelona, Sitges, Valencia, and Granada).  I was honored to have everyone carve time from their busy schedules and travel from all over the US to be a part of my celebration, and will forever treasure the memories of the group enjoying cocktails, dining, sightseeing, and making new friends from all over the world.  

As we often did during previous trips to Spain, we would find ourselves daydreaming over a bottle of albarino or verdejo about how wonderful it would be to actually live in one of the many very agreeable cities we explored.  “Wouldn’t it be amazing to wake from a particularly gratifying siesta and wander down the block to a sunny table on the plaza, order a bottle of wine, and just watch the world go by?” was a question voiced in a variety of fashions and many times over.

After surviving a rather bumpy reentry into rural Cochise County following that milestone birthday, I began to ask myself, “What exactly are your plans for retirement, anyway?”  We had lived happily in our self-designed, custom home for over eleven years, and the default option had always been to work until I didn’t want to do that any longer and then just hang out.  Travel maybe, or perhaps become a fitness trainer who caters to seniors — the house would be paid off by the time I turned 63 ½. In any event, it occurred to me that at age 60, it was time to get serious about planning.

I don’t recall the first time I actually sketched out a retirement budget.  My hesitation stemmed largely from the fact that health insurance would be a huge expense with both of us too young to qualify for Medicare, not to mention the ongoing costs associated with maintaining a house and pool on almost 15 acres, even with no monthly mortgage.  “What do people in Spain do?” I wondered. Most of them don’t own big homes on huge lots, and it seemed that many got along just fine without cars as well. And even though the economy there has been pretty crappy ever since the 2008 financial meltdown, the locals sure appeared to be enjoying life wherever we went.

So I started doing some research.

It turns out that private health insurance in Spain is very affordable.  If Robert and I were to go on COBRA in AZ, it would cost us nearly $1,100 a month for the two of us.  In Spain, for the equivalent of a gold-level plan the cost is around $300 a month for the two of us. In addition, rents in Spain are surprisingly low.  Even in the very desirable neighborhoods of central Madrid, you can rent a furnished flat for no more than it costs in Bisbee. And if you wander just a bit outside Centro (still within walking distance), rents can drop by half.

The next thing we knew we were seated across the table from our financial advisor to make sure we hadn’t missed any crucial details.  After some tinkering with the allocation of portfolio assets (which was overdue anyway), the financial pieces came together. Suddenly, and amazingly, it all crystalized — we can make this happen.

We are often asked, “Why Spain?” to which I reply, “Why not Spain?”  Here is an interesting and dispassionate series of articles about Spain’s current situation and challenges. 

While not ignoring the hurdles facing the country, I completely agree with one of the concluding sentences:  “Spain is a country that respects human rights, believes in the separation of powers and is high on the list of the world’s advanced democracies. It is increasingly feminist and tolerant of immigration, and it upholds gay rights. There are few better places in which to live.”

I’ll continue later with more details on the ensuing steps of preparing for our departure.